The following article appeared in the January, 1996 issue of "Military Trader".
Copyright 1996 by Jo Davidsmeyer

The Big War on the Small Screen
by Jo Davidsmeyer and Loraine Wingham


CUTOUT: During the war, "Combat!" creator Robert Pirosh served with the infantry and witnessed the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge. Profoundly affected by these experiences, Pirosh spent much of his later career paying tribute to the frontline infantry soldier.

ABC brought the big war to the small screen in its landmark World War II series Combat! Premiering in 1962, this gritty drama redefined the TV action/adventure genre and became a proving ground for the next generation of feature film directors and stars.

Combat! was developed by Academy Award-winner Robert Pirosh, who wrote and produced the pilot episode. Before serving in World War II, Pirosh co-wrote many memorable comedies including "A Day at the Races," starring the Marx Brothers, and Danny Kaye's "Up In Arms."

Affected by World War II

During the war, Master Sergeant Pirosh served with the infantry and witnessed the carnage of the Battle of the Bulge. Profoundly affected by these experiences, Pirosh spent much of his later career paying tribute to the frontline infantry soldier. Pirosh won an Academy Award for his original story and screenplay to "Battleground" (1949). Starring Van Johnson, "Battleground" chronicled the siege of Bastogne. Two years later Pirosh was again nominated for best story and screenplay for "Go For Broke," which he also directed. "Go For Broke" is the true story of the American-born Japanese who served heroically as U.S. infantryman in World War II.

After successes in the 1950s as writer/director of "Washington Story," "The Girl Rush," "Valley of the Kings," and "Spring Reunion," Pirosh turned again to his war diaries for inspiration. The result was the 1962 feature film "Hell Is for Heroes," starring Steve McQueen, followed later that year by the premiere of Combat!

Series Featured Vic Morrow

Starring Vic Morrow and Rick Jason, Combat! followed King Company's second platoon as they battled their way across Europe. The series offered revealing character studies of men in conflict -- both with the enemy and with themselves. While striving for authenticity, Combat! focused on the human tragedy amid a world conflagration. The show's realism was enhanced by merging actual war footage into the episodes. The cast even endured Army boot camp in preparation for production.

Few shows of the 1960s matched Combat! for production values and script quality. Executive Producer Selig J. Seligman, a war veteran who served as an attorney at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, assembled a talented stable of writers and directors. Each left a distinctive mark on the show.

The Altman Episodes

The most notable Combat! director was Robert Altman. Though he directed only ten episodes, cast members credit him with establishing the look and feel of the show. His use of hand-held cameras, cluttered foregrounds, and a film noir-like use of light and shadow became standard in the series. After the departure of producer Robert Blees, Altman briefly produced the show; but his volatile temper and disagreements with the front office led to his dismissal before the end of the first season.

As seen in Combat! and his feature films, Altman's strength as a director is his ability to inspire passionate performances in actors and to create striking visuals. But his vision of Combat! was oppressive; he presented the show's central character, the battle-hardened Sergeant Saunders, as the perpetual victim, the ultimate martyr to war, with no control over his destiny.

Altman went on to success in features, directing "M*A*S*H", "Nashville", and "The Player", and such lesser lights as "Popeye" and "Ready To Wear."

More than anyone, writer/director Burt Kennedy established the heart and soul of Combat! Kennedy instilled Saunders with an unwavering moral conviction. In a Kennedy-directed episode, even when Saunders was not in control of his situation, he was always in control of his own soul, and ultimately, his own destiny. Kennedy's shows shine best when dealing with average men walking the line between life and death. He developed rich characterizations and relationships among the core cast as he explored themes of duty and friendship -- themes that would serve him well in his future projects.

Kennedy directed many Westerns for both television and the movies. He directed often on "How The West Was Won" and "The Wild, Wild West", directing that show's two TV reunion films. He also directed "Magnum P.I." For the big screen he wrote and directed "The Train Robbers", starring John Wayne, among many other films. Combat! veteran Dick Peabody ("Littlejohn" in the series) appeared in many Kennedy-directed films including "Sidekicks" and "Support Your Local Sheriff."

Combat!'s most prolific director was Bernard McEveety with 31 episodes to his credit. The only director to work all five seasons, he created Combat!'s most spectacular action sequences. Always character-driven, his action focused on the men behind the explosions. He went on to direct "The Macahans" (the TV film that launched the series "How The West Was Won"), "The Hostage Heart", and brought his strengths to "The Wild, Wild West", "How The West Was Won", "The A-Team", and others.

