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Friday, June 02, 2017

F TROOP Fridays: "The Return of Bald Eagle" (1965)

F TROOP Fridays: Episode 15

F TROOP: "The Return of Bald Eagle" (1965 ABC-TV/Warner Brothers) Season One, Episode 5: Original Air Date October 12, 1965.  Starring Forrest Tucker as Sergeant Morgan O'Rourke, Larry Storch as Corporal Randolph Agarn, Ken Berry as Captain Wilton Parmenter, Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane, Frank deKova as Chief Wild Eagle, Bob Steele as Duffy, James Hampton as Bugler Dobbs.  Guest Star: Don Rickles as Bald Eagle.  Directed by Leslie Goodwins.  Written by Arthur Julian.

Yes, I'm a few weeks behind the times in saluting the late Don Rickles, who left us on April 6 at age 90.  Rest in peace, ya hockey puck!

Private Hannibal Shirley Dobbs is having a crisis of confidence at Fort Courage, with his "fat upper lip" giving him the idea that the bugle isn't right for him.  With encouragement from Agarn and the Captain, F Troop retains its Bugler, who soldiers on with renewed confidence that he'll learn a second song to go with "Yankee Doodle".  Calamity avoided--but it isn't the only one facing Parmenter this morning: Bald Eagle has been spotted in the area.

No, not the national bird of the United States.  This Bald Eagle is Chief Wild Eagle's long-estranged and bloodthirsty son, out to prove himself a brave warrior by conquering Fort Courage and collecting seventeen new scalps.   The Chief isn't the least bit interested, especially not when O'Rourke Enterprises' big end of the month sale is looming.  Undeterred, the obnoxious youngster vows to attack Fort Courage all by himself at the same time Captain Parmenter gets a new order from headquarters: seek peace at all costs, through Operation Bury the Hatchet.

The Return of Bald Eagle was included in both the Columbia House VHS and TV Favorites DVD releases, likely due to the lunacy of casting Don Rickles as the titular renegade, but for yours truly, this is one of the lesser lights from the stellar first season.  A talk show and celebrity roast fixture for decades, Rickles was consistently effective as a dramatic performer (THE RAT RACE, CASINO) but a little of him often went a long way in the sitcom format.

Rickles' relentlessness made him a perfect guest star, though, and Mr. Warmth is hilariously manic for a while as the would-be warrior who (understandably) just can't get anyone to follow him.    Unfortunately, his best moment, the gleefully goofy "Happy Birthday!" as he departs with his hostage, gets a quick edit the one time it would be funnier to linger--a rare muffed gag by old pro Goodwins (POP ALWAYS PAYS). 

After three home runs in succession out of the gate,  F TROOP experienced some growing pains with the next two installments.  The problem here?  After a riotous first act that sees the maniacal Rickles turning everyone else (even Storch) into a reactor, writer Julian grounds the momentum to a halt with a too-soft second half that reveals the bloodthirsty Baldy is really a poor, misunderstood kid at heart underneath all that murderous rage.

Yeah, the producers of Rickles' later sitcoms (i.e. C.P.O. SHARKEY) always softened his character, thinking that week after week of unrestrained Donnie would be too much of a good thing.  But this isn't a weekly dose of the Merchant of Venom--it's his lone F TROOP, and this series excelled during the first season keeping it real all the way to the closing credits.  Installments like The New I.G., The 86 Proof Spring and The Day the Indians Won ended just as hilariously as they began, completely devoid of lessons, hugs or retribution for the schemers at the fade-out.  (The tired "character change as resolution" gimmick rarely showed itself either.) Suffice to say that sentimentality isn't a strong point for this show or for Rickles.

For the second episode in a row, Captain Wilton Parmenter gets to display competence on his own without orchestration from his NCO's.  After bringing the Colton Brothers to justice in Corporal Agarn's Farewell to the Troops, the Captain makes Operation Bury the Hatchet a success by doggedly (if rather obliviously) appealing to the "good" side in Fort Courage's attacker. It's here that we learn that Baldy's supposed idolatry of Geronimo contains more than a little resentment, a rather abrupt revelation.  While ultimately disappointing, The Return of Bald Eagle is a very well remembered episode for Rickles' presence alone.  He's perhaps the only performer who can come across like a bull in a china shop on F TROOP--even Milton Berle (The Great Troop Robbery) couldn't pull that one off.


While the Captain has a thin upper lip, he's no better suited to the bugle than Dobbs is, owing his inability to a "fat tongue".  (On the bright side, that's good news for Wrangler Jane!   Oops, sorry...)

Chief Wild Eagle has two sons by a prior marriage: Bald Eagle and Boy Deer.  The latter is a "Dear Boy" per his father, but he must have fallen out of favor later on.  He's never in the running to be Wild Eagle's heir, with Crazy Cat surpassing him despite constantly, blatantly yearning for Wild Eagle's demise.

Wild Eagle is a very progressive employer, implementing the Berry Juice Break at least two decades before the coffee break became an accepted practice in the workplace.


Fort Courage is a treason-free zone, with the men of F Troop even successfully repelling an honest attack--albeit a single-handed one.


Well, Don Rickles is playing a native American, need I say more?


No wisdom this time from the Chief, just a lot of wincing at his least favorite son.  No wonder: the kid has no motivation whatsoever to contribute to the family business!


I was a little harsh on this one the first time around.   The first act of The Return of Bald Eagle is hilariously goofy, as is Rickles himself, but the abrupt change to mawkishness in Act Two just doesn't work for this show or its guest star.  But it's still half of a good episode.  No disaster--just too conventionally average in the end, which makes it one of the lesser lights of a stellar first season.    (**1/2 out of four)

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