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.

Valerie Bertinelli: Taking Her Career One Day at a Time

As we wind up the “Valerie”-themed blogs, of course we have to include Valerie Bertinelli.

I’m guessing Valerie Bertinelli might have chosen a different career than acting if her family moves had been to other US cities. She was born in Delaware where her father was an executive with General Motors. Apparently, sometime during her childhood, the family (she has three brothers) lived in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Michigan though I could not find definite dates. Barbara ended up in California during high school. When she lived in California, one of her friend’s dad was a television producer.

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She transferred to the Tami Lynn School of Artists to study acting, and Tami Lynn became her personal manager during the 1970s. Unlike child stars who appear on various shows before getting their big chance, Valerie appeared in one episode of Apple’s Way in 1974 and then was offered the role of Barbara Cooper on One Day at a Time which ran from 1975-1984. During the show’s run, she showed up in the Nancy Drew Mysteries show, one movie, and five made-for-television movies.

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One Day at a Time was one of Norman Lear’s string of 1970s hits. Bonnie Franklin starred as a divorced mother trying to raise two daughters, Barbara and Julie (Mackenzie Phillips). Schneider (Pat Harrington Jr.) was the maintenance man who became part of their “family.” Valerie was fifteen when the show began. She quickly became one of America’s sweethearts. Although it was a comedy, the show covered some darker subjects. It cast dealt with a lot of drama due to Mackenzie’s drug addiction and personal problems.

LOS ANGELES – MAY 3: ONE DAY AT A TIME cast members, (clockwise from top) Mackenzie Phillips (as Julie Cooper); Valerie Bertinelli (as Barbara Cooper) and Bonnie Franklin (as Ann Romano). (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

In 1981 Valerie took her brother to a Van Halen concert and met Eddie Van Halen. They dated but got married sooner than most people expected. The marriage had a lot of ups and downs; the couple had a son, but by 2001 they separated and divorced in 2007.

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When One Day at a Time ended (it was not cancelled by the network, but Bertinelli and Franklin were ready to move on in their careers), Bertinelli again took on one movie role and quite a few television movies.

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Valerie turned down several offers because of nudity. She was in the running as Ariel in Footloose and as Chloe in The Big Chill. With no major movie offers, Bertinelli returned to television to star in Sydney in 1990. Matthew Perry costarred in this show as Sydney’s brother, a rookie cop. Sydney moves to New York and opens a detective agency. The show only lasted a season.

Valerie Bertinelli and Matthew Perry (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

In 1993, she again gave television a try, starring in Café Americain. On this show, Valerie is Holly Aldrige, a young American living in France. She gets a job as a waitress at a café where she meets a quirky group of people who become friends, despite her inability to speak French. Unfortunately, this one also lasted one season.

In 2001, Valerie joined the cast of Touched by an Angel for the show’s final two seasons, playing Gloria.

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From 2010-2015 she was one of the stars in what might be her favorite role, Melanie Moretti on Hot in Cleveland. Three friends (Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, and Wendie Malick) are heading for Paris when their plane is forced to make an emergency landing in Cleveland. The three pals decide to stay in the city because they think they will be more popular with men in Cleveland than Paris. Their new landlord is Betty White.

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I reference this as perhaps her favorite role because it didn’t have any of the drama of One Day at a Time, and she seemed to truly enjoy her time on the show and her castmates. She said her favorite time of day was sharing coffee with her costars on the show. In a Yahoo Entertainment interview, she said “I mean, if Hot in Cleveland came back, I would be there yesterday. I miss that show so much.”

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Bertinelli has also discussed working with legend Betty White: “I mean we all know Betty’s funny, obviously, but there was such an ease to it. I know people think I’m crazy when I say this, but she literally glowed. She’s not of this world. She’s just got this beautiful glow aura about her, just because she’s such a kind, sweet soul. And I just adore her.”

HOT IN CLEVELAND co-stars, from left, Jane Leeves, Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli and Wendie Malick pose for a portrait on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Bertinelli also loved the rapport shared by the stars that shined through their performances. As she described them: “You can see how these characters love each other no matter what, no matter how stupid they get. I think it’s just the way we feel about each other, and plus, the writers happen to write some really, really funny shows. I mean, the writers on this were just beyond funny.” The cast still keeps in touch regularly.

