Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! It’s Gomer Pyle USMC.

Continuing my “We Salute You!” blog series, today we look at one of the most-loved television characters, Gomer Pyle.

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Danny Thomas in Mayberry

In the late 1950s Make Room for Daddy was one of the most popular sitcoms. On one episode in February of 1960, Danny found himself in Mayberry, picked up for going through a stop sign. Although Sheriff Taylor came off a bit of a country bumpkin, viewers enjoyed the episode and the following fall, The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS) aired on CBS. When the series debuted, Andy was portrayed more of a wise sage and the folks of Mayberry were a quirky but lovable bunch. The show was in the top ten every year it was on the air. In fact, it seemed to get better as it went, making #3 in 1966-1967 and #1 in 1967-68. Andy left the show the following year, and it turned into Mayberry RFD which continued for three more seasons. The first two it was also in the top 10 and the third year it slipped a bit into the top 15. Although it was one of the most successful shows on CBS’s schedule, it was eliminated with a lot of other popular shows in the famous rural purging in the early seventies.

One night, Andy Griffith saw Jim Nabors performing at The Horn in Santa Monica and decided he would be a perfect fit for Mayberry. He offered him a job, and Gomer Pyle began working at Wally’s gas station.

Two writers, Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell were said to have created the character. Greenbaum had dealt with an incompetent gas station attendant. He stopped by a station with motor trouble. The man could not think of any way to fix it except to keep adding gas to the tank, so Greenbaum thought a character based on him should be part of an episode on TAGS. He derived the name from Gomer Cool, a writer and Denver Pyle, the actor. Everett and Greenbaum (along with many TAGS writers) would continue to write for TAGS as well as Pyle episodes.

Gomer was one of the most popular characters on the show. Surprisingly he was only in 23 episodes in the two years he was with the show. Traveling around the country, you would be able to hear people repeating his “gawwwleee,” “surprise, surprise, surprise,”  or “shazzam” which all became part of our language at the time.

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Gomer at Wally’s Gas Station

Because Gomer Pyle was so popular, Andy, Aaron Ruben, and Sheldon Leonard decided to give him his own show and Gomer Pyle USMC was created. In this show, Gomer who is naïve, kind-hearted and morally upright has to deal with life in the marine corps and his gruff Sergeant Carter (Frank Sutton). Although Carter gets driven to distraction by Pyle and his “do-gooding,” we all realize he has a soft spot for Pyle and his main concern is protecting him.

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Carter and Pyle

The show was on the air from 1964-69 and had a solid supporting cast. Like TAGS, Gomer Pyle USMC was in the top ten for its entire run.

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With Ted Bessell

The show was on Friday nights, except for season three when it moved to Wednesdays. I was a bit surprised it stayed in the top ten, because it had some competition at times. Season one it was opposite Jack Benny and Twelve O’Clock High. Season two it went up against Honey West on one network and a variety of music shows on the other. Season three it was at the same time as Peyton Place and season four it was on opposite Star Trek.

Although the show depicted military life on base, war was never discussed. The series began at Camp Wilson in North Carolina and was moved to the fictional Camp Henderson in California. The actual show was filmed at Camp Pendleton and, along with TAGS, at Desilu’s Cahuenga studio and the RKO Forty Acres backlot. Unlike TAGS, Pyle used a single-camera setup because much of the shooting was outside.

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Don Rickles, Guest Star

The US Marine Corps worked with Leonard, giving the show unlimited access to their equipment because they felt the series was good for their image. The opening scene of the show was that of marching recruits from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Nabors commented that it was very difficult for him to see that footage because so many of those service men were killed in Vietnam. In real life, Frank Sutton could not pass the Marine Corps physical for WWII but was able to serve in the US Army, taking part in 14 assault landings including Luzon and Bataan.

Photo: wikipedia.com

I had heard of universities bestowing honorary degrees to actors even if they did not attend the school, but I did not realize the military could do something similar. During the show, Gomer’s highest rank was Private First Class. In 2001, the US Marine Corps gave Nabors an honorary promotion to Lance Corporal, and in 2007 he was raised to Corporal.

Obviously, there were a lot of military vehicles used in the filming of the show. Chrysler Corporation provided them. Jeeps were also prominent in the show, but Jeep did not become part of Chrysler until 1987. As an aside, the vehicles for TAGS were provided by Ford.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Gomer and his friend Duke Slater

Pyle’s loyalty and good-natured attitude made him a favorite of both his platoon members and many of the women whom he came in contact with. One of Pyle’s friends was Duke Slater played by Ronnie Schell. Schell was written off after the third season when he left to star in Good Morning World. When that sitcom did not get renewed, he returned to Pyle. Some of the other platoon members included Roy Stuart as Corporal Boyle, Forrest Compton as Colonel Edward Gray, Ted Bessell as Frankie, and William Christopher as Lester.

Gomer gets to meet a lot of people when he goes to town. He especially loves movies and one of his favorite all-time pictures was Godzilla.

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Sergeant Carter and his girlfriend Bunny

As mentioned, Sergeant Carter eventually becomes a father figure to Gomer. Carter’s girlfriend Bunny (Barbara Stuart) also tried to help Gomer (I could not find anything to indicate that Roy and Barbara Stuart are related). Gomer often causes trouble between Carter and Bunny by trying to “help” Carter. In season three, Gomer also got a girlfriend in Lou-Ann Poovie (Elizabeth MacRae). She is a singer in a local nightclub, but eventually Gomer talks her into returning to Turtle Creek, NC to marry her old beau Monroe. She leaves but returns, informing Gomer she wants him for her boyfriend, and she gets a new job as a clerk at a record store.

