Spotlight: Vic Morrow

Let me talk to you about this man.

Born Victor Morozoff to Russian Jewish immigrants on Valentine’s Day, 1929, Bronx native Vic Morrow possessed a number of talents: looking 35 while still in his 20s, having the saddest, most desolate resting face known to man, and being able to utterly excel in any role he was given. His modest 5’9″ height–extra six inches of hair not included–made him look small next to many of his co-stars, such as the 6’4″ Rick Jason or 6’6″ Dick Peabody, but he had a way of making you forget it.

(Some articles and newspaper clippings put him around 5’11”, but I find this highly unlikely. Not only did he match up almost perfectly with his fellow 5’9″ Combat! co-star Jack Hogan, but he was visibly shorter than the true 5’11”-er Conlan Carter.)

(On the other hand, everyone looked short next to the towering Everest that was Private Littlejohn, and Vic Morrow was stricken with a permanent case of the Slouches. With this nitpick aside, let us continue.)

Not the particularly studious type, he dropped out of high school at the tender age of 17 (while doubtless still looking 35) to join the Navy. After he was done weighing all those anchors, he used the G.I. Bill to work on getting himself a degree in Law at Florida State. Luckily for all of us, he got bit by the acting bug while taking part in a school play between sessions of book larnin’. While I’m sure he would have been a fabulous lawyer, he ended up being a fabulous actor instead. I endured King Creole for this man. That should tell you all you need to know.

Okay, so I skipped the singing parts. Even I have my limits.

After refining his craft in the Actors’ Workshop, he went into stage acting. His first film role was in the well-known flick Blackboard Jungle, as a smirking juvenile delinquent against Glenn Ford’s shy, retiring high school teacher in the roughest, toughest part of town. Instead of flapping his ears and flying away, Ford met this harassment with an eventual showdown in the classroom that had Morrow slinging his switchblade all over the place like a maniac and eventually getting the sass smacked out of him, but not without some truly impressive hair-flopping first. The actor was 26 but didn’t look it, though that actually kinda worked in his favor for this role. It made Artie West seem like the type of kid who’d been held back every year since kindergarten.

Did I mention that his Crazy Russian Hair game is strong in this movie?

Three years later, dear little Artie West finally graduated, changed his name to Shark, and tried to gut Elvis Presley in an alleyway. Before and around that came the guest slots here and there and all over the place. He had a wide range of roles, often as bad guys like disgruntled suicide bomber Nash in the film Hell’s Five Hours (a character who gets a 1/10 for accent accuracy but a 14/10 for delightfully campy Hollywood drawl) or, in the 70s, handsy creep Hugo in the TV movie The Glass House. He also excelled as the occasional “slow” type; be it the mean Wes Singer in the pilot episode of The Restless Gun who cockily challenges John Payne to a duel and ends up crying in his grandma’s arms when it doesn’t go as planned, or the darling David Greco in Naked City’s “The Shield” who tries his best to follow in his father Jack Klugman’s footsteps as a cop. We see about two picoseconds of his simple-minded murderer in Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ A Little Sleep, a dumbed-down Norman Bates kind of role that was easily the best part of the entire episode (to be fair, I don’t blame him too much for doing what he did. I wanted to strangle Barbara Cook too).

His way of speaking lent well to smarmy, smooth-talking villains in The Rifleman, Bonanza, and the aforementioned King Creole. (It also means that whenever Combat! is on and Saunders has a line the closed captions on my television read “speaking foreign language”, but that’s neither here nor there.) He played gangster Dutch Schultz in Portrait of a Mobster, and heavies in two episodes of The Untouchables, where in one of which he slapped around Patricia Neal and looked dangerously fabulous (if 35) in pinstriped suits.

The Rifleman hosted him twice, the more memorable role (in my book) being that of Johnny Cotton, who’d kill you soon as look at you but was so chatty and charismatic you couldn’t even hate him for it.

Johnny Cotton, looking impishly murderous since the 1870s.

He crosses The Line, however, in stealing Lucas’ rifle, so in the longstanding tradition of the show he gets shot all to pieces before the credits roll. I shudder to think what would have happened to him had he ever guested on Gunsmoke with its legendary astronomical body count per episode.

Finally in 1962 came the big break: a new role, not as a sneering heavy, but instead a war-weary pillar of wisdom, battlefield brilliance, and crazy hair: “Chip” Saunders, Sergeant Immortal, right hand man of oft-absent Lieutenant Gil Hanley, part-time nursemaid to goldbrick BAR man William G. Kirby, father and advisor to King Company, 2nd Platoon, 1st Squad, and resigned headshrink to every unstable, unsure, and unhinged guest star to ever grace the set of Combat! And he blew it right out of the water.

Vic Morrow, undeniably, was just plain cool. He could stand there and do nothing but breathe and you’d still feel the awesome rolling off of him in waves. Put that in a uniform, give it a Thompson, and there’s really no way you can fail. You might even get a five season TV show out of it.

