Peter Palmer: If I Had My Druthers...
Every once in awhile an interesting phenomenon takes place in the theater. A complete synergy between an actor and a role comes along - like Robert Preston/Harold Hill, Patti LuPone/Evita and Peter Palmer/Li'l Abner. Palmer's life has had its shares of up and downs - but lessons were always learned and after 49 years in the business, he's still got what it takes, and then some.
Where did you grow up and how did you get involved with performing?
I was raised mostly in St. Louis, third grade through High school. I was born and spent most of my summers in Milwaukee. My brother graduated the year before I entered Clayton High School and had five or six solos with the Chorus. Although he was three years older than I - we looked like twins. When I entered as a freshman the director, Ms. Mildred Parks, gave me most of his solos and it then became a fact to many that "that Palmer kid" took eight years to get through H.S. We didn't have the facilities at the school to do book musicals so we did variety productions. I never formally studied music in high school and took the general choruses offered.
You also played Football
I did play football - we had an extraordinary team, and with my six foot three, 250 pound frame, I became a hot football recruit for many of the major universities. The head football coach at the University of Illinois introduced me to a music professor of voice there, Bruce Foote, who at that time was a very famous concert singer and voice teacher. So, although I was offered football scholarships elsewhere I chose Illinois University because I wanted to study with Professor Foote. It should be said that I was also offered music scholarships there and elsewhere, but I ended up accepting a football scholarship to Illinois, because it offered more. I was told that I was the first (that they knew of) music major to play and then letter in football. We played very good football and were Big Ten Champs 1951, Rose Bowl Champs in 1952 and Big Ten Champs in 1953. Also in 1953, I opened up the home games with the "National Anthem" in full football uniform and then played.
Probably the first (and only?) to first sing and then play in the same game. After college what happened next?
After finishing my four years at the University I won a contest over WGN in Chicago which gave me a trip to Hollywood. I studied with Nelson Eddy's teacher while there and he introduced me to a manager/agent (back when they were such human beings) and he got me auditions at all the major studios. I was offered contracts at Universal, Paramount and MGM. He felt however that I might be drafted into the Armed Services and that perhaps I should find out first if that would be the case.
I volunteered for the draft and much to my surprise, because I was two thirds deaf in my left ear due to a mastoid when I was a young child, they took me. I did find out later in my career that my deaf ear was a Godsend for bad singers "Honey, would you stand over here on my left."
Joining the Army change your life forever, didn't it?
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." The producers/writers Mel Frank and Norm Panama of "Li'l Abner" had been looking for an Abner for a few years, but no one satisfied what they thought were their needs. They were about to settle on comedian Dick Shawn and had actually told Dick that he was about to be hired for the part. His agents told him to take a vacation because this was surely going to be in a big hit.
I was on the Ed Sullivan Show that weekend and the producers of "Li'l Abner" were watching another network promoting a movie that they had made with Bob Hope and during a commercial flipped over to Sullivan and there I was singing "Granada." The conversation went something like this:
Mel: "That kid looks familiar, he must have worked for us".
Norm: "No he has never worked for us."
Mel: "Yes he has"
Norm: "No he hasn't"
And so on
Finally, Mel said, "My God! That's our Li'l Abner" and Norm replied "But is he big enough." At that point I went over to Mr. Sullivan and shook his hand.. I was six foot three and he was five foot eight - so that was it as they say. A week later I auditioned, and four months later I was in rehearsal. Young people ask me now "How do I start?" and I tell them to do as I did, "At the top, because that is how I did it."
Did you have any reservations about acting?
Singing before one or two or ten or even thousands was no problem, I had done that before. But acting? I had done two book shows in college. As a junior I did "Roberta" and as a senior I did "Girl Crazy." I didn't do the lead in that one because the producer said, "Well Peter, you had the lead last year". Sound familiar? By the way, a young freshman guy named Jerry Orbach did the lead in that one. The next year he transferred to Northwestern University. While I was in the Army I did a community Theatre production of "Oklahoma" and when I went to New York to audition for Abner, I used that accent because that was the only accent I knew except for the ones I was stuck with growing up.
All of the above productions were three performance each and that was the acting experience I brought to the stage for Abner, during which and after, I realized that I had a lot of study and catching up to do in that category. I did however get exemplary reviews.
So there you are making your Broadway debut - and with the likes of Stubby Kaye, Joe Marks and Edie Adams. Tell us more about that experience...
How honored I was to be on stage with Stubby Kaye of "Nicely, Nicely" fame and Edie Adams who had just finished "Wonderful Town." Old pros like Joey Marks, Pappy and Howard St. John, Mr. Bullmoose. With those people what did I have to worry about? I remember going "UP" for the first time during a performance and what seemed like an hour and a half with the blood draining out of me, Stubby came over to me on stage and put his arm around me and said "Abner!" and then proceeded to give my line as if it were his. At the time, I felt he saved my life. The cast was so young, many of which had done three or four productions before Abner and were younger than me. They sensed how green I was, and as only peers can, they kept me on the straight and narrow. Michael Kidd, the great choreographer and director was so supportive and inspiring. He pulled it all together and never made me feel as if I was a "newcomer."
I have always said throughout the years that "Li'l Abner" spoiled me for every production since then. The camaraderie, the principals and especially the chorus who were and many still are my close friends and that is saying something for a production that opened in 1956, forty nine years ago.
You were inspired casting for the Broadway production. Did that make you a lock for the film?
