1950's Television Drama

Frogman turned SCUBA Investigator

Inspiration for Amateur Scuba Diving

Sea Hunt was the first time anyone tackled a show that took place underwater. The stories were sort of exciting for kids, like cops and robbers underwater.

                                                      -Lloyd Bridges

In 1955 there was a SuperScope Technicolor theater release production, Underwater! that first incorporated underwater photography as its primary feature.* (Unless you want to count buxom Jane Russell in a swimsuit.) Also important were characters involved in diving for treasure hunting.

USNR Commander Francis Doug "Red Dog" Fane published a book, The Naked Warriors in 1956 about UDT (Underwater Demolition Teams) in WWII and Korea. This inspiration for doing something in this genre prompted MGM and Tors to buy rights to this. (One sees MGM on the re-broadcasts). Fane was also became a technical consultant.

Hungarian born Producer Ivan Lawrence Tors (1916-1983) wanted to be first with this niche having a show featuring an underwater hero, but could not sell it to the networks until second generation Frederic W. Ziv (1905-2001) thought it worth the gamble. Tors had thought of this in 1955 while an underwater sequence in his Science Fiction Theater, and the Ziv brothers (Maurice) were involved then, too. It was a hard sell to studios because they thought it was too narrow a theme to continue stories in a series.

This founder of Ziv Television Programs, Inc. started in 1949 with The Cisco Kid, and was far-looking ahead enough to film it in color.**   Importantly, was Ziv's desire to vary the crime dramas from the typical (I Led Three Lives, Highway Patrol) thus paving the way for his accepting this idea of a ex-Navy UDT frogman, Mike Nelson, solving all kinds of problems of submerged items therefore needing scuba diving. (Some parts of this concept was also credited to James M. Buxbaum -later with Flipper)

Harold Minniear, the creator of Sea Divers in 1956, working in Ziv's studios, took Ziv to court because he claimed Sea Hunt copied his idea; the court ordered them to buy it -- deeming it was an implied contract to purchase. Also around this time Frank Donahue, creating sequences for Science Fiction Theater, tried to sell Ziv and Tors the idea of The Underwater Legion, but they said they were not interested. But then they started doing one called Underwater, resulting in two lawsuits with them, that did not favor Donahue. But in 1969 he was awarded $2 per telecasts, $200 grand's worth.

The pilot that was used for showing the networks was the production, shot in color in 1957, "Mark of the Octopus". The second one, also in color, was "60 Feet Below" (aka "Sea Dart"): it was the one shown to sell it in syndication).

 They made a deal with United Artists, syndicating it on 167 stations. The successfully chosen pilot, "60 Feet Below" was shown in black and white, January 4, 1958. The next 153 episodes would all be B & W.

 They used underwater locations that would make not only for exotic interest but also kept them from breaking the bank.  Both Tors and Ziv were notorious on keeping their projects in the black: They only spent $40,000 an episode. Additionally they saved money by having the lead Mike Nelson work solo, and they used his character to introduce the story with voice over. They were helter skelter in the outtakes and locations: sometimes it would be in Ziv's soundstage, with process shooting of a mock-up of the ship, The Argonaut, California Studios, Marineland of the Pacific, Palo Verdes, CA, Silver Springs Florida, Long Point on Santa Catalina Island in the Channel Islands (CA), and or Paradise Cove (near Malibu, CA {Rockford Files})

 They knew Lloyd Bridges (1913-1998) from his live TV performances on Studio One, Playhouse 90 and the Alcoa Hour; the latter of which in "Tragedy in a Temporary Town" made him infamous when his lines included, "You pigs, you pigs, you g*d damned stinking pigs!"*** Tors had seen him as a diver in the 1948 Sixteen Fathoms Deep. After they asked Bridges, he initially did not want to step down from stage and screen and commit himself to the long-term that a series would entail. However, the unique storyline, (and the need to pay his bills) brought him on board. It turned out, he did get stereotyped after four seasons of this show, like many others similarly****.

That first show, "60 Feet Below" was shot in Southern California's Marineland of the Pacific located at Long's Point on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (opened in 1954, closed in 1986). Parry Bivens and Courtney Brown are on the credits as Technical Advice on Deep Sea Diving. Indeed, Bridges had to learn his scuba skills on the job, and it was Courtney Brown that was his double for most of the early episodes. Eventually, Lloyd insisted on doing many of his own underwater stunts. It had exciting and novel elements to have gotten the positive attention of the studio executives.

The half hour (including commercials) story was about a test pilot, Jim Cook, stuck in his happily watertight cockpit, but unhappily he was trapped 60 feet below the surface. Preventing the water from crushing the victim was paramount. Initially the story starts out with Mike Nelson, putting on his suit and mask (full face) while narrating how he was going to check out a shark that lost its appetite at Marineland. When he was in the tank hand feeding little 'Jaws', he actually hears the jet vibrating in the water, and surfacing, he contemplates (thanks to voice over) the similarities of higher and lower reaches and the need for oxygen. It then switches to the boat monitoring the test flight of this XF-190. Of course, the second attempt to level off at 3000 feet leads to its crash. The manufacturer is interested in what happened to his 10 million dollar plane, they also mention that the pilot has a family, so they want to get the Navy on it. But since there is a storm brewing there will not be time; fortunately the military liaison knew Mike Nelson when he was a frogman. It is so urgent they order a helicopter to take him (already in suit, but needing air tanks) to the site; becoming a beat the clock suspense-filled drama.

