He aspired to be in movie musicals, but made a television career of playing nice guys who were often bumblers.
Ken Berry, the boyish television actor who played nice guys with affable attitudes and a wide range of IQs on three popular sitcoms between 1965 and 1990, died Saturday in Burbank, California. He was 85.
The death was confirmed by a spokeswoman at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, The Associated Press said.
Berry was a handsome, accident-prone 1860s Army captain who got along remarkably well with his Native American neighbors in the farcical “F Troop” (1965-67); a widowed North Carolina farmer with a small son and no housekeeping skills, replacing Andy Griffith when “The Andy Griffith Show” evolved into “Mayberry R.F.D.” (1968-71); and a hapless Southern husband and son in “Mama’s Family” (1983-84, 1986-90), the successful spinoff from “The Carol Burnett Show.”
In a 2012 Archive of American Television interview, Berry said that his time on “F Troop” was his most cherished, partly because it was his first starring television role and partly because he was allowed to contribute to the character’s comic persona.
“To be entrusted with that on that level was a big treat for me,” he recalled.
Capt. Wilton Parmenter, his character, was a bumbling accidental hero who was involved in more pratfalls than you might expect from the dignified leader of a strategically important Western fort.
“I have never been that happy in my life,” he said of those years. “I just walked on air for a long time.” And best of all, “I knew how lucky I was at the time.” The show became an even bigger hit in reruns.
His “Mayberry R.F.D.” character was a charming guy of normal intelligence, but “Mama’s Family” (not in the short-lived network version but in its second, syndicated incarnation) turned him into Vinton Harper, a son of Vicki Lawrence’s grouchy gray-haired character, a simple man described by Berry as “a good-natured guy” who is “dumb, and he knows he’s dumb.” But he took no credit for that characterization, praising the show’s writers instead. “It was all on the page.”
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Kenneth Ronald Berry was born on Nov. 3, 1933, in Moline, Illinois, a small city in the northwestern part of the state. He was the younger of two children of Daniel Berry, an accountant, and Bernice Berry. Ken was 12 or 13, he recalled as an adult, when he saw children his own age performing at a carnival and decided on the spot to become a dancer when he grew up — or even before.
Idolizing Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and hoping to be in movie musicals one day, he began tap lessons. At 15, he won a local talent competition and was invited by its organizer, big band leader Horace Heidt, to join his touring company.
Berry’s Army service, after high school, turned out to be a helpful career move. His sergeant in Special Services was Leonard Nimoy, the future “Star Trek” star, who made some Hollywood contacts for him, particularly with agents. Berry also won two military talent competitions, which resulted in television appearances in New York, including one on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.”
His official television debut, however, was in 1959 on an Andy Williams variety series, “The Chevy Showroom.” He played a bellhop on the last season of “The Ann Sothern Show” (1960-61). Another recurring role was on “Dr. Kildare,” as a young doctor who provided comic relief in the middle of the medical drama.
In addition to his three best-known shows, he appeared on “The Carol Burnett Show,” “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” “Fantasy Island,” “Love American Style” and “No Time for Sergeants,” and was the star of “The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show” (1972), a variety-comedy summer replacement series.
He had considered focusing on a stage career and opened for the Old Hollywood comedy stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in their Las Vegas act in the mid-1950s. He made his Broadway debut in “Billy Barnes Revue” (1959). He attributed the considerable help he received from Lucille Ball and from Burnett with each having seen him in one of the numerous Barnes productions he did over the years.
He appeared in half a dozen feature films, including the Disney comedy “Herbie Rides Again” (1974) and “The Cat From Outer Space” (1978).
His last screen acting role was on “Maggie Winters,” a 1998-99 sitcom starring Faith Ford. He played a small-town Midwestern sheriff. Asked in the Archive of American Television interview how he wanted to be remembered, Berry said, as “a working actor who tried never to step on anybody’s lines or upstage anybody.”
Berry married Jackie Joseph, a fellow “Billy Barnes Revue” cast member, in 1960. They had two children and divorced in 1976. His son, John, died of brain cancer in 2016. Survivors include his partner, Susie Walsh, and a daughter, Jennifer Kate Berry.
He chose not to continue acting in his later years. “I don’t do anything,” he told an interviewer cheerfully. “I go where my day takes me.” Which, he added, was often to doctors’ offices.
Music, not acting, was his first career priority (“I thought acting was something you did between numbers”), but eventually he had some words of wisdom for aspiring actors.
“Get on the stage,” he said in the 2012 interview. “Get on your feet. You’ll learn more from that the first time out than you’ll ever learn from any class.”