|[The following interview between Vic Morrow
and I took place via phone in late October 1965, half way through production of
Combats fourth season. The published interview appeared in The Gastonia (N.C.)
Gazette Sunday, October 31, 1965. As in most interviews, not all of the conversation was
included in the published version. Within the print version, in brackets, I have included
some of those deleted items and, as still a fan of the series and with Jos kind
indulgence, additional personal relevant comments. Enjoy -- Thom McIntyre]
Saunders and Combat!
By THOM McINTYRE
Sergeant Saunders is well into his fourth year of World War II, still battling the
Germans to liberate France, but he took time out recently to phone me with a few comments
on the war and himself.
TV fans know Sgt. Chip Saunders is the squad leader from Second Platoon of K Company
wonderfully performed by actor Vic Morrow and the show is ABC-TVs long-running hit Combat!
Morrow made a lasting impact in his first film role as a sullen and violent high school
delinquent ten years ago in MGMs "The Blackboard Jungle." Between then and
Combat! he played numerous bad and misunderstood guys in TV guest shots and feature
films. He smoldered (professionally) a great deal, which accounted for my smile at the
familiar, yet unexpected soft-spoken greeting when I picked up the phone.
"Hi, Thom. Vic Morrow."
"At last," I said, "Thanks for calling. If Id known how to reach
you I would have called you."
[Note: It had taken four years of
repeated requests to ABC-TVs public relations department to get the interview with
Morrow. I was an entertainment editor on a moderate size daily newspaper on the East Coast
and did not rate very high in the who-got-to-interview-who pecking order. Forty years ago,
our area had two strong TV stations. One was primarily a CBS affiliate, and the other ABC
& NBC affiliated. The latter would only arrange telephone interviews or in-person
chats when a celebrity came to town. The CBS affiliate, however, in pre-season went all
out to take editors up and down the eastern seaboard and brought the stars to us]
Vic laughed and said, "Then youd have found me pinned beneath a large metal
I asked if that was how he spent his days.
"It is today."
He was on an MGM soundstage and the set represented the interior of an abandoned power
plant the Germans set up as a radio station.
[Note: The episode was "The Good
Samaritan" and originally telecast in January 1966. I did not see the episode
originally until a few months ago on Goodlife TV. It was then I went back to dig up this
"Having any hurricanes out your way?" Vic asked.
"No hurricanes, just Indian summer."
"Youre better off than we are out here," he said.
"Dont tell me sunny Los Angeles is having a hurricane."
"Probably the residual of one somewhere," he said. "The light just comes
and goes. Yesterday we couldnt get through outdoor scenes. Even with movie lights
going full blast, when the clouds close in the difference shows and the take is ruined. We
had to start over again and again."
That pretty wells sums up the quality sought week after week in the hour-long series,
even after over a hundred episodes. Instead of using half-sunlit half Klieg
light-lit scenes, they scrapped the footage and started from scratch.
"Youre a hundred percent correct about our show being tops in quality,"
Vic said. "Our cast and crew strive for this show after show hard as they can. It
shows in the finished product."
He credits much of the continuing production quality to the fact the Selmer Company
only rents facilities at Metro. "We are not in partnership with the studio," he
said, "just rent. Therefore, we get our moneys worth out of each episode
"Say the budget calls for 5,000 rounds of [blank] ammunition to be exploded,"
he said. "Stories come from other shows at other studios where only 2,000 rounds were
actually used and the money for the other 3,000 went right into the studio pockets.
Corners were cut and that production suffered. Knock wood, that hasnt happened to
"The rest of the credit goes to our great production crew," he said.
"Because we are in a war situation, this can sometimes be dangerous work. But guys
like A.D. Flowers and his technicians just take it in stride and get on with the job. In
four years, weve never had a serious accident or injury working with all the
explosions. That can only come from working with experts, pros who conscientiously do
Two seasons ago, Vic scored a thoroughly professional hit with TV fans and critics;
made us all sit up and take notice. The episode was "Survival" and in it
Saunders, Hanley (Rick Jason) and the squad are captured and tied up inside a barn, which
is hit by an American barrage. The building burns. All but Saunders are freed to escape.
