"Secret agent man, secret agent man,
They've given you a number and taken away your name."
(from the song "Secret Agent Man," written by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, performed by Johnny Rivers)
At the beginning of the 1966 to 1967 fall television season in the United States, one could tune in no less than five nights a week and see at least one show involving spies. The American broadcast networks were in the midst of a cycle towards spy shows, a cycle perhaps only surpassed in size by the cycle towards Westerns in the Fifties or the cycles towards police procedurals and reality shows in the Naughts. In fact, between 1960 and 1969, over twenty five shows devoted to spies were broadcast on American network television. That number might seem small, except when one considers the vast majority of them aired between 1964 and 1968. The American public was so enamoured of spies at the time that secret agents of some shape or another appeared on many of the sitcoms of the era, from Gilligan's Island to The Monkees to Please Don't Eat the Daisies.
There were a few factors that made the spy cycle on American television in the Sixties different from other television cycles. First, it was one of the few television cycles that was embraced by both American and British networks. In fact, as will be discussed below, the spy cycle began on British television before it did American television. Second, the spy cycle was part of a greater spy craze that not only involved television, but books, movies, and comic books as well. After all, this was the era of the earliest James Bond movies, the Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin, the comic book series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and spy novels ranging from the Sam Durrell series to John Le Carre's earliest efforts. In the mid-Sixties, it would be hard to avoid spies not only on the television screen, but in movie theatres, on paperback racks, and newsstands as well. Third, the spy cycle on American network television was one of the few that involved British made as well as American made series. Such British series as Danger Man, The Avengers, and The Saint were imported to the States, where they aired alongside such American offerings as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy.
Tracing the origins of the spy cycle on American television, one must ultimately look to the Cold War. It is difficult to pick a starting date for the Cold War, and in fact it may be accurate to say that it had existed since the October Revolution in 1917. A feeling of distrust, created by the ideological clash between capitalism and communism, existed between the Soviet Union and the democratic countries of Europe and North America nearly from the beginning. There can be no doubt that this feeling of distrust only grew following the end of World War II. Indeed, the United Kingdom and the United States argued very strenuously with the Soviet Union with just how the map of Europe should be redrawn following the defeat of Nazi Germany. By 1947 President Harry Truman would take measures to counteract the influence of the U.S.S.R. The Cold War would only escalate in the Fifties.
As might be expected, much of the Cold War was fought through espionage. The Fifties would be the era of some famous spy cases, perhaps the most famous being that of the Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Antony Blunt. It was perhaps natural, then, that spy fiction grew in popularity during the Fifties. It was in 1951 that Shaun Lloyd McCarthy (under the pen name of Desmond Cory) published the first novel involving British superspy Johnny Fedora. Fedora was followed in print by such spies as James Bond in 1953 (written by Ian Fleming), and Sam Durrell in 1955 (written by Edward S. Aarons). The Sixites would only see more spies in print, including Matt Helm in 1960 (written by Donald Hamilton) and Len Dreighton's unnamed agent who figured in The IPCRESS File and other novels in 1962 (later named "Harry Palmer" for the movies). Even before spies reached the television screen, they were popular in print.
While the fictional spies who first saw print in the Fifties would have an impact on the spy cycle of the Sixties, that impact may not have been as large as that of director Alfred Hitchcock. In the Thirties, Alfred Hitchcock had directed such classic spy films as the original Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes. In the Fifties Hitchcock would return to the genre. It was in 1956 that his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much was released. Like the original, the new version of The Man Who Knew Too Much featured an ordinary citizen who gets involved with espionage. While the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much would be very successful, it would be nowhere near as successful or as influential as Hitchcock's second and final spy film of the Fifties. North by Northwest was released in 1959 and was one of the top grossing movies of the year. North by Northwest was a slick, sophisticated, and fast moving thriller in which an ordinary man doesn't only become involved with spies, but is mistaken for one. The emphasis in the film was less on intrigue and suspense than it was sheer excitement. It would prove very influential on spy shows in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Indeed, North by Northwest should be given more credit for starting the spy craze of the Sixties than Dr. No. Not only was the spy craze well under way in Britain (as will be discussed below) when Dr. No was released, but North by Northwest would also be responsible for the creation of the first spy show to air in the American spy cycle as well.
