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

Joe and Valerie: A Symptom of that Weird ‘70s Ailment, Night Fever

Continuing our series about “Valerie,” today we look at a slice of American life from the 1970s. It’s hard to emphasize how much the movie Saturday Night Fever changed American culture. In the movie, a high school graduate played by John Travolta, escapes his hard life by dancing at the local disco. The hippie culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s was shoved aside by the bold and brash disco era. It was hard to go anywhere without the background soundtrack of the movie being heard. Extravagant clothing and three-piece suits were back in style, along with platform shoes and blingy jewelry.

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Saturday Night Fever, the movie that started it all

A year after the movie debuted, a new show called Joe and Valerie appeared in April of 1978. Joe (Paul Regina) works at his father’s plumbing store. He meets Valerie (Char Fontane) at the disco and they get romantically involved. However, Joe’s roommates, Paulie (David Elliott), a hearse driver, and Frankie (Bill Beyers/Lloyd Alan), a spa worker and chauvinist, have their opinions on the romance as does Valerie’s divorced mother Stella (Arlene Golonka). Rounding out the cast were Robert Costanzo as Joe’s father Vincent and Rita/Thelma (Donna Ponterotto), Valerie’s best friend.

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The series was produced by Bob Hope’s production company, Hope Enterprises, and his daughter Linda served as executive producer. Bill Persky, who had been one of the forces behind That Girl, directed the first episode.

The writers for the show included Howard Albrecht, Hal Dresner, Bernie Kahn, and Sol Weinstein. Kahn and Dresner also served as producer for an episode each. Art direction was credited to Bruce Ryan and shop coordinator to Edwin McCormick.

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The chic couple: Makes a person wonder doesn’t it

The series was divided into two parts; in 1978 the episodes show Joe and Valerie meeting, falling in love and planning their future. Jumping to January 1979, the episodes center around the couple beginning their married life. Four half-hour episodes aired in April and May of 1978. Four half-hour episodes were set to air in January, but only three did; the final episode never was played on the air.

Episode 1, “The Meeting” aired April 24, 1978. Joe and Valerie meet at the disco and fall in love when Joe bets his roommates that he can take Valerie away from her dancing partner.

Episode 2, “The Perfect Night” aired May 1, 1978. Valerie arranges dates for Frank and Paulie. She sets up Frank with her best friend Thelma and the date is a disaster. The woman she set Paulie up with ended up getting married the night before, so Valerie is frantically looking for a substitute. Albrecht and Weinstein were credited as writers.

Episode 3, “Valerie’s Wild Oat” aired May 3, 1978. Joe and Valerie’s romance hits a potential roadblock when Valerie finds out that her new boss at the store is her ex-boyfriend Ernie (Marcus Smythe).

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The Village People, a big part in the disco fad

Episode 4, “The Commitment” aired May 10, 1978. When Valerie’s mother is unexpectedly called away for the weekend, Joe and Valerie face the prospect of spending their first night together. Joe loves Valerie too much to stay but worries how his roommates will react if he doesn’t.

Episode 5, “The Engagement” aired January 5, 1979. Joe and Valerie break the news to their parents that they are going to live together and looking for a place to live through a rental service which adds to the confusion.

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Disco fashion

Episode 6, “The Wedding Guest” aired January 12, 1979. Joe and Valerie learn that  a gangster’s funeral has been scheduled at the same time as their wedding at the church.

Episode 7, “The Wedding” aired January 19, 1979. The newly married couple look back at the events that occurred around their wedding. Some of the problems included Vince wanting Valerie to wear his wife’s old-fashioned wedding dress, Frank and Paulie fighting over who is best man, and Valerie’s mother threatening to stay away from the wedding if her ex-husband comes.

The final episode, “Paulie’s First Love,” was never aired.

This was a bad year for series’ debuts. A number of shows flopped during this year including Hizzoner, Sweepstakes, and Supertrain, none of them making it to more than nine episodes.

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Char Fontane

Char Fontane (also listed as Fontaine occasionally) was born in California in 1952. She passed away from breast cancer in 2007. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, she appeared on a variety of tv series in the 1970s and a couple after: Love American Style (1972), The FBI (1973), Barnaby Jones (1979), Supertrain (1979), Sweepstakes (1979), The Love Boat (1979), and Nero Wolfe (1981). In the mid-1980s she took a role in a made-for-tv movie, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and two movie roles: Too Much (1987) and The Punisher (1989). She was not credited with any roles after the 1989 movie.

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Char Fontane in The Night the Bridge Fell Down

Paul Regina was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and passed away from liver cancer in 2006.