Bound to a hayrack, flames singeing him and his bonds, Saunders screams are
terrifyingly real. Badly burned and in shock, but freed, Saunders wanders helplessly
behind enemy lines. A tour de force performance by Vic Morrow.
This season Morrow may get critical cheers again for the episode in which a tremendous
explosion deafens Saunders.
"Its the story of a lone G.I. behind enemy lines with the added handicap of
deafness," Vic said. "I havent seen the show, but when it was finished I
felt good about what we had done. I dont know how it will stack up with Survival,
but thatll be up to the critics."
[Note: In the 1950s 60s,
leads in TV series rarely were able to show their acting chops. Most shows were very
formulaic; the lead characters did not change at all. Guest stars got the unusual
character parts. I mentioned this to Vic, but did not include in print his praise of the
producers for allowing the regulars to stretch as actors, and for hiring writers who could
create strong material for them]
"I believe this season we have added even more dimension to the series," Vic
said. "Last summer a second unit production crew went to France and shot scenes for
several of this seasons episodes. They shot costumed actors in and around real
castles and landmarks, we couldnt possibly have duplicated here in Hollywood.
"We did match lighting and action here, though, and when you see the whole
episodes it will be difficult to tell these shows werent shot entirely at the same
locale," he said.
[Note: Also not included in print were
Vics comments about "those costumed actors" in the French location shots.
"My stunt double, Earl Parker, went along with the production crew to France. He
physically resembles me and really makes me look fearless for the camera. The scary part
is that he has learned to mimic the way I walk. Sometimes in those squad walk-through
shots, I cant tell if its Earl or me. And Im not the only one. I saw the
assistant director walk up behind Earl to say, Vic, we need you for a close up
now. We all got a big laugh out of it."]
Vic said he has urged that the production move out more often to fresh locations.
"This French village set on MGMs back lot has been filmed from so many
different angles I feel sure the viewers know every inch of it as well as we do," he
I said, "You guys have pretty well blasted that set to pieces."
"With no end in sight," he laughed. "I think we've shot scenes from
every angle directors can think of to make it look like different villages. Ive
directed a couple shows on that set and believe me, its impossible not to duplicate
some camera angles.
"Weve gone to Bronson Canyon," he said, "but so has everybody
else. Weve been north to a winery and our second unit shot snow scenes in Squaw
Valley. The location we use most is out in the country near the LA Reservoir. There are
lakes, hills, and lots of trees. In this episode, we're shooting exteriors out there.
"Of course, shooting on such a tight schedule to meet our air dates," he
said, "it is tough to stray too far from home base," then he laughed, "So,
it looks like we rebuild the village and blow it apart a few more times."
[Note: Not included in print, Vic said,
"If ABC renews us for a fifth season, and if a new rumor is true, we may not have to
worry about over familiarity with sets. Word is MGM is going to kick us off the back
lot." I asked if his producer had talked about a move. "Weve heard nothing
from the front office. Like I say, its just a rumor," he said. "Hey,
its Hollywood. Rumors are always going around. Usually if its true we will be
the last to know." Combat! returned for a fifth season, and MGM did kick
Selmer out. Production offices moved to CBS Studio Center, but Saunders and squad spent
their only color season mostly battling up and down Franklin (what Morrow called the LA
Reservoir) Canyons lush terrain]
As a director, Vic Morrow rates as high as in his acting talent.
In the second season, he directed two shows, and in the third season two more, both
critically acclaimed. The shows were "Losers Cry Deal" and "Cry in the
Ruins." Of the two, "Cry in the Ruins" garnered highest quality kudos on
all levels script, acting and production.