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Gomer and Lou-Ann

Several TAGS alumni made appearances on the show. Allan Melvin was part of the cast as Staff Sergeant Hacker for four years, Carter’s rival on the show. Denver Pyle who was Briscoe Darling on TAGS showed up on Gomer Pyle as a farmer. Andy, Aunt Bee, Goober and Opie all were seen at the base at one time or another, including when Opie ran away from home.

With a show on the air so long, many well-known guest stars showed up at Camp Henderson as well, including Carol Burnett, Ted Knight, Rob Reiner, Don Rickles, and Jerry Van Dyke.

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After the fifth season, Nabors expressed an interest to do a variety show, so Gomer Pyle was not renewed. He brought Ronnie Schell and Frank Sutton along for his new show which was on the air for two seasons. Carol Burnett called Nabors her good luck charm. He was one of her best friends and he was always on her season opener each year.

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Best Friends

In an interview with Jim for American Profile, writer Paulette Cohn (Jim Nabors Lives Happily in Hawaii, January 13, 2008) quoted Carol Burnett’s perspective of Nabors vs Pyle: “ ‘The one thing Jim has in common with Gomer is his kindness,’ says actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, Nabors’ long-time friend, who named him godfather to her daughter Jody. ‘He loves people and is very gregarious. But he is also very smart. Not that Gomer wasn’t, but Jim isn’t naïve. He keeps his eye on things.’ ”

Considering how popular Gomer Pyle USMC has been in reruns, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t until 2006 that CBS Home Entertainment released the show on DVD. By 2008, all the seasons were available.

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Let’s end with a few quotes that captures the essence of the show’s characters.

Gomer: I’m gonna be a fighting fool, you’ll see.

Sergeant Carter: Well, you’re halfway there.

************************************************************************

Gomer: One of my favorite little sayings is, ‘To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’

************************************************************************

Gomer: A word of kindness is seldom spoken in vain, while witty sayings are as easily lost as the pearls slipping from a broken string.

***********************************************************************

Carter: All I can say is, if the idea of desertion ever crossed your mind, you’ll never find a better time to look into it.

************************************************************************

Carter: I don’t get it Pyle, how come you can knock that Phillips flat, yet you can’t handle that little Lombardi guy?

Gomer: Well sir, you see the big feller needed a lesson, the little feller didn’t.

Photo: abcnews.com

Although Gomer Pyle USMC might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was a well-done and popular show. I think its success, like TAGS and many of the other shows considered classics, comes from the fact that it’s a character-driven show. We start to consider the characters our friends and enjoy spending time with them. The show can currently be seen on MeTV nightly at 9 pm EST.

Joe and Valerie: A Symptom of that Weird ‘70s Ailment, Night Fever

Continuing our series about “Valerie,” today we look at a slice of American life from the 1970s. It’s hard to emphasize how much the movie Saturday Night Fever changed American culture. In the movie, a high school graduate played by John Travolta, escapes his hard life by dancing at the local disco. The hippie culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s was shoved aside by the bold and brash disco era. It was hard to go anywhere without the background soundtrack of the movie being heard. Extravagant clothing and three-piece suits were back in style, along with platform shoes and blingy jewelry.

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Saturday Night Fever, the movie that started it all

A year after the movie debuted, a new show called Joe and Valerie appeared in April of 1978. Joe (Paul Regina) works at his father’s plumbing store. He meets Valerie (Char Fontane) at the disco and they get romantically involved. However, Joe’s roommates, Paulie (David Elliott), a hearse driver, and Frankie (Bill Beyers/Lloyd Alan), a spa worker and chauvinist, have their opinions on the romance as does Valerie’s divorced mother Stella (Arlene Golonka). Rounding out the cast were Robert Costanzo as Joe’s father Vincent and Rita/Thelma (Donna Ponterotto), Valerie’s best friend.

Photo: moviepictures.org

The series was produced by Bob Hope’s production company, Hope Enterprises, and his daughter Linda served as executive producer. Bill Persky, who had been one of the forces behind That Girl, directed the first episode.

The writers for the show included Howard Albrecht, Hal Dresner, Bernie Kahn, and Sol Weinstein. Kahn and Dresner also served as producer for an episode each. Art direction was credited to Bruce Ryan and shop coordinator to Edwin McCormick.

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The chic couple: Makes a person wonder doesn’t it

The series was divided into two parts; in 1978 the episodes show Joe and Valerie meeting, falling in love and planning their future. Jumping to January 1979, the episodes center around the couple beginning their married life. Four half-hour episodes aired in April and May of 1978. Four half-hour episodes were set to air in January, but only three did; the final episode never was played on the air.

Episode 1, “The Meeting” aired April 24, 1978. Joe and Valerie meet at the disco and fall in love when Joe bets his roommates that he can take Valerie away from her dancing partner.

Episode 2, “The Perfect Night” aired May 1, 1978. Valerie arranges dates for Frank and Paulie. She sets up Frank with her best friend Thelma and the date is a disaster. The woman she set Paulie up with ended up getting married the night before, so Valerie is frantically looking for a substitute. Albrecht and Weinstein were credited as writers.

Episode 3, “Valerie’s Wild Oat” aired May 3, 1978. Joe and Valerie’s romance hits a potential roadblock when Valerie finds out that her new boss at the store is her ex-boyfriend Ernie (Marcus Smythe).

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The Village People, a big part in the disco fad

Episode 4, “The Commitment” aired May 10, 1978. When Valerie’s mother is unexpectedly called away for the weekend, Joe and Valerie face the prospect of spending their first night together. Joe loves Valerie too much to stay but worries how his roommates will react if he doesn’t.

Episode 5, “The Engagement” aired January 5, 1979. Joe and Valerie break the news to their parents that they are going to live together and looking for a place to live through a rental service which adds to the confusion.