Indeed, the show that would ignite the spy craze in the United Kingdom grew directly out of spy fiction, and the fact is that Northwest by Northwest may well have helped it make it to the air as well. It was in the late Fifties that British television company Associated TeleVision Limited (better known as ATV) was desperately seeking for a show that would be a hit in the United States. They had already had a hit with The Adventures of Robin Hood, but afterwards it seemed difficult to break through the American market. Television writer and producer Ralph Smart was commissioned by Lord Lew Grade, the head of ATV, to develop a series that would be a hit on both sides of the Pond. Smart developed the idea for an spy show, even holding meetings with Ian Fleming. For a time they had thought to bring James Bond to the small screen, but the rights to the Bond novels (save Casino Royale, which was in other hands at the time) had been sold to Eon Productions. Instead, Smart and Fleming created a character very much like Bond, a man who was smooth, cool, and a lady killer. Smart then assigned writer Ian Stuart Black to expand the concept. Black came up with the idea of a secret agent working for NATO and made the character an American, rather than a British citizen. It was then that Patrick McGoohan, born in the United States but raised in Ireland and later England, got the role of John Drake. McGohan had his own ideas on the show. Although Drake would still be smooth and cool, he would also be a man of honour who did not particularly care for violence. He would also never, ever kiss a woman, much less sleep with her. It was then that the TV series Danger Man debuted.
Danger Man proved to be a huge success in the United Kingdom. It was so successful that it would find its way to both the United States and Canada. In fact, Danger Man became the first spy series to air in the United States in the Sixties. It debuted on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on April 5, 1961 and aired until September of that year. Sadly, it was not as successful in the United States as it was in Britain. Without the necessary profits from the United States, as well as Canada, as a fairly expensive show Danger Man simply could not continue. It last aired in the United Kingdom in June, 1961. This would not be the end of Danger Man and certainly not the last that audiences had seen of John Drake.
Even though Danger Man was not initially a success in the United States, it helped spark the spy craze in the United Kingdom. And it would not be long before another show would debut in the United Kingdom would be a hit, a show that would also find its way to North America. Like ATV, the Associated British Corporation (ABC) was also seeking hits in the late Fifties. It was in 1960 that Howard Thomas, Managing Director of ABC, decided that the company should pursue adventure series--namely thrillers similar to Alfred Hitchcock's movies and Ian Fleming's novels. Among the shows developed by Sydney Newman, ABC's Head of Drama, was Police Surgeon. A rather routine police dramas, Police Surgeon was not a hit, although polls indicated audiences loved its star Ian Hendry. Newman and his co-producer Leonard White then developed a new series in which Ian Hendry still played a doctor. This time, however, Hendry's character, Dr. David Peel, found himself teamed with a man claiming to work for British Secret Service--John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee). Together the two men fought spies and criminals alike. It was the beginning of what could be the most successful spy series of all time, The Avengers. It debuted July 1, 1961.
The Avengers proved to be a smash hit. Sadly, its first series, which would have been 39 episodes, was cut short at only 27 episodes because of an actor's strike. As a result plans to introduce a female partner, Venus Smith, for Steed were put on hold. It was during the strike that Ian Hendry decided to leave the series for a career in movies. It was then decided that Steed would have two new partners, who would alternate episodes. Venus Smith (Julie Stevens) was a lounge singer who assisted Steed from time to time; however, It would be Steed's other partner, Mrs. Catherine Gale (played by Honor Blackman), who would turn the hit show into a phenomenon. While Venus Smith was a rather typical female character for the time, Cathy Gale was a woman as had never been seen on television anywhere. A PhD in anthropology skilled in judo, Mrs. Gale would battle and defeat men bigger than herself, all the while clad in leather. It was not long before The Avengers was one of the top rated shows in the United Kingdom. With its third series Venus Smith was dropped and Mrs. Gale continued as Steed's sole partner. It also continued to be a raging success, so much so that it aired in Canada and there was even talk of bringing it to the United States. Unfortunately, it would not make it to the United States until 1966, by which time John Steed had a new partner, one who would see even more success than Mrs. Gale.
In 1962 a series debuted that was not quite a spy series, but it would often be counted among them anyway. Simon Templar, also known as The Saint, was created by Leslie Charteris and made his first appearance in the novel Meet-The Tiger. Simon Templar started out as an outright criminal, but at some point he decided to use his skills as a confidence man and burglar to right wrongs. In fact, in Meet-The Tiger and other novels he makes a living largely by more or less robbing the "ungodly (those without a code of honour)." He is even referred to in the books as a Robin Hood figure. The Saint proved to be a very popular character. In addition to the many novels, novellas, and short stories, he was featured on radio shows on both sides of the Atlantic and on film. It was in 1961 that producer Roy S. Baker had the idea for a Saint TV series. Baker initially took his idea to the British ABC, who rejected it on the basis that such a show would be too costly. He then approached Lord Lew Grade of the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) to produce the series. Lord Grade like the idea and bought the television rights to The Saint from Charteris. From the beginning Grade had an actor in mind to play Simon Templar: Roger Moore. Moore was already somewhat famous on both sides of the Atlantic. He had starred in the British series Ivanhoe and played Beau Maverick on the American TV series Maverick.
