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Making Combat!

I carried the first episode, Any Second Now, and couldn’t believe the improvement in the script over that of the pilot. I’d been fearful that Robert Pirosh was going to be involved in production, I figured if he was, we had at most a year to look forward to and we’d probably be at each other’s throats.

ABC, in their great wisdom, didn’t know what to do, having two war series on at the same time. They decided to run them both and whichever got the higher ratings would stay on the air. The Gallant Men lasted eighteen segments and hasn’t been heard from since.

My stand-in, Jack Jackson, was really too old to play an extra. His face was showing the lines of age, though he had the energy of a nineteen-year-old. He loved being at his old stamping grounds where he danced for so many years. Our company took care of him, despite his age. Enough to buy a corvette. For cash!

When Jack passed on, he had to be well into his eighties. I’m not sure if anyone besides himself knew his true age.

As I wandered around the set the first day, getting used to things, I came across one of the extras dressed differently than the others. He was wearing summer tans, instead of fatigues or battle gear, and an overseas cap instead of a steel helmet. I said, "I think you ought to go to wardrobe, that isn’t WWII issue. You’ve got on the wrong costume."

"Oh, I’m not in the show," he said. He was wearing a major’s gold leaf on one shirt collar tab and an infantry insignia on the other.

"Just visiting? Welcome, I’m Rick Jason."

"Not visiting, I’m your technical adviser, and my name is Homer Jones. How do you like that for a monicker?" He had a sparkle in his eye that spoke a great sense of humor.

"C’mon over to the coffee wagon, I’ll buy you a cup," I said.

As we sipped, I asked, "How did you get this gig?"

"Haven’t the slightest. I was a command officer at Fort Bragg. Guess they just pulled me up out of a computer."

"Ever been to Hollywood?"

"Nope," he said.

"Well, let me tell you how to fit right in as if you’d been here for years. See that guy over there?"


"That’s Vic Morrow, my co-star. Whenever you come on the set and you see us, you don’t say, Hiya Rick, or Hiya Vic."

"No?" he asked and I could see the twinkle. He was ready for me.

"No. You say ‘Hello Vic, Baby,’ or ‘Hi Rick, Sweetie.’ That way you’ll fit right in."

He never cracked a smile. "Thanks for the tip. I’ll keep it in mind."

Homer was pleasantly with us for a year, at the end of which he was promoted to Lt. Colonel. The Table of Organization for our show didn’t allow for someone of that rank as technical adviser and we sadly said goodbye to each other. He took up duty as military attaché to the American Ambassador of Panama and the army sent us another advisor, Major Bill Burns.

Altman and Blees had turned Combat! around. Though it was a war series, the war itself became mainly an important backdrop to all those affected by it. The show was a strong anti-war statement. I could hardly wait to get to work in the morning and everybody else on the show felt the same way. Altman directed ten of our first twenty-six. In the early seasons we made thirty-two segments a year.

In September, we hit the airwaves at high speed, and by December our show was the one. Every up-and-coming actor wanted to guest star on it, because it gave him a tremendous showcase. Everyone in the business watched Combat! and it presented future stars of theatrical films with some of their best footage. And quite a few established actors, as well.

We worked as a team. Vic and I may have been the "stars" of the show, but on the set nobody was a star! It’s one of the ingredients that made the whole thing cohesive. In deference to Altman, whom I later grew to dislike, it was his vision and imagination that gave the show its direction. It was certainly based on nothing that had ever been in the mind of Robert Pirosh. The code names we used, chess pieces and moves, were from Altman’s and Blees’ minds — a logical extension for military action if you stop to think about it. It’s often the simplest ideas that make the greatest impact.

My feelings about Altman are well documented in a biography about him. Having worked with Orson Welles, I knew genius up close. There’s no doubt that as a film maker Altman is genius, or damned well near it. As a person, I would say that he barely made it into the human race.

Toward the end of the first season Bob Blees was fired. Why? I have no idea, nor will I ever know.

After Blees was fired, Altman, who was a heavy drinker, approached Selig Seligman in something of a stupor, and announced in no uncertain terms that he was going to be the new producer. Selig, who was always sober and had an ego of his own, announced that what Altman was going to be was fired!

Gene Levitt came on as producer for the remainder of the season — not an easy assignment by any measure. Strangely, it was he who had written the first script we shot, Any Second Now. To this day, I don’t know how much input Altman had in the rewrite, if any. What I do know is that Levitt took hold of a tiger by the tail when he signed on. It was a tough haul but he managed to ride the tiger.

The first script that came down from his office was not bad on action, but was god awful on dialogue; not bad dialogue, just too much of it. There is a thing writers hide behind when they run out of ideas or just want to slough off a tough job: they put page after page of dialogue in to fill up the necessary space. It’s called padding. Neither Vic nor I were buying it. And ours were the only voices anybody had to listen to.

We were shooting on stage 24, our "outdoor" stage in which we could control the weather — to hell if it was raining outside or the sun was shining and we wanted snow. Vic said, "C’mon over and let’s sit down. What d’you think of this scene?" he asked, opening his script to the one coming up. It was our first day of shooting that segment and, as usual, we’d just gotten the scripts the night before.

"I think it’s pretty shitty," I said. "I don’t know why I need this line," I continued.

"So," Vic said striking it through with his pen, "let’s take it out. Then I don’t need the line that answers it."

By the time we had struck dialogue from the scene, Frank Kowalsky, our script supervisor, had wandered over and asked what was going on. We showed him and he almost fainted. "You can’t do that! It’s a four-minute scene and you’ve just cut it to one and a half minutes."

"It’s shit," I said, "and we’re not going to do it."

"Vic!" Kowalsky cried.

"That’s right, Frank."

Kowalsky ran to the phone.

In less that three minutes Levitt was on the stage. "What do you fellows think you’re doing?" he demanded

"Cutting some fat out of your script," Vic said off handedly.

"You can’t do that!" he said.

Vic said, "You want to shoot the scene?" and he took off his helmet and held it out, "you do it."

We called an early lunch. Gene sat at a typewriter and banged out some pages. After lunch, they were delivered to us in carbon copies. Vic and I sat down to read them. Not much had changed. We struck line after line. By the time we’d held up production for four hours or so and the company had been dismissed early, I’m sure Levitt was sorry he’d ever met either of us.

Levitt was a damned good writer, and even a better producer and rewrite man. He had to work his ass off, I believe harder than he’d ever thought. After two or three weeks of Vic and me slashing the hell out of useless words, he found it easier to do it right. The result was that Gene got touchier with the writers whose scripts he bought and with the directors who helmed our shows. Some of the directors, like the legendary Burt Kennedy, were writers themselves and all found that their imaginations were welcomed on our set.

A.D. Flowers was our head of special effects. He’d been at MGM for twenty-five years and Frankie Trott and Frank van Luden were his hand-picked assistants on Combat!. Both were also MGM veterans, and boy, they knew their business! In five years of making the show, not one person was ever injured by an effect. That has to stand as something of a record. And the tragic thing is that Vic was killed, years later, in a special effects foul-up that never should have happened, at a time when greater safeties were available than ever before.

Several years after Combat! finished, A.D. went on to win Oscars for special effects in two feature films. I spoke with him on the phone a short while ago. He told me it was the opportunity he had to show his stuff on Combat! that had brought him to the attention of producer Irwin Allen. And there were no accidents on those shows, either.

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