Film and TV

Happy Birthday, Mr. Peppermint!

Today, Mr. Peppermint turns 80 years old -- or "80 effin' years," as Jerry Haynes put it when Unfair Park called to wish him "Happy Effin' Birthday." This marks a somewhat major milestone in the lives of those of weaned on Muffin the Bear, Mr. Wiggly Worm, Captain Candy and the other puppets with whom Haynes cavorted for decades on WFAA-Channel 8. Mr. Pep'mint, as Muffin called him, is 80; so that makes us how old? Never mind.

Haynes has no big plans for the day. Says he's "done too much the last few years, so I'm gonna take it easy." And by too much, he means he's still working -- on the stage, where he recently completed a run in Theatre Three's presentation of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory (which our Elaine Liner called "gentle and uplifting"), and in film. Indeed, in November Haynes was in Austin shooting Gary the Tennis Coach, in which he has three scenes with Seann William Scott (American Pie's Stifler); the movie's being directed by Danny Leiner, who made Dude, Where's My Car? and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

"I play a racquet stringer," Haynes says. "I told my granddaughter about it, and she said, 'My God, we see [Leiner's] movies all the time.' I guess the young people like all that stuff. I may get a new career going. Here's something: The description of the character says, 'Skinny old man.' It worked out OK. I had a good time. I was down there two days -- got there the day before to learn how to string a raquet, so I could look legit. So I always have that to fall back on now."

Haynes, of course, is known for far more than Mr. Peppermint. His is an estimable filmography that includes such films as the Patsy Cline biopic Sweet Dreams (in which Haynes played legendary producer Owen Bradley), a bit part in the locally filmed RoboCop and Kimberly Peirce's acclaimed indie sensation Boys Don't Cry. Most notably, he was also a star in Robert Benton's 1984 film Places in the Heart, alongside Sally Field, Danny Glover and John Malkovich. And, of course, he's the proud papa of Butthole Surfer Gibby Haynes, whose music Jerry has always dug.

But Mr. Peppermint's the role that made him immortal, at least to us locals who found the monicker apropos; you've never met a sweeter man. The show ran from 1961 till the summer of 1996, when Jerry hung up his candy-striped outfit and retired the kiddie-TV mainstay who, at one point, appeared in more than 100 markets in syndication. (In 1996, Joe Nick Patoski conducted a great Q&A with Haynes for Texas Monthly concerning the show's last days; it's available here, if you use the password, which is "Arlington." Not kidding.)

Haynes has only a handful of the 129 Mr. Peppermint episodes in his possession; they will probably never be seen again, as Channel 8 has no intention of airing them or releasing them on DVD. Only a few of the shows spark any real memories for Haynes. "One show I really liked was when we visited McKinney, the Heard mursum," he says. "We talked about leaves, and we went for a big trek around the place kicking around leaves and had kids talking about what makes leaves fall. It was full of youthful imagination."

When he retired the character, he thought it would be for good. But only last summer, he donned the togs once more for a bluebonnet festival in Wills Point, where the show's director and puppeteer, Vern Dailey, lives -- with some of the puppets, as a matter of fact. "Muffin lives in the attic," Haynes says. "He looks down through a hole to see what the hell's going on." Perhaps one day he'll be Mr. Peppermint again; perhaps all you have to do is ask, real nice. Till then, though, he's 80-year-old Jerry Haynes -- a man comfortable with his age; a man feeling just fine, thanks; a man who's still working, if you're paying.

"I don't wanna talk about it, being 80," he says, chuckling. "It's weird. That's so damned old. I see guys who are 80 and, like my mother used to say when we left her at the rest home, 'Son, those people are old.' It's OK. I feel all right. As long as you feel like counting the snowflakes when they fall outside your house, you're in good shape. And a few fell this morning." --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky