Monday, September 14, 2015

F Troop Turns 50

At least in the United States, the Sixties were filled with television shows that lasted only two to three seasons, but proved to be huge hits in syndication nonetheless. In fact, what is possibly the all time champion in syndicated reruns lasted for only three seasons from 1964 to 1967, Gilligan's Island. My Favourite Martian, The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Batman all only lasted two or three seasons, but have persisted in syndication to this day. Among these shows numbers F Troop. Debuting in 1965, it ended its original network run in 1967. Nevertheless, it has persisted as a syndicated rerun ever since. It was fifty years ago today, on September 14 1965 at 9:00 PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central, that F Troop debuted on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

F Troop centred on the fictional United States Cavalry troop of the same name, who were based out of the fictional outpost Fort Courage somewhere in the American West following the Civil War. F Troop was commanded by Captain Wilton Parmenter (played by Ken Berry). While Captain Parmenter came from a long line of distinguished military officers, he was not a particularly competent military man himself. In fact, during the Civil War he was a mere private in the Quartermaster Corps. As he rode his horse to retrieve his commanding officer's laundry, he began sneezing. The soldiers around him took his sneezes as a command to charge. The end result was that Parmenter inadvertently turned what could have been a defeat into a victory. Parmenter was awarded a medal and commissioned as a captain for his role in winning the battle. He was also assigned the command of Fort Courage.

Captain Parmenter was barely competent as a commanding officer, often clueless as to what was going on around him and apt to stab himself with his own sabre. This proved to be a bit of a blessing for his two non-commissioned officers, Sgt.  Morgan O'Rourke (played by Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Randolph Agarn (played by Larry Storch), who had long engaged in some very shady business dealings. Not only did they run the saloon in town, but they also had a secret business partnership with the local American Indian tribe, the Hekawis. The Hekawis manufactured various trinkets and souvenirs, that would be sold by Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn, all under the heading of "O'Rourke Enterprises". As to the Hekawis themselves, they were a pacifistic tribe (as often said by Chief Wild Eagle, played by Frank de Kova, "Hekawi not fighters! Hekawi lovers!"). They could also be as mercenary as Sgt. O'Rourke or Corporal Agarn.

Fortunately for the peace loving Hekawi, they were under no threat from F Troop. There could be little doubt that they were the worst troop in the U.S. Cavalry. Private Dobbs (played by James Hampton) was the troop's bugler, even though he could barely play a note. Trooper Vanderbilt (played by Joe Brooks) was the troop's lookout, even though he could barely see with his glasses on. Trooper Duffy (Bob Steele) was positively ancient and had claimed to be the sole survivor of the Battle of the Alamo. Had Fort Courage been attacked by an Indian tribe other than the Hekawis, one has to suspect F Troop would have been wiped out.

Far more competent than any of F Troop or the Hekawis was the young owner of the town's trading post and operator of its post office, Wrangler Jane Thrift (played by Melody Patterson). While Wrangler Jane was blonde and beautiful, she could outshoot, outfight, and out-rope anyone around. She was acknowledged as the best person with a gun in the entire territory. For some inexplicable reason Wrangler Jane was in love with Captain Parmenter and was always trying to get him to marry her. It is to be noted that while Captain Parmenter often tried to discourage Wrangler Jane in her affections, he could become very jealous if any other man showed an interest in her.

Richard Bluel was credited as the creator of F Troop in its opening credits, although in truth it would difficult to attribute the creation of F Troop to any one person. Richard Bluel had written for such shows as Man with a Camera and Bourbon Street Beat and he had produced the shows The Gallant Men and Temple Houston. It was Richard Bluel who came up with the initial premise of F Troop, that of a U. S. Cavalry sergeant who has a deal with the local Indians to make money. Richard Bluel had the premise of F Troop written as a two page summary by Jim Barnett, who had written for such shows as Lawman, Maverick, Sugarfoot, and 77 Sunset Strip. This two page summary was then given to writers Seaman Jacobs and Ed James, who wrote the script for the show's pilot, "Scourge of the West". Seaman Jacobs had written for such shows as Bachelor Father, The Real McCoys, Petticoat Junction, and Make Room for Daddy. Ed James had created the characters for the long running domestic comedy Father Knows Best and had written for such shows as Leave It to Beaver, Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, and Petticoat Junction. It was Messrs. Jacobs and James who fleshed out Richard Bluel's initial concept, essentially developing the characters and milieu of F Troop. The show's creation could then probably best be attributed to Richard Bluel, Seaman Jacobs, and Ed James.

