The first season of this World War II series -- which was based on the 1949 feature film starring Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger (who won the Oscar) -- starred Robert Lansing as Brigadier General Frank Savage (the role played by Peck in the movie), the commander of the 918th Heavy Bombardment Group, based at Archbury. That season hewed the most closely to the film in terms of characters, with Frank Overton in the recurring role of Adjutant Major Harvey Stovall (the Dean Jagger role), and, as regular, recurring characters, Lew Gallo as Major Cobb, Barney Phillips as Major Kaiser ("Doc Kaiser"), the group medical officer, John Larkin as Savage's commanding officer, Major General Wiley Crowe (later succeeded by John Zaremba as Major General Stoneman); and Paul Newland as his superior officer, Lieutenant General Pritchard. The series was based, like the movie, on the novel of the same name by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. (who also wrote the screenplay), who were listed as creators of the program, and based their work on the real-life story of General Frank Armstrong, commander of the 306th Bomb Group. As one would expect, the series concentrated initially on airborne stories. The fact that the series was originally in black-and-white made it possible to use a large amount of actual World War II footage -- although, as with the original film, it was the men's lives on the ground that were the main substance of the scripts. As with most dramatic series of this era, faced with producing over 30+ episodes each season, the series' output was somewhat uneven, in the writing as well as the direction, though the acting was consistently good. To the viewer, the difficulty with the first season was that the scripts got a little repetitive early on -- one can wonder, for example, looking at the series four or five decades on, how many nests (or potential nests) of spies, and how many women with agendas of their own, would a combat officer such as Frank Savage cross paths with in real life?
The real problems with the first season were more internal, and mostly concerned the star, Robert Lansing, a method-trained actor with theatrical experience who was reputed to be very difficult to work with. Producer Quinn Martin apparently decided early on that his role might have to be written out and the actor replaced. In the very first episode, the writers introduced the character of Joseph Gallagher, the son of an Army Air Force lieutenant general, played by Paul Burke -- a leading man who had just come off of the series The Naked City -- initially as a captain. Gallagher reappears in the 24th episode as a major and squadron commander, setting the stage for his replacing Savage in the first episode of the second season. Officially, the reason that Lansing was leaving the series was a result of his lack of appeal to female viewers (though how many female viewers were watching a series such as this was questionable), and the fact that the producers wanted a younger man, though Burke was actually two years older than Lansing, but was a more conventionally handsome man and looked younger.
The series' first season is generally by fans as the best, despite the internal strains behind the scenes. The scripts delved into the dark side of the psyche, on the part of pilots, their commanders, and the people around them (including women); and if one could get past moments of incredulity, the suspense level in some of the stories was most bracing and effective. In "The Hours Before Dawn", for example -- a show that seems to have borrowed its title and part of its content from a Somerset Maugham wartime story -- Savage is the only man with details of a vital mission, and finds himself trapped during a German bombing raid in a house with a woman (Glynis Johns) who has retreated from all contact with the war or the outside world, and a downed German colonel (Fritz Weaver), who plans on capturing or killing Savage.
As a result of the fact that a lot of the drama was set on the ground, 12 O'Clock High was able to feature a much larger female presence than most World War II series of its era. This obviously pleased the sponsors and the network, though at times it also made the program seem a little too much like a soap opera for modern tastes. The series was successful enough to be renewed for a second season, but not without a lot of vast changes in store for the cast, more than was typical of television during this period. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi
- Robert Lansing, Frank Overton, (more)