Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Assignment: Underwater (1960)

The synopsis of this series is based on viewing only six episodes from 1960, which are among the eight included on two DVDs issued by Alpha Video. As of this writing, no plans for a complete season DVD release have been announced, but should the full series be released to DVD, or if additional episodes are made available, this synopsis will be updated with the additional information.

Assignment: Underwater was a scuba-themed action/adventure series much in the same mold as Lloyd Bridges' popular Sea Hunt program, though here Bill Williams played the primary role as former Marine and scuba expert for hire Bill Greer, who owns and lives on a boat named The Lively Lady with his daughter Patty. Like many leading male characters from the time, Greer is a widower, though in the episodes viewed for this post, there is no mention of his deceased wife's name or how she died. The syndicated series lasted for only one full season of 39 episodes from the fall of 1960 until June of 1961.

Though at times episodes of the show use a long buildup to get to the inevitable underwater scuba scenes (much like David Carradine's Kung Fu offered superficial setups for his ass-kicking kung fu scenes), Assignment: Underwater often attempts to demonstrate the conflicting loyalties of Greer's multiple roles as civilian/government employee and professional expert/father. In "Operation Betrayal" (September 16, 1960), Greer is called upon as a Navy reservist to help track down which of his former war buddies has been hired to fish out some old Nazi counterfeit U.S. currency plates from San Francisco bay. At first Greer balks at the assignment, which he sees as a betrayal of loyalty to his former comrades in arms, until he is lectured by police investigator Sam Arnett on the importance of eliminating any doubt about the validity of U.S. currency. In "Panic Off Punta Banda" (September 30, 1960), Greer has to choose between continuing a diving mission to retrieve a dangerous sunken radioactive canister after learning that his daughter may have been poisoned by eating tainted fish. His impulse as a father is to abandon the mission, at the risk of exposing possibly hundreds of residents to radioactive contamination, but he is persuaded by Coast Guard Capt. Wilson to entrust Patty's care to a doctor while he completes the mission.

But his judgment is often inferior to that of his daughter, as in "Charlie Noble's Pearl" (October 21, 1960) when he falls for a frame-up on an old buddy by a pair of slippery robbers, whereas Patty stays true to their old friend and helps him solve the crime. And in "The Portrait" (November 18, 1960), Greer is ready to disbelieve Patty's claim that she saw his supposedly deceased diving pupil J.L. Simmons, until her persistence forces him to recognize some clues and take action to reveal the scam perpetrated by Simmons and his wife.

As a parent, Greer dishes out his share of sermons to Patty, but he also makes his share of mistakes--leaving her alone on the beach in "Panic Off Punta Banda" to face possible exposure to contaminated fish, and leaving her unsupervised in "A Message to Mulligan" (November 25, 1960), which results in her sneaking onto a boat that is about to be blown up in the harbor as part of a movie scene. Of course, leaving children unsupervised was more common in 1960 than it is today, but on this program, such laxness often leads to danger.

Greer's missteps and conflicts are, of course, deliberately scripted to heighten the suspense for dramatic effect, but they also make him a more realistic character than an unwavering hero who never goes astray.

At least two of the episodes from 1960 have music composed and arranged by Alec Compinsky, a virtuoso cellist whose brother was violinist and film composer Manuel Compinsky and whose sister was pianist Sara Compinsky. Together they performed as the Compinsky Trio, and Alec and Manuel worked on film scores together. Alec also composed the theme music for the TV series How to Marry a Millionaire and provided music for the children's TV shows Sky King and Bozo: The World's Most Famous Clown. He also served as music supervisor on several other TV shows in the 1950s, including Broken Arrow, Pony Express, and The Third Man. He died in June 1960.

The two DVDs released by Alpha Video containing a total of eight episodes--six from 1960 and two from 1961--have not been remastered or cleaned up in any way, with video quality about the same as an average youtube.com video, that is, watchable but substandard.

The Actors

Bill Williams

Born Herman August Wilhelm Katt to German immigrant parents in Brooklyn, Williams was a junior national champion swimmer in his teens, then became a professional swimmer, performing in underwater shows before joining the Army during World War II, which made him eminently qualified to play a military veteran scuba expert on Assignment: Underwater. He was discharged from the military before the war ended and took up acting, having some prior experience in vaudeville and stock shows. His first credited film role was in Murder in the Blue Room in 1944. A year later he appeared in West of the Pecos with Robert Mitchum and Barbara Hale, whom he married in 1946. They then also appeared together in A Likely Story (1947) and The Clay Pigeon (1949). She would go on to play Perry Mason's secretary Della Street on the successful TV show, and the couple had two daughters and a son, William Katt, Jr., who became a successful actor himself, starring in Carrie and the 1980s TV show The Greatest American Hero.

