His death was announced on Facebook by his son Steven Palmer, who noted that the actor died one day after his 90th birthday. No cause was given.
“As a family we knew this was coming and that’s why we had such a wonderful celebration of his birthday this weekend,” Steven Palmer wrote. “He enjoyed being celebrated by his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and friends and extended family. Gonna miss you, Pops.”
Palmer, who majored in music while playing football in the early 1950s for the Big Ten champs University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and routinely performed the National Anthem at games, was cast as Broadway’s naïve, muscle-bound hero of Dogpatch after producers saw him sing on The Ed Sullivan Show.
The Li’l Abner musical, based on Al Capp’s long-running satirical comic strip about a village of country bumpkins, featured music and lyrics by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, coming off their hit Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The songs included the title character’s big number “If I Had My Druthers,” and with direction and choreography by Michael Kidd, Li’l Abner became a fairly successful hit despite mixed reviews, running until January 1959.
The musical was adapted by director Melvin Frank into the 1959 film, with Palmer carrying over in the lead role from the Broadway production. The film’s cast combined established stars (Stubby Kaye, Joe E. Marks, Jerry Lewis) with a solid ensemble of up-and-comers (Leslie Parrish, Julie Newmar, Stella Stevens, Billie Hayes, Valerie Harper and Donna Douglas, among others).
Palmer would go on to make appearances in a number of TV programs over the next several decades, including a regular role on 1967’s Custer and guest shots on The Jackie Gleason Show, Love American Style, Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels, M*A*S*H* and Dallas. He was a regular on 1977’s short-lived David Huddleston sitcom The Kallikaks, and had a small role in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands (1990). He returned to Broadway twice, first in 1963’s Brigadoon and then in 1974 opposite Carol Channing in Lorelei.