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Before his role on Joe and Valerie, he had parts in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour and Police Woman both in 1978. After the show ended, his career stayed fairly busy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he could be seen on many popular television shows including Benson, Gimme a Break, TJ Hooker, Hunter, and Empty Nest. He would be cast in three series: Zorro and Son in 1983, Brothers from 1984-89, and The Untouchables in 1993-94. He also had a recurring role as a lawyer on LA Law between 1988-1992.

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Post 2000 before his death he was in Law and Order several times as well as two movies, The Blue Lizard and Eddie Monroe.

David Elliott had a successful career going when he received the role of Paulie. He began with several roles on tv including a mini-series, Pearl, that Char Fontane was also in. From 1972-1977, he had a role in The Doctors in 272 episodes. Before beginning Joe and Valerie, he had a role on Angie in 1979.

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After the show ended, he continued showing up in television series including TJ Hooker, St. Elsewhere, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote. He ended his credited acting career with seven movies in the 1990s.

He is an interesting guy. After dropping out of high school, he drove a cab in New York. He was a professional boxer, ran a PI business in Hollywood, received his pilot’s license, sat on the board of a major labor union, and traveled extensively through every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Recently he earned a certificate in both long and short fiction from the UCLA Writer’s program and has written a novel, The Star Shield, about a body guard trying to rescue a kidnapped movie star. Currently he is working on a collection of short stories.

The role of Frankie was played by two different actors, Bill Beyers in 1978 and Lloyd Alan in 1979.

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Bill Beyers

Bill Beyers was born in New York in 1955 and died in 1992 in Los Angeles. His first role was that of Frankie on Joe and Valerie. Following the end of that show he was cast in several series including Barnaby Jones, Quincy ME, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Too Close for Comfort, and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role on Capitol, appearing in 24 episodes from 1982-1987.

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Lloyd Alan was in 1952. He might have had the shortest career of the cast. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, he was in an episode of Eight is Enough. After he appeared in The Love Boat, Knight Rider, and Baywatch. His last credited acting job was 1998. I was unable to locate a photo of Lloyd Alan.

The actors with the longest careers were Robert Costanzo who played Joe’s father Vince; Arlene Golonka who was Stella, Valerie’s mother; and Donna Ponterotto who played Rita/Thelma, Valerie’s best friend.

Donna Ponterotto had a successful career following the cancellation of Joe and Valerie. She came to the show having appeared on The Police Story, Happy Days, and Rhoda.

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Following the show, she appeared on Trapper John MD, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, Night Court, Murphy Brown, ER, Mad About You, Third Rock from the Sun, and NYPD Blue among others. Her last film was Sharkskin in 2015.

Arlene Golonka grew up in Chicago where she was born in 1936. She began taking acting classes when she was quite young. At age 19, she headed for New York and began a career on Broadway. In the 1960s she relocated to Los Angeles. She continued to appear in movies and appeared in dozens of television programs during the next three decades. While she is probably best known as Millie on Mayberry R.F.D., she has appeared in many respected series.

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Golonka came into Joe and Valerie with a strong resume. She had made appearances in shows such as The Naked City, Car 54 Where Are You, The Flying Nun, Big Valley, Get Smart, I Spy, That Girl, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barnaby Jones, Alice, The Rockford Files, and Love American Style. She made five appearances on The Doctors with David Elliott.

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After Joe and Valerie, she continued to receive many roles including on Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Simon and Simon, Benson, and Murder She Wrote. Her last appearance was on The King of Queens in 2005, and she is now retired.

Robert Costanzo was born in New York in 1942. He also came into the show with a very strong string of shows, having been in Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and Lou Grant. He also was in several profitable movies including Dog Day Afternoon, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever.

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Following the end of Joe and Valerie, he would continue his successful career. Costanzo has been cast in recurring roles in ten shows: Last Resort, Checking In, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, 1st Ten, Glory Days, NYPD Blue, Charlie and Grace, and Champions. He has continued to take roles on other series including Barney Miller, Alice, Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, Friends, and Murder She Wrote.

His movie career has also been very successful, and he is remembered for his roles in Used Cars, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, and Air Bud.

Currently Costanzo is still acting and has several movies debuting in the next couple of years.

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I have to admit I do not remember Joe and Valerie, and obviously I did not watch it, but I don’t think I missed much. It’s fun to learn about some of the more obscure shows that had a brief flicker in television history. There are many more shows that lasted for less than 20 episodes than there are the classics we remember today. If nothing else, the show captures a unique time in American history.