Partnerships are strange things. For 60 years, comedy writers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth were partners and friends. They started working together at a Toronto advertising agency in the 1950s, then joined CBC Television when it was still in its infancy. Later, they graduated to the big leagues, writing for the likes of Perry Como, Andy Williams, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Jonathan Winters, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Sonny and Cher, Barbara Mandrell – to say nothing of Hee Haw, the Laugh-In-like country-music series they created. Launched as a summer replacement, it ran for more than two decades in lucrative syndication.
In the heyday of TV variety shows, Peppiatt and Aylesworth stood at the top of the heap. As writers, the pair could and often did finish each other’s sentences. But as Peppiatt recounts in his forthcoming autobiography, When Variety Was King: Memoir of a TV Pioneer, Aylesworth drew a bizarre curtain across his personal life. Between them, they went through seven marriages, five divorces, nine children, six grandchildren and more than 1,500 television shows, yet Peppiatt was often the last to learn what his partner, who died in 2010, was up to off the job. For example, Aylesworth was married four times, once to a cousin of his sidekick’s second wife – and Peppiatt didn’t even know the two were dating.
Frank Peppiatt died last month, after a battle with bladder cancer at his home in Ponte Vedra, Fla. He was 85.
An entertaining romp through a largely vanished world, Peppiatt’s memoir chronicles the rise of a man who was naturally funny and fun-loving, but often struggled to find acceptance from those closest to him.
For example, his father, a car dealer and beer salesman also named Frank, never entirely forgave his son for not becoming a lawyer, and never seemed to quite understand what he actually did.
His first wife, Marilyn Frederickson, daughter of NHL great Frankie Fredrickson, never forgave him for moving the family to New York in the early 1960s, and seemed alternately to ridicule and resent his success. The mother of his three daughters, she died in 1998.
His second wife, Valerie Crawford, seemed largely interested in spending Peppiatt’s money, according to the memoir. She died in 2000, though they had been divorced for more than 20 years. The sour end of that marriage helped contribute to a nervous breakdown.
One morning in 1979, he found himself sitting in his car in Los Angeles, keys in hand, unable to remember how to drive. He sat for several hours. A psychiatrist friend who was a poker partner diagnosed depression, and shipped him to Boston’s McLean Hospital.
After two weeks of polite chit-chat, the attending psychiatrist said, “It’s been a nice little fairy tale you’ve been telling me, Frank. Can we stop the bull and get down to some serious business?”
“I don’t know what you mean, doctor.”
“Whether you want to admit it or not, you are terribly depressed … You entertain millions of people every week, big stars want you, producers want you, networks want you, but the three people closest to you don’t really care. Down deep, you know this, Frank. On top of that, you work yourself ragged, taking job after job to prove something, and we’ll find out what that is.”
For the first time in decades, Peppiatt started to cry. Six-and-a-half months later, he returned to L.A., restored.
Soon after, he was introduced to the woman who became his third wife, Caroline Elias, then writing for Magnum, P.I. She was, he writes, the first woman he truly loved. “When we met, I told him I’d only go for one drink, and one drink turned into two – and that was that,” she said in a recent interview. They stayed together for 32 years, 20 of them in Toronto and environs after Peppiatt’s retirement from network television.
But Peppiatt did have one other great love – the world of entertainment. Born in Toronto on March 19, 1927, he was smitten by show business as a child. His Scottish grandfather took him to the movies every Saturday afternoon. The rest of the week found him glued to the radio, soaking up The Happy Gang, Ma Perkins, The Guiding Light, Amos ’n’ Andy, The Fred Allen Show, Fibber McGee and Molly and The Jack Benny Program.
“Most of the programs would begin, ‘Live from New York . . .,’” he writes, “and I thought New York must be a wonderful place to send out all these programs. They were even better than the movies because radio gave me my own movies in my head.”
A star athlete (football and basketball in high school and college), Peppiatt earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Toronto, graduating in 1949. His father kept lobbying for law school, but Peppiatt resisted, and eventually found – for $1,100 a year – an entry-level position at MacLaren Advertising. Soon thereafter, he was ordered to please the client by smoking while meeting with a cigarette manufacturer. After a few such gatherings, he was hooked – for the next 30 years.
A year later, he met Aylesworth, then just 21, at MacLaren and in 1952, the agency started creating ads for the new medium of television. When MacLaren exec Peter MacFarlane was recruited to produce at the CBC, he invited the two funniest guys he knew – Peppiatt and Aylesworth – to try their hand at TV comedy. For their first sketch, about Superman’s unhappy home life – Peppiatt dressed as the Man of Steel in a costume made by his mother.
