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PROFILE : The Other Side of 'Midnight' : Veteran actors Richard Webb and Sid Melton recall their days before and after the '50s TV hit 'Captain Midnight.'

June 19, 1992|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While moviegoers and Warner Bros. executives eagerly await today's citywide opening of the $50-million "Bat man Returns," two veteran actors remember when another super-hero caused so much anticipation.

Long before the mega-success of director Tim Burton's "Batman," there was another crime fighter who captured the imagination of a whole generation of television audiences. He was Captain Midnight.

Every Saturday morning, Midnight and his sidekick, Ichabod Mudd, soared in their plane, the Silver Dart, to battle yet another foe from a collection of criminals, secret agents and other ne'er-do-wells with a combination of scientific gadgetry, derring-do and humor.

The two veteran actors who played this duo, Richard Webb and Sid Melton, are longtime San Fernando Valley neighbors and friends almost 35 years after the hit show went off the air.

Every Saturday in the mid-1950s, when an announcer intoned that "from a mountaintop high above a large city," Captain Midnight, leader of the Secret Squadron, was leading "a struggle against evil men everywhere," an estimated 6 million children and 10 million adults were tuned in.

"It was a beautiful memory; it was the first series I did on television," said Melton, who played Mudd. "Working with Dick was such a pleasure."

While Webb, as Midnight, provided much of the derring-do, comic relief was supplied by Melton, whose signature line in the show was "Mudd, with two Ds." The show was sponsored and owned by Ovaltine milk flavoring.

The show was consistently rated No. 1, Webb said, "but Ovaltine was not selling Ovaltine, so they pulled it off the air. Otherwise, it would still be running."

The program aired on CBS from September, 1954, to May, 1956, and the 39 episodes shown during that span were also seen in syndication through 1958. Since Ovaltine owned the rights to the name "Captain Midnight," when the show went into syndication, the old shows were retitled "Jet Jackson, Flying Commando." Every time a character said "Captain Midnight," the words "Jet Jackson" were dubbed in.

Youngsters could become members of Captain Midnight's elite Secret Squadron by mailing in a coupon found inside the lid of the Ovaltine jar. Secret Squadron members received decals and patches identifying them as members, and special pins to decode secret messages given at the end of the show. The kids, however, were opening the jars in the stores and removing the coupons but not buying the product, Webb said.

(An Ovaltine spokeswoman said the company does not comment on sales, and no one from the "Captain Midnight" days still worked there.)

"They just had to take off the cap of the Ovaltine jar, take out this thing and mail it in," Webb said.

In 1986, the Smithsonian Institute's National Air and Space Museum honored "Captain Midnight," featuring items from the program. Webb said he donated his character's scarf, trousers, boots, belt--"everything but the undershorts"--plus photos from the show and his very own decoder pin. He is still approached by former members of the Secret Squadron two or three times a week, Webb said.

Melton said he is also approached by former Captain Midnight fans, even prominent ones.

"When Danny Thomas first introduced me to Bill Cosby," Melton said, Cosby "held up his two fingers on his hand and said, 'Mudd, with two Ds.'

"Lenny Bruce was a big fan of mine in Captain Midnight," Melton said. "He was the sweetest guy in the world. I used to go see him perform at the Cobblestone Club in San Fernando."

Melton is probably best remembered as Thomas' sidekick, Charley, in the CBS-TV series "The Danny Thomas Show." Melton was a regular on the show from 1958 to 1964. The comic character actor has also appeared in about 70 films, including "Lost Continent" (1951), "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and "On the Town" (1949). More recently, Melton has worked in commercials and had a recurring role in flashback sequences as Salvatore, husband of Sophia (Estelle Getty), on the NBC sitcom "Golden Girls."

After "Midnight," Webb starred as Deputy Chief Don Jagger in the CBS series "Border Patrol" (1958-60) and has appeared in more than 60 motion pictures and 200 television programs. His last film appearance was in "Beware the Blob" (1972), a science fiction film directed by Larry Hagman before Hagman's J. R. Ewing days.

In recent years, Webb has turned to writing and has had three books published. "Great Ghosts of the West" and "These Came Back" are based on his research on the occult, and "The Laughs on Hollywood" is a collection of Hollywood anecdotes. Webb has just finished a book about the "Captain Midnight" series and is looking for a publisher.

"Midnight is a legend now," Webb said. "I did a lot of movies and television, but Captain Midnight is one and above all the rest of them. And I was Captain Midnight."

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