The original film considerably enhanced the movie and TV careers of many of its cast members, including Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Ernest Borgnine, Clint Walker, George Kennedy, and John Cassavetes.
None of them, of course, will appear in the MGM-UA production for the Fox network series that begins with an introductory episode tonight (9 p.m. Saturday, April 30, WXIN 59). Despite the popularity of the 1967 film, producer David Gerber is taking a gamble. Few movie properties have become hit TV series, with the exception of such standouts as "M*A*S*H" and "The Odd Couple."
And war on TV has been an iffy subject matter. Only a handful of dramatic war series have succeeded, the most notable being "Combat."
But "The Dirty Dozen" does not involve masses of troops in combat. The dozen warriors are an elite group of ex-convicts with nothing to lose and pardons to gain by undertaking secret missions disguised as German soldiers.
The project is so large it has two supervising executive producers, Dan Gordon and John Furia. Gordon runs the show in Hollywood. Furia handles the reins in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, headquarters for the cast and crew.
It is the first major TV series ever shot in its entirety in an Eastern Bloc nation with Yugoslavia's diverse scenery doubling for France, Italy, Germany, a Scottish island, and such cities as London and Brussels.
Yugoslavia was chosen for several reasons. The country is one of the few places in the world that still looks like Europe circa 1944. Also, the dollar goes further in Yugoslavia than in other European countries.
Producer Gordon said that while the basis of the series is related to the original movie, the new "Dirty Dozen" is different in many respects.
"It's still World War II," he said. "The Lee Marvin role, the leader of the group, has been changed with Ben Murphy playing the officer in charge.
"They get involved in a different mission every week. The team does not wear dog tags or carry any identification. If something goes wrong while they're behind enemy lines, no one can say the Americans gave the orders.
"If they get caught, they'll be shot as spies. If they refuse a mission, they will be hanged."
"The cast is unknown, but I'm very proud of them. The original movie cast was relatively unknown at the time and most of them were too old to play soldiers.
"Most combat soldiers are in their early or mid-20s, and that's how we've cast the show. We've been doing a lot of rewriting because some of these actors are real gold mines.
"We interviewed more than 100 young actors for the six lead parts and I can't remember when a cast blended together so well.
"We've made the series a little lighter than the original. And we changed the crimes for which the men were imprisoned to make them less atrocious. No murderers or rapists. And each man is a specialist--marksman, forger, demolition expert, linguist, and so on."
Actually, Gordon admitted, the same 12 actors will not be seen every week. In each show four or five members of the dozen will be killed in action, leaving a core group of four to six regulars.
In addition to Murphy, as Lt. Danko, the permanent cast includes John Bradley, John Diaquino, John Slattery and Jon Tenney.
There have been three "Dirty Dozen" TV movies, two with Savalas and the other with Marvin. According to Gordon, all enjoyed high Nielsen ratings.
"Oddly enough," he said, "two of them were shot in Yugoslavia.
"Because of the scenery and great locations afforded by Yugoslavia, this series looks more like a feature film or a miniseries than a series. We couldn't shoot an ambitious project like this in Hollywood or in Western European countries because if would be too expensive.
"Before we started the project, I saw all three of the TV movies and the original film and our quality doesn't fall off a bit.
"We've been so busy getting the shows
in on time--so far we've completed five episodes--that I haven't
had time to get over to Yugoslavia myself."
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