Directors Influence Show

Combat! benefited from a wealth of talent behind the camera. Both established directors, such as Golden Globe-winner Laslo Benedek ("Death of a Salesman" with Frederick March and "The Wild One" with Marlon Brando) and the blockbuster directors of tomorrow, such as Richard Donner ("The Omen", "Superman", and the "Lethal Weapon" films), all left their imprint on the series.

A Popular Show

Combat! became one of television's hottest properties. It attracted an impressive roster of guests, including luminaries from the past, current film stars, and the rising stars of tomorrow. Two-time Academy Award-winning actress Luise Rainer ( "The Good Earth", "The Great Ziegfeld") was coaxed out of retirement to guest star on Combat!, appearing in the same episode with silent screen star Ramon Novarro (he played the original Ben-Hur in the 1926 film). Hollywood veterans such as Mickey Rooney appeared beside unknowns starting their careers, including Tom Skerritt (Sheriff Brock on "Picket Fences"), Eric Braedon (then known as Hans Gudegast), James Caan, and Beau Bridges. Teen idols seeking adult roles flocked to the show. Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Dwayne Hickman, Tommy Sands, and Sal Mineo all came to the MGM backlot to "play soldier" with the men of Combat!

"We were widely known in the industry as a 'happy' show," says Dick Peabody. "The guest stars liked to work with us because playing soldier is a lot of fun."

Series Featured Other Notable Celebs

The list of Combat! guest stars reads like a roster of Who's Who in the Hollywood of the '60s. During the five seasons of Combat!, Charles Bronson, Dan Duryea, Tab Hunter, Frank Gorshin, William Windom, Robert Culp, James Coburn, Jack Lord, and Dennis Hopper all got to play soldier. Also Dean Stockwell, Robert Duvall, Howard Duff, Roddy McDowall, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, Nick Adams, Fernando Lamas, Ricardo Montalban, Leonard Nimoy and many others took up arms in television's most enduring war series.

"A lot of people wanted to work with Vic," says Dick Peabody about Vic Morrow. "The actors would do the show even if they weren't doing television, just to work with him. That's what Lee Marvin told me. He said, 'I don't do television anymore, but I wanted to work with Vic.' He was an actor's actor."

Morrow used his clout to expand his role on Combat! to include stints behind the camera. He directed seven Combat! episodes, including the emotionally charged two-parter "Hills Are For Heroes." His co-stars Rick Jason ("Lt. Hanley") and Dick Peabody praise his directorial skills, citing his sensitivity in working with his fellow actors. Vic went on to the big screen to direct "Deathwatch" and "A Man Called Sledge." Though receiving critical praise, "Deathwatch" never found an audience. "A Man Called Sledge," which he co-wrote and directed, was a disappointment. Producer Dino De Laurentiis took control of the film away from Morrow before the final edit. Vic's ambition to be a big-screen director eluded him.

The Show Enjoys a Renewed Popularity

Today Combat! is enjoying a renaissance among television viewers. Satellite and computer technology is introducing young viewers to the show while re-acquainting baby-boomers with one of their childhood favorites. Internet discussion groups, fanzines, and a newsletter have arisen to satisfy the hunger for Combat!

Reunion Planned

Fans from around the world have banded together to organize a reunion of the cast of Combat! for the benefit of charity. Nearly thirty years after the show left the air, today's Combat! fans will meet with the original cast for the Combat! Reunion Cruise. Departing from Miami on Monday, October 21, 1996, fans and the cast of Combat! will sail on Norwegian Cruise Line's newest ship, the Leeward, for a four-night Mexican Gulf Cruise. Five of the show's cast will attend: Rick Jason ("Lt. Hanley", the dashing platoon commander), Jack Hogan (the rough-and-tumble "Kirby"), Pierre Jalbert ("Caje", the Cajun interpreter), Tom Lowell ("Billy", the squad's youngest rifleman) and Dick Peabody ("Littlejohn", the stalwart giant of Company K).

During the cruise, the cast will participate in question-and-answer sessions, a photo shoot, and other on-board activities. Also scheduled are a collectibles auction, video room, opening ceremonies, a video tribute to Vic Morrow, and more. Profits from the cruise and auction will be donated to charity in the name of the late Vic Morrow. For further information about the Combat! Reunion Cruise, call (xxx) xxx-xxxx. Attendance is limited, so reserve early.

MILITARY TRADER is a newspaper that covers topics from military antiques and memorabilia to reenactments and reunions. It is published monthly by Antique Trader Publications, PO Box 1050, Dubuque, Iowa. 1-800-364-5593.



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