Saunders and Hanley are technically co-stars of equal status, but I think Saunders made more of a name for himself in the five years we had him. A popular opinion of poor Hanley is that he’s distant, unable to read his men, and downright grouchy about having to lead them sometimes. This opinion is mostly correct. Don’t get me wrong, though–I for one like Hanley. Most of the time. He has a different way of dealing with problems and people, to be sure, but he’s just as effective (case in point: tough love in Any Second Now whilst being squished under a massive beam). His only real problem is that he does spend an awful lot of time away from the squad, leaving Saunders to babysit them all while Kirby chases girls and the new guy has a psychotic break or three. Small wonder our sergeant is better at handling the guys; he has more exposure to them. It helps that he can read people like an open book and carry on entire conversations using only facial expressions.

One unfortunate side effect of being Saunders is that he’s not only a bullet magnet but also a PDI (Plot Device Illness) magnet. This deadly combination makes for a very unfortunate situation from a character’s perspective. He goes blind, goes deaf, goes…whatever it is that happens in The Gantlet, has his hands burned half off, gets mashed under beams and pipes and stuck in cave-ins, is slapped around by a very peeved Admiral Nelson in SS regalia, and is knocked out so many times one way or another that by all rights he ought to have irreversible brain damage by the time Season 5 rolls around. And yet he does not. The man is made of vibranium. Or it’s just the side effects of the portraying actor being a descendant of Russians.

Morrow as a womanizing Soviet in General Electric Theater’s “The Iron Silence“. His tipsy attempt at Volga Boatmen is in a class all its own.

Vic Morrow possessed a great deal of physical awareness. He may have slouched, but he did it masterfully. A method actor, he knew that every inch of his body had to be doing something in a scene to make it real. Just standing there spouting lines would not do for this man. Posture, expression, the unconscious reaction to environment, are all things intimately woven into the man that is Sergeant Saunders. This helps a lot with the realism of the show, too; there’s no forgetting to limp or accidentally switching which arm has been injured. It makes it a boring watch for the nitpickers among us who subsist on finding errors, but we can’t have everything.

There are a great many notable episodes that showcase this superb acting ability. Season 1’s Survival has him portraying the mind-bending agony of badly-burned hands with hardly a sound. He doesn’t need to make any noise to get his point across; intense pain is etched into every shift of his features and movement of his body. By the time he’s done, you’re hurting right along with him (even if he does spend half the episode walking around making T-rex arms). That physical awareness comes into play, too, with him struggling to not use his hands for 45 solid minutes. He does things with his elbows I didn’t know a human being could do.

In Season 4’s Hear No Evil (written by John Considine, who played Temple in two episodes, and his brother Tim) he temporarily loses his hearing from a close grenade blast. Through Saunders you feel the terror of going utterly deaf in hostile territory, isolated, struggling to fit in a body that has betrayed you as you drown in smothering silence. There’s also a dog, so that’s fun.

Is there even any room for the amount of talking one would require to do justice to the way this man yanks on your heartstrings? Be it tough love like No Trumpets, No Drums where he has to snap Caje out of a slump, or poignant sadness like Mail Call wherein he himself does the slumping (emotionally speaking this time), or the violent tragedy of The Little Carousel that shows the senselessness of war, Morrow will find a way to channel that raw emotion through your television screen and right into your defenseless ticker. Let us not even touch on the endearing, adorable masterpiece that is One More For the Road, aka Eight Men and a Baby. The phenomenon of adult human males turning to doting piles of Jell-O at the sight of an infant is one I shall never grow tired of seeing.

Sergeant Saunders is Combat! I preface this statement with the disclaimer that I love each and every member of the squad, from Kirby to McCall to never-there Hanley. (Doc the First does not count. He is a useless sad sack who whines about everything.) However, you could replace any one of them and the dynamic might be different, it might not be as good, but it would still, in its roughest sense, be the same show. But take away Saunders, and you take away Combat! With his smoldering stares and swaggering walk, he makes just about every episode and every plot watchable, though the Magical Mystery Tour levels of Weird in The Gantlet are really pushing both the viewer’s patience and Vic Morrow’s acting talents. Is it worth wondering what the heck is going on just to see Saunders in a Wehrmacht uniform, serenely riding a motorcycle through massive explosions with a beatific smile on his face? Sort of. It’s rather subjective.

Saunders is undeniably Morrow’s most iconic character, and certainly one that the actor poured his heart and soul into week after week for five years. He was in plenty more by the time it ended, but that would take a while to cover and I’ve kept you long enough. However, with 99 acting credits to his name, it’s ironic that he’s mostly known for only two roles: the one that made him famous, and the one that got him killed.

The cameras were rolling on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1982 when a helicopter lost control and crashed to the ground, killing Morrow and the two Vietnamese child actors with him. The footage of their untimely and horrific deaths is available on YouTube, but I wouldn’t recommend watching it. While not terribly graphic (unless you’ve got good eyes), it’s awful and deeply disturbing. It’s better to remember Morrow through his work: as the sweet and slow David Greco in Naked City, the slick and smarmy Ab Brock in Bonanza, the malicious, conniving Artie West in Blackboard Jungle–and of course, the immovable, ever-wise Sergeant Saunders of Combat!

Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the only, Vic Morrow.


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