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Disco fashion

Episode 6, “The Wedding Guest” aired January 12, 1979. Joe and Valerie learn that  a gangster’s funeral has been scheduled at the same time as their wedding at the church.

Episode 7, “The Wedding” aired January 19, 1979. The newly married couple look back at the events that occurred around their wedding. Some of the problems included Vince wanting Valerie to wear his wife’s old-fashioned wedding dress, Frank and Paulie fighting over who is best man, and Valerie’s mother threatening to stay away from the wedding if her ex-husband comes.

The final episode, “Paulie’s First Love,” was never aired.

This was a bad year for series’ debuts. A number of shows flopped during this year including Hizzoner, Sweepstakes, and Supertrain, none of them making it to more than nine episodes.

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Char Fontane

Char Fontane (also listed as Fontaine occasionally) was born in California in 1952. She passed away from breast cancer in 2007. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, she appeared on a variety of tv series in the 1970s and a couple after: Love American Style (1972), The FBI (1973), Barnaby Jones (1979), Supertrain (1979), Sweepstakes (1979), The Love Boat (1979), and Nero Wolfe (1981). In the mid-1980s she took a role in a made-for-tv movie, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and two movie roles: Too Much (1987) and The Punisher (1989). She was not credited with any roles after the 1989 movie.

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Char Fontane in The Night the Bridge Fell Down

Paul Regina was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and passed away from liver cancer in 2006.

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Before his role on Joe and Valerie, he had parts in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour and Police Woman both in 1978. After the show ended, his career stayed fairly busy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he could be seen on many popular television shows including Benson, Gimme a Break, TJ Hooker, Hunter, and Empty Nest. He would be cast in three series: Zorro and Son in 1983, Brothers from 1984-89, and The Untouchables in 1993-94. He also had a recurring role as a lawyer on LA Law between 1988-1992.

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Post 2000 before his death he was in Law and Order several times as well as two movies, The Blue Lizard and Eddie Monroe.

David Elliott had a successful career going when he received the role of Paulie. He began with several roles on tv including a mini-series, Pearl, that Char Fontane was also in. From 1972-1977, he had a role in The Doctors in 272 episodes. Before beginning Joe and Valerie, he had a role on Angie in 1979.

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After the show ended, he continued showing up in television series including TJ Hooker, St. Elsewhere, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote. He ended his credited acting career with seven movies in the 1990s.

He is an interesting guy. After dropping out of high school, he drove a cab in New York. He was a professional boxer, ran a PI business in Hollywood, received his pilot’s license, sat on the board of a major labor union, and traveled extensively through every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Recently he earned a certificate in both long and short fiction from the UCLA Writer’s program and has written a novel, The Star Shield, about a body guard trying to rescue a kidnapped movie star. Currently he is working on a collection of short stories.

The role of Frankie was played by two different actors, Bill Beyers in 1978 and Lloyd Alan in 1979.

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Bill Beyers

Bill Beyers was born in New York in 1955 and died in 1992 in Los Angeles. His first role was that of Frankie on Joe and Valerie. Following the end of that show he was cast in several series including Barnaby Jones, Quincy ME, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Too Close for Comfort, and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role on Capitol, appearing in 24 episodes from 1982-1987.

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Lloyd Alan was in 1952. He might have had the shortest career of the cast. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, he was in an episode of Eight is Enough. After he appeared in The Love Boat, Knight Rider, and Baywatch. His last credited acting job was 1998. I was unable to locate a photo of Lloyd Alan.

The actors with the longest careers were Robert Costanzo who played Joe’s father Vince; Arlene Golonka who was Stella, Valerie’s mother; and Donna Ponterotto who played Rita/Thelma, Valerie’s best friend.

Donna Ponterotto had a successful career following the cancellation of Joe and Valerie. She came to the show having appeared on The Police Story, Happy Days, and Rhoda.

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Following the show, she appeared on Trapper John MD, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, Night Court, Murphy Brown, ER, Mad About You, Third Rock from the Sun, and NYPD Blue among others. Her last film was Sharkskin in 2015.

Arlene Golonka grew up in Chicago where she was born in 1936. She began taking acting classes when she was quite young. At age 19, she headed for New York and began a career on Broadway. In the 1960s she relocated to Los Angeles. She continued to appear in movies and appeared in dozens of television programs during the next three decades. While she is probably best known as Millie on Mayberry R.F.D., she has appeared in many respected series.

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Golonka came into Joe and Valerie with a strong resume. She had made appearances in shows such as The Naked City, Car 54 Where Are You, The Flying Nun, Big Valley, Get Smart, I Spy, That Girl, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barnaby Jones, Alice, The Rockford Files, and Love American Style. She made five appearances on The Doctors with David Elliott.

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After Joe and Valerie, she continued to receive many roles including on Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Simon and Simon, Benson, and Murder She Wrote. Her last appearance was on The King of Queens in 2005, and she is now retired.

Robert Costanzo was born in New York in 1942. He also came into the show with a very strong string of shows, having been in Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and Lou Grant. He also was in several profitable movies including Dog Day Afternoon, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever.

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Following the end of Joe and Valerie, he would continue his successful career. Costanzo has been cast in recurring roles in ten shows: Last Resort, Checking In, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, 1st Ten, Glory Days, NYPD Blue, Charlie and Grace, and Champions. He has continued to take roles on other series including Barney Miller, Alice, Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, Friends, and Murder She Wrote.

His movie career has also been very successful, and he is remembered for his roles in Used Cars, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, and Air Bud.

Currently Costanzo is still acting and has several movies debuting in the next couple of years.

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I have to admit I do not remember Joe and Valerie, and obviously I did not watch it, but I don’t think I missed much. It’s fun to learn about some of the more obscure shows that had a brief flicker in television history. There are many more shows that lasted for less than 20 episodes than there are the classics we remember today. If nothing else, the show captures a unique time in American history.

