Frank Peppiatt, the co-creator of “Hee Haw,” a variety show mixing country music with “corny” humor that became one of TV’s longest-running hits, died Nov. 7 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., of bladder cancer, according to family spokeswoman Jenna Illies. He was 85.
In addition to co-creating, writing and producing “Hee Haw,” the Canadian-born Mr. Peppiatt, along with his writing and producing partner John Aylesworth, became one of TV’s top producers of variety shows in the 1960s and ’70s. They developed 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. “It combined corn-pone humor with great music.”
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’.”
“He had the idea and had the talent to make it work,” said Clark, who is performing in Branson, Mo. “He had this vision, and he wrote a lot of the jokes. 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’.”
Frank Grant Peppiatt was born in Toronto on March 19, 1927. He acknowledged that neither he nor Aylesworth, who was also born in Canada, had been to the South before concocting the series.
“We were looking at the ratings, and ‘Laugh-In’ was the leader followed by ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ ” Mr. Peppiatt told the Los Angeles Times in 1970. “We wondered what kind of show would combine both elements.”
Although “Hee Haw” maintained its popularity, CBS yanked the show in 1971 as part of its purge of such rural-oriented programs as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Mayberry R.F.D.” and others that the network felt would not attract a desired younger viewership.
Mr. Peppiatt, Aylesworth and another partner, Nick Vanoff, syndicated the show, which ran until 1993.
Mr. Peppiatt wrote “When Variety Was King: Memoir of a TV Pioneer featuring Jackie Gleason, Sonny and Cher, ‘Hee Haw’ and More,” to be published in 2013.