Last month, I was in San Francisco on an errand, getting a favor from blog buddy Mike Strickland of Civic Center, and after we took care of the errand we went to a nice little restaurant for lunch. We were talking about this and that, and I brought up that I was going watch some early episodes of Kojak just to see how they held up. Mike recommended that if I wanted to watch an old TV series, I should try the first season of Combat! I was a little surprised at the recommendation, but in the first season, nearly one third of the episodes were directed by Robert Altman, so I put the discs on my Netflix list and soon enough they began arriving in the mail.
Combat! is not a well-remembered show for many. Some people my age or even older do not recall it, and because it was only sporadically shown in re-runs, friends younger than I am aren't even aware of its existence. It aired on ABC in the early 1960's, when that was the third most important network out of three. The show lasted five seasons and had 156 episodes.
The person most connected to the show in people's minds is Vic Morrow, who played Sgt. Saunders. Morrow's first screen role was in The Blackboard Jungle, the 1950's movie about juvenile delinquents. After that, he did a lot of movie and TV work, and Combat! was his next big break.
Not to be cruel to the rest of the cast, but Morrow really does stand out. As Robert Altman put it, "Vic gave great exhaust." His character's main two emotions were haunted and dead tired. Of all the rest of the cast, the only guy for me who is really believable as a front line infantryman is Dick Peabody as Pvt. Littlejohn.
Sadly, Vic Morrow is best remembered today for dying on the set of The Twilight Zone Movie, killed in a scene when a helicopter crashed. Another piece of trivia I didn't know about Morrow until doing the research for this post is that he is the father of Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Rick Jason was the other star of the show, playing Lt. Hanley. In an unusual move, the credits each week were different. Sometimes it said "Starring Rick Jason and Vic Morrow" and other times it was "Starring Vic Morrow and Rick Jason". While Morrow was by no means ugly, Rick Jason was the kind of tall, dark and handsome actor who often gets stuck in soap operas. There are shows where Lt. Hanley gets a special assignment away from the rest of the cast, and not all these special assignments are particularly believable. Jason did as well as he could with the material, but in general, the episodes that focus on Hanley aren't as good as the ones that focus on Saunders.
For a trivia buff like me, a lot of the fun is in the guest stars and bit players that show up, people you know from movies and other TV shows. In the first season, there were single episode appearances by Keenan Wynn and Tab Hunter, while there were uncredited actors who actually got lines like Walter Koenig and Tom Skerritt. Altman hired his buddy Ted Knight to play German soldiers in several episodes because Knight actually spoke some German.
The biggest surprise for me was that in the first season, comedian Shecky Greene was a semi-regular, playing the goldbrick Braddock. The episode that guest starred Wynn and featured Koenig and Skerritt was actually a showcase for Shecky Greene.
Altman was fired at the end of the first season for making an episode the network considered too bleak. Shecky quit because he couldn't afford the hobby of a network TV show when he was pulling down $150,000 a week in Vegas.
I'm enjoying the first season of Combat! The shows are pretty well written, the Altman episodes always have a few camera shots that are much better than you would expect on a network TV show and there are often guest stars and cameos you might recall from 1960's shows that are better remembered now, like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. If your Netflix list is getting low, give the first season of Combat! a try.