A Tribute to Doris Day

In my tribute to television stars who passed away in 2019, I chose to end the series and the year with Doris Day. I have been a fan of hers for decades, and my heart was very sad when she left us in May. She died on a Monday; the day before was Mother’s Day, and we happened to watch Pillow Talk that day which I thought became a fitting tribute.

Although Doris Day is a huge star, she only has 45 acting credits, and 43 of them are movies. Of her two television appearances, one was for her voice only on The Governor and JJ. However, because her star was so bright, her five seasons of The Doris Day Show allows her to be included in the television star category.

As a disclaimer, I have to say that while I adored her in her movies, especially the comedies, I was not as big a fan of the television show. It was not a bad show, but it took a lot of liberties with format, as I mentioned in my Kaye Ballard blog earlier this month.

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Doris had a lot of valleys as well as mountains in her life journey. Born in 1922 as Doris Mary Ann Kapelhoff, she wanted to be a dancer. At 14 she had formed a dancing act with Jerry Doherty. When they won $500 at a local contest, they traveled to Hollywood to check out the possibilities there. They were optimistic about a career for them in California, so they returned home to pack up their belongings and make the move permanent. Unfortunately, the night before they were scheduled to leave, Doris was involved in an accident when a train hit a car she was a passenger in. Her dancing career ended before it really began.

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Her parents had divorced when she was young and her father was a music teacher and choir master. One of her brothers died before she was born and the other one, Paul, was a bit older than her. Following in her father’s footsteps, she took singing lessons, and by age 17 was touring with the Les Brown Band. The trombonist, Al Jorden, captured her heart and they married in 1941. Her two years of marriage was a deep valley; Al was abusive and soon after the birth of their son, Doris asked for a divorce. Her second marriage to George Weidler lasted less than a year.

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Doris’s agent convinced her to make that trek to Hollywood again to tape a screen test for Warner Brothers. She was immediately signed to a contract. Her first role was in Romance on the High Seas in 1948. They kept her busy. She made two films in 1949, three in 1950 and five in 1951. Audiences were attracted to her “girl-next-door” personality, beauty, and singing ability.

In 1951 she met Marty Melcher. They married, and he adopted her son Terry who would become a successful record producer. Her marriage to Marty seemed happy, but the union would also have its tragedies. Her brother Paul passed away in 1958.

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Pillow Talk, one of my favorite’s

She continued starring in movies throughout the fifties and in 1959, Pillow Talk, with co-star Rock Hudson, debuted and catapulted her to a new level. Melcher, who had become her agent, signed her to an unrealistic amount of work which led to her being diagnosed with exhaustion about this time. During the 1960s he had signed deals for Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), Midnight Lace (1960), Lover Come Back (1961), That Touch of Mink (1962), Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962), The Thrill of It All (1963), Move Over Darling (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964), Do Not Disturb (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Caprice (1967), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968), and With Six You Get Eggroll (1968).

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That Touch of Mink

It was a grueling schedule, but Day was always the perfectionist and a professional, so she gave 100% to each production. Melcher had mentioned she could star in a television show which she objected to. Shortly after their discussion, Melcher passed away. To her shock, Doris was informed not only did he sign her to the television deal despite her refusal, but he had squandered millions of dollars, and she was basically broke. (Later she was awarded $22 million in court against an investor Melcher had worked with.)

She had no choice but to tackle the television series to try to recoup some of her money.

From 1968-1973 she would star in The Doris Day Show, which was almost like three different shows. The original concept was that widow Doris Martin and her two sons left the city to move back to her dad’s ranch. The theme song was “Que Sera Sera,” the song that would become synonymous with Doris.

Photo: Wikipedia.com

In the second season, Doris drives back and forth from San Francisco to the ranch after getting a job as a secretary at Today’s World magazine. Rose Marie plays Myrna Gibbons, her friend at work.

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In season three, the family moves into an apartment in San Francisco that is rented from the Palluccis who own a restaurant on the ground floor. Doris got to work with Billy de Wolfe again. He played her neighbor, a cranky bachelor who doesn’t like noise, especially made by children. However, he has a soft spot and becomes close to the family.

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In the fourth and fifth seasons, there is no mention of the father, the kids, or the Palluccis! Doris is now a single person and is a staff writer for Today’s World.

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When this show was good, it was really good, but often it was so-so; however,  the skill of actors involved in the show kept it at a higher level. The first season was a bit corny with life down on the ranch. The second season felt like everyone was almost ready to break into song to celebrate the decency and clean-living of the country versus the corrupt city life. Season three it started coming into its own. Even though some of the characters were a bit stereotyped, the stars carried it.

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The final two seasons were probably what the concept of the show should have been all along. After all, we viewed Doris as the country girl who moved to the city. She knew just what life would be like there and wanted to experience it all but retained just enough of her wholesomeness and morals to be likable and a bit innocent.

However, the ratings don’t really support my thesis. The show came in at #30 for season 1, #10 for season 2, #20 for season 3, #23 for season 4 and #37 for season 5. I’m guessing the real issue behind the lower-than-expected ratings was a result of scheduling and the constant changing of formats. The show began Tuesday nights against The Red Skelton Show and 60 Minutes. Season 2 it landed on Monday nights where it would remain. Season 2 and 3 it was opposite Mayberry RFD and The Carol Burnett Show. Season 4 it went against Here’s Lucy and The Sonny and Cher Show, and the last season was also Here’s Lucy and then the debut of The New Bill Cosby Show. The targeted audience was probably split. The same group who watched Doris Day would also be a fan of Carol Burnett, Red Skelton, and Lucille Ball. These three shows were all in the top 15 during this time.