Hollywood veteran Forrest Tucker was cast in the lead role of Sgt. O'Rourke on F Troop. Mr. Tucker had a career in film that went back to The Westerner in 1940. Over the years he had appeared in several Westerns. In the Fifties, like many actors, his career shifted increasingly to television. He played Crunch Adams in the short lived show Crunch and Des and had made several guest appearances on other shows. Cast in the role of Corporal Agarn, Larry Storch also had considerable experience. He had started out as a stand up comic and was particularly known for his impersonations of celebrities. By the time of F Troop he had already guest starred on several variety shows, as well as such shows as The Phil Silvers Show, Hennessey, and Gilligan's Island. He was the voice of Phineas J. Whoopee on the Saturday morning cartoon Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales.

Cast as Captain Parmenter, Ken Berry had begun his career as a song and dance man. He played recurring roles on The Ann Sothern Show and Ensign O'Toole. He made several guest appearances on other shows, including one on the short lived George Burns and Connie Stevens sitcom Wendy & Me (the episode "Wendy's Secret Wedding"). It was his guest appearance on Wendy & Me that would lead to him being cast as Captain Parmenter, both George Burns and Connie Stevens recommending him. Of the four leads on F Troop, only Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane did not have a good deal of experience in front of the camera. Her only credits before starring on F Troop was an uncredited, bit part in the film Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and a guest appearance on Wendy & Me. In fact, at the time she auditioned for the role of Wrangler Jane she was only fifteen--she had lied about her age in order to get the part. She turned 16 by the time production was started and by the time her actual age was discovered it was much too late to recast the part of Wrangler Jane.

Especially for a half hour sitcom, F Troop was not particularly inexpensive to produce. After all, the show required the construction of a 19th Century cavalry fort, Fort Courage. Fort Courage was built on Warner Bros.' "Tatum Ranch", an area adjacent to the studio's famous "Laramie Street" on the studio's backlot. Fort Courage, including its famous watchtower (which was constantly falling over), was patterned as closely as possible after the fort of the same name in the cavalry Western Fort Dobbs (1958). This was done so that stock footage from the film could be used any time  there was a fight with the Indians. Reportedly many of the higher ups at Warner Bros. were none too happy with the amount of money spent on a half hour television sitcom or the space Fort Courage occupied on the Warner backlot, including Jack L. Warner himself.

Given the expense in producing F Troop, it should come as no surprise that both ABC (then the third rated and smallest of the broadcast networks) and Warner Bros. decided the show would be shot in black and white. This was at a time when nearly all of NBC's primetime line up was in colour--as of the 1965-1966 season only I Dream of Jeannie and the World War II drama Convoy aired in black and white. CBS was not far behind NBC, with about half of its primetime programmes aired in colour. ABC, always the third rated network and the one with the fewest affiliates of the three, would see only around one-third of its programming aired in colour during the 1965-1966 season.

The theme for F Troop, as well as the bulk of the music featured on the show, was composed by William Lava, who had scored a number of radio shows as well as many Warner Bros. animated shorts. During the first season, like many show of the Sixties, the theme song explained much of the premise of the show, such as how Captain Parmenter came to command Fort Courage and the relationship between the calvary unit and the Indians.

F Troop debuted on Tuesday, September 14 1965. Contrary to popular belief, the show received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, according to an article by Roger Youman in the December 25 1965 issue of TV Guide. out of a survey of 40 newspaper columnists, 80% recommended F Troop. This made it the most critically acclaimed of the 35 new shows to debut in the 1965-1966 season. This was a considerable feat given fall 1965 saw the debut of such other classic shows as Run for Your Life, Green Acres, The Dean Martin Show, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, and Get Smart. F Troop also fared well in the ratings. While it did not rank in the top thirty shows for the 1965-1966 season, its ratings remained above a 32 share.

Quite naturally F Troop  was renewed for a second season. The 1966-1967 season saw F Troop moved to a new night and time, Thursday night at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central. It also saw the show make the transition to colour. Unfortunately this meant that F Troop lost its opening credits, complete with the theme song explaining the show's premise. The new opening credits featured drawings of the characters (they always reminded me of something from Mad magazine) and the instrumental version of the theme that was used during the closing credits of the second season.

Despite the move to a new time, F Troop fared well in the ratings during its second season. The show finished the season ranked no. 40 for the year with a 31.3 share. It was also ABC's second highest rated situation comedy after Bewitched. Larry Storch even received a nomination for the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series

On third rated ABC the ratings for F Troop in its second season would have generally warranted the renewal of a show, but sadly the second season of F Troop would be its last. And in fact, it was not ABC that cancelled F Troop. Instead it was Warner Bros. who decided to end production of the sitcom. As mentioned earlier there were those at Warner Bros. who were not happy with the expense spent on a primetime television sitcom. For its second season F Troop went $3000 over budget. This did not make Benny Kalmenson, then a vice president at Warner Bros, happy. Kalmenson then ended production on the series.

