Skip navigation

Saturday December 8, 2012

Entertainer sought laughs and acceptance

Driven worker teamed with John Aylesworth on path from copyman to TV script scribe, mortgaging his house to start hit Hee Haw

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.

Back to top