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I’m not sure why the show ended. Some references claim Day was tired and quit; others say the network cancelled the show. Either way, I think Doris was ready for retirement and certainly deserved it. One thing that doesn’t vary is that all the reviews I read, even those that criticized the format changes or the corniness of some situations, said it was a great show and that Doris Day made it fun and believable. I didn’t read any reviews that were negative about the show overall. Sometimes the quarterback truly does carry the team. And to be clear, there were many great teammates on the series during its run.

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Doris gave marriage one more try in 1976 when she wed Barry Comden but they divorced in 1982. After that Doris settled into Carmel, California where she devoted her energies to animal rights. She and her son owned a boutique hotel, Cypress Inn.  

Although Doris was never happy in marriage, she developed life-long, satisfying friendships with several men. Her costar Rock Hudson and she were very close. He called her Eunice just because he said when he thought of her as a Eunice, it made him laugh.

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She was also very close to Billy de Wolfe. They first worked together in 1950 on the set of Tea for Two. He told her he didn’t see Doris Day when he looked at her; he saw Clara Bixby, and that remained his nickname for her from then on.

Photo: dorisday.net
The great Billy de Wolfe

While The Doris Day Show can’t compete with Pillow Talk, it shouldn’t have to. It was what it was, and considering it wasn’t a show Doris even wanted to take on, she did her best with the crazy format changes and made it something worth revisiting. It may not be her best work, but it is far better than many television shows.

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Doris was a truly great star. She was a consummate performer, gave everything she had to her scripts, and was never a diva or complainer. She worked hard for three decades and then earned a long retirement. Although I was sad when she was taken from us, she lived a long and full life, with its share of tragedy and joy. She left us an amazing variety of movies to remember her by. Thank you Doris for leaving us a legacy of comedy and drama to enjoy in our retirement.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 2: Hope Summers and Madge Blake

Today we continue our series, Just A Couple of Characters, about character actors we recognize but might not know much about. Hope Summers and Madge Blake are two actresses you will recognize if you watched sitcoms in the 1960s or 1970s.

Hope Summers

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Born Sarah Hope Summers in 1902 in Mattoon, Illinois, Hope Summers often played the friendly, but nosy, neighbor. She’s best recognized as Clara from The Andy Griffith Show.

Summers became interested in theater early in her life. She attended Northwestern, majoring in speech. After graduation she stayed at the University and taught speech and diction. She then moved to Peoria and headed the Speech Department at Bradley University. She joined a few community theaters, putting on one-woman shows. She also acted in a few dramatic radio shows.

She married Claude Witherell in 1927, and they were married until his death in 1967. The couple had two children.

In 1950, she transitioned to television. She appeared in an early comedy series, Hawkins Falls: A Television Novel. Like Edward Andrews, she was often cast in roles older than her actual age. She became a popular actress quickly. She continued to appear in a variety of shows throughout the 1950s including Bachelor Father, Private Secretary, Wagon Train, Dennis the Menace, and the Loretta Young Show.

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On The Rifleman

From 1958-1960, she would appear in The Rifleman as Hattie Denton.

In 1961, she received the role she would become most famous for, Clara, Bee’s best friend on The Andy Griffith Show. When Andy Griffith left the show in 1968, Hope continued with Mayberry RFD in her role of Clara for five episodes. Clara was a lonely spinster who lived next door to Andy and his family. She and Bee had fun sharing bits of gossip and talking about current events. Clara had a good heart and though she and Bee could get upset with each other, they truly cared about each other.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

While playing the role of Clara, she continued to guest in series throughout the 1960s. She appeared on many of the hit shows of that time such as Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, Make Room for Daddy, Hazel, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, The Phyllis Diller Show, Marcus Welby, That Girl, and Bewitched.

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During the 1970s, Summers kept her career going strong, appearing in Hawaii Five-0, M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie, and Welcome Back Kotter.

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Playing a nice witch in Rosemary’s Baby

Although, Summers began her acting career during the second half of her life, she was also featured in several well-known movies. In 1960, she was in Inherit the Wind, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, among others.

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Summers also was famous as the voice of Mrs. Butterworth in commercials.

In 1978 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and quit acting. She passed away from the disease in 1979.

Madge Blake

Photo: listal.com

While Hope Summers was part of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show, Madge Blake was busy portraying Aunt Harriet on Batman.

Born Madge Cummings in 1899 in Kansas, she, like Hope Summers, became interested in acting at a young age. Her father was a Methodist minister and he refused to allow her to give it a try. Oddly enough, Madge’s maternal uncle was Milburn Stone, Doc on Gunsmoke.

Photo: imdb.com

Although they later divorced, Madge married James Blake and they had one child. She had a fascinating career. Both she and James worked for the government during the war. They had top secret clearance for their project working on the construction of the detonator for the atomic bomb in Utah. They also performed tests on equipment used in the Manhattan Project.

Photo: actorz.ru

Also, like Summers, Blake turned to acting at a later age. When she was 50, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. She only had twenty years in the business, yet she managed to achieve an impressive 124 acting credits.

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Singin’ in the Rain

Blake would appear in 47 films in smaller, but impressive, roles. Some of her movies included An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, The Tender Trap, Bells Are Ringing, Ain’t Misbehaving, and The Solid Gold Cadillac.

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Margaret Mondello

Beginning her television career in 1954, she racked up an impressive amount of guest star roles and several recurring roles. She played Tillie, the president of the Jack Benny fan club on The Jack Benny Show. She played Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave It to Beaver. An interesting aside is that she was asked to play Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show where she would have worked with Hope Summers. Because she was locked into the role of Mrs. Mondello, she declined. She took the role of Mrs. Barnes, Joey’s mother, on The Joey Bishop Show. On the Real McCoys, she played Flora MacMichael, Grandpa McCoy’s love interest; Nurse Phipps on Dr. Kildare; and the role she became best known for, Aunt Harriet on Batman.  

