PART 1: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS
I am a big fan of classic television. In many cases (oh, alright… most cases), I was around for the original airings of these shows, which includes the five season run (1962-1967) of COMBAT!, the World War II military drama starring Rick Jason and Vic Morrow. However, being quite young (at least for the first two or three seasons) and very rarely in control of the sole black and white set in the home, I didn’t see a single episode of COMBAT! during its original run. I was actually introduced to this incredible series a few years after its initial run when it was shown on a local UHF station as part of a midday block with THE RAT PACK. I would actually walk (run) home from school for lunch to catch as much of the show as I possibly could before I had to hoof it back for more learnin’ and, during summer vacation, I was glued to the set while COMBAT! was on. Of course, the program has been rerun from time to time throughout the ensuing decades and, now, you can own the entire series on DVD (no word on a blu-ray release, though).
I‘m also a big fan of those family-friendly, ultimately loopy Disney movies of the early-to-mid ’60s. To be more specific, I was actually enamored of Hayley Mills. I had a huge crush on her when I was a kid (and, truth be told, she stills looks amazing at nearly 70). One of my favorites from that bizarre, undoubtedly trip-induced Disney canon was THAT DARN CAT. And that, my friends, is where Disney and COMBAT! intersect. A young actor named Tom Lowell was featured prominently in the first two seasons of COMBAT! and also appeared in THAT DARN CAT with Hayley Mills (he was also in THE GNOME-MOBILE and THE BOATNIKS for Disney, as well as guest spots on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, BONANZA, THE ADDAMS FAMILY and too many others to name… for that, check out his page at www.imdb.com). I’ve been watching those COMBAT! DVDs that I mentioned earlier and, after reading of the death this past January of cast member Pierre Jalbert (he played Caje for the entire run of the series), I went looking for information about the other COMBAT! regulars. That search led me to Lowell Thomas, the very same actor from those Disney movies that I loved as a kid. Sending a blind introduction via e-mail explaining who I was and that I was interested in interviewing him about his career, particularly his COMBAT! days, Mister Thomas very graciously consented.
PART 2: THE INTERVIEW
THE MULE: Mister Thomas, you are currently the Director of Theater Arts at Bishop Alemany High School in Mission Hills. As a young man, what opportunities were available to you in high school and college? How do your experiences as a student affect your work as an instructor?
LOWELL: I had a very supportive family and teachers in both high school as well as college. My father was the head of the Speech and Drama Department at Cal State Sacramento, and both he and my mother were supportive.
THE MULE: For your acting career, you flipped your name. Lowell Thomas became Tom Lowell. What prompted the change?
LOWELL: I had to change my name because “Lowell Thomas” was a famous newscaster/journalist/film narrator/developer of Cinerama, who was already a member of the Screen Actors Guild, and there is a rule in the Guild that you cannot have the same name as anyone else. So my agent just turned my name around.
THE MULE: Obviously, most people will recognize you as Private Billy Nelson, a role you played for three years, in the television series, COMBAT! And, that’s what has brought us to this interview. However, you did produce a solid and memorable body of work in a relatively short period of time: guest-starring roles in several still-popular-today series; a stint on the soap, DAYS OF OUR LIVES; several movies, including four for Disney. As the bulk of this interview will focus on your days on COMBAT!, before delving into that, which of these roles stick out in your mind as particularly enjoyable, from an acting standpoint, as well as a more personal level… relating to the people you worked with.
LOWELL: There were several roles that were the most enjoyable. A couple of the GUNSMOKE episodes; THE LONG, HOT SUMMER, directed by Mark Rydell; THAT DARN CAT; but, most of all COMBAT!. COMBAT!, because of the relationship between the guys on the show – we all became family.
THE MULE: In the last couple of decades, a lot of actors have made the decision to make Disney or Disney style movies… family and kid friendly movies… for their children. Are you proud of your work with Disney, especially as your kids or grandchildren hit that age group that would understand and enjoy those movies?
LOWELL: I’m very proud of the work I did at Disney and, yes, those were the first films with which my grandchildren became acquainted.
THE MULE: Even though you continued to work in front of the screen, on a limited basis, you eventually moved behind the camera, working on commercials at first before working on and developing several series for different networks, stations and companies. Did you always have the desire to produce or was it something that came later? How did your experience on-screen help you in your move to the producer’s chair? What major differences do you think exist between acting and producing?
LOWELL: I became a commercial producer out of necessity – I was unable to make the transition from “teen actor” (which I played into my 30s), to adult, and had trouble finding work. I was offered a position as a commercial producer at that time and took it. But my time as an actor helped me in the production area.
THE MULE: Billy Nelson, your character from COMBAT!, died in your first appearance. Later, obviously, like Lazarus, Private Nelson was resurrected. Why did the producers, first of all, decide to make the character a one-and-done and, what was involved in the decision to bring you back as a regular?
