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A Call to Combat! - Filming the TV Pilot Episode

It was now over six months since I’d worked, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself. I remember sitting at the bar one afternoon after a vigorous weight lifting day, sipping on a drink, and bitching to my favorite bartender about the business and what a love/hate relationship it was. The phone at the bar rang, he answered it, and handed it to me, "For you, Rick."

My agent was on the line. Would I come right up to the office?

They’d gotten a call from ABC. I was wanted for a television series, the first wholly owned ABC show. NBC and CBS had been producing their own shows for some years at that point, but ABC was taking its first dip into the prime time waters.

"What’s it about?" I asked.

"Second World War," Dick said.

"You guys crazy?" I asked, "Who’s going to stay home every week to watch a war movie?" (You can readily see how smart I really was.)

Bill went into his office and came back with a large chart. "As you may know, ABC owns ABPT theaters. Here’s a chart that shows no war movie has ever lost money at the box office!"

"Really?" I was impressed. "What’s the deal?"

They laid it out and after a little negotiation I signed to do the pilot. I was going to star opposite Vic Morrow, for whom I’d had great respect from the time I’d seen his first movie, The Blackboard Jungle. We were to shoot it at MGM. That felt good; after all, I’d made my first picture there. The studio still did some of their own pictures, but over half their revenue came in as a rental lot. The business had changed drastically in ten years.

I read the script and thought it was a piece of junk. It had not one original thought in it. The writer had borrowed a great deal from two film characters who were in a series of successful 1930s military comedies. Their names in the shows were Quirt and Flagg, played by two stalwart actors, Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen, who were always fighting for the same girl, or yelling at each other over some inane issue. The characters were very entertaining, for the time.

However, the first day on the set I had a strange feeling. Somehow I felt the show was going to sell and that we’d be on the air a good three years. The way Henry Lasco, back on Broadway, told me he was able to smell winners and losers from day one, I found I was developing the same kind of antennae.

We had with us, in the pilot, a wonderful comedian, Shecky Greene and a French Canadian ex-skier, Pierre Jalbert. A lot of the pilot took place in England (which we shot in Hollywood, naturally), just before D-Day.

We did the Omaha Beach landing at my old standby, Tranca’s Beach. The sand leading to the vertical rises of rock was almost a duplicate of the genuine place, so it was opportune to intercut our film with actual newsreel footage of the great battle.

Boris Sagal directed and he was wonderful. The production was first class all the way and we had ten to twelve days to make the pilot; more than enough.

One day, during a short break, Sagal said to me, "Do you know how you got selected for the part of Hanley?"

"Haven’t the slightest," I said.

"You did a series last year about this guy who does Karate," he said.

"Case of the Dangerous Robin," I answered.

"Yeah. You were on the local CBS station from seven to seven-thirty every Monday night."

"We were syndicated," I said.

"Well, I’ve got two young boys. And when I got home from the studio, if I wanted to visit with them before dinner on Monday, I had to sit and watch you for half an hour. When ABC handed me a list of seven actors who they felt would be right for Hanley, you were the only one whose work I knew, so, I picked you."

"This is the weirdest business in the world," I said.

"Isn’t it!"

Selig Seligman, the executive producer, was an old chum of ABC president Leonard Goldenson; they’d gone to law school together. Selig had worked for ABPT pictures in Ohio as a buyer for the movies that played theaters throughout the Mid-West. When ABC decided to try producing their own shows, Goldenson tapped his friend Selig, who formed a company and called it Selmur Productions, from his and his wife Muriel’s first names.

They moved to California and did a daytime court show, which proved highly successful. ABC then decided to invade night-time production, bought Selig’s production company, keeping him on as executive producer. When a show titled Men In Combat! came his way, Muriel who had always remembered me from Sombrero, and was a great influence upon Selig, said there was only one actor to play the part of Hanley.

Both Muriel’s and Boris Sagal’s stories are probably true; though Selig certainly had to submit more than one name to the network for the leading role, hence the ‘list of seven.’ When I told Muriel Boris’ story, she said, "It wouldn’t have made any difference what he did. You were always my choice."

"Thanks for the faith," I answered.

I didn’t actually meet her until the Omaha Beach scenes at Tranca’s Beach. She was nine months pregnant (her baby, Adam, was born an hour before we wrapped the pilot December 23rd 1961). She was sitting on the sand in a cinematographer’s chair, bundled up against the cold. There was a slightly chubby man wearing horn-rimmed glasses who smiled a lot standing next to her, and a skinny fellow in his late fifties.

The water was cold that time of year and though my back wasn’t bothering me, I didn’t want it to spasm when I jumped out of the LST and hit the water on my way to the beach. So, just before the landing scene, I went to my dressing room and strapped myself into my corset. Tight.

When we came out of the water, ran part way up the beach, and hit the sand, Boris yelled, "Cut, print!". Somebody threw an army blanket around me so I wouldn’t shiver to death. As I walked up the beach, Selig, who I’d never met, motioned me over and introduced himself and his wife. "That was a good scene," he said.

"Thank you," I answered, "you got us a good director. I don’t know why, but I think this show may go three years."

"You’re arrogant!" said the skinny little guy in the group.

I glanced down at him and took a drag from my cigarette.

"You know," he continued, "you don’t run too well."

"That’s because I have a bad back and I’m wearing a corset," I said.

"Why didn’t you tell someone?" he demanded.

"Because, frankly, it’s none of your damned business!"

He glared up at me.

"Who are you?" I asked, a little amused.

Selig said, "This is Robert Pirosh."

"You wrote the script, didn’t you," I said.

"Yes!" he almost barked, as if to challenge me.

I dropped my cigarette in the sand and stepped it out. Then I bid Mr. and Mrs. Seligman good-bye, as I said that I might be needed back in the set.

As I started to turn I said to Pirosh, "Oh, about your script…"

"Yes?" he demanded.

"My condolences," and I walked away.

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