Thanks to the cable channel Heroes and Icons, my current favorite television show is 12 O'CLOCK HIGH, a series that ran from September 18th, 1964 to January 13th, 1967 on ABC TV. The show was based on the 1949 film of the same name.
I remember this show being on when I was a kid but I don't recall seeing more than one or two episodes. At the time of its' original broadcast I was eight-years-old (born in 1956) and for kids of my generation, WWII was still being packaged, marketed and sold as the last great war, a magnificent adventure that changed the course of world history. My father fought in WWII as did almost every one of my friends' dads. Sentiment against the escalating war in Viet Nam was just beginning to ramp up but the appetite for WWII material in our popular culture and mass media was voracious.
I grew up surrounded by WWII. It was in the comic books I read, Marvel's SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS and DC's "Big Five": OUR ARMY AT WAR (Sgt. Rock), G.I. COMBAT (The Haunted Tank), ALL AMERICAN MEN OF WAR (Capt. Johnny Cloud, Navajo ace), OUR FIGHTING FORCES (Gunner and Sarge and Pooch) and my favorite, STAR SPANGLED WAR STORIES (featuring The War That Time Forgot which pitted soldiers against dinosaurs). There was also the short lived CAPT. STORM, a series about a wooden legged PT boat skipper.
WWII was on the big screen at the local movie theaters: THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), THE LONGEST DAY (1962), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), OPERATION CROSSBOW (1965), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968), KELLY'S HEROES (1970) and PATTON (1970) all rank among some of my all time favorite films. There were books, both fiction and non-fiction about WWII. The men's adventure magazines which I so dearly love now, were full to bursting with stories of guts and glory (and gals) during "the big one". And there were toys galore including replicas of weapons, plastic soldiers (I had the Sears Iwo Jima play set) and the big guy himself, G.I. Joe (I had the sailor edition from the first release of Joes).
On the small, home screen, WWII was played for laughs on HOGAN'S HEROES but 12 O'CLOCK HIGH and COMBAT (the granddaddy of the TV war shows), played things straight and deadly.
12 O'CLOCK HIGH started out with Robert Lansing in the starring role as General Frank Savage, leader of the 918 bomber group stationed in England. Lansing's interpretation of Savage was by the book and no nonsense. Savage was a man who wore the mantle of leadership and command heavily. He was stern, gruff and tough. And as played by Lansing, almost constipated in his tight assedness. The man had little if any sense of humor. Not that I want to see comedy in this show, just a little touch of humanity every now and then.
The producers and ABC network brass thought a change was needed and in the first episode of the second season, they killed off General Savage and replaced him with Colonel Gallagher (Paul Burke). I much prefer Burke's episodes to Lansings. Gallagher is also tough but he's shown with female companionship (the oh-so-lovely Lee Meriwether in two episodes). Burke would continue to star until the end of the series. For the third season, production shifted to color but the show only lasted 17 episodes before being canceled in mid-season.
I also prefer the black and white episodes over the color ones. WWII just looks more real in black and white. 12 O'CLOCK HIGH made extensive use of stock footage (it was filmed at the 20th Century Fox studios in Southern California) and growing up in the 1960s, almost all of the real footage of WWII I saw was in black and white.
12 O'CLOCK HIGH was a Quinn Martin production and followed the format used in all other QM productions: opener, four acts and an epilogue. There were guest stars every week including William Shatner, Jack Lord, John Voight, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Fritz Weaver, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, James McArthur, and James Whitmore, among others. Frank Overton, Chris Robinson and Andrew Duggan had recurring supporting player roles as well.
Quinn Martin, along with Jack Webb and Irwin Allen, was one of the great first true auteurs of television. His other shows include THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FUGITIVE, THE INVADERS, DAN AUGUST, CANNON, BARNABY JONES, THE F.B.I,M THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO and THE MANHUNTER.
12 O'CLOCK HIGH was pitched at an older, adult male audience, many of whom were veterans of the war. It wasn't a show for little kids although the flying scenes and footage of B-17s in action are thrilling to watch whether you're ten or sixty. I get a big kick out of watching this show. It takes me back to my childhood in a big way while providing well written, well directed and well acted episodic television entertainment.