Pierre Jalbert, Caje in the series, said of Morrow, "Vic really put us through our
paces in that one. Those explosions were so realistic and frightening it made us all feel
as though we were actually under attack. It scared the h--- out of me when the blasts
began going off even though I knew they were coming."
From his directorial episodes, Vic Morrow is obviously an actors director. So
far, co-star Rick Jasons best moments in the series are in the shows Morrow
directed. Not only Jason, but also the other regulars; Jalbert, Jack Hogan, Conlan Carter
and Dick Peabody.
"Each show comes with its own set of problems to work through," Vic said.
"In Losers Cry Deal, it was the major set we spent the most screen time on. Built for
the musical "High Society" with Bing Crosby, the problem was its massive size.
Just lighting and setting those lights for camera literally took hours. That eats up time
really needed for getting the scenes not just completed, but also fine-tuned the best they
"It was doubly hard for me because I also had a role in the piece," he said.
"I dont like to direct myself. I prefer directing ones where I do not appear at
all. Acting and directing, you split your energies, your concentration. We just dont
have enough time in television to pet and pamper ourselves. We have so many days to get
each episode completed, so much money per episode. You go over on either and episodes down
the line suffer."
Vic said he probably would direct three of the remaining fourth season shows. "The
first one is being written now. I have no idea what the other two will be." He
laughed, raised his voice slightly and said, "And if the writers are listening
make them shows without Saunders."
[Note: Vics three episodes to
direct finally became an ambitious two-parter, "Hills are for Heroes." These
episodes stand out as great examples of what Vic termed as the theme of the series: not
men at war, but men in war. We spoke of this at the top of the phone interview when I
asked why he had taken the TV series over movies: "Its the best project I have
been offered," he said, then gave a quick laugh, "Besides, how long can I go on
playing screwed up juvenile delinquents?" I asked if his turn in the Robert Ryan
movie, oddly enough titled "Men in War," got him the Combat! audition.
"I dont know, but if you saw it you know I played a young soldier really
lacking in the bravery department."]
He does not intend to give up acting but clearly, for Vic Morrow, directing is a labor
of love. It is evident to viewers from interesting camera angles he chooses featuring
actors, machines and terrain, scenes where exposition dialogue is never needed, to
capturing every possible "actor moment" from the story.
During his hiatus from Combat!, he co-wrote and directed
"Deathwatch," a film that scored high during the Cannes Film Festival.
"Im on my way soon to San Francisco where the film has another festival
showing," Vic said. "We dont have a distributor yet, but hope to make a
deal while there. If we are lucky, you can look for Deathwatch to open in six months to a
Feature films aside, Vic never ceases to ballyhoo Combat!, and even after four
years still boasts it is the best written, best produced television show of this or any
"I recently did a world tour and was amazed to discover the response the show is
getting," he said. "In Manila the show is number one, and is the same in Japan.
Even in Beirut, Lebanon where I thought no one ever heard of me or the show, the reception
was staggering. They love Combat! in Australia, too but you wont find
the series on German or French television."
"I can understand why Germany might balk, but why France?" I said.
"I dont think the French hold the United States in high regard," he
said. "Why, your guess is good as mine. Ill bet if either country gave the show
a chance and just watched it for what it is, entertainment, theyd dig it. Know what
"If the Germans did become Combat! viewers," I said, "I wonder if
they would root for Saunders or Henreich?"
Vic laughed. "Good question, but tough to answer because on German TV both guys
would speak German."
In the background I heard an A.D. calling Vic.
"This has been fun, but theyre ready for a take. I have to crawl back under
that metal pipe." With a smile in his voice, he added, "But Im not
worried. I read the script. Everything comes out all right."
[Note: About a week later in the mail
came an 8X10 black and white glossy of Sgt. Saunders jogging through the trees with his
trusty Thompson ready for action. The legend reads "To Tom Nice talking with
you & I hope you visit me soon Theres room in the foxhole All the
best Vic Morrow"]
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