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John Aylesworth dies at 81; co-creator of TV's 'Hee Haw'

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John Aylesworth, a TV writer and producer who co-created the long-running comedy-variety show "Hee Haw," has died. He was 81.

Aylesworth died Wednesday of complications of pneumonia at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, said his wife, Anita Rufus.

The Canadian-born Aylesworth, who broke into television in 1953 as a writer and performer on the Canadian sketch comedy show "After Hours," moved to the United States in 1958 to write for the CBS music show "Your Hit Parade."

He and his former performing and writing partner, fellow Canadian Frank Peppiatt, reteamed in 1959 to write for "The Andy Williams Show," a summer replacement program on CBS.

Aylesworth and Peppiatt went on to write for " Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall," "The Judy Garland Show," "Hullabaloo," the 1965 special " Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music," "The ABC Comedy Hour" and many other shows.

They also were among the writers who shared an Emmy nomination for "The Julie Andrews Hour" in 1973 and for "The Sonny and Cher Show" in 1976.

But Aylesworth and Peppiatt found their biggest success when they created "Hee Haw."

A summer replacement for " The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" in 1969, "Hee Haw" tied with "Laugh-In" at the top of the ratings its first week and remained a hit throughout the summer. That December, "Hee Haw" was added to CBS' schedule.

The hour-long show, co-hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark, was a showcase for the top country singers of the day and for regulars such as Minnie Pearl, Alvin "Junior" Samples and Louis M. "Grandpa" Jones.

The show also was well-known for its decidedly cornball humor, including jokes delivered in a cornfield. To which an animated donkey would blare its "hee haw."

Former Times TV critic Cecil Smith called "Hee Haw" a "cracker-barrel, knee-slapper."

"As for Peppiatt and Aylesworth, it would be hard to find two more urbane and cosmopolitan cats," Smith wrote in 1970, listing their previous TV credits, which included "The Jonathan Winters Show," the first show they produced.

"Frankly," Aylesworth told Smith, "we couldn't write one of those cornfield jokes. We wouldn't know how."

Peppiatt told Smith that the idea for the show came when he and Aylesworth "were looking at the ratings, and 'Laugh-In' was the leader followed by ' The Beverly Hillbillies.' We wondered what kind of show would combine both elements."

"Plus," said Aylesworth, " country music was sweeping the country and there had never been a network show devoted to country music. We did the old 'Jimmy Dean Show,' and we remembered that Jimmy as a country star always wondered why his show was so little country. And we looked at the ratings and decided maybe he was right."

Peppiatt acknowledged Friday that he and Aylesworth — the Country Music Assn. named them Men of the Year — were unlikely candidates to create a country music show.

"I'd never been in the South before in my life, and he'd never been there either," Peppiatt said.

He recalled that "we went to Nashville twice a year and taped 13 shows and would bring them back unedited and edit everything in California. So we'd end up with 26 one-hour shows and rerun them in the summer."

When CBS canceled "Hee Haw" in 1971 as part of its purge of "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Mayberry R.F.D." and other rural-oriented shows, Aylesworth, Peppiatt and partner Nick Vanoff syndicated the show, and it ran until 1993.

Aylesworth, whose credits include co-writing the musical "Durante" with Peppiatt, more recently wrote the book "The Corn Was Green: The Inside Story of 'Hee Haw,' " which was published this year by McFarland.

Born in Toronto on Aug. 18, 1928, Aylesworth was a high school dropout who already had broken into Canadian radio as an actor on the series "Penny's Diary" and later was the voice of a daily show called "High Newsreel."

In 1950, he was hired as a copywriter and staff announcer at MacLaren Advertising in Toronto, where he met fellow copywriter Peppiatt.

In addition to "After Hours," Aylesworth and Peppiatt were writers and performers on Canadian television's "The Big Revue" and "On Stage."

On his own, Aylesworth wrote for "Cross Canada Hit Parade" and created the long-running Canadian quiz show "Front Page Challenge."

Aylesworth, who was divorced three times, is survived by his wife; his daughters, Linda Aylesworth and Cynthia Heatley; his sons, Robert, John and Bill; and a grandson. Another son, Thomas, preceded him in death.

No funeral service will be held.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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