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Service comedies have always been a television staple, with "Sgt. Bilko"
defining the genre in the 50s, and "M.A.S.H." adding tragedy to the formula
in the 70s, but the true halcyon years for military humor were, undoubtedly,
the 60s, a decade that produced "Gomer Pyle, USMC", "No Time for Sergeants",
"McHale's Navy", "Broadside" (a women-in-uniform comedy whose title would
have feminists reeling, today), "Mister Roberts", and this 1962 entry,
"Ensign O'Toole", a light but very pleasant NBC comedy that ran a little
over a season before being 'discharged'.
Starring a young Dean Jones as O'Toole, before he replaced Fred MacMurray as Disney's favorite leading man, the shipboard adventures generally involved schemes, concocted by rich but befuddled Lt. Rex St. John (Jack Mullaney) or conniving but likable Seaman Gabby Di Julio (Harvey Lembeck), that would inevitably fall apart, and require O'Toole's quick thinking to prevent discovery and retribution by Lt. Cmdr. Virgil Stoner (Jack Albertson, long before "Chico and the Man"). While the basic formula was predictable, veteran producer Jack Sonntag was not unwilling to experiment, occasionally offering a musical-themed episode, or a storyline geared to a guest star.
A favorite episode featured guest Stubby Kaye as an obese sailor facing discharge unless he shed his excess weight. Despite O'Toole's diet and exercise regimen, the sailor seemed to be gaining weight, not losing it (he had stashed goodies all over the ship). Finally, O'Toole, realizing he couldn't 'force' Kaye to lose weight, gave him an "It's up to you" speech, which hit home. Kaye started dieting and exercising in earnest, and passed his physical, then transferred to submarine service. "If I gain weight there," he quipped, "we'll submerge!"
Lacking the "Country Boy vs. Tough D.I." comic opportunities of "Gomer Pyle", or the 'Bilko'-like shenanigans of "McHale's Navy", "Ensign O'Toole" was, perhaps, too sweet-natured to become a hit series, but it could bring a smile, and was as affable as it's good-natured star.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I do remember the Stubby Kaye episode, but I think my favorite was the
"destroyer syndrome" story.
IIRC, a martinet transferred in from a carrier and immediately started upsetting the natural order of the ship with his demands for excessive military order and discipline.
The crew, even O'Toole, decided he had to go and they immediately started going to great lengths to convince him that spaces in a destroyer were actually much smaller than they really are, in the hope that he would request transfer back to carrier service.
Of course it worked.
The only episode I can remember involved a little runaway girl who
stowed away on the ship. Dean Jones sang (not bad really!) "Thank
Heaven For Little Girls" to her.
Great supporting cast with Jack Albertson as the captain, Harvey Lembeck, Jay C. Flippen, and even Beau Bridges (I knew I'd seen him somewhere before). :-)
Ensign O' Toole ran on NBC for only 32 episodes during the 1962-63
season with reruns continuing through September 1964. It aired Sundays
at 7:00 p.m. opposite CBS' "Lassie" and reruns of ABC's "Father Knows
Best". The show was based on the books "All the Ships at Sea" and
"Ensign O'Toole and Me" both by William Lederer, who served as a
consultant on the series. The action took place on the fictitious "USS
Appleby". The ship was portrayed by the real-life U.S. Navy destroyer
USS Frank E. Evans (DD-754), which was commissioned on February 3,
1945. Tragically, a few years after the series, the ship was cut in
half in a collision with the Royal Australian Navy aircraft carrier
HMAS Melbourne on June 3, 1969. Her bow sank almost immediately, and
her stern was sunk as a target in Subic Bay in the Philippines. 74 of
the crew perished. Following the series, star Dean Jones went on to be
a top Disney star from 1965-77.
Reflecting upon the series, "Ensign O'Toole" had a talented cast of character actors but a star ill-suited for comedy. When the star of a sitcom isn't very involved in the laughs, it's hard to be successful. Nevertheless, there are a number of comical, enjoyable episodes found within the series. Some of the best, in my view, are in order of broadcast: "Operation Benefit", "Operation: Impersonation", "Operation: Souvenir", possibly the funniest scene in the series in wrecking Stoner's den at home in "Operation Re-enlist", and "Operation: Arctic". If you sit down with the series without high expectations that other military sitcoms of the era present, it's an enjoyable show.
My favorite episode is the one that guest stars The Kim Sisters. The crew goes to Korea to an orphanage run by three girls (The Kims) to do a fund raiser. When the talent for the show never shows up, someone realizes that the three girls can sing, dance and play instruments - of course the fabulous Kim Sisters tear the place up and bring the house down as only they can do!
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