John Aylesworth dies; co-creator of 'Hee Haw'

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; C06

John Aylesworth, 81, a television writer and producer who was co-creator of the long-running country variety show "Hee Haw," died July 28 at a hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He had pulmonary fibrosis.

Mr. Aylesworth and his writing partner and fellow Canadian, Frank Peppiatt, had never visited the rural South or Midwest before developing "Hee Haw," a fast-paced hour of cornball jokes and music, in 1969. The program, with country singers Buck Owens and Roy Clark as hosts and a stable of other comedians and musicians, aired on CBS for two years.

Despite high ratings, "Hee Haw" was canceled during a purge of CBS's rural-oriented shows in 1971. Mr. Aylesworth, Peppiatt and a business partner found advertisers and syndicated the program on their own -- an unheard-of practice in TV at the time. "Hee Haw" remained in production until 1992 and, with 585 episodes, was one of the longest-running shows in TV history.

In 1970, Peppiatt told the Los Angeles Times how he and Mr. Aylesworth came up with the idea for "Hee Haw."

"We were looking at the ratings, and 'Laugh-In' was the leader followed by 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' " he said. "We wondered what kind of show would combine both elements."

The writers had previously worked with performers including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews and Perry Como and knew next to nothing about rural life. But, as Mr. Aylesworth once recalled, "Country music was sweeping the country and there had never been a network show devoted to country music. We did the old 'Jimmy Dean Show,' and we remembered that Jimmy . . . always wondered why his show was so little country."

Peppiatt and Mr. Aylesworth devised a formula that featured down-home music and the hay-bale humor of Minnie Pearl and Junior Samples. As a result, "Hee Haw" was one of the few prime-time shows not geared toward urban audiences and became a point of pride in rural America.

John Bansley Aylesworth was born Aug. 18, 1928, in Toronto. While in high school, he became a radio actor and voice-over artist. In 1950, while working for a Toronto advertising agency, he met Peppiatt. The two wrote and performed TV comedy skits and created the quiz show "Front Page Challenge," which ran on Canadian television for 38 years.

Mr. Aylesworth moved to the United States in 1958 to write for "Your Hit Parade" and a series of successful variety shows, including "The Andy Williams Show," "Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall," "The Judy Garland Show" and "Hullabaloo."

He received a Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on the landmark 1965 special "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music." He also wrote for specials featuring Bing Crosby, Groucho Marx and Dolly Parton and was a writer-producer for "The Jonathan Winters Show" and "The Sonny and Cher Show."

After selling "Hee Haw" to a syndicate for $15 million in 1982, Mr. Aylesworth and Peppiatt wrote a musical stage show about Jimmy Durante.

Despite his long record of success, Mr. Aylesworth found little work as a TV writer after turning 50. In recent years, he was a plaintiff in a series of class-action lawsuits accusing studios and agents of age discrimination.

"I pretty much gave up" looking for writing jobs in the 1980s, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2002.

"Every time I went to a meeting, everybody was very young, and they were intimidated by an old guy coming in," he said. "There was an expression going around that I heard from my agent. He pitched me for one show, and they said, 'No, we already have our 'gray.' "

Mr. Aylesworth wrote a satirical play about Palm Springs, Calif., and published a book this year about "Hee Haw" called "The Corn Was Green."

His first three marriages ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Anita Rufus of Palm Desert, Calif.; five children; and a grandson.

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