Operation Petticoat: The Submarine Was Pink, But the Cast Was Feeling Blue

As we continue our series, “We Salute You,” today we take a closer look at a show that might not be remembered by a lot of people, but it had a memorable cast.

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The original

In 1959, Operation Petticoat hit the big screen. Directed by Blake Edwards, it starred Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. This WWII comedy centered around a US submarine, the USS Sea Tiger, that reluctantly must bring a group of female nurses aboard. The film also included Marion Ross, Dick Sargent, and Gavin MacLeod, who would go on to become part of McHale’s Navy and captain The Love Boat later in his career.

Photo: imdb.com
The original cast

Jump ahead a couple of decades and ABC airs a sitcom, Operation Petticoat, based on the movie. It would be on the air till 1979, producing 33 episodes. In the television series, John Astin takes on the Cary Grant role and Richard Gilliland has Curtis’s original role. In the new series, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tony’s daughter, played the role of Lieutenant Duran who was played by Dina Merrill in the movie.

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The original group of women

For only 33 episodes, this show went through a lot of changes. It was supposed to be a one-hour series. A two-hour pilot was filmed, and several scripts were written. After viewing them, ABC decided it would be better as a thirty-minute show. The written scripts were revised to cover two shows each.

The show had a cast of 18 members, including five nurses. In addition to the nurses being aboard, the other continuing plot line was that the submarine was barely functional. It had been sunk earlier in the war and only somewhat restored, so it was a constant struggle to keep it working. Golf clubs operated the valves, a jeep wheel was used for a part, a girdle helped pump in the engine room, and what was most embarrassing to the men was its color of bubble gum pink, the only paint available when it needed to be painted. However, all this changed after the first 23 episodes.

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When the show came back in season two, 15 of the 18 actors were gone, including the three main characters. The writers and producers from season one were also set adrift. For the second season, the entire plot line changed, making it a totally different show. Now the submarine was a lifeguard vessel helping pilots and sailors, and the nurses were part of the Navy and assigned to the ship.

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Season 2 Nurses

During the 1977-78 season it was on Saturday nights. It was up against The Bionic Woman on NBC while CBS aired three different shows during the season in that time slot, We’ve Got Each Other, The Tony Randall Show, and The Ted Knight Show. For season two, it was moved to Friday nights where it went up against Different Strokes on NBC and The Incredible Hulk on CBS.

This show aired in an era where the networks struggled a lot with new shows. It’s amazing how many shows in the mid to late seventies lasted two to five episodes. There just seemed to be constant chaos, so this show lasted much longer than most of its competition. However, in this time of television turmoil, the fact that ABC would take a show that must have been somewhat successful and turn it upside down, replacing almost the entire cast, the writers and the producers amazes me.

You would not think a show set on a submarine would have many other actors in it, but during the year or so it was on, more than 80 additional actors appeared on the show, including JoAnn Pflug and Adam West.

While John Astin had a long television career, Jamie Lee Curtis undoubtedly has had the most successful career from this cast. In a recent interview in The New Yorker, “Jamie Lee Curtis Has Never Worked Hard a Day in Her Life” by Rachel Syme (December 1, 2019), Jamie discussed her time on Operation Petticoat. She said: “The show did not do well. And I was fired, along with eleven of the thirteen actors. (sic) I was devastated. I thought my life was over. I thought my career was over. I thought I would lose my contract. And two weeks later the audition for Halloween came up . . . It’s one of those good stories for people who’ve just been let go from their job.”

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

I think it’s important to look at some of those shows in television history that haven’t become classics; in this case, however, I think I’d skip the television show and buy the DVD from the original movie if you want to learn a bit more about life aboard the Sea Tiger.

Photo: tvguide.co.uk
Operation Petticoat – 1959

In Memory of Adam West

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Adam West was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington.  He just passed away this summer on June 9. His father farmed and his mother gave up her career as an opera singer and concert pianist.  Like all kids, he had a collection of comic books including Batman. When his parents divorced, he moved to Seattle with his mother. He attended Whitman College in Washington and graduated with a BS in literature. He was drafted into the Army and became an announcer on the American Forces Network television.

After his service career, he became a milkman until he moved to Hawaii to pursue a career in television. In 1959, he took on his stage name of Adam West and moved to Hollywood with his wife and children. He quickly became an actor and appeared in 33 television shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, Tales of West Fargo, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, and Bewitched.

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In 1966, William Dozier, producer for a new show about Batman decided to cast West over Lyle Waggoner after seeing him as a James Bond-type character in a Nestle Quik commercial. DC Comics described Batman as 6’2” and that was West’s height.