Photo: channel.superhero.com

The network was worried about Batman and Robin living alone together on Batman, so the role of Aunt Harriet was added. The story line was that she raised Bruce Wayne in the family mansion. Their interaction with Aunt Harriet was also a reason for the dynamic duo to appear in their non-hero roles more often.

It would seem that coming into acting later in life and then appearing in so many movies and recurring television appearances would have kept her quite busy. But in addition to these appearances, she was cast in many of the most popular shows during her twenty years on television. During that time, you can find her on dramas like Public Defender, Lassie, The Restless Gun, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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On I Love Lucy

Of course, she was meant to play comedy and she appeared on an incredible number of sitcoms. Just to name a few, there of them: George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Make Room for Daddy, Bewitched, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, and The Doris Day Show. Pretty amazing.

Photo: vitabrevis.americanancestors.org
On Bewitched

I read over and over that one of her best performances was in the pilot for Dennis the Menace where she plays Dennis’s babysitter. I have not been able to watch that show, but I will definitely check that out.

Photo: allstarpics.famousfix.com
On Dennis the Menace

In 1969, Blake passed away from a heart attack after she broke her leg. She was only 70, or we might have had a much longer list of television series for her.

Hope Summers and Madge Blake had a lot in common. They both became interested in acting at an early age, they both had major careers before acting, they both began acting in the second half of their life, they both played neighborly types–Summers, nosier, and Blake, more ditzy. They also both had respectable film careers paralleling their television ones. Their television roles may have been smaller, but they were memorable, they are definitely two characters worth watching.

Earle Hagen Whistles a Happy Tune

We don’t often notice music in the background of our favorite shows, but it has a significant impact on our appreciation for a series. One of my favorite CDs in the 1980s was the music from thirtysomething. I admit I didn’t often pay attention to the music while watching the show, but I loved listening to the soundtrack.

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Photo: findagrave.com

Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the most prolific songwriters in the television industry: Earle Hagen. Earle was born in the Midwest in 1919, in Chicago, but moved with his family to Los Angeles. He began playing the trombone in junior high school.

At age 16 he left home to play with some of the best big bands in the country: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble.

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Photo: earlehagen.net

During his time with Noble, when he was only 20, Hagen composed the song “Harlem Nocturne” as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. It would be recorded by numerous musicians over the years and later was adopted as the theme for both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and The New Mike Hammer.

In 1940 Earle was hired by CBS as a staff musician. Like many of the composers we have been learning about, Hagen enlisted in the military for World War II. When he came home, he became an orchestrator and arrangement writer for 20th Century Fox. He worked on a variety of films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Carousel.

In 1943 he married Lou Sidwell, a big band singer. They would remain married until she passed away in 2002 and produce two sons.

When Earle accepted the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award in 2000, he explained that “In 1953, the studios committed to large screen production and we went from 38 pictures a year to one. There were other pictures on the planning board but not immediate enough to support the huge studio staffs. So, along with 1199 other people, I migrated to television.”

The first show he worked on was a short-lived series, It’s Always Jan which was on the air from 1955-56.

Then Hagen met Sheldon Leonard. As he says, “There again my good fortune held. I teamed up with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard at a time when they were starting a string of hits that lasted 17 years.” Earle wrote the theme for Make Room for Daddy.

Those 17 years were busy. Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for sitcoms, so a lot of background music was required. Hagen said that during that era, the composer was part of the creative team. His opinion was asked for and respected in pre-production, production, and post-production.

He loved working in television. He said that there was “something about the immediacy of TV that I enjoyed. It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me. I think a statistic of which I am most proud is that in the 33 years I spent in television I was associated with some three thousand shows. Every one of them was recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra.”

His work continued with Leonard, and he wrote the theme song for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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Photo: brioux.tv

Then Sheldon asked him to come up with a theme for a show about some gentle town folks and their sheriff. Earle said he struggled a while trying to come up with the perfect theme. As he described the process: It’s like “peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what’s not.” Finally, he had a brainstorm and “he simply whistled the catchy tune which entered his head.” It’s the whistling of Hagen we hear on The Andy Griffith Show when we hear “The Fishin’ Hole.” Despite the difficulty of coming up with the theme song, Hagen enjoyed his time with The Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I guess my favorite show . . . was The Andy Griffith Show. It covered the spectrum from warmth to complete zaniness. It also was easy to write. Worthwhile, when you are doing four or five different series a week.”

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Photo: mtairynews.com

He went on to work on several shows in the 1960s, including The Bill Dana Show, That Girl, Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle USMC, Mayberry RFD, and The Mod Squad. Hagen based the Mod Squad theme on Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale which added some tension to the scenes, along with a jazzy theme song.

Hagen’s songs are some of the most recognizable ones in television. However, his most innovative and beautiful scores were done for a show that is not remembered much today, I Spy. Leonard wanted original soundtracks for each episode. This humorous spy show was filmed in locations all around the world, so the music had to vary as well.

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This was the first show to star an African American. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were spies who took on assignments around the globe. I would like to say that the reason for the lack of the show being rerun is due to Bill Cosby and the poor personal choices he made which has resulted him being sentenced to jail and the shows he was involved with disappearing from television schedules. However, I rarely remember this show being available even before Cosby’s criminal trials, and I’m not sure why that is. In 2008, all three seasons of DVDs were released.