LOWELL: Yes, supposedly, Billy died in the opening episode, with Tab Hunter. That was the initial concept. However, I had already done three more by the time that one was aired, because Burt Kennedy, the producer/writer/director who created the character, enjoyed the relationship between Billy and Littlejohn and convinced the series producers that they needed the character of Billy. Soon, Billy and Littlejohn became the “comedy relief” of the show. And yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.
THE MULE: I don’t think that chemistry within an ensemble can be faked. Likewise, I think that ensembles without a certain chemistry can’t pull off a comradeship that simply does not exist. It seems that the main group of actors on COMBAT! had a genuine fellowship on set. Am I wrong? How deep did that commitment to the core group of seven actors go? Did those relationships last past your time on the show?
LOWELL: Yes, the camaraderie that you saw on the show, was genuine. We all truly had a great time together – hung out after shooting – had parties together and truly liked and respected each other. We all kept in touch with each other through the years. Unfortunately, there are but a few of us left. Jack Hogan (Kirby), Conlan Carter (Doc), Shecky Greene (Braddock) and Steve Rogers, (the first “Doc”). We had our 20 year reunion at Vic’s funeral (something that never should have happened), then when we had a fan-based reunion in Las Vegas, we were greeted at home by the knowledge that Rick had died. Very sad. I kept in contact with and visited with Dick Peabody often, even a few months before he died, and had kept in touch with Pierre – he and his wife would come by at holidays – and just recently, we lost him. The humor on the set was the thing I miss the most from all those guys – it was great fun.
THE MULE: I’ve read and heard from several sources that Vic Morrow was one of the most generous actors that they had ever worked with. Obviously, Vic and Rick Jason were the leads. What memories do you have from your time on-screen and off of those two gentlemen?
LOWELL: Vic was a very generous actor and would help (especially a young actor just starting out) at any time. I once asked him, in my naivete, what it felt like to be a “star.” He said he wasn’t a star, he was a “comet” – that he’d burn brighter, but have a shorter life span than a star! How prophetic. Rick was a solid “movie star.” Having been raised in the studio system, he generated a great deal of respect.
THE MULE: The show was known for a certain gritty realism in dealing with its scenes of war, as well as moral issues and personal relationships. Can you tell us about your favorite episodes and why they stand out? How about some episodes that may stick out in your mind as clunkers?
LOWELL: I guess the most favorite episodes were those that Dick and I had some of our comedy scenes – those written by Burt Kennedy. We had several times in which the show was short, Burt would whip up a three-minute comedy scene the night before and hand it to us in the morning. We’d fool with it for an hour or so and shoot it – we knew it was good by the reaction of the crew the minute it was over – they’d break out into laughter! I also loved the ones in which I got some dramatic chops – great for the ego.
THE MULE: Besides the regulars, you also worked with an impressive set of guest-stars. Who were your favorites to work with?
LOWELL: We had many guest stars but, the one that impressed me and intimidated me was Lee Marvin. In the episode, Marvin is severely wounded and Sergeant Saunders and I are carrying him on a stretcher through the woods (the back lot at MGM) when I tripped on a rock and the stretcher slipped out of my hands, dropping Lee to the ground. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God, I just dropped Lee Marvin on his head!!!!!” I thought he’d get up and clobber me, so I began to profusely apologize and he said: “Don’t apologize, kid – don’t ever apologize!” I thought that was cool.
THE MULE: Likewise, you worked with some great writers and directors, who went on to do more impressive work. Do you have any memories of working with guys like Richard Donner and Robert Altman?
LOWELL: Yes, I worked with Dick Donnor and Bob Altman, both interesting and intense directors. Donnor got me on the first day of shooting – we rehearsed a scene and he turned to me and, with a deadpan face, said: “You really gonna do it like that?!” I was stunned – then the rest of the guys burst out laughing – “Got th’ kid again!!” You see, I really was “Billy Nelson.”
THE MULE: I know you attended a TWILIGHT ZONE convention in 2006. Would you consider doing another convention, like Comic-Con or something highlighting classic television?
LOWELL: I’ve attended three TWILIGHT ZONE conventions and they were very enjoyable… and, yes, I’d certainly be interested in doing another – Comic Con or Television classics.
THE MULE: Do you ever get the itch to get in front of the camera again?
LOWELL: Yes, I’d love to do more TV or movies. I have, over the past few years, done some plays locally and have just completed a leading role in an animated feature, HERO OF COLOR CITY. So, yes, I’m ready.
THE MULE: You’ve made a tremendous impact on people like me who remember (and still enjoy) COMBAT! But, at the end of the day, how do you want people to remember Lowell Thomas?
LOWELL: How do I want to be remembered – I just hope I’ve had the same kind of impact on my students that Professor Fowler (Donald Pleasance), in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Changing of the Guard,” had on his.
THE MULE: Thanks you so much for your time and for all the years of enjoyment that you’ve provided to TV and movie geeks like me.
LOWELL: Thanks for remembering.