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“In World War II, Marine Corps Major Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington commanded a squadron of fighter pilots. They were a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific. They were known as the Black Sheep.” From 1976 to 1978 Stephen J Cannell, who would later go on to co-create The A-Team. used World War II as a backdrop for a military series called Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka “Black Sheep Squadron” for its second season – the final 13 episodes, aka “Flying Misfits” - the title of the pilot movie). The South Pacific was the place for their adventures, but in TV terms has since passed by virtually unknown in the UK.
But at last, all 36 episodes, including the feature length pilot episode, get a DVD release this side of the Atlanti. You could have won one of two copies we had available, just for nominatiing your favourites in this year's Cult TV Awards.
In the first season, we find the 214 Squadron of Corsairs were stationed at Vella La Cava, an island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Boyington allows the men to be their rebel-rousing selves on the ground, but in the air he expected discipline, as lives are at stake.
Some air battle shots are short clips from the 1969 film “Battle of Britain”, and German rather than Japanese markings on the planes can be seen. Other new flying scenes pioneered the technique of mounting cameras on helmets worn by the flyers, giving a pilot’s-eye view never before seen in films featuring single-seat aircraft. The Japanese Zero planes used in the show were built for the 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
It is worth noting that some of the footage is archival from the 1940s, and hence is grainy and sometimes monochrome. The episodes begin with a ‘Universal Newsreel’ in black and white, copyrighted throughout as 1939, and these detail the background to the episode coming up. Each episode has a pre-credit promo sequence illustrated with scenes from the forthcoming story.
The theme music is by Mike Post and Peter Carpenter, which brings us back to thinking of The A-Team. a series they were also the main composers for. You can’t get away from feeling the link between the two shows. Our star ‘Pappy’ is certainly a prototype ‘Hannibal’ Smith, with a little bit of Face mixed in, and although the rest of the company don’t have direct modelling to the later show, the inter-relationships and camaraderie are definitely very similar. ‘Pappy’ did narrate episodes, which was a portent of one of the major format elements of Magnum PI. He also has a scene-stealing dog called Meatball, a small, white bull terrier.
The show's success led star Robert Conrad to wining a “People's Choice Award for favourite male performer in a new TV programme” in 1977 (tied with Dick Van Dyke) and a Golden Globe nomination (“Best Actor in a Television Series – Drama”, 1978). Conrad had been a TV favourite since his starring role as Tom Lopaka in Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963) and James T West in The Wild Wild West (1965-1969). He also went on to be the lead in the short-lived cult favourite A Man Called Sloane (1979) as Thomas Remington Sloane.
James Whitmore Jr, who played Gutterman, went on to direct hit TV shows such as 24. Buffy The Vampire Slayer. NCIS. Star Trek: Enterprise. Dawson’s Creek and Quantum Leap. It’s worth noting he didn’t return for the second season.
Making his way from a face in the crowd to a co-star and his name in the opening credits is Larry Manetti (playing Bob Boyle) – whose most well-known role would come via Donald P Bellisario (who wrote seven episodes and directed one of Baa Baa Black Sheep ), who would cast Manetti as a co-star to Tom Selleck, as Orville ‘Rick’ Wright, in Magnum PI. En-route, he featured as Giles in the original Battlestar Galactica. He now appears occasionally in the reboot of Hawaii 5-0 as Nicky ‘The Kid’ Demarco.
Incidentally, in the pilot movie Boyle was played by Jake Mitchell (Hill Street Blues. Paris ). Later in the series, the character would acquire a pet kangaroo!
Also becoming a well-known face later in his career is John Laroquette who played Bob Anderson. He would go on to star in Payne (another American attempt to reimagine Fawlty Towers ), The Librarians. Deception. McBride. and The John Laroquette Show. as well as feature in Boston Legal as Carl Sack.
Red West entered the series as Sergeant Micklin from episode 15, “Devil in the Slot”, bringing the angle of the enlisted versus officers into the format – a tension which was well-played and brought another aspect to the drama. He eventually became the squadron’s resident mechanic in place of ‘Hutch’. In real life, Red was a close friend of Elvis Presley and a member of Presley’s inner circle, known as ‘The Memphis Mafia’. He was allowed the day off from filming the show when Presley died in 1977. If we’re going back to comparisons with The A-Team. then Micklin is a prototype BA Baracus, minus the jewellery.
The first season wasn’t a ratings smash by any means, but the show got picked up by NBC for another short run under the title Black Sheep Squadron when the network realised they were short of new shows which had legs. This is why the second season made its debut in December 1977, rather than in a usual September slot. Air combat was reduced back in prominence in the episodes, looking more at the personal and emotional battles within the characters.
By episode seven of the second season, “Forbidden Fruit”, there was a seismic shift in the series, beginning with the removal of John Larroquette and Robert Ginty from the opening credits. Wishing to have a male youth to appeal to young female audience members, in walked Jeb Adams as Jeb Pruitt, and a quartet of female cast would also be added to the opening credits.
These nurses were dubbed ‘Pappy’s Lambs’, and they even got credited as such in the opening titles – Denise DuBarry, Nancy Conrad (yes, Robert’s daughter), Brianne Leary, and Kathy McCullen. This was certainly an attempt to muscle in on the attraction of ratings winner Charlie’s Angels over on the ABC network, especially as a couple of ‘Farrah’ hairstyles are in evidence (not exactly 1940s!). There is even an episode called “Fighting Angels”, which according to the episode’s newsreel at the start, was the actual name in wartime for female officers joining the front lines in the Pacific.