From the CBC, Peppiatt started writing for Steve Allen, then one of the biggest names in U.S. network television. After that, the offers just kept on coming.
“He absolutely loved what he did,” Caroline Peppiatt recalls. “Unlike other workaholics, he had joy in his work.”
In 1969, their agent, Bernie Brillstein, suggested they pitch a summer replacement series for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to CBS. Reckoning that no network had ever aired a country music variety show in prime time, they decided to marry the fast-paced format of Laugh-In to traditional C&W. Thus was born Hee Haw (named by Brillstein’s wife, Laura), a 12-week series that became one of the most popular shows on television.
Neither Aylesworth or Peppiatt knew anything about country music – they had never even visited the South – but no matter. What they did know was TV comedy. And while sophisticates in New York and LA derided its corny, hillbilly humour, the writers (turned producers) hee-hawed all the way to the bank. When a new regime at CBS decided after two seasons not to renew it, Peppiatt mortgaged his house and, putting up a share for his frequently cash-strapped partner, produced the first 13 shows. Their company, Yongestreet Productions, gave the shows away to TV stations, retaining six half-minutes of advertising to sell.
Initially, the animus against the show was so strong that no major Madison Avenue agency would buy time. In fact, the first show went to air with only one commercial – for Crisco – “not nearly enough to cover the costs of producing 26 hour-long programs,” Peppiatt wrote. “But there was no turning back. We were contractually obligated to provide 26 new shows.”
But after 13 weeks, Hee Haw was the country’s top-rated show in its time slot and the ad agencies were soon begging for time.
“John and Frank really enjoyed the Hollywood lifestyle,” recalls Barry Adelman, then a young executive on the show and now executive producer of Dick Clark Productions. “They loved the whole swinging Rat Pack thing – drinking, smoking, dinner at Chasen’s. They were fun to be around, always well-dressed, urbane, gentlemanly. They loved the English language and were never slovenly with it. And they loved a good prank.”
When one famous LA producer was heard slagging their hit show, they pasted a Hee Haw bumper sticker to his Rolls-Royce. “In those days,” says Adelman, “it took weeks to get them off.”
“I think what impressed me most about him was how he ran a TV set,” says Caroline Peppiatt. “I remember visiting the set for a summer replacement series he was doing and I’d never seen anything like it. Everyone was collaborating. There was no hierarchy, but no anarchy. Everyone was very happy. All his sets were like that, full of camaraderie. This carried over into his life. He was collaborative. Frank spoke and behaved with everybody in the same way.”
He and Aylesworth had one serious falling out, shortly after Peppiatt’s nervous breakdown. According to the memoir, Aylesworth claimed sole credit for a show they had co-written, Nashville Palace, and squeezed Peppiatt out of the deal.
“John wanted to prove that he could do it on his own,” Caroline says, “but the show was cancelled after five episodes. And the deal he eventually made with Frank and their other partner, Nick Vanoff, was that John would get all of the initial fee but only that fee, and they would get any future royalties. As it happened, the network later rebooked the show to fill a schedule gap and they ended up getting more than John. But they did work together again after that.”
A lover of sports and a voracious reader, Peppiatt nurtured one overriding idiosyncrasy: he hated all reminders of time, and all rites related to its passage – birthdays, anniversaries, etc. Punctual to a fault – he once showed up a Judy Garland party at the time called for and was mistaken for the evening’s bartender – he never wore a watch and kept no clocks in his house. “But he always knew exactly what time it was,” says Caroline. “And if he came to your celebration, your bar mitzvah or birthday party, it meant he really loved you.”
His bitter divorce from Marilyn Fredrickson produced a lingering acrimony with some of his daughters, which was eventually healed. His daughter Robyn, who later changed her name to Francesca, became a successful writer and comedienne in her own right. She remembers a father who was “fun and funny. He did things that today would be called child abuse, like put the three kids on the open back flap of a station wagon and drive around. Our house was like The Dick van Dyke Show. That was our life. He was always busy and funny people like Jack Burns were always coming and going.”
A second daughter, Marney Peppiatt, lives in Streetsville, Ont; a third, Melissa MacIsaac, passed away in 2000. There are four Peppiatt grandchildren.
When Aylesworth died, ECW publisher Jack David approached Peppiatt about writing a memoir. Although in remission for kidney cancer (and surviving on literally half a kidney), he agreed to undertake it. According to Francesca, “the project gave him renewed energy in the last year or two of his life.” The book is scheduled to appear next April.