On the website earlehagen.net, we read that “During the run of the series he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnic music in existence at that time–some of it on commercial records bought in the countries he visited with the production team, but much of it taped live in situ with local musicians. These recordings containing priceless material of musical genres never before recorded, and in some cases, now extinct, were then mixed into the background music produced by the studio orchestra in Los Angeles.  The result was what has been deemed ‘the richest musical palette ever composed for any American television series.’ ”

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Photo: desertnews.com

Sheldon relied on Hagen to literally scout the world for filming locations. The couple visited Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and New York. Hagen discussed this trip. “Before the show started, at Sheldon Leonard’s invitation, Lou (my wife of 58 years so far), and I were invited to go on a `round the world trip with the Leonard’s scouting locations for the upcoming series, I Spy. On that 52-day trip we traveled first class, stayed in first class accommodations and at every airport were met by a car, driver, and interpreter, who stayed with us as long as we were in the country.”

Earle wanted viewers to remember that these were US spies so he named his music “semi jazz,” which fused local world cultures with American jazz music.

Deborah Young-Groves discusses the variety of music Hagen used in her article, Creating the Perfect Vibes for “I Spy.”

“And who could forget the frantic–almost joyous–chase across the University of Mexico in ‘Bet Me A Dollar’–Spanish brass–almost Copeland-esque (remember ‘El Salon Mexico’?), too loud to ignore but erratic and happy. And yet, like Copeland, Hagen only scored where he deemed appropriate. In that very same episode the child, who urgently seeks help for Kelly, runs in utter silence.  We hear only his pounding feet and his sobbing gasps.

But the two best episodes for music are ‘Home to Judgment’ and ‘The Warlord,’ for equally fascinating reasons. ‘The Warlord’ borrows heavy oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by that American jazz – but it works) using snare drums and brass.  How Hagen can get a trumpet to sound Asian simply by a jagged sequence of notes is still a mystery to me!

Then he changes completely and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds.  It is somber, powerful and almost painful – one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.”

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Photo: thestar.com

I Spy was on the schedule for three seasons. Hagen was nominated for an Emmy all three years for his work on the show, and he won it the last year the show aired. When asked about his favorite episodes, Hagen said, “Some of the shows of course stand out in memory: ‘Tatia,’ ‘Laya,’ ‘Home to Judgment’ ‘Warlord,’ and one of my favorites, ‘Mainly on The Plains.’ ”

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Photo: planetoftheapes.com

The music was so memorable on this show, that Hagen was able to record two albums from the series. The first album was recorded by Warner Brothers and the second was Capitol. He said he enjoyed the Capitol album more only because he was able to work on in the off season, so he had more time to devote to it.

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Earle would continue with his work on television throughout the 1970s, working on a variety of shows, including The New Perry Mason, Eight is Enough, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In the 1980s, he worked on Dukes of Hazard.

During the last decades of his life he taught and wrote books on scoring and music arrangements. He wrote the textbook, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. In 2000, he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of.

In 2005, he married his second wife, Laura Roberts. Hagen died from natural causes in 2008.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Perhaps his website sums up his career best: “When one considers the vast range Earle Hagen’s career has covered, and just where he was at each stage in his life—playing trombone in the big bands during the 30s, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra, working at 20th Century Fox during the reign of Alfred Newman, creating TV themes and scores for Sheldon Leonard shows, not to mention teaching brilliant young composers the art of scoring, and publishing the top texts in his field—it can truly be said that he lived through the best times in each of these worlds.”

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Photo: themusicsover.com

Earle Hagen was another one of the great pioneers in the golden age of television and he should be celebrated for his amazing career.

July is the Perfect Time for Berry Picking

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Ken Berry was born in Moline, IL in 1933. After watching a group perform when he was 13, he decided he wanted to be a dancer. He loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, especially Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and On the Town. At 16, he traveled with the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, performing in small towns for 15 months.

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He went into the army at Fort Bragg and was in the artillery. He was then moved to an entertainment division under Leonard Nimoy. During his second year, he won the All-Army Talent competition which allowed him to appear on Ed Sullivan in 1948. Nimoy encouraged him to move to Los Angeles where he made some connections for Berry. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal offered him jobs and he accepted the Universal contract.  In 1956, he opened for Abbott and Costello for their stage act. In 1957, Berry enrolled in Falcon Studios to study acting. He worked at the Cabaret Theater, making $11 per week. The same year he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Show.

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In 1958, he received an opportunity to join the Billy Barnes Revue. While in the Billy Barnes Revue, Berry met Jackie Joseph, and they married in 1960. His work in the BBR led to several lucrative connections. Lucille Ball saw him and offered him a job with Desilu Studios for $50 per week. Carol Burnett also watched a performance and had him on her variety show. (In 1972, she would offer him the co-starring role with her in Once Upon a Mattress, a television movie.)

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The first Desilu show he had a regular role on was the Ann Sothern Show. On the air from 1958-1961, Ann played Katy O’Connor who worked at a New York hotel. Originally, Mr. Macauley (Ernest Truex) was her boss, but he was berated by his controlling wife (Reta Shaw). Katy’s best friend from her previous show Private Secretary, which aired from 1953-1957, was Ann Tyrrell as Vi.  In this show, her name is Olive. The format wasn’t working, so Mr. Macauley the hotel owner, was transferred to Calcutta and James Devrey (Don Porter also from Private Secretary) took over.  Ratings improved, and the show was renewed for another season. During this season, Louis Nye was introduced as a funny dentist in the hotel who dates and marries Olive, and Berry played bellboy Woody Hamilton, replacing Jack Mullaney.  Most of the episodes revolve around the staff and guests of the hotel. As in Private Secretary, there is a lingering romance between Mr. Devrey and Katy throughout the run of the show. The ratings fell drastically in 1961 after the show was moved to Thursdays, and the network cancelled it.

