Pennell was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, United States, North America.
According to his page on BaseballReference.com, Pennell was a power-hitting left-handed first baseman and outfielder in the Boston Braves organization between 1948 and 1953. He was portrayed in Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews' autobiography as a fun-loving teammate.
Pennell started acting in 1955, as "Oliver Brown" in the movie Seven Angry Men (1955), a low-budget movie about abolitionist John Brown, starring Raymond Massey. That role led him to a lead in Hell's Horizon (1955), with John Ireland and Hugh Beaumont, also in 1955.
After a few small parts in movies, Pennell drifted between television and movie appearances. In 1959, he played opposite Jimmy Stewart (as "John Michael ('Chip') Hardesty") in the hit movie The FBI Story (1959), in the role of "George Crandall". After 1959, he mainly stuck with television, making guest appearances in shows like Death Valley Days, The Outlaws, Sea Hunt, Wagon Train, The Big Valley, The Virginian, and Dragnet.
In 1961, he was given a lead role in the television series Ripcord, an action/adventure series about skydiving, in which he co-starred, as "Ted McKeever", with Ken Curtis as his older mentor, becoming somewhat of a television idol; the show ran for seventy-six episodes between 1961 and 1963.
In 1965, Pennell played in Karl May's "Old Surehand" (1965) as "The General". Pennell's debut on the "The Beverly Hillbillies" came January 20, 1965, in the episode "Elly in the Movies" (Season 3, Episode 16; 88th overall). "Milburn Drysdale" (played by Raymond Bailey) invests some of "Jed Clampett's" (Buddy Ebsen) money in a movie studio, Mammoth Pictures. Jed is distracted and upset that Elly May has not found any suitors in California. Elly May is bored at home, and jealous of Kitty Devine in the previous episode ("The Movie Starlet"), so Drysdale, to smooth things over, helps convince Jed and "Jane Hathaway" (Nancy Kulp) to let her star in a movie. Dash doesn't know that she (Elly May) is the co-star of the movie and daughter of the studio owner (Jed), and mistakenly thinks that Jane Hathaway is. The next episode, "Dash Riprock, You Cad!", which aired the following week on January 27, 1965, also included Sharon Tate (as Janet Trego), the beautiful actress who was murdered in 1969 by the Manson Family. Tate appeared in 15 episodes as Trego.
In 1964, Pennell starred as John Chambers in the episode "Bad Little Rich Girl", with Diana Van der Vlis in the title role as Mary Beth Warren, in the CBS drama Mr. Broadway starring Craig Stevens.
Pennell was on "Lassie (1954 TV series)" as "Keith Holden" in 1972 and 1974. Ron Hayes had played his brother "Garth Holden" in six Lassie episodes in the 1971–1972 season. At that point, Larry Wilcox also joined the Lassie cast.
In the film "The Great White Hope" (1970), Pennell played former heavyweight champion Frank Brady, who is coaxed out of retirement to try to prevent a black boxer named Jack Jefferson (played by Oscar nominated James Earl Jones) from becoming the first black heavyweight champion. Older, and more distinguished, Pennell returned to big budget motion pictures, as "Captain Cyril Simard" in the World War II blockbuster film Midway (1976), which had a large all-star cast including Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda.
Pennell continued to do small parts, character roles, and cameos, mainly on television shows and movies made for television, including "Little House on the Prairie", "Magnum, P.I." (Tom Selleck played an aide to Capt. Cyril Simard in the movie Midway), and the soap operas "General Hospital" and "The Young and the Restless". One notable role was that of Clark Gable in the television movie "Marilyn: The Untold Story" (1980), with Catherine Hicks as Marilyn Monroe.
In 1992, Selleck would get Pennell to join him again in the motion picture Mr. Baseball (1992).
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