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During the run of the show, Valerie married Tom Vitale whom she had been involved with for seven years.

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Since the end of Hot in Cleveland, Valerie has found a new career as a cooking star. She has hosted Valerie’s Home Cooking, Kids Baking Championship, Family Food Showdown, and Family Restaurant Rivals on the Food Network. Valerie won two Emmys for her Valerie’s Home Cooking show.

Valerie has a couple of famous relatives. Courteney Cox is a cousin, and when Bertinelli appeared on the show, Who Do You Think You Are? about genealogy, she learned she was related to Kind Edward I of England through her mother.

Valerie recently reflected on the reboot of One Day at a Time which features a Cuban family. Although most of the recent reboots have been flops, this show seems to be holding its own. Bertinelli discussed it: “It’s an amazing show. The women that are doing it are really so talented, and it’s got a lot to say . . . they’re doing a great job of staying topical . . . and shining a light on things that we need to look at. And keeping it funny at the same time.”

Perhaps we’ve learned more about Valerie through her cooking show than her acting. What do we know? The first dish she learned to make was lasagna. Her favorite cookbooks are by Ina Garten because “when you follow her directions, it really comes out perfectly.”

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Coconut creamer is her must-have item, but she admits that she is a condiment horder especially with mustard, having about fifteen in her fridge. She loves lemon desserts, prefers savory over sweet, and likes to cook to music.

Her favorite food cities are Los Angeles and New Orleans. She credits her mother and grandmother with teaching her to cook. If she held a dinner party and could invite anyone, dead or alive, she would include Jesus, Pope Francis, Barak Obama, and Marilyn Monroe.

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Valerie’s personal life has been filled with a lot of highs and lows, like the rest of us, but she seems to have settled into a place where she is happy and productive and just enjoying what she is doing. You can’t ask for more than that.

Tonight’s Partridge Family Episode Features . . .

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The Partridge Family (ABC) later seasons (1971 – 1974) Shown from left: (top) Brian Forster, Danny Bonaduce, Suzanne Crough; (front) David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, Susan Dey

Ask any girl who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies and they will tell you their favorite night of television was Friday.  We looked forward to watching The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, Room 222, The Odd Couple, and Love American Style, but the first hour of the night was the only “can’t miss” one. Boys coming of age in that era might have a tough time deciding between Samantha Stevens and Jeannie, but almost every girl will tell you Keith Partridge beat out Greg Brady hands down. Like most nine-year-olds in 1970, I had a huge crush on Keith Partridge. Watching the episodes today takes me right back to that time, and I feel like a kid on Friday night again.

The Partridge Family aired from 1970-1974, and the concept was based on the Cowsills.  The Cowsill family grew up in Rhode Island, and by 1967 the band consisted of siblings ages 8-19 and their mother. Although the group no longer includes all the siblings, they still tour and record.

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I still enjoy watching the episodes today.  Even though the show is filled with nostalgia as far as clothing and interior décor, the problems faced by the Partridge Family were primarily the same problems faced by all families with kids and many of the shows have a timeless appeal. I’m not sure that anyone not growing up during that time period realizes the impact of the Partridge Family.  I still have the Partridge Family game, we had trading cards that were collected and the back of the cards put together formed a puzzle.  I had paperback books featuring the Partridge Family and lots of kids had albums, lunch boxes and other collectible memorabilia. Danny is often referred to as a brat, but I like the character of Danny Partridge.  Then again, I liked all the Partridge Family members.

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However, what I wanted to talk about in this blog is the unbelievable guest stars that the show was able to attract.  Of course, Shirley Jones was a well-liked and famous movie star and she had a lot of connections in the industry.  However, the names of the people who appeared on an episode of The Partridge Family during those four short years is incredible. I counted more than 50 looking at various shows over the years.  Let’s look at some of those guest stars.

Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, and Margaret Hamilton, the wicked witch, from the Wizard of Oz both made appearances.  Ray Bolger played Shirley Partridge’s father on several shows. Margaret Hamilton is Rueben’s mother.

Two Dick Van Dyke Show cast members were featured:  Morey Amsterdam, Buddy Sorrel and Ann Morgan Guilbert, Milly Helper. Amsterdam provided Danny with some bad comedy material in the first season. Guilbert is married to Norman Fell in the show and they visit Shirley when their son Keith’s age develops a crush on Shirley which he mistakenly thinks is reciprocated.

