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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Off the Beaten Path: Vic Morrow and the fighting 361st patrol L.A.'s Franklin Canyon on the World War II drama series "Combat!"

Vic Morrow — ABC promotional still for "Combat!" (1964)

My guess is the most fondly remembered World War II TV drama series of all time is "Combat!" — even though as a kid who didn't know any better, I was probably more deeply influenced by "Rat Patrol."

"Combat!": Rick Jason, left, and Vic Morrow in season one

While the fictional 361st Infantry Regiment, led by Vic Morrow's Sgt. Saunders and Rick Jason's Lt. Hanley, never managed to fight its way out of France over the course of five seasons, most of the iconic sets representing the French countryside were in fact located much closer to home.

Jason as Lt. Hanley, left, and Morrow as Sgt. Saunders

The series filmed regularly in Franklin Canyon, literally in the middle of Los Angeles — nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, Franklin Canyon is said to mark the geographic center of the city. Many of the bombed-out hulls of buildings seen on "Combat!" were built in what is now the main parking lot for Franklin Canyon Park.

Franklin Canyon — the geographic center of Los Angeles

These days Franklin Canyon is known more for its natural beauty and stands out as a scenic oasis amid the urban sprawl of L.A. — while much of its movie and TV history remains undocumented.

"The Losers" (Sept. 20, 1966)

Intrepid photographer and location researcher Jerry Condit has been exploring Franklin Canyon, and he recently shared some great shots of locations used on "Combat!" In the above scene from the episode "The Losers," Sgt. Saunders, played by Vic Morrow, mows down German soldiers as he and his unit try to take a bridge.

Here's the same spot as it appears today in a recent photo taken by Jerry, with the old railing still in place. "The Losers" aired early in the show's fifth and final season.

"Nightmare on the Red Ball Run" (Feb. 28, 1967)

In a scene from one of the show's last few episodes, Kirby and Littlejohn take cover behind a culvert during a sequence filmed in Franklin Canyon. "Combat!" aired from 1962-1967 on ABC.

Jerry took this shot of the same culvert as it appears today, almost 50 years after the men of the 361st Infantry Regiment — aka King Company — defended the position.

"Nightmare on the Red Ball Run"

The culvert can be seen again in the background as Kirby, played by series regular Jack Hogan, crouches in the foreground. Season five was the only season of "Combat!" shot in color.

Here's a similar view of the culvert from a recent visit to the site by Jerry.

"Nightmare on the Red Ball Run"

A German half-track sits in a flat area of Franklin Canyon. This area was used extensively in "Combat!," with the crew constructing numerous sets such as farmhouses, bunkers and ruins on the site.

Today the scenic canyon is a popular hiking area, and this spot where the half-track sat is now a parking lot. Jerry mentioned that he had to get to the site in the early morning to get these shots — before the lot filled up with cars.

"The Letter" (Oct. 25, 1966)

The men of the 361st use a large water pipe for cover during a firefight in an episode from early in season five.

In a terrific "then and now" match, Jerry was able to find the old pipe still at the site.

Here's a wider view of the pipe and its setting in recent times.

"It Happened One Night" (1934): Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable ... and the Franklin Canyon myth

Franklin Canyon has frequently been cited as the location for the famous hitchhiking scene in Frank Capra's classic comedy "It Happened One Night," starring Claudette Colbert's left leg. However, the current consensus is that those citations are incorrect and the scene was filmed elsewhere. Some sources have indicated that it was shot on Foothill Boulevard in Sunland, but a confirmation of the actual site remains elusive.

Perhaps the most famous Franklin Canyon shoot of all is the title sequence from "The Andy Griffith Show," with Andy and Opie doing some father-son bonding during a fishing and rock-throwing visit to the site.

Here's a short clip of the "Andy Griffith Show" opening featuring Franklin Canyon — and also featuring that whistled theme song that at least one generation of TV viewers will never get out of our heads.

TV theme writer extraordinaire Earle Hagen

Next time you need to circumvent an ottoman or shout down a "trivia bully," try breaking out this tidbit: The theme song to "The Andy Griffith Show" has a name — "The Fishin' Hole" — and was written by ... AND whistled by ... Earle Hagen. A master of the TV theme song, Hagen wrote much of the soundtrack we have lodged in our heads, including the themes for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "I Spy," "That Girl" and "Gomer Pyle-USMC."

"Combat!": Guest star Sal Mineo, left, and series star Vic Morrow (1965)

"Combat!" featured an impressive lineup of guest stars during its five-season run. Besides Sal Mineo, above, the guest list included Robert Duvall, James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Luise Rainer, Leonard Nimoy, James Caan, Mickey Rooney, Claudine Longet, Dennis Hopper, Ricardo Montalban, Lee Marvin and many other household names.

Off the Beaten Path is a series of posts that stray from the usual subject matter of this blog, which is the Iverson Movie Ranch. Past subjects have included Bell Ranch, Pioneertown, Corriganville, Oak Park and other old filming locations. You can go directly to the Off the Beaten Path posts by looking up the term "Off the Beaten Path" in the long index of labels at the right of the page, or by clicking here.


Mark Sherman said...

Thanks! That was great! Mark Sherman

Dion Osika said...

A friend of mine and I did extensive research in Franklin Canyon in 1997 for a cast reunion that was held in Simi Valley in 1998. We also heard the story about Franklin Canyon being used for the scene in "It Happened One Night" and subsequently have walked with docents on tours from time to time hearing the story. The location where the claim it was filmed is not nearly as similar as the road scene in the film. Franklin's perimeter road is quite narrow and if you watch IHON very carefully, it looks more like a major thoroughfare.