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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.