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In addition to Ann and Morey, there were a lot of previous sitcom stars on the show.  John Astin from the Addams Family, plays an eccentric millionaire. Edgar Buchanan, Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction, plays a judge which he also portrayed in the movie, Move Over Darling, starring Doris Day and James Garner. Rosemary DeCamp played Shirley’s mother.  Rosemary had been featured on lots of tv shows.  She was on Love That Bob and was Ann Marie’s mother on That Girl. Arte Johnson from Laugh-In was in two episodes, one as an artist who paints a nude on the family garage when they are out of town.  Harry Morgan, a sitcom veteran, played, a man faking whiplash in the first season and appeared again in 1972 as another character. William Schallert who was Patty Lane’s father on The Patty Duke Show stars as a folk musician whose career has taken a nose dive. Ronne Troup who played Polly on My Three Sons was on the show as the fourth season began as their neighbor complains about their music.

Not only were the past tv stars featured but a lot of up and coming stars showed up. Meredith Baxter gifts a million dollars to the Partridges and they find they don’t enjoy being wealthy. Bert Convy played one of Shirley’s serious boyfriends on three shows. Norman Fell is the father of a young man who gets a crush on Shirley when she goes back to school using her maiden name. He later married Helen and was Stanley Roper on Three’s Company. Pat Harrington Jr. appeared the first season and came back as someone else three years later. While he was in hundreds of tv episodes, he is probably most often recognized as Schneider from One Day at a Time.  The Partridges try to set up Ann Jillian with their delivery boy to build up his confidence.  If she had dated him, she might not have ended up a waitress on It’s a Living. Gordon Jump who was a veteran tv guest star, best known as Arthur Carlson from WKRP in Cincinnati, was on seven episodes as different characters. Richard Mulligan appeared in one show as Shirley’s boyfriend but also came back for another episode two years later; we know him as Burt on Soap and Dr. Westin on Empty Nest. Annette O’Toole plays Keith’s girlfriend in the second season; later her marriage with Nash doesn’t work out on Nash Bridges. Rob Reiner, who will soon be “Meathead” on All in The Family, appears as Snake, a rough biker with a heart of gold who likes Laurie.  Vic Tayback who we know best as Mel on Alice appeared as three different characters on three different shows, Nancy Walker is the mother of Shirley’s date before she was Rhoda’s mom in later years.

Three of the five Charlie’s Angels showed up on different shows:  Farrah Fawcett was a “pretty girl” the kids hire to try to get Harry Morgan to reveal that his whiplash is not real. Cheryl Ladd is the popular girl Keith wants to take to the dance after promising to take Laurie’s friend. Jaclyn Smith plays the niece of Shirley’s boyfriend.  When he buys her a ring for graduation, the kids assume she is his fiancé and take matters into their own hands.

We had big stars from different genres including Johnny Cash playing himself and introducing the first concert the family is performing in Vegas. Richard Pryor talks the Partridges into playing for his charity event, and Bobby Sherman plays a singer, Bobby Conway. This episode actually turned into a spinoff for a short time.

Many famous or soon-to-be-famous movie stars can be spied on episodes including Jackie Coogan who replaced Ray Bolger as Shirley’s father on two later shows. Jodie Foster and Danny have a love/hate relationship when their parents are dating. Lou Gosset Jr., producing a charity event with Richard Pryor, asks the Partridges to fill in when a group cancels. Mark Hamill is Laurie’s boyfriend before he even knew Princess Leia. Charlotte Rae, a bit out of her typical character, plays a doctor.

I could continue, but every blog has to end sometime. It is amazing how many famous people were willing to appear in a new sitcom not only once but up to seven times as seven different characters. It says a lot about the reputation of the show. Let’s finish up with some fun facts about the show.

  1. Shirley Jones was recruited to be Carol Brady but passed and took The Partridge Family
  2. Partridge had passed away in the first episode, but his first name is never mentioned on the show.
  3. Rueben Kincaid’s middle name is Clarence.
  4. When the Partridges are asked to replace another musical act for a charity event put on by Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett Jr., the group that cancelled is the Temptations.
  5. When Laurie gets braces, she can hear radio signals in her mouth, and it interferes with her performing. The music she “hears” in her mouth is The Rolling Stones.