Friday, July 15, 2016

Where no Marine has gone before…

One of the devastating side effects of the satellite austerity program that’s been put in place here at Rancho Yesteryear is that I lost access to getTV, the digital OTA (off the air) network that started out as home for movies (mostly from the Sony library) but has since made more and more room for television reruns from series old and new.  I wrote about getTV’s revamped schedule here, and even though they run these little gems alongside beaucoups and beaucoups of commercials for catheters and reverse mortgages, they’re conscientious enough to allow for the extra ad time (for example, a half-hour program like The Tall Man is run in a forty-minute time slot). They also appear to be rotating the inventory a bit; new (old) additions include Ensign O’Toole and Tombstone Territory.

A month or two before mi padre rung down the curtain on getTV, they added a Saturday morning “crime” block that spotlighted rarely-seen classics like Johnny Staccato and The Felony Squad.  (Missing out on getting a better set of Felony Squad episodes—the prints they’ve airing are first-rate—is really the unkindest cut of all.)  The channel has also thrown The Lieutenant into the mix, after previewing the show on Wednesday nights in April.  (I’m not entirely certain how Lieutenant qualifies as a “crime” series…but then again, I don’t work in TV programming.)  Star Trek fans are well versed in the trivia that after toiling for many years as a small screen scribe on shows like Highway Patrol and Have Gun – Will Travel, ST auteur Gene Roddenberry saw the first series he created (that would be Lieutenant, not Trek) earn a berth on NBC’s schedule for the 1963-64 season.

I can't decide on what amuses me more: Gary Lockwood's goofy sitcom grin to the camera during the show's opening credits, or the unconventional theme music, in which a military band transforms itself into a jazz combo the moment no one is looking.
USMC Second Lieutenant William T(iberius) Rice (Gary Lockwood) is a recent graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, and has been stationed at Camp Pendleton.  Rice is the CO and training instructor of a rifle platoon…but the only war currently being conducted is the Cold War, so most of the battle action on The Lieutenant is in the form of war games.  Instead, the series focused on personal conflicts with the Corps: maintaining discipline within the platoon, establishing positive P.R. with civilians, and romantic difficulties involving Rice and other soldiers (I should stress that none of this involves DADT).  (My fellow classic television connoisseur Rick Brooks has joked that this last issue shows up a bit too much in the show’s plots; we opined that perhaps a better title for the series would be The Marriage Counselor.)

The most interesting aspect of The Lieutenant to me was that its main character often struggled with the difficulties involving proper military procedure; as a green, idealistic officer, he’s untested and frequently plagued with doubt as to whether or not he’s making the right decision.  Captain Raymond Rambridge (Robert Vaughn), Rice’s company commander, functions as his mentor in many of the episodes (Vaughn’s character isn’t in every installment)—as an officer who obtained his bars “through the ranks,” Rambridge is able to use his considerable knowledge to set Rice straight.  I’m not trying to take anything away from the future The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but Bob’s gig on this series seems to have been an effortless one (he averages 2-3 scenes per show)—even though he was pulling down the same money as the star.  That having been said, I kind of wish they had leaned on him a little more because he’s damn good as Rambridge.  One of my favorite sequences between Vaughn and Lockwood in The Lieutenant is in “Alert!”; the two men are preparing the platoon for an exercise and Rambridge, in an unguarded moment, calls Rice by his first name.  Lockwood’s Rice smiles at that, suggesting that despite Rambridge’s tendency to ride him there is a solid bond of respect between the two of them.

I’ve read a few reviews of this series (the show was released in two half-season sets by the Warner Archive in August 2012), and a lot of them aren’t particularly kind to star Gary Lockwood.  I’ll admit the guy is no acting powerhouse, but as Rice he’s endearing—I think the fact that he was only twenty-six at the time he did the series works to his advantage because it emphasizes his inexperience and youthful idealism.  A protégé of stage/film director Joshua Logan (who came up with the former John Gary Yurosek’s new professional name), Lockwood had impressive turns in films like Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Wild in the Country (also 1961); in addition, he was a cast member on the short-lived ABC-TV series Follow the Sun (1961-62).  (Roddenberry must have been a fan, since he cast Gary as star in the second pilot installment for Star Trek, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”)

Other recurring actors on Lieutenant include Don Penny as Rice’s loyal pal Lt. Stanley Harris; Carmen Phillips as Lily, proprietress of the local watering hole; and John Milford as Sgt. Ben Kagey.  I’ve seen stalwarts like Richard Anderson, Henry Beckman, Larry Thor, Harold Gould, and Christopher Connelly (pre-Peyton Place) turn up in many installments and Steve Franken appears in a couple as well (still channeling his inner Chatsworth by referring to Lockwood as “Rice baby” and “Bill baby”).  The show also brought out some big guns in terms of high-wattage celebrity guest stars: Rip Torn, Robert Duvall, Paul Burke, Eddie Albert, Charles McGraw, and Dennis Hopper—just to start the tip of the iceberg.

