Ken Berry, who starred in the TV series “F Troop,” “Mayberry R.F.D.” and “Mama’s Family,” died Dec. 1. The Times originally published this article Jan. 28, 1986
Actor Ken Berry, who opens in the romantic musical “I Do! I Do!” at the Grand Dinner Theatre in Anaheim today, was reflecting recently upon the fickleness of the entertainment industry.
“I lost a lot of jobs because I looked too much like Tom Selleck … or Robert Redford,” he joked.
With a television career spanning two decades — he was a regular on such series as “F Troop,” “Mayberry RFD” and, most recently, “Mama’s Family” — Berry is back on the road, doing what he started out doing as a boy: singing and dancing.
Berry’s life reads like a Hollywood primer of reward and rejection.
At 15, he toured as a member of Horace Heidt’s Youth Opportunity Program throughout the United States and in Europe. “It was an adventure — I wasn’t smart enough to know how difficult it was,” he said. “I came back to Illinois and finished high school, went out to the coast and was drafted.” While in the Army, he won an all-Army talent contest, appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” and subsequently was offered a couple of screen tests. “That got me back to the coast again. Most of us come out to be stars … movie stars,” said Berry, who now lives in North Hollywood.
Despite his success in television, Berry said there came a point where he could no longer make a living at it. He started touring again about 10 years ago. “I was living beyond my means,” he admitted, “and I was forced to go on the road. Some of the jobs were not that pleasant.”
But, Berry said, these days he’s enjoying life.
“I’m getting a chance to do what I know how to do,” he said while sprawled comfortably in one of the Grand’s restaurant booths during a rehearsal break. “And I’m getting older. It’s nice to be able to do it now. A lot of times I’ll be playing roles for which I’m too long in the tooth, but people who go see musicals don’t seem to worry too much about that.”
Under a thatch of graying brown hair, Berry’s face still retains a pleasant boyishness. Now 51, he’s philosophical about his early dreams of stardom.
“Over the years I had to alter my aspirations,” he said simply.
“Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor — those were my idols. All I ever wanted to be was a motion picture song-and-dance man. I kind of fell into other things. Did walk-ons and bits for years and worked in little theater at night.”
Berry’s casual tone belies the savaging an actor takes in a profession of constant rejection. But he candidly speaks of the need to come to terms with this.
“I’m better at it now than I was. You have to convince yourself that you’re a commodity and the competition is tremendous. You can lose a job because you don’t have the right coloring or you’re not the right height. It’s a grab bag.
“Besides,” Berry continued, “sometimes it’s personal. It’s hard to get someone, particularly agents, to tell you the truth.” Recently, Berry went to an audition for a “heavy dance show, a Broadway musical — just to be looked at.”
His agent had promised not to lie. The answer was blunt.
“I was too old and too fat,” Berry said, matter-of-factly. “So much for the truth. I went home and went on a crash diet.”
“I Do! I Do!” doesn’t give Berry much dancing time but, he said, “I put some dance in it — a little soft shoe. There’s no time for my character to slip on tap shoes — it’s a two-character play and when Brenda and I aren’t on stage, we have to talk off-stage.”
Brenda Thomson is Berry’s co-star. They have appeared in the Tom Jones / Harvey Schmidt musical in Canada and have performed together in several other shows. “Ours is an off-stage as well as an on-stage romance,” Berry smiled. “Touring together is great. It’s hard on any relationship and it’s lonely to be separated (Berry is divorced).”
He looks forward to playing the newly renovated Grand Dinner Theatre. “It’s an attractive house to play. I’m impressed with the sound, it’s fairly intimate, the sight lines are good and there’s no seat too far from the stage. And the show is so terrific, I love doing it. It’s great for families.” He hesitated and then added a typical Berry qualification — “if kids today want to sit through a musical.”
Neither of Berry’s two children — they’re in their 20s — are performers, though his son has an interest in music. “He plays guitar, drums and bass. I don’t tell him not to get into the business. I want him to work and be as good as he can get because I didn’t. I just wanted to be a star,” he said ruefully. Berry’s daughter is married to a musician, a member of the Blasters, a Los Angeles rock group. “I don’t think she has an interest in being involved herself.”
What’s in the future? “I’d love to do more television. And there may be — I won’t hold my breath — there’s a chance that ‘Mama’s Family’ may go into syndication with new episodes.” (Berry played the browbeaten son on the comedy that starred Vicki Lawrence, reprising her character from the old “Carol Burnett Show.”)
“I won’t believe it till I see it,” the gun-shy actor added.