Question: Settle a dispute for me. Wasn't Black Sheep Squadron based on the real-life career of Pappy Boyington? Marshall F., Fort Laramie, Wyo.
Televisionary: In theory it was, Marshall. Certainly, Maj. Gregory "Pappy" Boyington himself, who served as a technical advisor to the NBC series, said so when publicizing it, as did executive producer Stephen J. Cannell. But others who flew in Boyington's World War II Marine Corps in the South Pacific disagreed strongly.
In fact, Medal of Honor winner Joe Foss, who shot down 26 enemy planes only two fewer than Boyington himself called the series "overdone and absurd" in a 1977 TV Guide review. That same year, Frank E. Walton, the unit's intelligence officer, said the show was "as phony as a three-dollar bill," adding it was "like putting a Patek Philippe watch in a Mickey Mouse case."
The series launched as Baa Baa Black Sheep in September 1976 NBC execs changed it to Black Sheep Squadron in December 1977 because, they said, research indicated viewers thought it was a kids' show. It left the air two years later after all sorts of difficulties, but sure seemed like a good enough idea in the beginning, when Universal bought the rights to Boyington's memoir and sold the show, which focused on the "misfits and oddballs" who made up the unit, to the network. Then all the trouble started.
The executive who bought the show was canned, and his replacement wasn't married to the concept. So he put it up against ABC's Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on Tuesdays essentially a death sentence, since those shows were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the ratings at the time. The problems then piled on as the critics slammed it and, as I said, those who were actually there vilified it for its factual liberties.
First, according to Walton, both the title and the show's main conceit were off. The Black Sheep squadron wasn't called that because no one else wanted its members. It was called that because its unit number, VMF 214, initially belonged to a squadron whose commander was killed, leading the brass to send its members off to Australia to recuperate. The number being available, it was handed to a new group of fliers who originally wanted to call themselves "Boyington's Bastards." When a Marine P.R. officer suggested "Black Sheep" because newspapers wouldn't print the word "bastard," they followed his advice. And far from being misfit 18- and 19-year-olds on the verge of being court-martialed, as the show portrayed them, the men of VMF 214 were older average age 23.5. Of the 48 pilots in the group, 21 were experienced before they joined the unit and 15 of them accounted for 16 Japanese planes shot down before ever coming under Boyington's command, which gave them more combat flying time than he had in the beginning. And none of them ever faced any disciplinary action.
"I recently rounded up 18 of them, including Boyington, for a reunion in Hawaii," Walton wrote in 1977. "He insisted the TV show was not supposed to be a documentary and admitted that 'considerable liberty' had been taken with the facts, as is Hollywood's style.... I'm sure he got the message that we're not too happy with that image. I would expect that we'll see and hear considerably less of that if the TV show stays on the air."
Well, not quite. In fact, more was on the way. The show did unexpectedly well in the face of its brutal competition, due in part to fans who wanted to see the combat footage contributed by the Defense Department. And when NBC canceled it just the same, Conrad and Cannell lobbied affiliates and the network suits hard to keep it on the schedule. The result: NBC ordered five more episodes and kept it on standby, which came in handy when a good many of its new offerings went down in flames. The order was increased to 13 episodes, and changes beyond the new title were put in the works.
In December 1977, Black Sheep returned and was dropped into a new slot, opposite Charlie's Angels. To fight that, ABC hit with some jiggle of their own, Conrad and Cannell created Pappy's Lambs, a four-woman nursing squad based on the island. Nobody tried to hide the intent behind the move. The four ladies were described in a network press release as "willowy" and "perky." One young lady was called "a long-haired brunette with a well-packed uniform" while another had "no-no on her lips and yes-yes in her eyes."
No-no, it didn't work. The series was moved to Thursdays, back to Wednesdays, and then to Fridays before it was dropped for good the following fall. And before you ask: No, there were never any nurses hanging out with the real Black Sheep Squadron. "Both boozing and women were nonexistent to most of those who served in this area of the Pacific," Foss wrote.