The Saint proved to be a huge hit in the United Kingdom, turning Roger Moore into even more of a star. Lord Grade decided with such success that perhaps they could interest the American networks in the series. He approached the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) about the series, but they outright rejected it after viewing two episodes. CBS and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) also turned Grade down. Lord Grade then hit upon the novel solution of syndicating The Saint to local stations in the Untied States. Debuting in the United States in 1963, The Saint proved to be one of the biggest hits in American syndication of all time. In the end NBC would have a change of heart. It would receive a permanent place on their schedule in 1967.
Although Simon Templar was not a spy and the series was technically not a spy drama, The Saint had many of the trappings of the spy shows. It had a leading man who was nearly irresistible to women, lavish settings, beautiful women, and nefarious villains. And, quite naturally, The Saint would face his fair share of spies.
Among the British series that would debut in the wake of Danger Man and The Avengers was an anthology series titled Espionage. Espionage was produced by ATV. The stories featured on Espionage ranged from the Second World War to the Cold War era to yet other eras. Espionage found its way to the United States, debuting on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) on October 2, 1963. The series did not last on either side of the Atlantic, lasting only one season.
Danger Man, The Avengers, and The Saint would start the cycle towards spy series on British television. In the wake of their success, several more spy series would debut in their wake, including Top Secret, Man of the World, The Sentimental Agent, The Man in Room 17, Adam Adamant Lives, The Spies, Freewheelers, and many others, some of which found their way to the States. It was in part this new interest in spies in the United Kingdom that would finally bring James Bond to the big screen. Released in the United Kingdom on October 5, 1962 and in the United States on May 8, 1963, Dr. No proved to be a smash hit. It would only add fuel to the fire with regards to the spy craze in the United Kingdom and it would help bring the spy craze to the United States.
That having been said, the success of Dr. No was not responsible for the arrival of the first show in the spy cycle on American television. It was in the fall of 1962, nearly a half year before Dr. No would arrive on American shores, that producer Norman Felton (who had produced Dr. Kildare) approached Ian Fleming about the prospect of producing a new television show that would draw inspiration from the Hitchcock movie North by Northwest and Ian Fleming's nonfiction book Thrilling Cities. Fleming wrote a rough outline about a spy called Napoleon Solo. Fleming's work on the new series would end there, however, as his obligations to Eon Productions (who owned the film rights to 007) forced him to withdraw from the project. Felton then brought in Sam Rolfe (co-creator of Have Gun Will Travel) onto the project. Rolfe took little more than the names of characters from Fleming's outline and instead drew upon his own unsold project, St. George and the Dragon, for the rest. The end result was the series that would eventually be called The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. It debuted on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) on September 22, 1964.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was different from any other spy series that had aired on American television before it. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) worked not for an American agency, but for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement, an international agency devoted to maintaining order throughout the world. In fact, Solo's partner was not even an American, but the Russian Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). Just as the movie North by Northwest involved an ordinary person becoming involved in espionage, so too did each episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. involve an ordinary person or "innocent" who would get wrapped up in U.N.C.L.E.'s eternal battle with the forces of evil. For the most part, the men from U.N.C.L.E. faced off with agents from THRUSH, an international crime syndicate devoted to world conquest. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was an intelligent series, produced with tongue definitely in cheek and featuring some of the slickest production at the time. The plots often bordered on the fantastic, with Solo and Kuryakin facing such threats as brain altering machine (courtesy of THRUSH, of course) and women turned into superwomen using a serum that was reported to even bring the dead back to life.
Initially The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fared poorly in the Nielsen ratings. In fact, its ratings were so low that as of December 1964 it was not in NBC's tentative schedule for the fall 1965-1966 season. Fortunately, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be saved by generally good reviews, good word of mouth, an extensive publicity campaign on the part of its producers (stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum made a tour of several key markets), and possibly the success of the latest James Bond movie (Goldfinger was released in the United States in December 1964). Starting in January 1965 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rose in the ratings. By May 1965, not only was it a smash hit, but it had become an outright phenomenon.
The success of the first three James Bond movies (Dr. No, From Russia With Love), and Goldfinger) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. triggered a spy cycle on American television that would be one of the largest such cycles in television history. In the fall of 1965 alone, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be joined by five new spy series. And as the 1965-1966 season progressed, yet more would debut. In the mid-Sixties, then, America was gripped by a spy craze.