Peter Palmer brought the legendary comic strip character Li’l Abner to life, first as the lead in a successful Broadway musical and later in the movie based on the stage play. Palmer died Sept. 21, 2021, at age 90.
The U.S. Army plays a major role in the story of just how an unknown actor got a Broadway lead as his first professional acting job. Palmer never again enjoyed the same level of success in his career, but he was a major star for a few years in the late 1950s.
Palmer was born in Milwaukee and was a hotly recruited high school football player who played for the University of Illinois, because he wanted to study music with the school’s noted professor of voice, Bruce Foote.
He played tackle on the offensive line back when the Illini were good at football. They won the Big Ten twice and the Rose Bowl once when Palmer was on the team. He also performed the national anthem before home games while dressed in his football uniform.
Palmer moved to Hollywood after graduation and realized that he faced the draft. Wanting to get on with his career and expecting to be rejected because he was partially deaf in one ear, Palmer tried to enlist and was accepted into the Army.
That turned out to be the greatest career break he ever got. Palmer entered and won the All-Army Entertainment Contest. The winner got a chance to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the Sunday night CBS variety series that helped launch the careers of fellow Army veteran Elvis Presley and, later, the Beatles.
One thing that’s immediately obvious from watching Palmer sing on the Sullivan show is that he had very little in common with Elvis. Palmer was a formally trained singer, and his rich baritone sounds incredibly old-fashioned when you compare his style to what Presley was doing at the same time. When you really get down to it, Palmer also sounds old-fashioned if you compare him to the pop records that Frank Sinatra was making almost two decades earlier.
That old-fashioned quality was exactly what electrified Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, the writers and producers who were looking to mount a show based on Al Capp’s popular comic strip “Li’l Abner.” When they saw Palmer on Sullivan, they immediately knew that the 6-foot-3 jock was the Abner they’d been seeking.
Even though it’s almost forgotten today, the “Li’l Abner” comic strip was an entertainment powerhouse for 43 years in an era when the funny pages were still at the center of popular culture. Capp used the hillbilly residents of his fictional Appalachian town Dogpatch to skewer the powerful and popular.
Dogpatch was populated with incredibly curvy women like Daisy Mae, Wolf Gal, Stupefyin' Jones, and Moonbeam McSwine, all of whom found themselves painted on U.S. aircraft during World War II. Capp’s strip was both subversively funny and wildly popular at a time when the movies and television weren’t.
As the world changed around him and Capp got older, he drifted toward reactionary politics and the strip adopted hippies as its favorite target. He also did speaking tours of college campuses and made nightly efforts to provoke protests from student activists. Capp showed up at John Lennon and
Yoko Ono’s 1969 “Bed-In for Peace” in Montreal, and his heated exchange with the couple was captured on camera.
All of this goes to illustrate just how big a deal “Li’l Abner” was in 1956 when the musical, with songs by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, opened on Broadway. Palmer was an immediate hit, and the show ran for nearly 700 performances before setting out on an equally successful national tour.
Palmer was so identified with the role that he was an automatic choice to reprise the role in the 1959 movie version. The movie was a hit, and the musical became incredibly popular with high school theater groups. Many a jock who could carry a tune was recruited to fill out amateur productions over the next few decades.
The actor later played Sgt. James Bustard in the 1967 series “Custer,” which ran for one season before lead actor and Navy Reserve veteran Wayne Maunder went on to star in “Lancer.” Palmer’s career also included guest appearances on “Lancer,” “Love, American Style,” “The Rockford Files,” “Quincy M.E.,” “Three’s Company,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Fantasy Island,” “M*A*S*H” and “Dallas.”
Palmer continued to star in musical stage productions in regional theaters around the country and checking in on high school productions of “Li’l Abner.” He told Masterworks Broadway that “I still get my high from performing. I have never had another job, and I have never done anything else. One of the most gratifying things that I get to do now is to travel around the country when high schools are doing a production of ‘Li’l Abner,’ and I get to talk to the kids about what is the real high in what they do and what they want to do with their lives.”
Peter Palmer’s amazing story suggests that maybe the Army should bring back the talent competitions. The winners certainly could get booked on Kimmel, Colbert or Fallon, and we’d all benefit from the new talent on display.
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