Country Music has lost one of its’ greatest friends with the Tuesday passing of television producer Sam Lovullo at the age of 88. A former CBS network executive, Lovullo is credited with being the creator and guiding force behind the iconic variety series Hee Haw, which premiered in June of 1969, and stayed on the air for twenty-four years.
In a 1996 interview to promote his book, “Life in the Kornfield: My 25 Years at Hee Haw,” Lovullo cited his time spent on The Jonathan Winters Show as what led to the creation of Hee Haw, a countrified version of the NBC hit series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.
“We discovered that the show was not rating well, particularly in the south. His comedy just wasn’t their style. In order to pick up some ratings points, we started to book some country artists,” Lovullo recalled, adding that he booked acts such as Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Minnie Pearl, and George ‘Goober’ Lindsay – each of whom would become regulars on the show. Each time that a Country-styled artist would appear on Winters, the ratings would increase – which led his staff to formulate plans for a new series. “We were sitting around one day after having some of those folks on the show, and someone in the office said we needed to do a Country show, and someone said ‘Let’s just call it ‘Hee Haw.’
“WLAC / Channel 5 had a small production wing under the name 21st Century Productions under the direction of Roy Smith. They were trying to do some Country-related programming out of there. The studio was super for our needs. We convinced CBS that we needed to do it out of Nashville,” Lovullo recalled, having been satisfied with the local affiliate as a production location. With hosts Owens and Clark locked in, he then went looking for writers to provide the homespun humor for the show. “We looked into the comedians, and found Archie Campbell. We were familiar with Gordie Tapp, who was out of Toronto, We had them come out to Los Angeles, and that’s how it all happened.”
After two years, the show, still in the Nielsen top-20, was axed as part of CBS exec Fred Silverman’s plan to rid the show of more rural-oriented fare. While the show could have gone off the air, Lovullo had other plans, taking it to first-run syndication, where it remained a mainstay for over two decades. “Going into syndication was actually a blessing. We took control of our stations relations, and stayed with as many CBS stations as possible. A lot of folks never knew the difference. When you go from the network to syndication, the dollars are not the same. I went to my people and said ‘Let’s all take a cut in pay. I have reason to believe that if we all band together, we will keep on the same value of the show, and we will go on for a long time,’ which happened. The quality of the show was even better than when it was on CBS.”
While the show balanced comics with musicians, as well as the famous “Hee Haw Honeys,” other celebrities would stop by from time to time – including two of the biggest baseball stars of the day. “Johnny Bench loved coming down to Nashville to be a part of the show,” said Lovullo. “At first, I used to kid him that he just wanted to get into the Kornfield with the ‘Hee Haw Honeys.’ But, he actually sang a couple of songs on the show. One time he came on, and the guest before him had gotten hit in the face with a pie. He was sitting in the booth, and said ‘Lovullo, don’t you ever try doing that. It won’t work.’ That’s all I needed to hear. I found out that the evening before, he had gone out to dinner with Cathy Baker. I asked her if she’d go in the studio, and I would rig a pie into one of the stage crew’s hands. Sure enough, we got him. He looked into the camera and said ‘I’m gonna get you for doing that. That’s worse than losing to the Dodgers.’ I showed the footage to Tommy Lasorda, and I asked if he’s give me a quick cut that we could put in the show. So, we went into a studio in Los Angeles, and we got him saying ‘Johnny, you would know about getting beat by the Dodgers. I cut that into the show, and Johnny never knew until it was on the air. Both of them came back on quite a few times after that.”
As the 1990s began, Lovullo began to feel pressure from the show’s owners to bring the look of the show up to date, eventually forsaking the original feel of the show in its’ final season. The plan backfired, as the show’s creator knew it would. “I knew it was going to happen. I also knew it wasn’t going to work. I had no regrets. We had a good time.” Still, 585 episodes of the series remain as his television – and Country Music legacy, for which the artists, and the format should be forever grateful.
Lovullo’s son, Torey, has made his mark on the baseball world – first as a player, and now as a manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.