Of course, Warner Bros.' cancellation of F Troop did not mean the end of the show. F Troop immediately went into syndication where it has remained ever since. In addition to various local TV stations, it aired on Nick at Nite in the 1990s and currently airs on ME-TV. The entire series has also been released on DVD.

As to why F Troop has proven so successful over the years, that is difficult to say. In many respects F Troop was very much a product of its time. The mid-Sixties saw a cycle towards spoofs and parodies that produced such shows as Get Smart, Batman, Pistols 'n' Petticoats, and Captain Nice, among others. As a spoof on Westerns F Troop was very much in keeping with the many other parodies airing on television at the time. The Sixties also saw a very protracted cycle towards farces and at time very broad and even surreal comedies. It was the era of Dobie Gillis, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, The Monkees, and yet other shows that sometimes played fast and loose with reality. With plenty of slapstick, comic misunderstandings, often complicated plots, and sometimes absurd jokes, F Troop fit in perfectly with the various farces and often surreal comedies that aired in the Sixties.

While F Troop was very much a product of the Sixties, however, it was also in many respects very original. It would be hard to deny that Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn's money making schemes echo those of Sgt. Bilko on The Phil Silvers Show and  Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale on McHale's Navy (which F Troop followed in its first season). That having been said, F Troop  was a far cry from The Phil Silvers Show in the Old West. While many episodes centred on Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn's swindles, there were many more that centred on Captain Parmenter and yet other characters. What is more in some respects F Troop could be downright subversive in its comedy.

Indeed, the subversiveness of F Troop's comedy can be seen in the portrayal of the Hekawis. A lesser sitcom would have traded on American Indian stereotypes for their "humour". This was not the case with F Troop, which totally subverted stereotypes by taking traditionally Jewish stereotypes and applying them to the Hewkawis. Indeed, an inordinately large number of Hekawis were played by Jewish comics. Ultimately F Troop showed the ludicrousness of ethnic stereotypes by taking the stereotype of one ethnicity and applying it to another one. In other respects F Troop mocked the stereotypes found in Westerns prior to and during the Sixties. Wild Eagle might speak in the broken English used by Tonto on The Lone Ranger and American Indians in various films and TV shows when addressing Captain Parmenter, then speak in perfect English to his fellow Hekawi in an aside.

F Troop also tended to be a bit revolutionary in its portrayal of Wrangler Jane. At a time when many women on television were still housewives or secretaries, Wrangler Jane not only owned her own business, but she could also shoot and fight better than most men. Alongside such characters as Emma Peel on The Avengers and Honey West on the show of the same name, Wrangler Jane was in some respects a revolutionary character. She was an independent young woman who could take care of herself and handle herself in most situations.

F Troop also tended to be a bit subversive in that while it was set in the Old West, the show worked in references to modern society all the same. Rock music was parodied. The Playboy Clubs were parodied. The show even managed to parody the then current spy craze with the episode "Spy, Counterspy, Counter Counterspy". Of course, F Troop may have been at its most subversive in that the show had an altogether anti-authoritarian tone. Except for Sgt. O'Rourke and possibly Corporal Agarn (both of who are crooks), all of the men of F Troop were incompetent as soldiers. Whenever someone from the regular Army arrived at Fort Courage, they were portrayed in an unsympathetic light and often as either boors or buffoons. It should be little wonder that F Troop would be popular during the Sixties, at a time when resentment towards the country's involvement in Vietnam was growing steadily. F Troop was not necessarily anti-military or anti-war, but it certainly took an irreverent approach to both.

Ultimately F Troop has lasted because it is a show that could be enjoyed on multiple levels. It could enjoyed as a spoof of the Western genre. It could be enjoyed as a farce. It could even occasionally be enjoyed as a  send up of Sixties popular culture. F Troop has remained popular for fifty years. One has to believe that it will remain popular for the next fifty years.
Credit Where Credit Is Due Department: The information on the ratings for F Troop and the details behind its cancellation come from F Troop superfan Hal Horn's excellent blog The Horn Section. Many thanks to Hal for his hard work!


Hal Horn said...

You're very welcome Terry, and thanks for a great and detailed writeup! Sharing it.

armns said...

Melody Patterson recently past away this month

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks, Hal!

Yes,armns, I know. I eulogised her earlier on this blog.