So if I told you that, once upon a time, there was a weekly TV series about the brave exploits of black U.S. soldiers in Europe during World War II you would probably say, “Yeah, sure” or “Never in my lifetime.”
Well, believe it or not, there was. It was a CBS show called Roll Out. Though if you’ve never heard of it, that’s understandable. It was back during the early 70’s; and even then, it came and went so fast it was barely noticed by anyone, except me and a few others. And we gave up on it after the first few episodes.
But a bit of background first…
CBS had a major ratings smash with their TV show M*A*S*H, based on Robert Altman’s 1970 hit movie set during the Korean War. The series, like Altman’s film, combined humor and sharp wit while commenting on the painful toll and total absurdities of war.
The series was such a hit that the network asked the creator of the TV show, Larry Gelbart, to come up with another sit-com set during warfare and the result was Roll Out, which chronicled the misadventures of the Red Ball Express during World War II.
A further bit of background first…
The Express, which was established after D-Day in June 1944, was a massive truck convoy system designed to continuously transport badly needed supplies to combat fighting units in Europe. Many commanders, including General George Patton, credited the Express, which was mainly operated by black U.S. servicemen, as being a major factor leading to the defeat of the German Army during World War II.
In fact the Express had been the subject before for a 1952 Universal B movie, called Red Ball Express of course, with a young Sidney Poitier in a supporting role, though most of the characters in the film were white.
However Roll Out, which starred Stu Gilliam (a popular comedian at the time), Hilly Hicks (who is now an United Methodist pastor in Southern California), Mel Stewart, Garrett Morris, and Ed Begley Jr in de rigueur part of the clueless, totally square, naive white guy who was always getting conned and taken advantage of by the black soldiers, was a highly anticipated show when it premiered in September 1973 on Friday nights.
Though, unfortunately, those hopes were quickly dashed after the first episode.
Unlike M*A*S*H, which was a sharply written, smart and perceptive TV show, Roll Out was, for the most part, an unfunny show stuck with tired, worn out story lines that had been done dozens of times before on other TV sit-coms and lame, corny jokes recycled from the trash bin.
It was as if M*A.S*H was the prized son sitting next to Gelbert at the dinner table while Roll Out was the unwanted, ugly bastard son who was occasionally thrown eaten scraps from the plate.
And not surprisingly unlike M*A*S*H, which ran on CBS successfully for 11 seasons and is still one of the most watched TV shows ever in the history on television, Roll Out went flat immediately and was cancelled by January 1974 after 12 episodes due to poor ratings and even worse viewer response.
The show was basically forgotten until BET, back in the late 80’s, brought it back for a run, after which it was forgotten again. That is until I brought it up right now.
Still, the idea of a weekly TV series about black soldiers during WW II is a good one, wouldn’t you say? It just needs to be done a whole lot better than Roll Out.
Opening credits and BET Promo for Roll Out: