Question: As I remember, McHale's Navy moved from the Pacific to Italy. Why? Thank you for answering this. Harold S., Jacksonville, Fla.
Televisionary: The simple answer? After three seasons and 108 episodes, the folks behind ABC's World War II comedy, which kicked off in October 1962, thought it was time for a new look and locale.
"After three years in the Pacific, we thought the Allied and Japanese forces had had enough of McHale," producer Si Rose told TV Guide writer Peter Bogdanovich (yes, that Peter Bogdanovich) in 1965. "You know, new enemy, new relationships, a new dimension for McHale. We'll say he had an Italian grandmother and understands Italian. Which, of course, Ernie [Borgnine, the show's star] does. The ratings have held up pretty well, but next year we'll be up against Skelton and Kildare, both in color, and so really we're anticipating."
For the cast's part, Joe Flynn, who played the irascible Captain Binghamton, had the most to say about it. In fact, he took credit for the idea. "I don't think anyone will agree, but I think I suggested the move," he said. "I thought it would give a new physical look blue uniforms instead of khaki. And I thought we'd actually go to Europe.... But we're not. We're just changing the phony palm trees to phony olive trees."
As for how the change would affect McHale's prospects, Flynn was a realist. "It'll either get the series renewed for three more years or it'll destroy it and we'll end this year."
It certainly wasn't the first major change the McHale folks were forced to make. They'd already proven their flexibility just by getting the series on the air, since the pilot was initially shot, with Borgnine in the lead, as an hour-long adventure. Called Seven Against the Sea, it never sold. So the powers that be decided to make it funny, surround Borgnine with comic actors such as Flynn, Tim Conway and Carl Ballantine, and mine it (no pun intended) for humor. Amazingly, Borgnine didn't need his funny colleagues to bail him out, laughs-wise. He was quite adept at comedy, and having them around just helped it work all the better.
But you couldn't blame the producers for wondering whether Borgnine could work with gags, considering how he first came into the spotlight. As the sadistic Sgt. Fatso Judson in From Here to Eternity, Borgnine was introduced to the public as the villain who killed Frank Sinatra, and was so good in the role that many in the audience just assumed he wasn't acting. (It got so bad that when the crowd hissed the actor's on-screen Judson in a New Haven movie theater, his father stood up to address the audience. "I beg your pardon," he said, "but that happens to be my son and he is a very nice boy!")
Borgnine shook the Fatso image and won an Oscar as a lovelorn butcher in Paddy Chayefsky's Marty, but then had to contend with being under contract to Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster, who didn't know what to do with him. Borgnine eventually sued the pair and ended up paying more than $500,000 to buy himself out of the deal. He then went on to make headlines by leaving his wife and marrying actress Katy Jurado, who helped keep him in the papers with three years of tempestuous marriage before heading back to Mexico.
When first offered the McHale pilot, Borgnine refused because he considered himself to be a big-picture man. But he realized he might actually need TV to save his stalled career when a young boy dropped by his Beverly Hills house to sell him some candy. "[O]ne day this kid rings my doorbell, trying to peddle some chocolate bars," Borgnine recalled in 1963. "I'm just reaching into my pocket when he looks at me kinda funny. 'I know you,' he says. 'You're you're —.' 'I'm Richard Boone,' I say. 'Naw,' he says, 'You're not Boone, you're —.' 'Ernest Borgnine,' I say. 'Oh,' says the kid. 'And what do you do?' Well, I called my agent and told him, 'We take the series.'"
A good move, certainly, but it was one that came with a little mayhem. The producers wondered how Borgnine would react to possibly being upstaged by his more experienced comic cohorts. Very well, for the most part, except for the time he and Flynn were supposed to stage a McHale-Binghamton fight for a scene and it turned into a real dustup. In a later interview, Flynn wrote it off as the kind of tension generated by two people who spend a lot of time working together.
True? Well, we'll have to take Flynn at his word. After all, when he predicted the move to Italy would either make or break the show, he proved to be quite prescient. That was its final season.