"Hee Haw" co-creator Frank Peppiatt, right, is shown in 1956…
Frank Peppiatt, the co-creator of "Hee Haw," a landmark variety show mixing country music with "corny" humor that became one of TV's most unlikely and longest-running hits, has died. He was 85.
Peppiatt died Wednesday in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., of bladder cancer, according to family spokeswoman Jenna Illies.
In addition to co-creating, writing and producing "Hee Haw," the Canadian-born Peppiatt, along with his writing and producing partner John Aylesworth, became one of TV's top producers during the 1960s and '70s in the variety show genre, developing programs for several top stars, including Jackie Gleason, Andy Williams and Sonny and Cher.
Among their numerous projects together were "Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall," "The Judy Garland Show," the 1965 special "Frank Sinatra: A Man and his Music," "The ABC Comedy Hour," "The Julie Andrews Hour" and the teen dance show "Hullabaloo."
But their biggest success was "Hee Haw." Developed as a country-flavored version of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," the CBS show was originally slated in 1969 as a summer replacement for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." But it matched "Laugh-In" at the top of the ratings chart its first week, and its popularity continued for the remainder of the summer. It was added to the CBS prime time schedule in December.
Co-hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark, "Hee Haw" spotlighted top country music stars such as Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Tammy Wynette and George Jones while featuring a cast of offbeat comedic regulars including Minnie Pearl, Alvin "Junior" Samples, Archie Campbell, Lulu Roman and Louis M. "Grandpa" Jones. A regular feature had cast members popping up in a cornfield and telling jokes.
" 'Hee Haw' was a show that the two coasts didn't get at all, but the rest of America embraced it," said TV historian Tim Brooks. "There's no denying that kind of success in TV — it certainly struck a chord. It combined corn-pone humor with great music. Huge country stars would appear on that show. And the two hosts were top-notch."
Owens and Clark had a regular segment in which they would trade jokes while Owens would play a guitar and Clark would play his banjo. Said Owens: "I'm-a-pickin'. Replied Clark: "And I'm-a-grinnin'."
Clark, who is performing in Branson, Mo., called Peppiatt "one of the lifelines of 'Hee Haw.' He had the idea, and had the talent to make it work. He had this vision, and he wrote a lot of the jokes." He added, "Even now, if I'm in New York, I can count on someone saying to me, 'I'm-a-pickin', and I'll always say, 'I'm-a-grinnin'."
Ironically, the creators of the show did not have the cultural credentials to create a variety series based in the country music arena. Peppiatt, who was born in Toronto on March 19, 1927, acknowledged in a 2010 interview that he and his partner, who was also born in Canada, had never been to the South before concocting the series.
He said that he and Aylesworth would go to Nashville twice a year, tape 13 shows, and "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."
Clark said he wasn't surprised at the comfort of the two producers in country music. "In Canada, they're more in tune with country music than we are in the States. They embrace it." He added that Peppiatt knew the names of the musicians at recording sessions.
Although "Hee Haw" maintained its popularity, CBS yanked the show in 1971 as part of its purge of shows such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Mayberry R.F.D." and other rural-oriented programs that the network felt were not hip enough to attract a desired younger viewership. Peppiatt, along with Aylesworth and another partner, Nick Vanoff, syndicated the show, which ran until 1993.
Peppiatt was the author of "When Variety Was King: Memoir of a TV Pioneer featuring Jackie Gleason, Sonny and Cher, 'Hee Haw' and More" to be published by ECW Press in April 2013.
He is survived by his wife, Caroline Peppiatt; two daughters from a previous marriage, Francesca-Robyn and Marney Peppiatt; and four grandchildren.