The American television show Black Sheep Squadron is, for the most part, made up. The TV show takes place on the fictional island of Vella la Cava, and features fictional characters that comprised the bulk of the squadron of pilots. This included Bob Anderson, played by a young John Larroquette in his first major role, and Jerry Bragg played by Dirk Blocker. But to the surprise of many, Greg Pappy Boyington, the main character of the show, he was 100% real.
The Marine Corp pilot flew his way into the history books as one of the most renowned aces of World War II. He served in the South Pacific, and led the courageous VMF-214 fighter squadron, dubbed the Black Sheep. Boyington brought his expertise to the show and served as a consultant on the series based on his career. The opening credits for the show read “In World War II, Marine Corps Major Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington commanded a squadron of fighter pilots. They were a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific. They were known as the Black Sheep.”
With a show made of such tremendous real-life drama, it will come as no surprise that there are plenty of things that you may have missed about the show and behind the scenes. So join us as we dive into this aerial adventure series and look at some fascinating facts about one of the great war shows.
The show’s original title was a little bit different
Later syndicated as Black Sheep Squadron, the American television series was originally titled Baa Baa Black Sheep. It aired on NBC from the 23rd of September, 1976, until the 6th of April, 1978. The show was loved for being part period military drama, perfectly combined with part comedy. In the final seven episodes, the character list was revamped, dropping some squadron pilots, while adding a 16-year-old pilot and four nurses. The original premise for the show was based on the experiences of United States Marine Corps aviator Greg Boyington and his World War II Black Sheep Squadron.
Robert Conrad’s reputation almost prevented him getting the part
Robert Conrad was the perfect man to play Pappy. The Hollywood tough guy was famous for performing his own stunts as the star of The Wild Wild West. But the producer of Black Sheep, Stephen J. Cannell was the king of the action genre. Behind shows like The Greatest American Hero, Hunter, The A-Team and plenty others, Cannell was hesitant when it came to the casting of Conrad. Conrad himself was outspoken about the issue, explaining that Cannell knew of his history of off-camera antics. While Conrad has stated that he was never unprofessional at work, after the cameras shut down at the end of the day, he would go to the bar across the street and all hell would break loose. Fights became a regular occurrences, but it wasn’t enough to stop Conrad from being cast in the show.
The real Pappy played a General on the show
Make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the three episodes featuring the character General Harrison Kenlay. The character is played by the real World War II ace, Greg Boyington. His first appearance was in the episode Deadliest Enemy of All. It was only a few episodes later that he returned, featured in a newsreel pinning a medal on Robert Conrad, in the episode The Fastest Gun.
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Robert Conrad passed on playing another iconic TV airplane pilot
U.S. Air Force Captain and astronaut Tony Nelson in the comedy sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, was another role that Robert Conrad had the chance to play. Conrad later explained that he regretted the decision. He expressed that he turned down the role because he would receive second billing to co-star Barbara Eden. Eden was set to get star billing and Conrad believed that he was at a time in his career that he ought to be on top.
The Zeroes were previously seen in Tora! Tora! Tora!
The Japanese aircrafts, known as Zeroes, which were seen on the show were originally used for the classic 1970 war film Tora! Tora! Tora! They were actually North American Aviation T-6 Texan planes and modified to look the part. Good thing they made it worth their while, not just one production, but at least two.
Two dogs played the role of fan-favorite, Meatball
Before Spuds MacKenzie made an entrance, there was another bull terrier who stole the hearts of TV audiences. That beloved TV canine was Meatball, Pappy’s pup and the mascot of the Black Sheep Squadron. There were two different dogs that took on the role of playing Meatball, both with their own specific talents. One was used for scenes with the actors and the other took on the action and stunts. Bounty was the name of the stunt bull terrier, according to the woman who took ownership of him after he was written out of the show.
A cast member had to take a day off after Elvis died
Actor, stuntman, and songwriter, Red West, played the gruff, cigar-chomping Master Sergeant and mechanic Andy Micklin. But West’s career had been somewhat fascinating before joining the show. The one-time boxer and football player became a close confidant of the one and only Elvis Presley after meeting the King in high school. He even wrote songs with Elvis and stood by his side working as his bodyguard for years. Unfortunately, there was a falling out between the two and West was fired from the entourage. But, on the 16th of August, 1977, Presley passed away. West was on set and had to be given the day off by production in order to deal with the death of his old and famous friend.
Robert Conrad’s daughter was cast in an attempt to compete with Charlie’s Angels
In 1978, Black Sheep was suddenly facing up against a formidable foe, Charlie’s Angels, pushing them to move to a new night, Wednesdays. It didn’t take long for Charlie’s Angels to become one of the most popular shows on TV, and Black Sheep struggled to maintain an audience. But the show did not go down without a fight. Black Sheep had a strategy to hold on as long as possible. They cast their own crew of beauties to play nurses, and even dubbed them Pappy’s Lambs, a not-so-subtle take on Charlie’s Angels. Included in this influx of female cast members was Nancy Conrad, daughter of Robert Conrad.
The series finale starred one of the biggest rock stars of the 1970s
While he has played himself on The Drew Carey Show and Madam Secretary, English rock star Peter Frampton has just one screen credit on American television where he plays a fictional character. Previously associated with the bands Humble Pie and the Herd, Frampton played a Brit named Peter Buckley in the episode A Little Bit of England, which was the finale of the show. Frampton was good enough to offer to chop off his beautiful curly, blond locks, but the producers decided to let him keep the hair. In point of fact it actually worked better with the hair, as his character was supposed to have been living in the jungle for a good long while. At the time, his album titled Frampton Comes Alive! was on the Billboard charts for an impressive 97 weeks.
Robert Conrad died last year at the age of 84
The undeniable star of the show, Robert Conrad, died of heart failure in Malibu, California, on the 8th of February, 2020. The family spokesperson, Jeff Ballard said, “He lived a wonderfully long life and while the family is saddened by his passing, he will live forever in their hearts.” Conrad was a rising young actor, with his good looks and strong physique, when he was chosen for the lead in Hawaiian Eye. The show debuted in 1959 and Conrad became an overnight star.
After five seasons with the show, period Westerns were the television craze of the time, and Conrad decided to embrace it, but with a decidedly different twist. The Wild Wild West debuted in 1965, and Conrad took on the role of James T. West, a James Bond-like agent who used innovative tactics and futuristic gadgets to battle bizarre villains. The successful show ran until 1969. He followed this with arguably his greatest role, Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington, in Black Sheep Squadron.
Conrad frequently employed his offspring in his movies and TV shows. An example of which was the 1988 television series High Mountain Rangers. Conrad bankrolled the project with his own money and directed. He hired sons Shane and Christian as co-stars, daughter Joan as producer and daughter Nancy as caterer. The show followed a group of law enforcement officers, and was filmed in the High Sierra mountain range near Lake Tahoe.
Conrad’s later film credits included the 1996 Christmas movie, Jingle All The Way where he starred opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, and 2002′s Dead Above Ground, which was his final film credit. Conrad is survived by eight children and 18 grandchildren.
Which of these fascinating facts about Black Sheep Squadron did you find the most surprising and interesting? Is there anything about the television war show that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below and don’t forget to subscribe to Facts Verse for more. Click the bell icon to stay updated on all our latest content.