Ahoy matey. We are currently in the middle of the “We Salute You!” blog series. Today we go behind the scenes of one of the most popular military sitcoms: McHale’s Navy.
The series is centered around the adventures of a US Navy crew aboard the PT boat PT-73 during WWII. One of the best crews in the Navy, they often try to outwit Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn) and his aide Lt. Carpenter (Bob Hastings). Stationed in the South Pacific, the crew often is involved in antics to make life more enjoyable during wartime. Quinton McHale (Ernest Borgnine) is fun-loving but sometimes has to reign his crew in when they go too far.
Debuting on ABC in 1962, the show sailed on for four seasons, producing 138 episodes. In April of 1962, a drama on Alcoa Premiere a/k/a Fred Astaire’s Premier Theatre aired that was titled Seven Against the Sea with Borgnine as the lead. It became the pilot for what would become McHale’s Navy.
Edward Montagne who was the producer of the new show had worked on The Phil Silvers Show. Montagne decided to turn the dramatic Seven Against the Sea into a “Bilko in the Navy” type of show. He recruited some of the actors and writers who had appeared on the prior series.
The basic plot of the show is that while these are respected, hard-working men when necessary, they have a lot of wacky schemes involving women, making money, and having fun. Captain Binghamton’s goal is to get rid of the entire bunch. The crew is said to live on an island across the bay from Taratupa, the fictional base. The geographic distance gives them extra time and more freedom to get into and out of their complicated situations.
Similar to The Phil Silvers Show, this sitcom also had a very large cast compared to most other shows.
McHale is a strong, competent leader and goes to great pains to protect his crew. He likes to wear Hawaiian type clothing when off duty. Sometimes the crew uses the PT boat to go deep-sea fishing or water skiing. When the crew has laundry, they put the clothes into a barrel with holes, add soap and drag it behind the boat. McHale speaks Japanese, Italian, and some of the local island dialects.
Ensign Charles Parker (Tim Conway) is McHale’s goofy second-in command. McHale calls him “Chuck.” Conway captured the lovable, naïve, bungler perfectly. He often refers to his home town Chagrin Falls, Ohio which was Conway’s hometown. Parker says he worked for the Chagrin Falls Gazette. Parker is too dizzy to get much respect, and his resume is full of errors and ineptitude. For example, it’s mentioned that he crashed a destroyer escort into a dock, and he called a naval airstrike on a gasoline dump. He has all the naval regulations memorized but can’t remember his serial number. From time to time, Parker is asked by the crew to impersonate President Roosevelt when calling Binghamton.
In the first episode, Parker is assigned to the crew. We learn that they have gone through several men already who could not put up with their insubordinate behavior and one of them even had a nervous breakdown. The men like Parker and treat him better than their previous ensigns.
Conway later stated that he and Ernest Borgnine had a wonderful working relationship both on and off the set. In the late 1990s, they would voice Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Captain Wallace Binghamton, who the crew calls “Old Leadbottom” because he once took a bullet in the butt, previously managed a yacht club, although at times it’s mentioned he was the editor of a yachting magazine. He is gruff and grumpy and dreams about being promoted. He spends much of his time trying to catch McHale and the boys in one of their schemes. He is blind without his glasses, so sometimes the crew knocks them off to prevent him from seeing something incriminating. One of his most-uttered lines is “Why me? Why is it always me?”
A typical interaction between Binghamton and McHale follows:
Binghamton: Commander, how would you and your men like two weeks with nothing to do but play gin rummy, go surfing, have luaus with steel drum bands, dancing girls, hmm?
McHale: Two whole weeks? Woo hoo, oh that’d be a wonderful change sir. Yes sir.
Binghamton: Knock it off McHale. That’s what you do every week.
Binghamton’s aide is Lt. Elroy Carpenter who is also inept. He talks too much and is clumsy. He often gets the brunt of Binghamton’s tirades.
McHale’s crew is composed of Quartermaster George Christopher (Gary Vinson), Radioman Willy Moss (John Wright), Torpedoman’s Mate Lester Gruber (Carl Ballantine), Motor Machinist Mate Harrison Bell (Billy Sands), Gunner’s Mate Virgil Edwards (Edson Stroll), and Seaman Joseph Haines (Gavin MacLeod). Houseboy Fuji (Yoshido Yoda) was often found cavorting with the crew. He is boyish, fun loving, and loyal to McHale. Fuji was a deserter from the Japanese Navy, but the captain knows nothing about his existence. In exchange for not living in a POW section, he acts as houseboy for the crew.
Although the crew is always chasing women and trying to throw parties that they can invite them to, McHale has several romantic relationships during the show. Nurse Molly Turner (Jane Dulo) from New Jersey is always trying to trap him in a serious relationship. Two other love interests are Kate O’Hara (Joyce Jameson) and Maggie Monohan (Jean Willes).
A lot of guest stars dropped anchor on the show including Jerry Colonna, Bernard Fox, Pat Harrington Jr., Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, George Kennedy, Don Knotts, Bernie Kopell, Sue Ane Langdon, Marlo Thomas, and Raquel Welch.
The PT-73 is almost like a character on the show. It was a 72-foot type II Vosper motor torpedo boat. The war ended before the boat (PT-694) could be sent to Russia, and it was then purchased by Howard Hughes. He loaned or sold it to Universal Pictures.
The set of the Pacific Ocean naval base was built on the back lot of Universal Studios. After the show went off the air, it became an attraction on the studio tour.
In one episode, McHale replaces Binghamton temporarily during an inspection and learns what a hard job he actually has. While that gives him some respect for the captain, they still don’t see eye to eye. Sometimes Binghamton tries to get them legitimately transferred for a scheme and other times he is not above inventing a story such as the time he tried to get them sent away by telling a psychiatrist that they are suffering from combat fatigue.
For the final season, the crew, including Fuji, is transferred to Italy to the coastal town of Voltafiore. Many plot twists come about from the crooked Mayor Lugatto and the quirky residents. The move probably came about to be able to add some additional plot lines but it was perhaps too far-fetched for viewers, and the show was cancelled.
The show had a consistent schedule for most of its run. The first season it was on Thursday night up against The Twilight Zone and Hazel. The second and remaining seasons it was on Tuesday nights against Red Skelton on CBS and a variety of shows on NBC, including the forgettable Redigo and You Don’t Say, as well as The Man from UNCLE, Hullabaloo, and Dr. Kildare.
During the run of the show, two big-screen movies were made based on the series: McHale’s Navy in 1964 and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force in 1965. Borgnine was unavailable for the second film due to a schedule conflict. The first film brought in a respectable $2,250,000 and the second netted $1,500,000.
McHale’s Navy was a popular show both in the 1960s and in syndication. It may have been one of the first shows to produce related merchandise. Trading cards, comic books, a board game, 3-ring binders, and a model of the PT-73 were some of the items available to its fans. The show was well-written and the characters were fun and quirky. Unfortunately, a show like this can only sustain so many similar plots before it begins to feel like you’re watching repeats.
The show is currently on Antenna TV Saturdays from 7-8 pm eastern time. It is also available on DVD. Take some time and enjoy getting to know McHale and his PT-73 crew.