The two pilots would be his favorite episodes when asked. Though he complained about his costume changes throughout this part of his career, "I still had to put that damn wetsuit on and take it off... sometimes three or four times a day... because they'd cut from that... (wetsuit shot) to some topside thing." That wetsuit was originally black, but because he was a "good guy" they painted it gray (to look white on TV.)

He had his hands full the next 154 episodes with treasure hunters, fish kills, divers with 'rapture of the deep, and whatever dangers and adventure got him underwater. 

It is ironic that this show that promoted scuba diving, also broke primary rules, such as: using a Dive Buddy, with its need for a Buddy Check. Also inaccurate were the wasteful releasing of weight belts, moving about his boat donning the tanks and fins, and keeping the mask always atop his head. Ironically when he was first being trained by Courtney Brown (in Silver Springs), he cited how Buddy training saved him when an airtank was too low on oxygen. Though he knew the Buddy System was essential and missing from the show he explained, ..."our excuse for existence is in dramatic entertainment and our purpose is to present an illusion of reality in dangerous situations which the public will enjoy and want to see." They made lightweight fake tanks for surface scenes when Bridges fussed about how dead weighted burdensome the real ones were. He got so proficient at scuba diving he told the producers he would like to do an episode with him riding the back of a Marineland star, "Bubbles." This would be with a Pilot Whale Cow, weighing almost a ton; of course Tors vetoed that, quipping, "All Bubbles has to do is to flip her tail and I lose my leading man!"

TV Guide Gushed about Sea Hunt as:
"...an epic so watery that Lloyd Bridges’ colleagues tell him they have to drain their TV sets after watching his show".

The show was dubbed in Russian in 1958 and sent there as part of a cultural exchange. It would be one of the top syndicated television shows, ever.

His son, Beau, played in the 1960 episode, "Storm Drain," and the next year he was featured in "Baby." "The Lost Ones" in 1958 featured his wife (of 60 years), and son Jeff (who is very active today) and he was in "The Birthday Present" later that year. There were many actors as guest stars who would become prominent. Larry Hagman of I Dream of Jeannie, and more famously Dallas' JR was in three in 1958, "The Sponge Divers", "Legend of the Mermaid", and "The Hero". Robert Conrad of The Wild Wild West was in 1959's "The Stunt", and "Water Ski Show," and his WWW co-star Ross Martin was also in two that year, "The Dam", and "The Briefcase". In 1961 Bruce Dern had a guest spot in "Crime at Sea;" and Ted Knight, later on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, played in the 1961 episode of "The Defector." Another interesting actor was John Marley in 1960's "Changing Patterns", and 1961's "Sunken Cat." Perhaps you remember him as the director who the Godfather sent a horse's head as breakfast in bed.

One of the most known characters, Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek's Spock, was paid $125 dollars a day in 1958 to play in "The Shipwreck". Segueing to Another Star Trek actor was Meg Wyllie, who played the sinister cranium vein throbbing alien Talosian Keeper in that series pilot. Finally, the last episode on September 23, 1961, titled "Roundup" had a bit part played by now superstar Jack Nicholson, then a rookie. In it he has this line out of his two, "How many times I gotta tell you? There ain't no bomb!" He was referring to a torpedo put in a hydroelectric plant. (There are continuity mistakes in this, too, bombs changing places inexplicably.) So dangerous a mission that Mike Nelson also prophetically ruminates over changing careers.

In 1987 there was a Canadian remake of Sea Hunt that starred Ron Ely (of Doc Savage and Tarzan fame), and Kimber Sissons. There was a get-together with Ely and Bridges and a questioning of why anyone else but Bridges should use Mike Nelson's name. 

Sources:

http://movies.nytimes.com/person/82477/Lamar-Boren/filmography
http://home.comcast.net/~bill.jones.scubaguy/SEA_HUNT/SeaHuntPrincipalCastCrew.html
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/underwater.html#ixzz1J3FKhffn
http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=zivtelevision
http://ctva.biz/_Prod_IvanTors.htm
http://www.tvparty.com/acseahunt.html
http://www.internationallegendsofdiving.com/FeaturedLegends/sea_hunt.htm
http://www.clicker.com/tv/sea-hunt/sixty-feet-below-311377/
http://theaquabank.com/videos.php?id=1730&list=0

 

Notes:

* Lamar Boren who did the underwater cinematography for Underwater!, (and Thunderball and other James Bond movies), was responsible shooting this show, and then the TV show Flipper, which was another production by a sometime Sea Hunt writer and producer, James M. Buxbaum.

** The first current color broadcast standard TV was the Admiral at the end of 1953, and there was a polychromatic national broadcast of the Tournament of Roses early the next year by NBC -who happened to sell RCA color sets. Not until 1964 were all networks in color.

*** Lloyd Bridges was lucky that his affiliation with the Communist Party did not blacklist him all the way, but he was relegated to TV for a while.

**** Another twist of fate: Bridges was asked by Gene Roddenberry to play Captain Kirk, but he turned it down. Jeffrey Hunter had it for the pilot, but was too pricey for the series. Now, as we know, William Shatner would retain the role of Kirk, forever linking him with that part.

On September 1987, Lloyd Bridges accepted National Association of Underwater Instructors' "Honorary Scuba Instructor" award.

Son Jeff Bridges while a guest of Jay Leno's Tonight Show, February 3, 2011, admitted that you can see on his wrist, "... my father's Sea Hunt watch that he gave me. It calms me down ... I wear it every day".

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