Exchange Small Town Man

If it’s unique, Tom Palmer is drawn to it. This five-foot tall, animatronic dinosaur skeleton was a gift from his son.

SUBLETTE, Ill. — Tom Palmer sure has packed a lot of experiences into his 89 years.

The small-town resident doesn’t have any star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but he likely has as many acting credits as some of those who do.

He has appeared in movies including “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” ‘’Spiderman II,” ‘’The Fugitive” and “U.S. Marshals.”

Palmer also has a long list of TV programs he was cast in such as “The Untouchables,” ‘’E.R.” ‘’Early Edition,” and “Judge Mathis.”

He and his late wife, Norma, spent many years in California, raising their children Jeff, Susan and Jean. Show business seemed to be in their blood and it showed up in the kids’ genes, too.

“The kids did some acting work in California and were on ‘The Cosby Show’, and the girls were in some KFC commercials. But we never thought about it.”

That doesn’t mean he did not get on stage, but the time he did it was a mistake, Palmer recalled with laughter.

“We were in the audience for ‘The Cosby Show’ and the director said ‘All of the parents come up on stage.’ So I walked up there,” Palmer said. “But he meant just the actors playing parents.”

It would not be long before he and Norma left the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, packing up the family and moving to Illinois. One of the girls called a casting company, though, and soon enough the couple found themselves racking up roles as extras and meeting a few celebrities along the way.

“I met Muhammad Ali one time under a tent,” Palmer said. “I knew he was on set, so I went to his trailer and saw him outside, so I said ‘Hey, champ’ and he came over. He gave me three autographed pics.”

That wasn’t the only sports legend Palmer would encounter — he also has acted in commercials featuring Michael Jordan and former Blackhawk Jeremy Roenick.

Jordan was promoting Ball Park franks, and Palmer still has the plastic hot dog and bun used in those ads.

Breaking from the traditional role of extras — to be seen and not heard — Palmer said at times he noticed errors while filming, approached the director and quietly pointed them out. They were grateful, he said, and re-shot the scenes because the errors would have been noticeable.

“On ‘ER’, I was in the background and we had a guy that needed surgery from a gunshot,” Palmer said. “But there weren’t any plastic gloves and no masks.”

When he appeared in “The Untouchables” as a Navy sailor — not much of a stretch for the Navy veteran — he immediately noticed a wardrobe malfunction and told the director. That mistake was corrected when filming resumed.

He also found some fame in print: He happened to have some of his pets at a show in California when a photographer for Life Magazine strolled by.

“I thought he was a foreign exchange student, and he turned out to be a famous photographer,” Palmer said. “I had no idea and my sister-in-law called me and said you better go buy a Life magazine because your picture is in it.”

That’s how unlikely pals Felix the cat and Papa Rat ended up in Life Magazine on Feb. 22, 1963.

Through it all, he and Norma enjoyed every minute together, often performing in a traveling Hollywood troop show that played churches, Air Force bases and Salvation Army locations.

“My wife was my angel. She was an artist, dancer and a singer,” Palmer said. “We would always hold hands — in fact, she insisted on that.”

When Tom lost Norma, he decided to honor her memory by dedicating most of his time in the past few years to KSB Hospital, where she was treated.

He visits regularly and tries to spread cheer, handing out Easter eggs he filled at home, mostly with candy, but sometimes with a piece of Norma’s jewelry — he wants those items to have a good home.

“I enjoy and love people, so I try and give nice prizes throughout the hospital,” Palmer said. “The Lord has given me so much, and I was taught to give back.”

He likes to keep busy and always wants to be doing something, which explains his extensive collection of M&Ms memorabilia, California Raisins characters from the TV ads and Coca-Cola items. He also has a few model fire trucks he plans to donate to area departments.

Palmer has lived quite a life and knows that he has been privileged to see and do so many interesting things, but he remains humble to this day about it all.

“I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ve been very blessed.”

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