McHale's Navy Premieres on ABC Network, Runs Four Seasons and 138 Episodes

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McHale's Navy Premieres on ABC Network, Runs Four Seasons and 138 Episodes

Cast of "McHale's Navy" as depicted on the cover of the Season 4 DVD
(Unless otherwise specified, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in (TV) Military History: October 11, 1962

Some of my loyal readers may know that, in addition to my fascination with military history, I am also a fan of television. In the early 1960's, there were a number of TV series devoted to war, especially the Second World War, as that conflict had ended less than 25 years previously. Some of those shows depicted war with seriousness ("Combat!" comes to mind), while others played the situation for laughs ("Hogan's Heroes"). In the latter category, we have the subject of today's post: McHale's Navy.

In The Beginning; "Seven Against the Sea"

Publicity photo for ABC drama 'Seven Against the Sea,' broadcast April 3, 1962; Lt. Durham (Ron Foster, on left) and Lt. Cmdr. McHale (Ernest Borgnine)
Publicity photo for ABC drama "Seven Against the Sea," broadcast April 3, 1962
Lt. Durham (Ron Foster, on left) and Lt. Cmdr. McHale (Ernest Borgnine)

On April 3, 1962, the ABC anthology series Alcoa Presents broadcast a one-hour show called "Seven Against the Sea." It was set during World War II on the fictional South Pacific Island of Taratupa, the former site of an American naval base. This base was destroyed by the Japanese and the surviving American sailors went into hiding. Their leader was Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale – portrayed by Academy Award-winning actor Ernest Borgnine – who was reluctant to endanger the lives of the remaining men. They have a still making moonshine, a laundry service for themselves and the natives of Taratupa, and have generally "gone native."

A newly minted Annapolis graduate, Lt. Durham (Ron Foster) arrives on the island, determined to get McHale to run things "by the book." After the two men butt heads, they receive word that a U.S. Marine battalion is trapped on a nearby beach, and a Japanese cruiser will arrive the next day to bombard their positions. McHale and his men capture a Japanese patrol torpedo (PT) boat, sail it close to the Japanese cruiser, and sink it.

The episode received respectable ratings, which convinced ABC to order a series based on the episode. It was, however, decided to put a comedic spin on the show, which resulted five months later in the premiere of McHale's Navy. [According to Borgnine, the show was intended as a vehicle for Ron Foster, who was looking for a contract with Universal Pictures, but things did not quite work out that way.]

McHale's Navy (1962-1966)

When McHN premiered on ABC in October of 1962, the format of the show was very similar to the concept of "Seven Against the Sea". Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale was the happy-go-lucky officer in charge of a crew of sailors that were less than eager to engage the enemy. The crew included:

Ensign Parker (Tim Conway) learning to 'fit in' with the PT-73 crew, premier episode of McHN
Ensign Parker (Tim Conway) learning to "fit in"
with the PT-73 crew, premier episode of McHN

Ensign Chuck Parker (portrayed by Tim Conway), a newly-minted officer seeking to instill a sense of discipline in the crew of PT-73, but without any real weight to back up his authority. He was also something of a klutz. Conway went on to fame as a regular on the Carol Burnett Show, as well as a number of live-action Disney comedy moves, including The Apple Dumpling Gang.

Publicity photo of Carl Ballentine (1917-2009) As PT-73 crewman Lester Gruber
Publicity photo of Carl Ballentine (1917-2009)
As PT-73 crewman Lester Gruber

Torpedoman's Mate Lester Gruber (Carl Ballentine), a Brooklyn-born fellow always formulating one get-rich-quick scheme after another; Ballentine was a comedian and magician in real life.

Quartermaster George "Christy" Christopher (Gary Vinson), who becomes a devoted family man; Vinson acted in a number of TV series, including The Roaring 20's, The Virginia, Barnaby Jones and others.

Motor Machinist's Mate Harrison "Tinker" Bell (Billy Sands); Sands had been a regular on The Phil Silvers Show in the mid-1950s.

Edson Stroll (1929-2011) & Carol Heiss, publicity still; For film
Edson Stroll (1929-2011) & Carol Heiss, publicity still
For film "Snow White and the Three Stooges" (1961)

Gunner's Mate Virgil Edwards (Edson Stroll), the handsome lover-boy of the crew; Stroll had done a number TV and film appearances. These included two episodes of The Twilight Zone ("Eye of the Beholder" and "The Trade-Ins"), as well as two films with the Three Stooges.

Radioman Willie Moss (John Wright), a good-ol' Southern boy who runs the unit's moonshine still; Wright is son of the late country and western star Kitty Wells, and recorded c&w himself for a number of years.

Torpedoman's Mate Joseph "Happy" Haines (Gavin McLeod); McLeod left McHN after two seasons to appear in the movie The Sand Pebbles. He later went on to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Love Boat.

Seaman 3rd Class/POW Fuji Kobiaji (Yoshio Yoda), a former Imperial Japanese seaman who surrendered to McHale's men, who did not have the heart to turn him in, so they adopted him as a member of the crew.

Joe Flynn (1924-1974) as Capt. Binghamton
Joe Flynn (1924-1974) as Capt. Binghamton

Any good TV sitcom needs a foil, and the nemisis of the crew of the PT-73 was Captain Wallace "Old Leadbottom" Binghamton, played by Joe Flynn. Capt. Binghamton was constantly trying to get McHale and his "band of pirates/cutthroats" kicked out of the Navy. He was assisted by his aide, Lt. Leroy Carpenter, portrayed by Bob Hastings. Flynn was badly typecast for his Binghamton role, while Hastings plays a variety of on-screen and voice-acting roles to this day.

