The cast of McHale’s Navy, ranging from Ernest Borgnine to Tim Conway and Gavin McLeod, among others, brought to life from 1962 to 1966 a World War II sitcom that followed in what had already become a long tradition of military comedies in movies, books and on television. Whether in films like Henry Fonda‘s Mister Roberts or television series like The Phil Silvers Show, Hogan’s Heroes and the still-to-come M*A*S*H, they all feature characters flouting authority and making fun of the officers, but the men they ranked over were always there when needed to get the job done.
What’s odd about the show is that three members of the cast of McHale’s Navy — Borgnine Gary Vinson and Bobby Wright — initially had a dramatic run at the material in the one-hour “Seven Against the Sea” segment of the anthology series Alcoa Premiere. Steven Thompson, who along with Denny Reese has written the book Set Sail with McHale (coming in 2024 from Bearmanor Media), explains, “By the time ‘Seven Against the Sea’ aired in April of 1962, the decision had already been made to air it as a regular series that fall, originally to be called McHale’s Men. Yes, the pilot was a drama, but it was a drama with a number of mostly more realistic comedic elements.
“Counting Borgnine,” he continues, “three of the cast were already in place. Writing in his autobiography, Borgnine recalled, ‘The suits at Universal [were asked], ‘We’ve got the boat, we’ve got the lake at the studio, why don’t we take this same basic concept, turn it around and make it a comedy?’ The most important differences in the transition were the replacement of Ron Foster as Lt. Durham with newcomer Tim Conway as Ensign Parker and the inspired addition of Joe Flynn as Çaptain Binghamton.”
The cast of McHale’s Navy portrayed the misfit crew of PT-73, a Patrol and Torpedo vessel during World War II, stationed for the majority of its 138 episodes in the Pacific theatre and its last in Italy as part of the European theater. Cast members would also appear in the big screen spin-offs McHale’s Navy (1964) and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965).
Ernest Borgnine as Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale
“Until Ernest Borgnine won the Best Actor Oscar in 1956 for Marty, he had been a character actor, often typecast as a cruel lug,” says Thompson. “After his win, different types of film roles opened up to him. As television grew in popularity, he would occasionally appear in episodes of the various small screen anthology series of the day. He steadfastly refused to do a regular TV series, however, as he considered himself a movie star at that point. One day, though, he came to realize that the average person knew all the TV stars but not the names of even some of the biggest big-screen stars. That’s the day he decided to accept the offer to do McHale’s Men.”
As a character actor he continued to appear on the big screen (featuring in nearly 50 movies), but never gave up television, starring in Future Cop (1976 to 1977), Airwolf (1984 to 1986), The Single Guy (1995 to 1997), and voicing Mermaid Man on SpongeBob SquarePants (1999 to 2012). He was married five times (including to actress/singer Ethel Merman, who he married and divorced in 1964). The father of four, he died of kidney failure on July 8, 2012 at age 95.
Cast of ‘McHale’s Navy’: Joe Flynn as Captain Wallace B. Binghamton
Notes Thompson, “Joe Flynn was McHale’s Navy’s MVP, even though he had originally considered himself a jinx, as he had been a regular on multiple TV series just before they went off the air. He was fired from The Joey Bishop Show after only eight episodes. [Producer] Ed Montagne had originally wanted the captain role on his new series to be similar to Paul Ford’s Colonel on his old series, The Phil Silvers Show, but when his first two choices passed on it, and the 36-year-old Flynn auditioned, the whole concept of the show changed. At first, they touched his hair up with grey to make him look older, but one day he just skipped the makeup room and no one noticed or cared. He spent a lot of time getting dunked in the water on the series, which turned out to be ironic when he drowned in his own swimming pool in 1974 under strange circumstances.”
Following McHale’s Navy, he he appeared on different TV shows and in films, but his most consistent work was with Disney in The Love Bug (1969), The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), The Barefoot Executive (1971), The Strongest Man in the World and, in what turned out to be his last role, voicing Mr. Snoops in the animated feature The Rescuers (1977). As noted by Thompson, he was found dead in his swimming pool on June 13, 1974 from what appeared to be a fatal heart attack. He was 49. Flynn was married to Shirley Haskin from 1955 until that point and was the father of two.
Cast of ‘McHale’s Navy’: Tim Conway as Ensign Charles Parker
“If Flynn was the MVP, then Tim Conway, now revered as one of the funniest men who ever lived, was the show’s secret weapon,” the author muses. “Discovered by Rose Marie in Cleveland where he was doing a small-time comedy show with his partner Ernie Anderson (later the Love Boat and Carol Burnett Show announcer), Tom (yes, Tom) Conway’s only national exposure was on a few episodes of one of comedian Steve Allen’s series, after which he went back to Cleveland. Anderson pushed him to go back, and he was cast as Ensign Charles Parker, who became the beloved breakout character on the series, winning Tim numerous awards early on.”
Beyond movie and TV guest roles, Conway really got to prove his comic brilliance as part of The Carol Burnett Show (1975 to 1978). Before that he and Flynn co-starred in the 1970 sitcom The Tim Conway Show, the same title applied to his 1980 to 1981 variety show, Additionally, there was the 1983 sitcom Ace Crawford, Private Eye. His final film was 2016’s Chip and Bernie Save Christmas with Dorf, the last TV appearance being the 2015 TV film Surprised by Love. Married twice, he had seven kids. Conway passed away at age 85 from complications of normal pressure hydrocephalus, which had brought upon dementia.
Cast of ‘McHale’s Navy’: Gavin McLeod as Seaman Happy Haines
Long before The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Love Boat, McHale’s Navy was Gavin McLeod’s first regular role on a TV series and he hated every minute of it. Gavin played “Happy” in the first two seasons of the show and both of the feature films, but he was most un-happy. In his autobiographies, he wrote about how he was driven to the brink of suicide because he was so unhappy! He was drinking, gaining weight, and neglecting his family — but why?
“Because,” says Thompson, “with an ensemble cast that size, ‘Happy’ rarely had anything to do. There were whole episodes where he had not a single line and only one second season episode was actually built around his character. After an intervention by, of all people, Robert Blake, Gavin approached producer Ed Montagne and asked to be let out of his series contract in order to save his life. Montagne agreed and Gavin’s career immediately started up again with a role in the prestigious feature film The Sand Pebbles. Many years later, he would reunite with Ernest Borgnine when the latter guested on a two-part episode of The Love Boat.”
As frustrated as he was on McHale’s Navy, McLeod would go on to star in 168 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore (1970 to 1977) and 250 episodes of The Love Boat (1977 to 1987), and while there would be some subsequent guest star appearances, those two series make up an amazing television legacy. He was married twice and is the father of four. He died on May 29, 2021 at age 90.
Bob Hastings Lieutenant Elroy Carpenter
Points out Thompson, “Bob Hastings wasn’t meant to be on McHale’s Navy for more than a single episode, but he played off of Joe Flynn so well they brought him back and soon made him a regular. As the show went on, he kept getting bigger and bigger billing and by the last season, his sycophantic banter with the captain had become a highlight of every episode.”
Post-McHale’s Navy, Hastings spent much of his career providing vocal performances for a wide variety of animated series , from 1966’s The Adventures of Superboy (taking on the role of the younger Superman), to Commissioner Gordon in a 2003 episode of Static Shock, a character he brought to life numerous times on different Batman-related series. Married to Joan Rice-Hastings since 1948, he was the father of four. He died on June 30, 2014 from prostate cancer at age 89.
McHale’s Navy is currently airing on Antenna TV. To find Antenna TV in your city, go to antennatv.tv