I was not a shoo-in for the role of Abner in the film and they looked and looked, but finally called me and flew me out from New York for a screen test. They finally did settle on me and then I started to test with one beautiful blond girl after another. Edie Adams was pregnant at the time so she was not considered. One day they called me in to rehearse with a girl that they thought would work. It was, I believe her big break, her first film. She was so nervous and they asked me to take her into a room and see if I could calm her down. What ever I said to her - what ever we worked out between us worked on the test and later in the film.
Of course, it was Leslie Parrish. Most of the original cast was also hired and a couple of kids, one Valerie Harper who had been a replacement on Broadway was in the chorus as well as Donna Douglas who later became a star through "Beverly Hillbillies" the TV series. Now Li'l Abner the movie has been newly released on DVD and has been re-mastered. I have seen it and it is as good as it was in its original form.
One might assume that after starring on Broadway and then making the film of Li'l Abner, your career would soar. That wasn't the case though, was it?
After Li'l Abner I could not get arrested on stage for films or TV. After the movie wrapped, I fought for a meeting with Meredith Willson. I heard that, like me, they did not want to use Harve Presnell who had starred in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" on Broadway for the film version.
It was being filmed at MGM so I went over there to have lunch with him. The first words out of his mouth were, "I saw Li'l Abner Peter, can you act? Can you sing?"
I said, "What did you think I was doing?"
And he said. "You were perfect!"
I said, "Now, I am really confused. I am all that Abner isn't. I wear shoes, I have a degree in Music, I have three children with one on the way so obviously I like women and all that entails, so isn't that what I was supposed to be doing, act and Sing as Li'l Abner?"
Well, he did the right thing because like me, they settled on my friend Harve. So, back to New York and did a few variety shows etc.
Then my agent Eddie Blondie called and asked me if I wanted to do a revival of "Brigadoon" at the New York City Centre. Yes! Yes! Yes! I was told that when he called Jean Dalrymple the producer of NYCC, she said she new my work and I was wrong for the part of Tommy and he said no you don't know his work and finally he said and I quote, "Audition Peter, and if you like him - hire him. If you don't like or want him, go out of the room and throw up". She liked me and that year I did Tommy and it was so successful they did it the next year and I did it then too. Richard Rodgers come to see ""Brigadoon" and asked Jean if I would do the Twentieth Anniversary of "Oklahoma" that same year and so after about a millionth of a second trying to decide, I said YES again and I did Curly and repeated the role the following year.
And so your career got another jump start with concerts, TV guest appearances and regional productions. You also returned to Broadway in 1974 to star opposite Carol Channing in "Lorelei"
Don't hold me to this but off the top of my head, I have probably done over 7000 performances of about sixty or 70 productions of maybe thirty or forty plays and musicals. I was a regular on two TV series "Kallikaks" and "The Legend of Custer." I have done seven movies for TV and theatrical release and have done a couple of hundred guest starring roles on such shows as MASH and ER and Dallas. I have turned down a few pilots for TV that have become super hits. Some I am sorry about and most I am not. As for working with Carol? That is a whole book suffice to say. "I learned a lot and she is a pro's pro."
Do you have a preference as to which performing medium you prefer?
There are reasons to love them all. With film, one can see the results. However your performance is in the hands of so many that one does not have control over. "Live" is instant gratification and you can be as good as you can be at that moment. You really can and do find out what I call "subjective reaction" is.
And currently what keep you busy?
I am now teaching and have as much passion for that as I still have when I act and sing for the stage and for television. It was school, the army, the Broadway Stage, Television and movies, night clubs and concerts, all of it and 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 there lives. Forget drugs. Being a pro is not for what you do, it is for what you don't do. The play really is the thing. Having the gift to act and when doing musicals perform as Sondheim says "should be the real and only high." I am almost 74 and they tell me I am singing better, and looking better than ever and believe me that is THE high. I have also been teaching voice and acting doing a lot of concerts, some stage work such as Warbucks in "Annie," the old guy in 'Damn Yankees.' As a matter of fact, I just did a pilot for Fox called "Human Animals" in which I play a judge, 'Judge Palmer.'
What's been the most rewarding experience to date? And the most challenging?
The great one giving me all those gifts and not screwing them up to badly. The most challenging? Throughout my career having to keep all those gifts sharp when there is "down time," so that when the call comes you are still near the "Top of your game."
You recently performed in BroadwayWorld.com's Front and Center concert featuring the music of Neil Berg. How did you hook up with him?
When Neil Berg's concert show "Broadway Comes to" (and in this case it was Tampa), he asked me to sing. Since then I have done a few concerts with him. In 2003 I first got to sing "I'm Still In The Game" from his musical "Golf" at the Lambs Theatre for a Broadway Cares Benefit. And, as I have said on previous occasions, "He didn't know it when he wrote it, but he really wrote it just for me."
So what are your favorite musicals?
The ones I have done "Student Prince", "Oklahoma", "Carousel", "Music Man," "Annie" and some I have not done such as "Les Mis," "Phantom" and one I was enchanted with - Neil Berg's "The Prince and the Pauper."
And what role would you love to play and haven't?
Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha" was and still is a role I have always wanted to play. I was always too husky and "All American" to do it. I have been recently approached to do it and I am wondering what that means in this stage of my life and artistic career.
You can grab a copy of Li'l Abner on DVD as well as the Original Cast Recording on Amazon.com.