No Time for Sergeants
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No Time for Sergeants is one of those popular properties with a long record of success prior to the film version and an extended influence beyond it, inspiring spin-offs and imitations and boosting the careers of several of its principals.
The story first appeared as a best-selling comic novel by Georgia native Mac Hyman. Drawing on his World War II service as a photo navigator, Hyman worked on his novel for several years, narrating it through the Southern dialect of his country bumpkin hero, Will Stockdale, a young man drafted into the service from his hometown of Callville, which bore strong resemblances to Hyman's own Cordele. Several publishers rejected it before Random House picked it up and put it out in 1954. Its story of Stockdale's misadventures in the service and his continual run-ins with a crusty and increasingly frustrated sergeant was an immediate hit.
Within no time, the book was adapted for the stage by Ira Levin (future author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives), but before it hit Broadway it was aired on an episode of The United States Steel Hour in March 1955. The TV production starred up-and-coming young comic Andy Griffith as Will and veteran character actor Harry Clark as his nemesis Sgt. King. Griffith recreated his role when the play opened in New York the following October, and the part of King was taken by Myron McCormick, an actor known primarily for his theater work, including a long run as the rough military man Luther Billis in the musical South Pacific. The cast also included former child star Roddy McDowall as Will's sidekick Pvt. Ben Whitledge and, making his Broadway debut, Don Knotts as the flustered corporal driven mad by the manual dexterity test he's supposed to administer. The play ran a total of 796 performances and earned Griffith a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor.
By the time the story was adapted for the screen, Griffith had made a memorable film debut as "Lonesome" Rhodes, a nobody catapulted to stardom only to become an abusive, power-mad celebrity, in Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd (1957). The actor brought his new critical and commercial success to the film version of No Time for Sergeants, along with most of his supporting stage cast. McDowall, however, elected not to do the movie, and he was replaced by Nick Adams, who had appeared in supporting roles in such films as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Picnic (1955). He gained fame shortly after this movie as the star of the popular Western TV series The Rebel but died tragically young in 1968 at the age of 36 from what was determined to be an accidental overdose of medications he had been taking.
No Time for Sergeants was also Don Knotts' big screen debut. A few years later, he would partner with co-star and now friend Griffith in a long-running down-home sitcom set in a small Southern town, The Andy Griffith Show. That show spawned a spin-off, placing local character Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) in the Marines. Other than the switch in service branch, Pyle's bumbling bumpkin's misadventures and run-ins with his gruff sergeant bore a close resemblance to No Time for Sergeants. Meanwhile, the original story was used directly as the basis for another television comedy, with Sammy Jackson taking on the role of Will Stockdale. Jackson had appeared in a bit part in the film and lobbied the show's producers heavily for the lead. Ironically, the series was scheduled opposite Griffith's, which trounced it in the ratings. It was canceled after only three episodes.
The story even appeared in four comic books. The first, published in 1958, followed the movie's story line closely. Three more were produced in the 1960s as a tie-in to the TV series.
One person who didn't need any boost to his career at this point was producer-director Mervyn LeRoy. The man responsible for such classics as Little Caesar (1931), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Mister Roberts (1955) once bragged that he never had a real flop. "I've had a few that I didn't particularly like, and that didn't make too much money, and quite a few that the critics didn't like," he wrote in his autobiography. "There has never been one, however, that the public hated enough so that it lost money."
Unlike many others involved with No Time for Sergeants, the originator of the story, Mac Hyman, was never able to turn his initial success into lasting fame and fortune. He published just three short stories after the book, and he was living in Cordele, struggling to complete his second novel, when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1963, just one month before his 40th birthday. That second novel, Take Now Thy Son, published posthumously, was also set in fictional Callville, but its tone was far from the antic humor of its famous forebear.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producers: Mervyn LeRoy, Alex Segal
Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, Ira Levin, based on the novel by Mac Hyman
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Editing: William H. Ziegler
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown
Original Music: Ray Heindorf
Cast: Andy Griffith (Will Stockdale), Myron McCormick (Sgt. King), Nick Adams (Ben Whitledge), Don Knotts (Cpl. John C. Brown), Murray Hamilton (Irving S. Blanchard).
by Rob Nixon