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When the series ended, he and Burt Ward found themselves typecast as Batman and Robin.  He did a series of appearances about the Batman character while pursuing a movie career. He ended his career with 49 movies to his credit.

He appeared in 78 television shows after Batman ended including The Big Valley, Emergency, Alice, Police Woman, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Murphy Brown, Diagnosis Murder, News Radio, Drew Carey, King of Queens, and 30 Rock.

After 1990, he apparently embraced his Batman character and appeared on numerous television shows as himself or Batman. When asked about this, he said, “I think it evolved. I learned a long time ago that because people love Batman, I should too. I learned that I shouldn’t resent it even though it prevented me from getting other roles. I really had to become fond of Batman in order to deal with it. I embraced it.”

In 1957, he and his first wife Billie divorced.  He married  dancer Frisbie Dawson in 1957 and divorced in 1962. In 1970, he married Marcelle, and they were together until his death.  He had two children with each of his wives and two stepchildren.

In 1994, he wrote an autobiography Back to the Batcave. In 2012, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

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West loved outdoor activities and had a lot of hobbies including fishing, sailing, hiking, skiing, golfing, riding motorcycles, swimming, surfing, dancing, traveling, as well as spending time with his family, listening to classic rock, reading, and watching movies.

West died after a short battle with leukemia at age 88. The next week, LA shined the bat signal on city hall to honor him.

While West certainly had a full and varied career despite his typecasting from Batman, I would like to spend some time looking at the series that gave him his fame. Typically, I am not really into super heroes, but I loved this show when I was younger and still get a kick out of watching the campy comedy. I can still hear the narrator saying, “Same bat time, same bat channel.” The show was canceled not only because of low ratings but also because the special effects and lighting had tremendous costs.  When ABC dropped it, they tried to find another network to take it over.  They had no offers, so they dismantled the set. Two weeks later, NBC offered to pick up the show, but decided it was too expensive to start from scratch.

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In the 1960s, Ed Graham Productions received the rights to the comic strip Batman and intended to produce an adventure show similar to Superman or The Lone Ranger. ABC was thinking about a prime time show so DC Comics bought back the rights and sold them to 20th Century Fox. 20th Century gave it to William Dozier to produce.  Dozier had never read comic books and felt that the show should take a campy, pop-art approach. The show was originally an hour-long series, but with only half-hour time slots available, it was changed to a bi-weekly half-hour show.

The concept of the show was that millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson lead a double life in Gotham City.  When they move a shelf in their library and slide down the bat pole to the bat cave, they become Batman and Robin.  Only their butler Alfred is aware of their real identity. Police Commissioner Gordon calls them on the batphone, often referring to them as the dynamic duo. They usually hop in their bat mobile and speed to city hall to learn what villain is up to no good in their city.

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Adam West took the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward was Robin/Dick Grayson. Other cast members included Alan Napier as Alfred the Butler, Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, Stafford Repp as Chief O’Hara, Madge Blake as Aunt Harriet, and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.

My favorite villians included Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Cat Woman, in love with Batman but not willing to give up her criminal life; Burgess Meredith as Penguin always carrying an umbrella; Frank Gorshin as The Riddler leaving riddles for clues; Vincent Price as Egghead a bald-headed genius who loves eggs; Cesar Romero as the Joker who leaves jokes for clues; and Victor Buono as King Tut when evil and Professor William McElroy as his non-evil personality.

The show aired twice a week on back-to-back nights. The first episode would set up the situation and end with the dynamic duo in some dangerous situation. Batman and Robin would get their assignment from the Commissioner and then, using a series of clues, try to figure out who the villain is and then how to defeat them. At some point, there was always a fistfight with the villain’s entourage at which time the villain typically escaped. During the fight, words would pop up on the screen like POW, BAM, ZONK, BOOM. Then the crime fighters would go to look for them at which point the dangerous and perhaps deadly situation occurred and the next episode would summarize what happened on the previous episode before defeating the bad guys for good. They often used inventions like shark repellant bat spray to aid them in their search.

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In Season 3, Bat Girl was added to the cast. The ratings were starting to fall so Dozier wanted to bring in a girl character to attract female viewers. Her real identity was Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s daughter.  The Commissioner never seemed to realize she was familiar to him. Because of low ratings, the show also became a once a week series in the third season.  Eartha Kitt took over the Catwoman role since Newmar was filming a movie at the time. Madge Blake’s health was failing, and her role was limited to two appearances during the last season.