In 1961, Berry obtained a job with Dr. Kildare, appearing in 25 episodes as Dr. John Kapish. Richard Chamberlin starred in the series about a doctor working in an urban hospital under his mentor Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey). In the third season, Dr. Kildare was promoted to resident and the series centered on his patients. The show aired until 1966, but Berry left the show in 1964. This was one of the shows that paved the way for Marcus Welby, MD and the medical dramas today including ER and Gray’s Anatomy.

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He also appeared on several shows in the early 1960s: The Jim Backus Show, Hennesey, Ensign O’Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and No Time for Sergeants, among others.

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In 1965, he was offered the lead in F-Troop. The show was set during the Civil War.  Berry played Will Parmenter.  At a critical moment during the Battle of Appomattox, Will gets credit for the defeat.  He is a private and was sent to get his commanding officer’s laundry. He was sneezing continuously, but the men thought he was saying “Charge,” so they did.  They won a decisive battle, and Will was promoted for his quick decision-making skills and bravery. He was then promoted to Fort Courage.

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The cast had a crazy bunch of characters. The NCOs at the fort, Sergeant O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch) are always scheming to raise money. The Hekawis tribe, with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) worked on shady business deals with them. Although the officers manipulate Will, they are also protective of him. Melody Patterson plays Jane Thrift, Will’s girlfriend, who is always pressuring him to propose. The show relied on a lot of puns, slapstick, and running gags.

When F-Troop was cancelled two years later, Berry headlined the cast of Mayberry RFD as widower Sam Jones because Andy Griffith was leaving the show. Since Andy and Helen had married and moved away, Aunt Bee became Sam’s housekeeper. Sam and his son were introduced in Griffith’s final season when Sam is elected to the town council. Arlene Golonka plays Millie, Sam’s love interest. The show was rated as high as 4th and only as low as 15th, so it continued to pull in good ratings, but in 1971, the show was cancelled in the general “rural house cleaning” that the network performed getting rid of any shows such as Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, etc.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was on 14 shows including The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show, Love American Style, The Brady Bunch, and The Love Boat.

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The network developed a show Ken Berry WOW, a variety show that lasted five episodes that Berry was not wowed with. In 1973, Sherwood Schwartz wrote a pilot for a Brady Bunch spinoff called Kelly’s Kids. The concept of the show was that Berry adopts three boys, one white, one African American, and one Asian. No network showed an interest in the show.

One of the most unusual jobs he had occurred in 1976.  An album called “Ken Berry RFD,” where he sang, backed by a full orchestra, was released. He and Joseph divorced that same year. Joseph later remarried and continued to have a long and full career.  She appeared on a variety of sitcoms including Designing Women, Full House, Newhart, Love American Style, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, F-Troop, and the Andy Griffith Show. She also had a productive movie career, including Gremlins, The Cheyenne Social Club, With Six You Get Eggroll, Who’s Minding the Mint, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Taking a break from television, Ken went on the road, performing in stock shows around the country.  He also played Caesar’s Palace between Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke.

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He returned to television to join the cast of Mama’s Family with Vickie Lawrence. The show derived from a skit on the Carol Burnett Show which led to a TV movie called Eunice. It featured the Harper family and their neighbors and friends. The matriarch is Thelma Harper (Lawrence) who speaks her mind freely. She is hot tempered and sarcastic, but she loves her family as she berates them. And they typically deserve a berating. They move back in with her and are happy to have her clean and cook for them as well.

For the first season and part of the second, the show was on NBC. Thelma lives with her spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan) who is a journalist. After Thelma’s daughter-in-law leaves her family, they move in with Thelma. Her son Vint began a relationship with Thelma’s next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman). Her children from the Burnett sketch, Ellen (Betty White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with hubby Ed (Harvey Korman) are seen during this time.

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The show was cancelled after two years and went into syndication.  The reruns were so popular, 100 new episodes were ordered. A new set had to be constructed and some cast adjustments were made as well. Lawrence, Berry and Lyman were the only original characters on this new version. Since White and McClanahan were now starring on The Golden Girls, and Burnette and Korman chose not to return, a new character was created. Mitchel (Allan Kayser) was Eunice’s son who was always getting into trouble. Another addition was Beverly Archer who played Iola Boylen, Thelma’s neighbor and best friend.

Once Mama’s Family was cancelled the second time, Berry traveled around the country, appearing in “The Music Man”, “Gene Kelly’s Salute to Broadway”, and “I Do I Do” with Loretta Swit. He also went back to television for brief appearances on several shows including CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Gimme a Break, Small Wonder, Golden Girls, The New Batman, and Maggie Winters.

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Berry also appeared in six movies including Two for Seesaw (1962), The Lively Set (1964), Hello Down There (1969), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), and The Cat from Outer Space (1978).

Guardian of the Wilderness was based on the life of Galen Clark who convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Yosemite Park the first public land grant. It covers a series of unusual adventures Clark had as he battled lumber companies to save wilderness land.  One of my favorite quintessential 1960s movies was Hello Down There.  Tony Randall and Janet Leigh star.  Randall is an architect who creates an underwater home.  To prove a family could live there, he cajoles his family to moving there for the summer.  His kids are in a band so they force him to take the entire band or no one.  Charlotte Rae is their housekeeper. Berry plays a rare role for him as the bad guy.

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Early in his career, Ken appeared in a variety of commercials. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he was the spokesman for Kinney Shoes.

He appeared in two game shows, Hollywood Squares and Tattletales.  He also starred as himself on a variety of shows including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Leslie Uggams, Jim Nabors, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin, Laugh In, and Mike Douglas.

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Berry retired in 1999. Berry loves cars and was an avid motorcyclist and camper.

Although Berry was never in a hugely successful series, he had a long and full career that any actor would be proud of.  Hopefully his well-deserved retirement has been fun and full of memories.

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