'Combat!' is on the march, and many fans are happy

On the Air

July 28, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

If, like Linda Schweitzer of Columbia, you're a fan of "Combat!," the 1960s television series starring Vic Morrow, then life must seem pretty darn good right now.

Encore-Action, sister to the all-movie Encore channel, broadcasts two episodes of the series every weekday from 5: 30 p.m. to 7: 30 p.m.; a big-budget movie based on the series is scheduled to begin production next spring (with Bruce Willis in the lead); and, come October, you'll be able to join a bunch of the series' stars for a five-day ocean cruise.

Not bad for a series that's been off the air 19 years, was never a big hit in syndication (even Encore-Action is not yet generally available around here, except in Anne Arundel County) and whose biggest star has been dead for more than 10 years.

Yet Schweitzer, who works as a computer engineer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Columbia, says the series deserves far better than the obscurity to which it's been relegated for much of the past two decades. With its dedication to realism and emphasis on the foot soldiers and their lives on the front lines, it is, she maintains, the best war series ever to grace the TV screen.

"I could always feel what the characters felt," says Schweitzer, 43. "It didn't just glorify war, in my mind. It showed real situations and how it affected these characters. And there always seemed to be something special about the show; it was never all shoot-'em-up."

"Combat!," which spent its broadcast life on ABC, was the brainchild of Robert Pirosh, who spent World War II as a master sergeant and saw action during the Battle of the Bulge. A comedy writer before the war (for the Marx Brothers and Danny Kaye, among others), he spent much of his later career paying tribute to the soldiers he fought alongside.

That effort culminated with "Combat!" Vic Morrow, who already had achieved a measure of big-screen prominence in 1955's "Blackboard Jungle," played Sgt. Chip Saunders of King Company's 2nd Platoon. Together with Rick Jason's Lt. Gil Hanley, he led his men across Europe, onward from Normandy -- although never to war's end. "These guys never got out of France," Schweitzer says, laughing.

Although she's never seen combat duty herself, Schweitzer well knows the difference between fantasy and reality when it comes Army life. A member of the Women's Army Corps from 1971 to 1973, she later spent three years in Germany working for the Army as a civilian. Robert, her husband of 12 years, did a tour in Vietnam. Her father, Christopher Marudas, served in the Army during World War II, as did her uncle, Edwin Holappa, a staff sergeant with the 9th Infantry who fought in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy.

Not that such things were on her mind when she first began watching the show as a 10-year-old in Detroit.

"As a child, 'Combat!' meant different things to me than it does as an adult," she says from her office desk, her computer screen displaying the "Combat!" home page she and other fans have put together. "Back then, it was all an adventure. The actors were brave and handsome. And it showed me someplace I couldn't go, except in my imagination."

And Schweitzer is not alone in her dedication to the show. So far, 67 people nationwide have signed on to pay from $602 to $683 for the Oct. 21-25 cruise. Besides Jason, cast members expected to be on deck for the cruise include Jack Hogan (Pvt. Kirby), Pierre Jalbert (PFC Caje Lemay), Tom Lowell (Pvt. Nelson), Dick Peabody (Littlejohn) and Conlon Carter (Doc). (Morrow was killed in a 1983 accident while filming "Twilight Zone: The Movie.")

The "Combat!' home page, which can be reached at http: //www.alegria.com/combat. html, includes everything from synopses of the 152 episodes to the show's theme songs and updates on next year's scheduled feature film. (Co-producer Steve Rubin is among those going on the cruise.)

"I admit I was surprised to find there was a group of people out there who were as crazy about the show as I was," says Schweitzer, who happened upon it by accident about two years ago.

Like the true fan she is, Schweitzer will gladly speak at great length about her devotion -- about the actors, the directors (including a young Robert Altman, who went on to direct such films as "M*A*S*H"), and the collectibles that have grown up around the show.

It's powerful television, Schweitzer says. At the same time, FTC however, she's willing to forgive those who may not be as dedicated to the show as she is.

Including, she says, her husband. "He thinks we're probably a little nuts."

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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