The show was cancelled before the next season but it has continued to be popular in reruns. In 1966, an album was released “Batman: The Exclusive Original Soundtrack Album.” It included music by Nelson Riddle, dialogue excerpts from several of the characters in the show, as well as the Batman theme song, Batusi A Go Go, and several other tunes.

A lot of collectibles were produced during the run of the show including trading cards, Batmobile kits, coloring books, lunch boxes, board games, and View-Master reels. In 2013, Mattel designed an action figure line based on the tv characters, and several Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars have been produced. The Batmobile from the show was auctioned in 2013, selling for $4.2 million.  The huge profits from the car as well as the line of action figures prove the continuing interest in and success of this show now 50 years old.

Here are some fun facts I found about the series:

A total of 352 “Holy” words were used by Robin from “Holy Agility” to “Holy Zorro”.

Cesar Romero’s Joker laugh was created almost by accident. Shortly after being cast, Romero met with producers to discuss his role on his series. While waiting to meet with them, Romero happened to see conceptual art of Joker’s costuming. Romero felt the pictures almost looked absurd, and as a result spontaneously broke out into a playfully loud and almost manic laughter. A producer overhearing it responded by telling Romero “That’s it, that’s your Joker’s laugh!”

Burgess Meredith had not smoked in 20 years when he was cast as the Penguin. He came up with the Penguin’s distinctive squawking sound because the cigarettes were irritating his throat. Like his trademark “quack”, the Penguin’s waddling was largely a result of improvisation by Burgess Meredith, as he found it difficult to stand and walk straight while wearing the rubber padded fat suit that was part of his costuming.

Before going on the air, this show received the worst audience test scores in the history of ABC. It only went on the air because so much money had already been invested in it.

This was one of the “in” shows to appear on if you were a big name in Hollywood during the 1960s, and many top names guested on the show, including many who didn’t do much TV otherwise. Those performers who weren’t cast as guest villains could frequently be seen popping their heads out of windows to exchange a few words with Batman and Robin when the latter would be climbing up a building wall. Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood, and Cary Grant were all fans of the show, and wanted to be on it, but the producers were never able to come up with the right roles for any of them. During the run of the series, this show crossed over with The Green Hornet (1966).

The “Giant Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City” is a reverse image of St. Louis, right down to Forest Park, Fairground Park, Tower Grove Park, Lafayette Park, and Horseshoe Lake on the Illinois side, as well as the other river and road networks.

Each main villain had their own theme music.

In the first season, Burt Ward (Robin) was paid $350 per week.

Yvonne Craig has stated that she briefly did have a stunt double, but did most of her stunts herself. She actually operated the Batgirl Cycle herself as well. She was an accomplished biker at the time, and actually owned a bike.

Adam West (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Burt Ward (Dick Grayson / Robin) and  Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) are the only actors to appear in all 120 episodes of the series.

Suzanne Pleshette was one of the original choices to play Catwoman before Julie Newmar landed the role.

The show aired from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968 on ABC for 120 episodes. It was one of few TV series to be seen on 2 different nights a week: 7:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays. It remained there for a season and a half (Jan. 1966-Aug. 1967) until it was moved back once a week (Thursdays 7:30) for its final season. The episodes were generally two-parters: Wednesday’s episode was a cliffhanger, resolved in Thursday’s episode. The 1966-1967 season had 2 3-parter episodes (“The Zodiac Crimes/The Joker’s Hard Times/The Penguin Declines”[ep. #2.37-9, 1/11-12 & 18/1967] and “Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend/Penguin Sets a Trend/Penguin’s Disastrous End”[ep. #2.42-4, 1/26/, 2/1 & 2/1967]) which left cliffhangers that would be solved the following week. When the series was reduced to (mostly) one part episodes during season three, the cliffhanger death traps and threats were still used, but greatly scaled back and occurring at the middle commercial break.

The three primary cast members of The Addams Family each made appearances on Batman. Carolyn Jones played the villainess Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, and John Astin played the Riddler during the second season. Additionally, Ted Cassidy had a window cameo, appearing in his part as Lurch from The Addams Family. Interestingly, Cassidy’s cameo took place in a story involving the Penguin, with whom Jones’ character Marsha teamed up in one of the three-part stories.

In episode 7, Alfred refers to Robin as Mr. Ward, and not Mr. Grayson.

While Superheroes and the movies and television shows they appear in seem to cycle up and down throughout the decades, the popularity of the Batman television show has never wavered.  The fact that Mattel would create action figures based on the original stars almost 50 years after the show debuted says a lot about the fans and the place the show holds in their hearts.

Thank you Adam West for creating such a memorable and well-loved character.  Rest in peace.

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