Question: Would you please describe for me The Rat Patrol, the TV program about the group of soldiers riding in a jeep in the desert? It was my son's favorite program! I recall that the group appeared on the cover of TV Guide. Thanks! Glenn S., Calgary, Alta., Canada
Televisionary: That I will, Glenn. The Rat Patrol, which ran on ABC for two years beginning in September 1966, was based on the exploits of the real-life British Long Range Desert Group and focused on three Yanks and a Brit fighting the Germans of the Afrika Korps in North Africa during World War II. Sgt. Jack Moffitt (Gary Raymond), a demolitions expert, was the lone Englishman of the crew commanded by Sgt. Sam Troy (Christopher George). Youngster Pvt. Mark Hitchcock (Lawrence P. Casey) and Pvt. Tully Pettigrew (Justin Tarr) rounded out the Rat Patrollers, who tooled around the desert making life miserable for the remarkably slow German tanks and their remarkably myopic gunners, who were the worst shots in that or any war, it would seem.The series was the brainchild of writer-producer-director Tom Gries, who dreamt it up and sold the ABC execs on it and was soon handed his walking papers for his troubles. Don't cry too hard for him, though. As creator, he was paid just the same his deal called for 20 percent of the action, plus royalties and collected a fat check for staying away from the production, which, as it turned out, was probably the best job anyone on the show had. It's a complex story that'd be way too boring to go into here, but laying out a few of the details illustrates why the phenomenon of runaway costs, behind-the-scenes bickering and various other types of misfortune on a hit series isn't a recent Hollywood development. You see, the idea of a combat-oriented show based in the desert sounds really nifty. But then you have to go shoot the thing and the hazards of doing that became apparent with the pilot itself, which Gries directed. Working in Yuma, Ariz., in 118-degree temperatures, the production faced lost time when its jeeps broke down, more lost time when George was pulled away to shoot a previously contracted feature and plagued by general budget overruns. Suddenly, shooting at the Army's Camp Irwin in Barstow, CA, seemed like a great idea... until the Army pulled out at the last second. Then shooting in Almería, Spain, where production units from The Great Escape and The Battle of the Bulge left an assortment of tanks, trucks, troop carriers, mortars and artillery pieces behind, seemed like an even better idea. So off they went. Well, I suppose it seemed like a good idea. For 17 weeks they lived in a town that boasted water un-safe even for toothbrushing, never mind drinking. The whole place stank of fish and sewage. Everyone got hit with intestinal flu or dysentery. George lost 20 pounds. All the actors and the director hated the scripts. Hans Gudegast, who played the role of German nemesis Hauptman Hans Dietrich using his real name but would later change it to Eric Braeden, thought his role was a caricature. Everyone battled with producer Stan Shpetner to the point where one day director John Peyser told him: "All right, beat it! Fire me or beat it!" After thinking about it, Shpetner beat it and was humiliated when his jeep hit a sand bog, throwing him out of the vehicle, in front of a 65-person crew. And so it went. Finding Spanish Army soldiers tall enough to play Germans was a challenge. Three days of action footage was lost in transit. The crew was forced to work in a 70-mile-an-hour wind storm for seven days straight. George injured his knee jumping from one jeep to another. Casey and Tarr likewise banged themselves up on various moving vehicles; they were rained out for three days in a row; the second-unit director quit and the production manager no surprise here developed a bleeding ulcer. Then the worst happened: The show debuted and was an instant hit, so everybody had to keep it up. Luckily for all involved, production moved back to the States, where the water was potable, but, unfortunately, gravity still held sway so the injuries continued. (Fans may remember, for example, an episode where Moffitt held off a whole host of Germans who couldn't even get their man when his leg was in a cast. The cast was real, since he broke his ankle and George suffered a concussion when their jeep turned over during shooting, so the writers banged out an emergency script to address the mishap.) If that seems less than realistic, that's because it was, which was either a problem or a selling point, depending on your take on the series. Certainly, TV Guide reviewer and actor Cleveland Amory took that into account when he recommended The Rat Patrol only to those who want "fast action, plenty plot, real he-man dialog, tough good guys and honest-to-badness bad guys and don't care about nuances of characterization, changes of scenery, girls and other unimportant matters." Overseas, the show ran into audience problems, too. It was shown in England briefly, but was pulled off the air when British viewers objected to an American leading the charge in that particular campaign. (That's not the only time that happened, by the way the British audience didn't take to HBO's Band of Brothers for similar reasons. Not that I'm criticizing them in any way, mind you. Given the Brits's track record as a tough-as-nails, stalwart ally when the world gets ugly, they've more than earned their right to an opinion on these matters.) And it's not like those working on the show didn't do their own laughing. "It was a total farce, a cartoon," Braeden said of the show nearly 20 years later. "It was the height of wishful thinking, that two American jeeps with guns mounted on them could defeat whatever the Germans put against them." True enough. And it's safe to assume, then, that Hogan's Heroes must've really gotten under his skin.