The first three seasons of McHN fought a largely losing battle against CBS-TV's Tuesday night powerhouse, The Red Skelton Show. In an attempt to shake things up for the fourth season, the entire PT-73 crew was shipped to Italy, where Capt. Binghampton had been appointed military governor of the town of Voltafiore. [I remember reading somewhere that another reason given was the South Seas set used for McHN was going to be torn down…] This major change of venue simply delayed the inevitable, and McHN was cancelled in 1966.

PT-73, Real and Imagined

There was a real PT-73 which participated in the Second World War. It was a 78-foot Higgins boat assigned to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 13, which saw service in the Aleutians and in the Southwest Pacific theater. On January 15, 1945 it ran aground in the Philippines, and was destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

The vessel used for shots of the PT-73 under way was a 72-foot type II Vosper Motor Torpedo Boat, a British design built under license in the U.S. for export to Russia. The war ended in August 1945 before the boat, the real number of which was PT-694, could be sent to the Soviet Union. The boat was then purchased by Howard Hughes and used as a chase boat for the one and only flight of his Spruce Goose aircraft. The boat was then sold to Universal Studios – as there were few other real PT boats left in existence at the time – and some liberties were taken in reconfiguring it to look like a PT boat.

Backlot photo from Universal Studios, as the former PT-73 was being used for an episode of the NBC series Emergency! (1972-1979)
Backlot photo from Universal Studios, as the former PT-73 was being used
for an episode of the NBC series Emergency! (1972-1979)

Vosper PT's did not have machine gun turrets on either side of the pilot house (though ironically the real PT-73, a Higgins design, did) as the PT-73 in the show did. Other irregularities are the main mast aft and a small mast right in front of the cockpit. Shots of the crew aboard the PT-73 were filmed on a full-scale mock-up in a soundstage. "PT-73" was later sold to the mayor of Hawthorne, California, and was converted to a sport fishing boat. It was later destroyed when it broke loose of its mooring near Santa Barbara and washed up on the beach during a storm.

Footnote #1: The TV series spawned two big-screen films: McHale's Navy (1964) and McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force (1965). Neither film did very well at the box office; at least I could not find any financial information about either film on the Internet Movie Data Base ( ).

Footnote #2: In fact, the film McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force did not even have Ernest Borgnine in the move. In a later interview, Borgnine said the studio kept the script away from him, apparently in an attempt not to pay him major-league bucks and keep the movie budget low. The more likely explanation is that Borgnine had a schedule conflict, as he was still involved in the shooting of the movie The Flight of the Phoenix.

Footnote #3: There was also a 1997 re-make/re-imagining of the series – astonishingly named McHale's Navy – starring Tom Arnold in the lead role. [Ernest Borgnine made a cameo in this movie as the elder Admiral McHale.] This remake made only $4.5 million at the box office and garnered a Golden Raspberry (Razzie) nomination for "Worst Prequel, Re-Make, Rip-off, or Sequel," losing even that to Speed 2.

Footnote #4: Although Ron Foster was not included in the cast of the McHN TV series, he had a very successful TV career. From 1991-1995 he appeared in a regular role on the former CBS soap opera The Guiding Light. Foster also appeared in a fifth-season episode of The Twilight Zone in 1963, entitled, "The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms" (see photo below). He appeared in a number of TV westerns, including Bat Masterson, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Tales of Wells Fargo, and The Virginian. Later in his career, Foster lent his voice to video games, including Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. As of this writing, Mr. Foster is still alive and kicking at age 82.

Scene from 1963 Twilight Zone episode, 'The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms'; From left: Randy Boone, Ron Foster, and Warren Oates
Scene from 1963 Twilight Zone episode, "The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms"
From left: Randy Boone, Ron Foster, and Warren Oates

Footnote #5: In the late 1980's, Universal Studios decided to colorize all the episodes of the show, hoping to increase the show's chances of making the studio more money in syndication. [Remember, if you will, that McHN was made in the era when moderately-priced color TV's were just becoming plentiful.] Despite the fact that NBC made the first coast-to-coast color telecast with the Tournament of Roses parade on January 1, 1954, most TV's still only received black and white programs until color TV's became more prevalent in the late 1960s.

Footnote #6: The McHN sets were not torn down after Season #3, but were in fact left as tourist attractions. The Universal City studio tour featured the set, with the addition of "Bruce" the killer shark from the "Jaws" franchise.

Footnote #7: This post is dedicated to the memory of Ermes Effron Borgnino, aka Ernest Borgnine, who passed away on July 8 of this year at the age of 95. He was a U.S. Navy veteran, serving first from 1935 to 1941, was discharged, then re-enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attack, serving on board the destroyer USS Lamberton (DD-119) (DMS-2). His military decorations included the Navy Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

Rest in Peace, Skipper…

Publicity photo of Borgnine as Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale, 1962
Publicity photo of Borgnine as Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale, 1962

Ernest Borgnine at the TCM Classic Film Festival, Los Angeles, CA in April 2010
Ernest Borgnine at the TCM Classic Film Festival,
Los Angeles, CA in April 2010

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