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Li'l Abner from Broadway, movie now makes Shelby home

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Peter Palmer made a name playing Li'l Abner on Broadway and in the movie. You might be surprised to learn he now calls Shelbyville home.

By Cameron Koch

From 1956-1959, Peter Palmer practically lived in the fictional town of Dogpatch as the star of both the Broadway and Hollywood productions of Li’l Abner, based on the popular comic strip that ran from 1934-1977.

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Now, more than 50 years later at the age of 81, Palmer lives in Shelbyville and can most often be found at a different kind of dog patch – the Red Orchard Dog Park.

“I’m not retired,” Palmer says with a laugh. “The calls just don’t come anymore.”

He moved to Shelbyville just a year ago to be close to his daughter Farrell Palmer, who works as a horse breeder at Willowbank Farm.

Even if life has finally slowed down for Palmer, he said he has lived a more exciting and varied life than most.

Growing up in St. Louis, he said he always has loved to sing, but he also enjoyed playing high school football. He accepted a scholarship to the University of Illinois and studied music there, while at the same time playing for university’s football team as a 6-foot, 2-inch tackle. He sang the national anthem in full football uniform before every home game during the 1953 season.

During his time there the Fighting Illini won two Big Ten championships in 1951 and 1953 and the Rose Bowl in 1952. He said he especially is proud of the 1953 championship, when Illinois defeated Ohio State.

“There wasn’t an expert who said we weren’t going to be second from the bottom,” Palmer said. Though Palmer said he played hard and did his job on the field well, about halfway through his college career, he came to a realization. He knew he wouldn’t be continuing his football career after college.

“I was a football player who sang,” Palmer said of himself when he entered college. “And somewhere along the line, I became a singer who played football.”

 

On to a new career

That changed his mindset. He continued to play hard, but looking back, Palmer said he could have done better. But he said he doesn’t regret the change in focus. He was ready to start his music career.

Many might have viewed Palmer’s love of the hard-hitting sport and equally great love of theater as incompatible. Palmer said when starting college he was a little concerned of the flak he might potentially receive from other players. What he got however was the exact opposite.

“I thought they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re over at the fairy school.’ I thought that would be the thing,” he said. “’[What they said was] why are you playing football? God, if I had your talent Peter, I’m here to get an education and get out of the coal mine, why are you playing football? You should just sing!’”

And sing he did. After college he flew out to Los Angeles to make a name for himself, meeting his first wife, Jackie Gleason – yes, familiar name, different gender – in the process and landing multiple contract offers. However, he didn’t accept any of them, as the draft for the Korean War loomed ahead.

He decided to volunteer, and as it turns out, joining the Army set about a chain of events that would lead to the role of a lifetime.

 

A big break

“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,” Palmer said.

It just so happened that the producers and writers of the upcoming Li’l Abner Broadway production, based on the comic strip that starred a large, muscular and kind-hearted but naïve hillbilly in a rundown Southern town, were watching, and they believed Palmer’s size and singing ability made him perfect for the part. He was immediately contacted. A week later he tried out for the leading part.

A few months later, he was rehearsing the role of his career.  

 

Big role, modest career

For more than three years Palmer did nothing but perform Li’l Abner, both on stage and on film he said. The show started on Broadway, eventually traveling around the country and was performed in Las Vegas for a short time. Soon afterwards a film adaptation by Paramount Pictures was under way, with much of the original show’s cast returning for the silver screen, including Palmer.

“I played him [Abner] like a 14-year-old boy in a 18-year-old body, well really more like a 12-year-old” he said. Abner’s character was defined by his strength and kindness but also by his lack of intelligence and disinterest in the town’s girls.

Despite scoring the sought-after role, Palmer’s career didn’t exactly skyrocket. He continued to perform in a variety of shows, including the 20th anniversary performance of Oklahoma! and made guest appearances on numerous TV shows such as Dallas, ER and M*A*S*H. Much of his last decade has been spent teaching voice in Tampa, Fla., where he lived with his second wife, stage actress/singer and Miss Dominion of Canada Mary Louise Farrell, who went by the name Aniko on stage.

 

In a lot of ways better

But the past decade hasn’t been easy for Palmer. For the past seven years Farrell, his wife of more than four decades, struggled with cancer. The couple tried for years to move to Shelbyville, but due to Farrell’s condition and need for medical attention, it never happened. She passed away in 2011.

“I really spent a forty-five-year honeymoon with her,” he said. “My wife left me in a very good place.”

His 8-year-old Doberman, Stryker, keeps him company now. Palmer described Stryker as his best friend and said the former shelter dog helped get him through the tough seven years his wife battled with cancer.

Almost every afternoon, the two visit the dog park at Red Orchard Park – he said the park may be one of Shelbyville’s best secrets – to meet with other pet owners and for him and Stryker to socialize.

His daughter, Farrell, said when she gets the chance she even joins him at the park, bringing her basset hound, appropriately named Li’l Abner.

When he isn’t at the park he attends Centenary United Methodist Church and works on his autobiographical book (tentatively titled Nothing has Anything to do with Anything).

“I’m so busy,” Farrell Palmer said, “I’m glad to know he has such a good network of supportive friends from church and the dog park as well. They are all really great people.”

Palmer said he saw last weekend’s production of South Pacific at the Shelby County Community Theatre and greatly enjoyed it.

“They’ve got a lot of talented people,” he said. “It was a good production, well-directed.”

Last Christmas Palmer sang at the church, and he said he hopes to continue to perform there. Even at age 81 and only performing a handful of times in the past eight years, Palmer said he’s still got it.

“I’m singing differently now,” he said. “It’s different, but in a lot of ways a lot better.”