Guest stars across the series include the likes of George Takei (Star Trek ), Kent McCord (Galactica 1980 ), Sharon Gless (Cagney and Lacey ), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ), James Darren (The Time Tunnel ), Joel Fabiani (Department ‘S’ ), Lance LeGault (The A-Team ), Jerry Hardin (as Jerry Harin – The X-Files ), Anne Francis (Honey West ), Sorrell Booke (The Dukes of Hazzard ), Tim Matheson (The West Wing ), Booth Colman (Planet of the Apes ), James Hong (Kung Fu ), Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters”), William Lucking (Sons of Anarchy ), Sandra Kerns (Charles in Charge ), and Don Stark (That ‘70s Show ).
The format is supposed to be based on Boyington’s best selling 1958 autobiography, “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. As a United States Marine Corps fighter pilot during World War II, he was known as ‘Pappy’ due to his advancing age (of 30!) compared to the younger pilots under his command. He received both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for his actions.
Boyington was first known as Gregory Hallenbeck, and he married shortly after his school graduation. He applied for flight training under the Aviation Cadet Act in 1935, but discovered it excluded married men. When he obtained a copy of his birth certificate, he found out that his father’s surname was Boyington. Since there was no record that someone named Gregory Boyington had ever been married, he enrolled as a US Marine Corps aviation cadet using that name instead.
Many of Boyington’s charges were annoyed at the tone of the TV series. It was mostly fiction and presented a sanitised version of Boyington. ‘Pappy’ made no secret of the fact that the series was fiction based on fact, referring to it as “hogwash and Hollywood hokum”.
This real ‘Pappy’ had a couple cameo roles in season one, as a visiting general in “The Deadliest Enemy of All - Part 2” and at the end of the first season's final episode “The Fastest Gun”, pinning a medal on Boyington in a newsreel. He also appears in one episode of the second season - “Ten’ll Get You Five”.
The only bonus extras on this set come from the NBC News Archive. The first features a five minute interview with Boyington on the Today show, 21 September 1976, which went out on the night of the premiere of the series. He is interviewed together with Robert Conrad. Next, from 16 April 1959, there is a two minute monochrome interview in front of a Flying Tiger Line World Wide Air Freight lorry, where ‘Pappy’ talks about his book, which inspired the series. This is a total seven minute pair of items, to be found on Disc 3 of the First Season. As the lengths suggest, these segments are hardly ‘in-depth’.
All in all, this is a fascinating series from a formatting point of view for writers and directors to take note of. Knowing that the series was not getting the necessary audience numbers, we see how the second season tried to add and subtract elements to become more ‘viewer friendly’, based on the trends of the time. Bring in a smart-talking young male to appeal to a different audience segment, bring in a quartet of ladies to hopefully tap into to the sensibilities of those watching the rival Charlie’s Angels. and reduce the number of less broad-brushed and subtle characters which were in the series.
By doing so it lost some of that feeling of war being hell. No doubt these later episodes were even more annoying to those who saw fiction diverging even further from fact. It might be wise to consider the timeline of production, in that Vietnam, and war in general, was still very sensitive to the American population. However, there doesn’t seem to be much heavy-handed allegory in the storylines, there’s no comparing WWII to what was then the more recent and regrettable war which the USA had involved itself with. Even so, it was probably too recent and too raw a wound for a proportion of America to take on board.
The timing might have been wrong, but in retrospect the series, with it being set back in modern history, does have an element of future-proofing. The prints, overall, are pristine, save for the stock footage which was necessary so that the budget was a reasonable one overall.
With 36 episodes, there is enough here for you to be able to invest in the characters, without the show overstaying its welcome. It was a series not afraid to kill off cast members, which brings the reality of wartime home to viewers. These were human beings doing what they believed they had to do to survive, against an enemy who equally believed they were left with no choice. That said, there is a lot of fun and humour present, which means that like all good drama it takes you through a whole range of emotions.
Definitely a show to add to your viewing calendar!
Baa Baa Black Sheep – The Complete Series is out now from Fabulous Films Ltd / Fremantle Media Enterprises. It is a ten DVD set, with a ‘PG’ certificate, a running time of 1,822 minutes approx, and a RRP of £69.99, or get it for less at www.culttvstore
BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP – LIST OF MAJOR CAST MEMBERS
Robert Conrad (Major Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington)
Simon Oakland (Brigadier General / Major General Thomas Moore)
Dana Elcar (Colonel Thomas A Lard)
James Whitmore Jr (Captain Jim ‘Tex’ Gutterman)
Dirk Blocker (1st Lt Jerome ‘Jerry’ Bragg)
WK Stratton (2nd Lt / Captain Lawrence ‘Larry’ Casey)
Robert Ginty (1st Lt Thomas Joseph ‘TJ’ Wiley)
Joey Aresco (Sergeant John David ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson)
John Larroquette (2nd Lt Robert ‘Bob’ Anderson)
Larry Manetti (1st Lt Robert ‘Bob’ Boyle)
Jeff MacKay (1st Lt Donald ‘Don’ French)
Red West (Sergeant / Warrant Officer Andy Micklin)
Jeb Adams (2nd Lt Jeb Pruitt)
Denise DuBarry (Lt Samantha Greene)
Nancy Conrad (Lt Nancy Gilmore)
Brianne Leary (Lt Susan Ames / Alma Peterson)
Kathy McCullen (Lt Ellie Kovaks)
Steven Richmond (Stan Richards)
Katherine Cannon (Nurse Dottie Dixon)
Gregory H ‘Pappy’ Boyington (General Harrison Kenlay)