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The U.S. Navy and Marines On TV

A promotional photo for the new TNT show, The Last Ship. TNT Photo

A promotional photo for the new TNT show, The Last Ship. TNT Photo

Michael Bay’s upcoming TV series The Last Ship on TNT — premiering next month — is the latest in a long line of programs that have featured the U.S. Navy and Marines.

From action adventures and comedies to dramas and primetime soaps, the sea services have been represented in almost every genre (even dipping into reality TV, with shows such as Lone Target and Navy SEALs: BUDS Class 234).

Some were hits, many were misses.

Victory at Sea (NBC 1952–1953)

Navy veterans of a certain age still feel a need to stand at attention whenever they hear the rousing theme of Victory at Sea (the score was largely composed by Richard Rodgers of Broadway fame). The series about WWII naval warfare was one of the earliest military-oriented TV shows and demonstrated to the networks that there was an audience for documentaries. The popularity of Victory at Sea paved the way for the History Channel, so in some respects it is guilty for the existence of Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People.

Navy Log (CBS 1955, ABC 1956–1958)

An anthology dramatizing events drawn from official Navy reports (typically concerning action in WWII or Korea), Navy Log was a typical product of the early Cold War era that leaves the audience in little doubt that the good guys carrying the Star and Stripes will prevail. The series is perhaps most notable for providing many fledgling actors—including Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine, and Leonard Nimoy—with some of their earliest credited roles, as well as featuring cameos from established stars such as James Cagney and Robert Montgomery.

Men of Annapolis (Syndicated 1957–1958)

The only TV series to be filmed at the U.S. Naval Academy, Men of Annapolis proved to be a hit show and an effective recruiting tool during its initial run. Unfortunately, the scripts quickly hit a creative wall because the Navy began to reject any plot it believed portrayed the USNA or the midshipmen in a negative manner. The writers were then left with the challenge of creating a drama without any actual drama. Realizing that a show about students doing nothing but earnestly studying and polishing brass did not make for must-see TV, the production company and the USNA agreed to end the series.

The Silent Service (1957–1958)

Written, produced and hosted by decorated submariner Rear Adm. Thomas M. Dykers, The Silent Service presented reenactments of notable WWII submarine missions. Largely shot aboard the USS Sawfish (a sub that was awarded 8 battle stars), the series provided the audience with such an accurate portrayal of service under the sea that viewers may have gotten claustrophobic. Each chapter ended with an interesting (but often quite stilted and awkward) interview with a member of the actual crew that was featured in the episode.

Hennesey (CBS 1959–1962)

After being a member of Our Gang and then sharing the big screen with some of the biggest stars of the 1930s (even earning an Academy Award nomination for best actor), Jackie Cooper enlisted in the Navy during WWII. He later returned to Hollywood but had difficulty finding consistent work, which resulted in him taking TV roles. However, the demotion turned into a promotion when his starring role as a San Diego-based Navy physician on the successful sitcom Hennesey inspired him to join the Navy Reserve. The former seaman third class was commissioned as a lieutenant commander and eventually rose to captain, making him one of the highest-ranking officers to come from the Hollywood community

The Blue Angels (1960–1961)

When the Navy needs to attack a dangerous target in Korea, bust a dope smuggling ring or solve a murder, who do they call? The SEALs? The Marines? NCIS? Nope. The Navy can always depend on its precision flight demonstration team to get any job done—all while the pilots maintain a tight diamond formation. It is the ultimate special forces/investigative unit, which also occasionally flies at airshows. At least that is what the audience that watched the far-fetched drama The Blue Angels was led to believe.

McHale’s Navy (ABC 1962–1966)

With President John Kennedy’s Camelot in full swing, television producers wanted to take advantage of the public’s infatuation with the president by creating a series inspired by his wartime service as a Navy officer in command of PT-109. Somehow they allowed this concept to be mutated into a zany comedy about Lt. Cmdr. Quinton McHale (played by real-life Navy veteran and Academy Award winner Ernest Borgnine) and his crew of misfits and schemers—a group always looking to beat the system. McHale’s Navy is Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko character at sea. By the final season, the writers apparently ran out of ideas or got bored because they changed the setting of the show from the Pacific to a small town in Italy.

Ensign O’Toole (NBC 1962–1963)

Equally inoffensive and unremarkable, the light comedy Ensign O’Toole starred Dean Jones as a rakish Navy officer who does his best to avoid doing actual work on board his ship. Jones would go on to almost rival Mickey Mouse as the face of Disney during the 1960s and ’70s because of his regular appearances in the studio’s family films, such as The Love Bug. The series was filmed aboard the USS Frank E. Evans, a destroyer that later become one of the few ships that the U.S. Navy has lost since World War II when it was cut in half by a collision with the Australian Navy’s Melbourne in 1969.

The Lieutenant (NBC 1963–1964)

A show about a newly minted Marine officer, The Lieutenant was a standard service drama that earned a place as a pop culture footnote by virtue of being the first TV series created by Gene Roddenberry. Fans of Roddenberry’s Star Trek will spot a lot of familiar faces and perhaps learn some trivia they can use at conventions to stump fellow trekkies (or trekkers if you prefer)—such as the fact that Lt. William Rice and Capt. James Kirk share the same unusual middle name of Tiberius.

Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (CBS 1964–1969)

Although Private Gomer Pyle did not seem to fit the image of the Leathernecks found on recruiting posters, the Marines gave the show’s producers total cooperation because it was believed that the sitcom provided positive publicity and boosted enlistments. It probably helped that the show ran for five seasons during the peak of fighting in South East Asia but never once mentioned Vietnam. The series ended when star Jim Nabors quit to pursue opportunities that would showcase his baritone singing voice, but the public has never stopped seeing him as Gomer.

