McHale’s Navy: Set Adrift in a Sea of Comedy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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The great Don Knotts

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Revell :: McHale’s Navy :: PT 73 Boat

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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Operation Petticoat – 1959

Paging Dr. Stone: The Career of Carl Betz

For the month of June, we are celebrating some of our favorite fathers. One of my favorite dads was Carl Betz in his role as Dr. Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show.

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Betz was born in Mary of 1921 in Pittsburgh, PA. He came from an upper middle-class family, and his father was a laboratory chemist.

While still in school, Betz started a rep theater company with several friends. They performed plays in his grandmother’s basement.

During WWII, he served in the army.  He was deployed to Italy and North Africa and left the military as a technical sergeant with the Corps of Engineers.

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When he returned to the States, he enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, majoring in drama. While going to school at Carnegie, he played football and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Texas Christian University.

His first job after graduation was a radio announcer. He moved to New York and worked as a doorman at Radio City Music Hall while auditioning for Broadway productions. He received his first part in “The Long Watch” in 1952. He then toured in “The Voice of the Turtle” with Veronica Lake.

In discussing his work as a young adult, he said, “Those were good times for the beginning actor. There were so many summer stock companies. We worked for room and board and the princely sum of $45 a week.  By eliminating haircuts, we managed to keep ourselves in shaving cream, clean shirts, and beer.”

Twentieth Century Fox offered him a contract, and he received a number of supporting roles in films. In 1953, he made an incredible six movies.

In 1952 he married Lois Harmon. They had one son and divorced in 1961.

His first job on television was a soap opera, Love of Life. Throughout the fifties and sixties, he performed in a variety of plays, including “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Zoo Story.”

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On Perry Mason

In the mid-1950s, he began appearing on television shows, and shows up in reruns on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Mike Hammer.

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In 1958, Carl was offered the role of Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show, and he was with the show until it ended in 1965. The heart-warming show centered around Donna and Alex Stone, a pediatrician, and their two children, Jeff (Pete Petersen) and Mary (Shelly Fabares). Betz continued his stage career in his off time with the show.

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Both Carl and Donna were protective of their television children. In an interview in 2011 when Petersen was 66, he discussed his second set of parents. “They made a commitment to Shelley and me as surrogate parents to be on our side and be with us for the long haul. They kept that commitment up to their deaths.”

As Alex, Betz was the voice of reason. When anyone got too worried, he gave advice and put things in perspective. He had a fun side to him and could always see the humor in situations. He was a caring doctor and had fun in life, realizing death and illness were always lurking around the corner. He often made fun of Donna and the kids but in a loving way, not cruel. His comments typically illustrated that things were not as dower as they appeared. But when there was an emergency or a serious situation, he was calm and collected and took charge.

Carl continued to take roles during breaks in taping for The Donna Reed Show. In 1964, Betz received amazing reviews for his performance as the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in “The Night of the Iguana.”

During his time on the show, he ironically married Gloria Stone, and they would remain married until his death in 1978.

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With co-star Stephen Young

In 1967, he starred in Judd for the Defense where he played an attorney. Clifton Judd, a lawyer based in Texas, would travel across the country to defend a client. Many cases involved labor unions, draft evasions, civil rights, and murder. The series featured a number of guest stars, including Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Norman Fell, Beverly Garland, Ron Howard, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Ruta Lee, Gavin MacLeod, Vera Miles, Tom Selleck, and Dennis Weaver. The critics gave the show great reviews, but the ratings were always a struggle. In 1969, ABC cancelled the series and that same year, Betz won the Emmy for Outstanding Performer by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.

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Once the series was cancelled, Betz continued in plays and also picked up several television appearances on a variety of shows, such as Love American Style, Medical Center, McCloud, The Mod Squad, Ironside, The FBI, Mission Impossible, Barnaby Jones, and Quincy ME. Since he handled comedy so well on The Donna Reed Show, I was surprised to learn that most of his career was spent on drama or crime shows.

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On Love American Style with Harrison Ford

In 1977, Betz was diagnosed with lung cancer. He kept the illness a secret until November when he was hospitalized. He died in January of 1978, 56 years young. Ironically, thinking about celebrating fathers, my dad also died at age 56.

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From all accounts, Carl Betz wanted to be an actor from a very young age. Fortunately, he was able to spend most of his life in the entertainment business.  Unfortunately, his life ended much too early, and his career was cut short. Any time someone can spend their life pursuing their passion, it’s a life well spent. Happy Father’s Day to one of our favorite dads.