Williams broke into TV himself in 1951 playing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson in 103 episodes, running until 1955. He was particularly suited to western roles, both on TV and feature films such as The Great Missouri Raid and Oklahoma Territory, because he could do his own riding and stunts. He and Hale also lived on a working ranch in the desert. In 1957-58 he co-starred as Betty White's husband on the situation comedy A Date With the Angels, but in 1958 he turned down an offer to star in Sea Hunt because he didn't think an underwater series could work. After Lloyd Bridges made that series a hit, Williams agreed to do his own series two years later with considerably less success. He also appeared in the pilot of The Untouchables as federal agent Martin Flaherty, a role give to Jerry Paris in the regular series. After Assignment: Underwater he continued making guest appearances on various TV shows, including Lassie, Batman, and four turns on his wife's Perry Mason, as well as feature-length films, including two more appearances with Hale in Buckskin (1968) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1975). His last role was in the TV movie Goldie and the Boxer Go to Hollywood in 1981. He died from a brain tumor at the age of 77 on September 21, 1992. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6161 Hollywood Blvd.

Diane Mountford

Not much is known about child actress Diane Mountford, other than her birth year of 1948 and her extensive filmography, ending with appearances on Family Affair and My Three Sons when she was 21. Her career began with an appearance on the TV show Fury in 1958 and included an appearance on The Ann Sothern Show and the film The Incredible Mr. Pennypacker before she was cast as Patty Greer on Assignment: Underwater.

After the show's 1-year run, she appeared in the Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine thriller The Children's Hour, but after that stuck to TV show guest spots on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Leave It to Beaver, Wagon Train, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and a pair of appearances on Perry Mason, as well as five appearances on Family Affair and three on My Three Sons. In 2010 it was reported that she appeared at the annual Oscar party hosted by former actress Lori Anderson-Scherrer in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (http://www.banderasnews.com/1003/vl-hollywoodtopv.htm), so she still seems to be out and about.

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 2, "Operation Betrayal": Carleton Young (shown on the left, starred in Dick Tracy (1937), The Brigand, Thunderhead - Son of Flicka, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and played Harry Steeger on The Court of Last Resort) plays police investigator Sam Arnett. Gregg Martell (starred in Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, I Was a Shoplifter, Leave It to the Marines, and The Sergeant Was a Lady) plays bartender Mike Santori. Don Kennedy (voice of Tansut on Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Marlon on The Brak Show) plays former diver Johnny Beaudry.
Season 1, Episode 4, "Panic Off Punta Banda": Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr. (Luis Valdez on Viva Valdez) plays Mexican father Pepe.
Season 1, Episode 7, "Charlie Noble's Pearl": Edgar Buchanan (shown on the right, played Uncle Joe Carson on The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, Red Connors on Hopalong Cassidy, Judge Roy Bean on Judge Roy Bean, and J.J. Jackson on Cade's County) plays crusty old seaman Charlie Noble. Wayne Heffley (Officer Dennis on Highway Patrol and Vern Scofield on Days of Our Lives) plays police Lt. Crane.
Season 1, Episode 10, "A Matter of Honor": George Takei (shown on the left, played Sulu on Star Trek and Kaito Nakamura on Heroes) plays young Japanese-American in trouble Kenji Kitigawa. Stanley Adams (Lt. Morse on Not for Hire) plays mobster Joe Corelli. Barbara Luna (Maria on One Life to Live) plays exotic dancer Ruby Lee.

Season 1, Episode 11, "The Portrait": Alan Hale, Jr. (shown on the right, played Biff Baker on Biff Baker U.S.A., Casey Jones on Casey Jones, Sculley on The Texan, and The Skipper on Gilligan's Island) plays toymaker J.L. Simmons. Stanja Lowe (Mrs. Thomas on Peyton Place) plays his wife. Hugh Lawrence (Lt. Mike O'Malley on Miami Undercover) plays police Det. Carl Dodge.
Season 1, Episode 12, "A Message to Mulligan": William Boyett (Sgt. Ken Williams on Highway Patrol and Sgt. MacDonald on Adam-12) plays former Navy man Joe Mulligan. Buck Young (Deputy Sheriff Buck Johnson on U.S. Marshal and Sgt. Whipple on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.) plays an unnamed assistant movie director. Ralph Moody (Doc Burrage on The Rifleman) plays boatyard worker Mr. Farber.

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