Star Trek regulars on The Lieutenant, clockwise from left: Leonard Nimoy ("In the Highest Tradition"), Majel Barrett (also in "Tradition"), Nichelle Nichols ("To Set it Right"), Walter Koenig ("Mother Enemy")
I have to confess that I approached The Lieutenant with a little trepidation.  It’s not that I dislike military-themed shows—I’ve watched a few in my lengthy couch potato career, like Combat! and 12 O’Clock High.  But if I tell you that my favorite series about “the service” is The Phil Silvers Show, that might give you an indication of what my personal preferences are like.  However, a few folks on Facebook (chiefly Martin Grams, Jr.) gave the program glowing recommendations so I was curious to have a go.

Some of my favorites include “The Proud and the Angry”—the episode featuring Rip Torn.  Torn plays a D.I. who’s been accused of brutality by a soldier in the platoon, prompting Rice to go undercover as a private to investigate.  “The Two Star Giant” spotlights a nice performance by TDOY fave Neville Brand as a formidable general who takes Rice on as his temporary aide.  “In the Highest Tradition” has Rice serving as a technical advisor on a motion picture that will be a biographical sketch on an ex-WW2 lieutenant (Andrew Duggan) whose heroics will come into question (this one also features future Star Trek players Leonard Nimoy as a demanding producer and Majel Barrett as his sarcastic assistant), and “Lament for a Dead Goldbrick” spotlights a dandy acting turn from Robert Duvall (with hair, even) as a reporter with a penetrating interest in an investigation involving the death of a soldier who accidentally drowned during a training exercise.

I’m also impressed with “To Set It Right”—the most controversial episode of The Lieutenant, so much so that it never aired in the series’ original run (though it eventually turned up in its syndicated reruns).  It focuses on the conflict between a black soldier (Don Marshall) and a white soldier (Dennis Hopper), who are “reunited” in the platoon (Hopper gave Marshall quite a bit of grief when the two men attended the same high school).  Nichelle Nichols plays Marshall’s fiancée, and Woody Strode is the D.I. who calmly explains to Marshall that he is simply not prepared to take any sh*t from any soldier, black or white.  The racial issues in this one caused NBC to approach it with all of the enthusiasm of picking up someone’s used Kleenex, and to add insult to injury the network never compensated MGM Television for the episode—MGM wound up swallowing the costs.  (Purportedly, this episode convinced creator Roddenberry that such topics would be better tackled in allegory form—like in outer space, for example.)

Last night, I finished up watching the remaining Lieutenant episodes I had been able to capture with the DVR: “Mother Enemy” is a real Cold War curio, focusing on a sergeant (Walter “Chekhov” Koenig) whose promotion to OCS is jeopardized by his mother (Neva Patterson), an avowed Communist.  While I admire how The Lieutenant didn’t always take the easy out when it came to its stories the denouement on this one was a bit unsatisfying; Koenig’s character is turned down for promotion but both Rice and Rambridge swear it’s not a “guilt by association” thing.  (I’m convinced it was…but then again, I was never in the military so my opinion might not count for much.)  The series wraps up its run with “To Kill a Man,” in which Rice is on a top secret mission to an Asian country when his helicopter is shot down and he’s forced to find safe shelter with an aide (James Shigeta).

While The Lieutenant was never a blockbuster performer in the Nielsens, it was holding its own against its formidable competition in CBS’ Jackie Gleason and His American Screen Magazine.  Poor ratings didn’t do in The Lieutenant; it was the prospect of having to address the rapidly expanding war in Vietnam that made the show persona au gratin at NBC.  (I guess television networks prefer their Marines to be comic ones, if the success of Gomer Pyle, USMC the following season is any indication.)

The nice thing about my experiences watching The Lieutenant is that I still have less than half of the show’s run to gander since I only saw a total of sixteen episodes (there are twenty-nine in all).  I might have to get my hands on the Warner Archive releases…but if you receive getTV in your viewing area, you can check it out on Saturday mornings at 10:45 EDT.


Jeff Flugel said...

Really enjoyed your review, Ivan! I purchased the vol. 1 set from Warner Archive but haven't really dug into it yet. As silly as it sounds, I was a bit put off by tat extraordinarily goofy opening, with Lockwood gurning into the camera. It does look an interesting and intelligent series, though.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Jeff has a motion on the floor:

As silly as it sounds, I was a bit put off by tat extraordinarily goofy opening, with Lockwood gurning into the camera.

I agree with you completely -- you kind have to wonder what they were thinking. But based on what I've seen so far, I'm really impressed with the show; if things had been slightly different back then I think it could have stuck around a bit longer.