Black Sheep Squadron had a great pedigree – a hot producer, major star, exciting historical premise and great young cast. The series still struggled for two seasons to find an audience before disappearing into television history.
Very loosely based on the story of squadron leader Greg “Pappy” Boyington, Black Sheep Squadron starred Robert Conrad, a couple of veteran actors – Dana Elcar and Simon Oakland; and a bunch of young turks. The original series name was Baa Baa Black Sheep.
Major Boyington was a hot-shot fighter pilot with many “kills” to his record. He is assigned to command a group of misfits, like members of Delta House from Animal House. These pilots are always in trouble and sometimes brawling with themselves. It is their results in the sky, and the interference of Boyington, that saves them from being court-martialed by Col. Lard, the equivalent of Capt. Binghamton from McHale’s Navy. General Moore is there to help keep the squadron together.
The television series was created by Stephen J. Cannell, who had just scored a hit co-creating and producing The Rockford Files. Cannell had moved quickly through the ranks, joining Universal under contract as a writer, and quickly serving as story editor/writer for Jack Webb’ Adam-12. Cannell would go on to produce more than 40 television series and own a production studio before he passed away. I will write something about him later.
Black Sheep Squadron aired for two seasons (1976-1978), a total of 36 episodes, spread over three years. Ratings were a problem for the series, which wasn’t really a military action show, as much as it was a dramedy. Yes, there were dogfights in each episode, some small arms fire and some fisticuffs, but it was all very PG-rating, anything deadly happens off screen. There is about as much war as you got in M*A*S*H the television show.
Black Sheep Squadron was cancelled after the first season but was renewed for an additional 13 episodes. To boast ratings, the series tried introducing a group of attractive nurses to the cast, but that did not help attract viewers.
If you look at the production credits, you see many future writers, directors, producers and actors working on this show. In fact, you find a core group that would go on to series like Magnum, P.I., Greatest American Hero, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Jag and NCIS. Besides Cannell, writer Donald P. Bellesario would go on to create/produce several long-running dramatic series, including NCIS.
After The Wild Wild West, Conrad starred in several other series before Black Sheep Squadron. He did the D.A. for Jack Webb and Assignment: Vienna, neither series lasted a full season. The character of Pappy Boyington seemed written for the maverick Conrad.
The Black Sheep flyers included: James Whitmore, Jr., John Larroquette, Larry Manetti, Jeff MacKay, W.K. Stratton, Dirk Blocker, and Robert Ginty. Each would go on to a respectable career.
Whitmore, J.R. continued acting, mostly in guest roles on television, but became a busy television director. His directing credits include: Madam Secretary, 24, Blue Bloods, The Good Wife and NCIS.
Larroquette had both a television and film career. He played Assistant District Attorney Dan Fielding in Night Court, where he won four of his five Emmy Awards. He has been a regular on numerous television series including The Librarians, The Practice and McBride.
Manetti is best known as Rick on Magnum, P.I. He has appeared in many series, television movies and a few feature films.
MacKay would have a re-occurring role on Magnum, P.I. and appear on a number of other series. He passed away several years ago.
Stratton would appear on several of Bellasario’s productions like Jag and Quantum Leap.
Blocker was the son of the late actor actor Dan Blocker. The younger Blocker appeared in numerous television series and films. He currently has a role in long-running series Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Ginty went on to have a role in the television adaption of Paper Chase, before establishing a beachhead in low budget action films. He wrote, directed and starred in numerous films like The Bounty Hunter. He directed many television series and continued acting, until he passed away in 2010.
In the last episode of season two, Peter Frampton played a British flyer who had been living on an island after being shot-down. Being marooned explains his long hair.
In season one, Red West joined the cast as part of the ground crew. West had a colorful life, he was one of Elvis Presley’s body guards, and co-wrote several song Presley recorded including “Separate Ways,” before turning to acting. He also appeared in the film Road House.
The real star of the show were the F4U Corsair. The airplane began service as a ground-based aircraft in WWII, but was later approved for carrier-based operations. A fighter-bomber, the Corsair was a versatile aircraft. It was big and heavy, but also fast and capable of fast climb and dives. The Corsairs and Japanese Zeroes engaged in many air battles, as represented in the series. Eight Corsairs were used on the television series, five of which had served in combat. The airplane was also used in Korea and had service elsewhere in the world. The Black Sheep Squadron was island-based, but also had on carrier mission on the television show.
Conrad passed away this February at the age of 84.
Black Sheep Squadron can be seen Saturday nights at 6 p.m. on the Heroes and Icons channel.