7 fascinating facts about 'The Rat Patrol'

This awesome '60s action show led to belated heart attacks, British controversy and brutal filming conditions.

Image: The Everett Collection

When G.I. Joe dolls hit the market in 1964, they were an instant success. The original 12" toys came in four varieties — soldier, pilot, marine and sailor. Lucky kids collected the entire quartet. It was hard not to see a little of the foursome in the characters of The Rat Patrol. Based on the daring missions of the British Special Air Service in the North African desert, this 1966–68 strived for action more than realism. For Boomers, it was a live-action cartoon, an exciting mythologization of their fathers' heroism in World War II, with characters as colorful as the bright images on the screen. 

With guns blazing and a sweet vehicle, The Rat Patrol set the mold for action-television squads like The A-Team. Historians might have scoffed, but boys ate it up. Half a century after it ended, the show remains a thrilling way to spend 30 minutes in front of the tube. Yes, unlike most action-adventures, The Rat Patrol clocked in at half an hour, which meant our heroes had to get right into the action.

Behind the scenes, the production provided drama, too. Let's take a look at some things you might not know about The Rat Patrol.

1. It was the first TV show about WWII filmed and shown entirely in color.

Hogan's Heroes had a pilot in black and white. A season earlier, the Naval series Convoy was one of the final productions by NBC in black and white, as the show utilized stock footage from the war, and wanted to keep a consistent look. ABC's The Rat Patrol made no such reach for reality. Despite its desert setting, the series popped off the screen.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. A Jeep accident on set lead to a heart attack 16 years later.

In 1967, former Marine and Rat Patrol star Christopher George, who played unit leader Sgt. Sam Troy, was involved in a frightening incident with fellow cast members Justin Tarr and Gary Raymond. Their Jeep rolled over while making a sharp turn in a dry lakebed. George suffered tissue tears, neck injuries and damage elsewhere, including his heart. When the veteran suddenly died of a heart attack in 1983, it was believed to have been a result of chest injuries sustained years earlier filming the war series.

3. One of its stars changed his name and became an Emmy winning soap actor.

German-born Hans Gudegast played the perpetual nemesis of the Rat Patrol, Nazi officer Hans Deitrich. The show went out of its way to make him a more likeable character, a sort of hapless, human Wile E. Coyote who can never catch his foes. "It was a total farce," the actor said of the show years later. "It was the height of wishful thinking, that two American Jeeps with guns mounted on them could defeat whatever the Germans put against them." In 1970, Gudegast changed his name to land a role in the film Colossus: The Forbin Project. He changed his name to Eric Braeden, a tribute to his hometown of Bredenbek, Germany. A decade later, he was hired to play Victor Newman on the soap opera The Young and the Restless for a 26-week run. He ended up staying for 30 years, winning a Daytime Emmy in 1998 for Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

4. Much of the first season was shot in Spain.

From the get-go, The Rat Patrol was a grueling production, with ballooning costs and miserable filming conditions. Shooting began for the pilot on the dunes of Yuma, Arizona, not far from where Return of the Jedi shot those climatic scenes with Jabba the Hutt. Temperatures soared to 118 degrees. Jeeps broke down, while Christopher George had to leave to fulfil another movie obligation. The production then hoped to move to Camp Irwin in California, but the Army pulled out from the deal at the last minute. Finally, the entire cast and crew shipped off to Almería, Spain, where they bunkered down for 17 weeks of filming. According to TV Guide, they lived in a town with non-potable water that stank of rotting fish and sewage. George shed 20 pounds. Actors came down with dysentery and got banged up doing stuntwork. The weather wrecked havok, throwing rain and windstorms at the production. When the show became a hit, not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of making more, to say the least. Fortunately, they got to move production back to the States.

Image: Google Maps

5. It was pulled from British television due to historical inaccuracies.

The heroic foursome on the show consists of three Americans and a Brit. Of course, anyone who knows their WWII history realizes this is not exactly how things went in North Africa. These units were British in the war, and those in the United Kingdom took offense to the Yanks taking credit for such actions on TV. Thus, the show was, er, yanked off the air in Britain. Adult Aussies who knew better were no fans, either. George's character sported a hat similar to those worn by Australian soldiers, with a Rising Sun Badge. Many took offense. Thus, The Rat Patrol was moved to Saturday afternoon on the telly down under, where it was mostly seen by less-historically informed kids.

Image: TV Guide

6. The original theme song was scrapped and recycled for another war picture.

Alex North was initially commissioned to craft a theme song for the pilot episode. The piece eventually went unused. Instead, the show used music by Dominic Frontiere. However, North recycled his rousing work for the 1968 World War II film The Devil's Brigade. Check it out here.

Image: United Artists / Discogs.com

7. Three episodes were combined to make a movie called 'Massacre Harbor.'

Massacre Harbor sounds like a pretty awesome action flick. In fact, the 1968 movie was simply a compilation of the three-part Rat Patrol adventure "The Last Harbor Raid," episodes 15–17. The film was released overseas, in markets like Japan and Scandinavia.

Image: United Artists

SEE MORE: 11 action-packed facts about 'Combat!'

This 1960s WWII TV drama featured real veterans, sports icons, famous directors and sharp punctuation. READ MORE

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