Actor and singer Peter Palmer (b. Milwaukee, WI, 20 September 1931) is best remembered by Broadway and movie audiences as the title character of the musical Li’l Abner (1956, 1959), and to television watchers as the genial, hunky guy who guest-starred in practically every series from Dallas to M*A*S*H to Fantasy Island to Quincy to Leave It to Beaver, from 1960 to 1991.
His great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had all been born in Milwaukee, and he spent his youthful summers there, but Peter was mostly raised and schooled in St. Louis, Missouri. He had an older brother who looked exactly like him and sang in the high school chorus; just as the brother graduated and went off to college, Peter entered as a freshman. The choral director immediately gave all the brother’s solos to Peter, who was already an accomplished singer. The St. Louis audience was convinced that it had taken “that Palmer kid” eight years to finish high school.
He played football on what he calls an “extraordinary team, and with my six-foot-three, 250-pound frame, I became a hot football recruit for many of the major universities.” He was also offered several music scholarships, but chose the football option at the University of Illinois for the sake of the college’s professor of voice, Bruce Foote. He was the first Illinois music major to win a letter in football, and probably the first Illinois football player to sing the National Anthem in full uniform before every home game. “We played very good football and were Big Ten Champs in 1951, Rose Bowl Champs in 1952, and Big Ten Champs again in 1953.”
After graduation Palmer won a contest sponsored by a Chicago radio station which enabled him to go to Hollywood to study with Nelson Eddy’s teacher. He easily acquired the services of an agent, who got him auditions at all the major studios. Universal, Paramount, and MGM all offered him contracts, but his teacher warned him that he was likely to be drafted into the Service.
Palmer expected to clear the draft because of partial deafness in his left ear, so he volunteered. Much to his surprise, the Army took him. But, he says, “being drafted was the best thing that could have happened to me because I entered and won the All-Army Entertainment Contest and the winners were on the Ed Sullivan Show.” As luck would have it, the producers of Li’l Abner, who had been searching for years for the perfect Abner, switched their television channel to Sullivan just as Peter Palmer launched into “Granada.”
Four months later he was in rehearsal as Li’l Abner, with Edie Adams and Stubby Kaye. “Young people ask me now, ‘How do I start?’ and I tell them, ‘At the top. That’s how I did it.’” His Broadway debut won him a Theatre World Award and after the show’s 693-performance run, Palmer was back in Hollywood filming the movie version. (The question of anyone else playing Abner never seemed to arise; the fact that he was irreplaceable may explain why this exhilarating show has not been revived.)
Peter Palmer recorded an album of standards with Lehman Engel and His Orchestra for RCA (Presenting Peter Palmer, 1958), returned several times to the Ed Sullivan Show, and began his thirty-year peregrinations around the television series landscape with an appearance as Li’l Abner on the Red Skelton Hour in a sketch called “Clem Kadiddlehopper in Dogpatch.” He did three more Broadway shows, as Tommy in Brigadoon in 1963 and as Curly in Oklahoma! in 1964 in New York City Center revivals, and in Lorelei with Carol Channing in 1974, but for the most part he guested on popular television series as characters with such names as Moose, Stack, or Dynamite Moran (The Jackie Gleason Show, Love, American Style, Lancer, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, Simon & Simon, ER, and Swamp Thing, as well as the shows mentioned above and many others). Palmer was a regular cast member of two shows that endured for only a few episodes: in Custer (1967, with Wayne Maunder and Slim Pickens) he played Sergeant James Bustard, Custer’s capable right-hand man, and in The Kallikaks (1977) he was Oscar Heinz, a German hired hand who spoke almost no English.
Palmer estimates that over his lifetime he has been in over seven thousand regional performances of thirty or forty different plays and musicals (some of his favorites: Brigadoon, Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Mr. Roberts, The Desert Song, 110 in the Shade, Girl Crazy, No Time for Sergeants). Although he is now teaching acting and voice, “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.”
Palmer was married to stage actress, singer, and former Miss Canada (1965) Aniko Farrell until her death in October 2011. In 1967 they traveled together to South America on a State Department cultural exchange commission, performing Show Boat and Carousel in nine countries to great acclaim.
Peter Palmer may be the only entertainer with the distinction of having performed for four consecutive Presidents of the United States: his high school chorus sang for President Truman; he sang at the opening ceremonies of President Eisenhower’s second inauguration; he performed in Brigadoon in the East Wing of the White House for President Kennedy and in Oklahoma! for President Johnson on the White House lawn.
– Lucy E. Cross