Broadside (ABC 1964–1965)

The 1960s yielded a bumper crop of Navy TV shows, but Broadside should be considered part of the chaff. The producers of McHale’s Navy hoped to replicate the success of that show—about hijinks in the South Pacific—so they created a new series focusing on a group of attractive WAVES stationed on a remote base full of men, hence the “broad” in the pun-ish title. The show’s jokes got even weaker from there.

Convoy (NBC 1965)

An action drama about the efforts to transport supplies across the Atlantic while avoiding German U-boats, Convoy wss filmed in black and white to take advantage of the same stock footage from WWII was used to produce the docu-series Victory at Sea a decade earlier. Competing on the 1965 TV schedule against Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle, and The Addams Family, Convoy was torpedoed in the ratings and quickly slipped below the airwaves.

Mister Roberts (NBC 1965–1966)

The 1946 novel Mister Roberts was a best-seller. The 1948 Broadway production Mister Roberts won the Tony Award for best play. The star-studded 1955 film Mister Roberts is considered a classic of American cinema. The 1965 weekly TV series Mister Roberts? Meh. Roger Smith stars as the titular character in this middling sitcom, but is given his orders of separation by the network after only one season.

The Wackiest Ship in the Army (NBC 1965–1966)

The TV version of the 1960 film The Wackiest Ship in the Army followed the adventures of a Navy lieutenant and Army major who share command of a two-masted schooner used to ferry spies in the Pacific during WWII, because the wooden hull does not register on radar. Probably the most amazing aspect of the premise is that it was inspired by a true story.

Baa Baa Black Sheep (a.k.a. Black Sheep Squadron; NBC 1976–1978)

Though the anachronistic feathered hairstyles of some of the pilots make it look as if they are about to go to a disco instead of fight the Japanese, this action-adventure show depicted the fictionalized WWII exploits of VMF-214, better known as the Black Sheep Squadron. Baa Baa Black Sheep had a strong cast, including Robert Conrad as the legendary Pappy Boyington, but the gorgeous gull-winged F4U Corsairs are the real stars of the show.

CPO Sharkey (NBC 1976–1978)

Loud and abrasive comedian Don Rickles played a loud and abrasive chief petty officer in this sitcom set at a Naval training center. The ethnically and culturally diverse cast ensured that Rickles had plenty of targets for his patented brand of insult humor. Audiences of the 1970s would be shocked at the degree of graphic sex and violence on today’s TV, but modern viewers likely would be stunned by the politically incorrect jokes that anchored CPO Sharkey.

Operation Petticoat (ABC 1977–1979)

John Astin takes the Carey Grant role in this small screen adaption of the hit 1959 film of the same name. Already dealing with an antiquated submarine that is painted pink, Astin’s LCDR Sherman has the additional challenge of minimizing the shenanigans between his crew and a group of nurses who are hitching a ride (including one played by a young Jamie Lee Curtis). The show provided Jim Varney with his one of his first regular paychecks before achieving inexplicable success in commercials, movies and TV as the character Ernest P. Worrell.

Emerald Point N.A.S. (CBS 1983–1984)

Emerald Point N.A.S. was prime-time soap that essentially was Dynasty in dress whites. The series takes all the power struggles, backbiting and romance out of the world of private finance and places them in the community of a fictional naval air station while adding a bit of international intrigue. Even with a large cast of familiar faces, the series was not able to attract enough of an audience to earn a second season.

Supercarrier (ABC 1988)

A drama aboard the fictitious USS Georgetown, Supercarrier tried to capitalize on the mid-1980s popularity of both Top Gun and Crocodile Dundee by putting an Australian F-14 pilot——who wears a bush hat with his flight suit and seems to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about kangaroos—in the U.S. Navy. Because it was set in peacetime with none of the dogfights that made Top Gun so thrilling, audiences found Supercarrier super dull and the show was canceled during its first season.

Major Dad (CBS 1989–1993)

Gerald McRaney (best known for Simon & Simon) is well cast as the gung-ho Leatherneck who has to balance his duties as a Marine with his family life—husband to a liberal journalist and the father of three daughters.

Pensacola: Wings of Gold (Syndicated 1997–2000)

Although the setting of the adventure series Pensacola: Wings of Gold was a naval air station in the Florida panhandle, the appearance of mountains, palm trees and a few other out-of-place elements revealed that the action was actually taking place in Southern California. International audiences did not seem to mind those errors in geography—Pensacola: Wings of Gold briefly joined Baywatch as one of America’s most popular syndicated TV exports.

JAG (NBC 1995, CBS 1997–2005)

The military legal drama JAG was a bit of a slow burner that did not ignite a large audience until it was picked up by CBS a year after NBC had canceled it. After failing to win the support of the Navy during the first seasons, the producers received cooperation from the Pentagon for the second incarnation, which helped the series become a hit.

NCIS (CBS 2003– )

A spinoff from JAG, NCIS has become an institution itself by being a consistent ratings winner while also launching spinoffs of its own—NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans. The show began life as Navy NCIS before the producers finally accepted that adding “Navy” to the acronym for Naval Criminal Investigative Service was redundant.

The Last Resort (ABC 2012–2013)

A Navy submarine becomes an unwitting pawn in a global conspiracy and the captain is forced to use nuclear weapons to hold the world hostage until the truth can be revealed. Despite respectable reviews and a plot heavy on intrigue, The Last Resort had disappointing ratings and was not renewed for a second season. Viewers who stuck with the show were at least rewarded with a proper conclusion when the producers quickly revised the intended season-ending cliffhanger to serve as the series finale.