Thursday, April 18, 2024

Now Available to Order--Set Sail With McHale


 McHale’s Navy (1962-1966) was a popular ABC-TV half-hour sitcom that ran for four full seasons (after a one-off hour-long pilot) and even had two feature film spin-offs at the time as well as a modernized reboot movie more than three decades later. Like M*A*S*H, Taxi, and Barney Miller, McHale’s Navy had a great ensemble cast and was nominated for and even won numerous awards during its run. 


So why isn’t McHale’s Navy spoken of in the same breath as The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, or The Andy Griffith Show? The answer is simple—World War II. The military comedy premiered less than 20 years after V-J Day so all but the youngest fans of the show would have remembered what the world was like then. The show itself, steeped in the tradition of great Naval comedies from Abbott and Costello In the Navy to Mister Roberts, nevertheless had a wartime setting and thus there were occasional dead bodies. Never on-screen, mind you, and always the enemy! 


The enemy, by the way, at least for the first three years, was problematic. Set in the South Pacific in 1942, the Japanese were the enemy and our heroes never thought twice about blowing away their boats, their subs, or their island bases. It was literally why they were there. The racist word “Japs” appears only twice in the episodes, generally replaced by the similar, equally unacceptable term, “Nips.” 


By1962, however, Japan had long since become one of America’s greatest friends and staunchest allies. Emperor Hirohito had undergone a major public relations campaign throughout the 1950s and was by the ‘60s seen as a gentle soul and a benevolent ruler. That made it a bit hard for him to be treated in the series as the inhuman monster he was portrayed as in 1940s propaganda. 


A number of Japanese and Japanese-American actors appeared multiple times on McHale’s Navy, most notably the singularly named Mako, who would soon thereafter be nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Sand Pebbles. Mako went on to be a prolific performer on stage, screen, and cartoon voices. He appeared nine times on McHale’s Navy but did not speak particularly highly of it in later interviews.


When the series was in its first run, no one gave much thought to the casual racist aspects of it, let alone to the off-camera deaths of Japanese and German sailors and soldiers. What they paid attention to, and why McHale’s Navy still matters, was its cast, and its comedy. 



Academy Award winning actor Ernest Borgnine took the lead as Lt. Commander Quinton McHale. Although he was the main character, and top-billed, the show had not one but two comedy secret weapons—Tim Conway and Joe Flynn.


Conway had been discovered in Cleveland by singer/actress Rose Marie and made his national debut on several episodes of comedian Steve Allen’s early ‘60s show under his real name, TOM Conway. 


Flynn considered himself a jinx to sitcoms, appearing on several just before they were canceled. On The Joey Bishop Show, though, HE was the one canceled, fired after only a couple months of episodes after critics started writing that he was finnier than the show’s star.


The 1962 pilot for McHale’s Navy was called ‘Seven Against the Sea” and was a serious drama with some comedic bits. The characters played by Conway and Flynn didn’t even appear. Instead, you had McHale and a ragtag group of sailors sitting out the war on a South Pacific island where they had been stranded after their PT boat was damaged. They had become jaded and set up their own little microcosm of society, interacting with the island’s natives. Into their little pseudo-paradise falls (via parachute) a by-the-book officer ordered to get them back into the war, something in which they have no interest. His conflicts with McHale and his men make up the show’s plot and would have continued into the planned series, then to be called “McHale’s Men.”

 Instead, a random suggestion that the show be turned into a flat-out comedy led to producer Edward Montagne, Jr. retooling nearly everything. McHale’s men would still live on an island and interact with the natives, but now that island would be adjacent to a small South Pacific naval base, commanded by a new character, a high-strung former yacht club captain reluctantly brought back into service for the duration. Stuck with all the responsibilities, the captain envied McHale and that envy came out as hatred and mistrust of him and all his men, especially because they were always trying to get around his orders and edicts. 


The no-nonsense lieutenant of the pilot was replaced by a by-the-book ensign who was also lovably naïve, bumbling, and easily led astray by McHale’s men.


Only two of those men from the pilot continued on—Johnny Wright and Gary Vinson. Wright, also known as Bobby Wright, was a country singer, the son of Nashville legend Kitty Wells. He would tour with his parents and have numerous solo hits in a long and successful music career but he rarely acted again.  


Vinson was a hot young actor from 1950s JD movies as well as the hit series The Roaring Twenties. He would continue acting right up until 1984 when, beset by legal troubles, he committed suicide.


The rest of the regular cast included future Love Boat captain Gavin MacLeod (who went AWOL after the second season), former Sgt, Bilko sidekick Billy Sands, con-man/stage magician the Great (Carl) Ballantine, opera-singing muscleman Edson Stroll, and Yoshio Yoda, who played Fuji, who opted to sit out the rest of the war as the gang’s Japanese chef…as long as they could hide him from the captain, anyway. 


Rounding out the regulars was the prolific radio, TV, and film actor and singer Bob Hastings, who teamed with Joe Flynn as the captain’s nervous, overly-sycophantic sidekick. 


Add to this mix a whole bunch of admirals, occasional nurses, friendly island natives, a town full of Italians and colonels (in the fourth season) and guest stars such as Don Knotts, Pat Harrington, Jr., Yvonne Craig, Raquel Welch, Claudine Longet, and Jerry Colonna, and you’ve got a can’t miss cast of winners!


Behind the scenes, there were more winners including writers from The Dick Van Dyke Show, Barney Miller, and Star Trek along with playwright Neil Simon’s brother, comedy legend Groucho Marx’s son, and the author of the classic Catch-22!


A few years ago, Denny Reese—author of Gomer Says “Hey!”—decided to fill the gap of information on this fading comedy classic by writing a book on the series. I helped him do some research early on. In time, he had more or less hit a wall and was ready to abandon the project. He asked me to step in. I proceeded to take what Denny had already written, add to it, binge the entire series and it’s three related motion pictures, do considerably more research, rearrange and edit the text—both his and mine—find acceptable photos, arrange for the brilliantly perfect cover (designed by award-winning author/designer Craig Yoe around Mad magazine great Tom Richmond’s licensed artwork!) and proofread the book numerous times. I got Denny to add more to it as well, along with making sure he agreed with any and all changes and additions I made, so the resulting volume is truly a collaborative effort. 


Set Sail with McHale is now available for order here:

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