High Desert Hangar Stories: Baa Baa Black Sheep and Black Sheep Squadron — A baby boomer’s guilty pleasure

by Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News

Over the years much has been written about that old 1970s TV show Baa Baa Black Sheep and its successor, Black Sheep Squadron.

I confess, being the old “wing nut” that I am, I’m a lover of those Corsair aircraft that are featured prominently in the series. I have heard the comments that pretty much dismiss the shows’ credibility and are critical of how VMF-214 — the famed Black Sheep Squadron — was turned into a World War II farce for the sake of a weekly TV show. While having a talk a while back with one of the show’s pilots who flew the Corsairs back in the 1970s, we drifted off into the conversation about how a program like that even made it on to the air at all — let alone got picked up for a second season.

NBC slotted Baa Baa Black Sheep on Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. in September 1976 — up against the top two shows on television, Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Consider the TV landscape at the time. It was not entirely different to our current pop culture. Superheroes were soaring in prime time (The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, etc.). Pop stars were doing a little song and dance on fluffy variety shows (Donny and Marie, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Captain and Tennille, The Brady Bunch Hour, etc.). And of course, there were a host of laugh-tracked sitcoms.

In other words, Baa Baa Black Sheep was indeed a black sheep: a throwback to the films and television of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. No wonder it struggled in the ratings. At the end of the 1976-77 season, NBC pulled the plug. Fortunately for Baa Baa Black Sheep, the following TV season was an historical clunker, as the new NBC lineup failed miserably. The network was scrambling to find something — anything — to fill in the time slots that had bombed. With production and scripts that were in place before the cancellation of the previous year, the studio ordered up 13 more episodes and resurrected the series as Black Sheep Squadron. Once again, the skies over the Newhall Farm and Land Company at Indian Dunes would be filled with the sounds of Corsairs.

How do you fight Charlie’s Angels on another network? Why with “Pappy’s Lambs,” of course! (Courtesy photograph)

As the reboot hit the small screen late in the fall/early winter, it was put up against an ABC program that was a monster hit in its first season in 1976-77, and looking to be bigger than ever. Its ability to attract eyes had Robert Conrad and the Black Sheep producers looking to grab a share of that Charlie’s Angels crowd, by bringing in their own lineup of flared hairdos and curves wearing shorts and tied tops.

Black Sheep Squadron cast its own crew of beauties to play nurses, cheekily dubbing them “Pappy’s Lambs,” in a not-so-subtle nod to Charlie’s Angels. Included in this influx of blondes and brunettes was Nancy Conrad, daughter of series star Robert Conrad. Brianne Leary (Nurse Susan) was the only other notable addition. She would likewise join the cast of CHiPs late in the game the following season as Officer Sindy, ostensibly to add a ratings boost.

A sudden shift in episode titles (goodbye “The Hawk Flies on Sunday;” hello “Forbidden Fruit” and “Fighting Angels”) made no bones about the shift in focus for the show. The gender balance added a new dimension to the series, but it was just not to be. It went from being a great show at the wrong time, to being a great show in the wrong time slot.

To the hardcore World War II buff, this diversion off into the land of television series survival was more than many could bear. The razzes and ugly words had fans turning away in disgust. At the end of the second season not even a guest appearance by the great Peter Frampton, who was riding a tsunami of rock star popularity, could bring back the audience they so desperately needed to survive.

In my mind, the two saving graces for the show came down to two things. Of course, the first would be the ability to sit down on a Tuesday or Wednesday night and enjoy an hour of Corsairs mixing it up with modified T-6s in the skies over the islands off Ventura! The second thing was, of course, tough guy Robert Conrad, who spoiled us in his long running role as Jim West in the Wild Wild West series.
Funny to look back and think he might never have played Pappy, as Conrad had the chance to play U.S. Air Force Captain and astronaut Tony Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie. In an interview with Tony Medley, Conrad explained with regret, “I turned that down because I would take second billing [to Barbara Eden]. She was going to get star billing and I thought, I think I’m at a time in my career where I ought to be on top. So I passed on that.” (He does seem better suited for air combat than sitcoms.)

Before Spuds MacKenzie came along, another bull terrier stole the hearts of TV audiences. We’re talking about “Meatball,” Pappy’s pup and the mascot of the Black Sheep Squadron. (Courtesy photograph)

There were so many cool aspects about that show that now, looking back, the ability to relive the show via reruns kind of makes up for those of us who were so hard-core when it came to the lack of reality that was presented back then. Looking at what’s offered nowadays and understanding that Hollywood puts profitability over presenting unvarnished true stories (no matter how great they are), it’s amazing that this show even had a chance in a post-Vietnam era to make it into prime-time television. In interviews after the series’ cancellation, it was shared that the end did not necessarily come from low ratings alone, it was the combination of two factors. In a Q & A session back in 2013, Conrad went into detail as to why Black Sheep Squadron was cancelled. The reason was: “women against violence on television.” It was also the reason Wild Wild West was cancelled.

So there you have it — and yes, I am a closet fan of that old series, as are many others. Even though we don’t speak about it much, when we are with other aviation types I will say that the fan base is pretty diverse. Long before coronavirus came along, when I was doing my beer/pizza/movie programs at the local veterans home, the most popular and requested show started off with a historical song: “The Whiffenpoof Song.” In the opening, a chorus of men sing, “We are poor little lambs/Who have lost our way/Baa, baa, baaaaa.” This is the chorus of “The Whiffenpoof Song,” an a cappella number that dates back to Yale University in 1909, and it is heard at the beginning of the opening credits of Baa Baa Black Sheep.

Vintage TV and a throwback to an earlier time when we baby boomers were not overly picky and for brief moments we had the heroes, the Corsairs and the girl next door nicely wrapped up in an hour-long show for our entertainment pleasure. Glad we had the diversion from the disco era that was killing our vibe! Black Sheep Squadron, pretty corny, but looking forward to viewing another rerun, even though I’ve probably seen it hundreds of times.

Until next time, Bob out …

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