Hank Patterson: From Alabam’ to Ziffel

We are apt to think of Elmer Calvin “Hank” Patterson (1888-1975) as a rube comedian on account of his long standing role as Fred Ziffel, proprietor of Arnold the Sentient Pig on the Paul Henning constellation of shows Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and (on a few occasions) The Beverly Hillbillies. Already in his ’70s when he was thrust into the Hooterverse, Patterson was reportedly near deef, and was prompted in his cues by an off camera P.A. with leg-taps, making him seem even more elemental than he was.

At any rate, Patterson came by his rustic persona honestly, raised he was in small town Alabama and Texas. His performing start came as a piano player in small time vaudeville. Gradually he worked his way west to tinseltown. And I mean gradually — he was already 50 when cast as an extra in The Arizona Kid (1939) with Roy Rogers. Throughout his career he was essentially a bit player, although his characters occasionally had names and a few lines. His films include Abilene Town (1946) with Randolph Scott, Duel in the Sun (1946), The Gunfighter (1950), The First Traveling Saleslady (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), and Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and dozens of others, mostly B westerns.

Patterson’s television work was more extensive. In addition to his role on Henning’s shows, his best credits include the recurring role of Hank Miller on Gunsmoke (35 episodes), and the part of Pete Duggan on Disney’s The New Adventures of Spin and Marty (a seven episode serial on the The Mickey Mouse Club). He was a repeat guest star on most of the major TV westerns of the ’50s and ’60s, such as Have Gun-Will Travel, Death Valley DaysTales of Wells Fargo, MaverickCheyenne, Wagon TrainDaniel BooneThe Virginian, and dozens of others, as well as sitcoms like Mr. Ed and My Three Sons. He was 85 years old at the time of his last Gunsmoke credit in 1973.

Of all things, Téa Leoni is his grand piece.

For more about vaudeville and related variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.