In the Sixties television stars did not get any bigger than Patrick Macnee. He played superspy John Steed on the wildly successful TV show The Avengers. The show was a veritable phenomenon in its country of origin, the United Kingdom. It developed a large and intensely loyal cult following in Canada and the United States. By 1969 The Avengers had aired in over 90 countries. Short of Doctor Who, it is arguably the most popular British TV series of all time.
Of course, Patrick Macnee had a career that pre-dated his starring role on The Avengers by many years and his career would last long after the show ended its run in 1969. Before The Avengers he had appeared in such films as The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) and A Christmas Carol (1951), and he had starred in the Canadian TV series Tales of Adventure. He made frequent guest appearances on American television in such shows as The Alcoa Hour, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Following The Avengers he appeared in the movies The Howling (1981) and A View to a Kill (1985), and appeared as Dr. Watson in three television movies (one with Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes, the others with Sir Christopher Lee in the role). Patrick Macnee had a long and rewarding career that endeared him to his many fans. Sadly, Patrick Macnee died yesterday at the age of 93.
Patrick Macnee was born Daniel Patrick Macnee on February 6 1922 in Paddington, London. His father, Daniel Macnee, was a racehorse trainer. His mother, Dorothea, was a niece of the Earl of Huntingdon and the family claimed descent from Robin Hood. Dorthea also received a British Empire Medal for her work with military families. He spent much of his early life in Lambourn, Berkshire. His parents separated while Patrick Macnee was very young. His father went to India. His mother would eventually move to Wiltshire where they lived with his mother's lover, a woman young Patrick called "Uncle Evelyn". He attended Summer Fields preparatory school near Oxford, where one of the other students was Sir Christopher Lee. The two of them appeared together in a production of Henry V.
Afterwards Patrick Macnee attended Eton. He continued to act at Eton, where he was active in the school's dramatic society. He also established himself as the school's foremost bookie and pornographer, something which ultimately got him expelled from the school. Fortunately in 1941 he won a scholarship to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. That same year he made his professional debut in a small part in a stage production of Little Women. He made his film debut as an extra in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).
During World War II Patrick Macnee served in the Royal Navy as as a navigator on torpedo boats in the English Channel and North Sea. He received both the Atlantic Medal and the Long Service Medal. Patrick Macnee returned to acting after he was demobilised. He appeared on stage, at The Windsor Repertory Theatre in London’s West End, as well as on tours of the United States and Canada. In the late Forties he appeared in television productions of Morning Departure, Arms and the Man, Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights. He appeared in the films The Fatal Night (1948), Hamlet (1948), All Over the Town (1949), The Girl Is Mine (1950), Dick Barton at Bay (1950), and The Elusive Pimpernel (1950).
In the early Fifties Patrick Macnee made a memorable appearance as young Jacob Marley in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (also known as Scrooge). Much of his career in the Fifties would be spent between Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He starred in the Canadian TV series Tales of Adventure. He guest starred on such TV shows as BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, CBC Summer Theatre, Producers' Showcase, Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Alcoa Hour, Suspicion, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, One Step Beyond, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Encounter. He appeared in the films Three Cases of Murder (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and Les Girls (1957). He made his Broadway debut in 1954 in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
It was in 1961 that Patrick Macnee made his debut in the role of John Steed on The Avengers. As hard as it is to believe now, Patrick Macnee was not originally the star of The Avengers. Instead the star was Ian Hendry, who played Dr. David Keel, a surgeon who comes to assist Steed on cases following the murder of his fiancée. While Steed was originally a secondary character, however, as the first series passed he played an increasingly more and more important role on the show and even had entire episodes devoted to him. When Ian Hendry left it was only natural that Patrick Macnee as John Steed was promoted as the star of the show and received new partners. Among the new partners was Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman). An anthropologist skilled in judo and other forms of hand to hand combat, Mrs. Gale was a woman who almost never needed to be rescued. The team of Steed and Mrs. Gale turned The Avengers into a phenomenon in Britain and soon it was among the most successful shows on the air. Honor Blackman would eventually leave the show, whereupon Steed received a new partner in the form of Emma Peel (played by Dame Diana Rigg). It was with Emma Peel as Steed's new partner that The Avengers finally aired in the United States. The show proved to be a success in the U.S. as well, where it has maintained a cult following ever since.
For much of the Sixties Patrick Macnee would be occupied with playing John Steed on The Avengers, which ultimately turned out to be the longest running spy series on either side of the Atlantic. That having been said, he did guest star on other shows during the decae, among them Thursday Theatre, Love Story, Conflict, Armchair Theatre, and The Virginian. Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg appeaered as a team on the game show Hollywood Squares. He appeared in the film Incense for the Damned (1970).
While The Avengers ended its run in 1969, in the Seventies Patrick Macnee would return to the role of John Steed in The New Avengers. He was also reunited with co-star Diana Rigg in her American sitcom Diana. On the American sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica he was the opening credit announcer, as well as the voice of the Cylons' Imperious Leader. He also made a guest appearance on the show as Count Iblis. Patrick Macnee guest starred on such shows as Alias Smith and Jones, Night Gallery, Great Mysteries, Dial M for Murder, Columbo, and Matt Helm. He played Dr. Watson opposite Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes in New York. He appeared in the films King Solomon's Treasure (1979) and The Sea Wolves (1980). From July 3 1972 to October 13 1973 he appeared on Broadway in Sleuth.
In the Eighties Patrick Macnee would make several notable appearances in movies. He played the therapist Dr. George Waggner in The Howling (1981), the Head of Polymer Records Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This is Spinal Tap (1984), and horse trainer and 007's ally Sir Godfrey Tibbett in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill (1985). He also appeared in the films The Hot Touch (1981), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Sweet 16 (1983), The Creature Wasn't Nice (1983), Shadey (1985), Waxwork (1988), Transformations (1988), Chill Factor (1989), Lobster Man from Mars (1989), and Masque of the Red Death (1989). He was a regular on the TV series Gavilan, Empire, and Lime Street. He guest starred on such shows as House Calls, Automan, Magnum P. I., Hart to Hart, Love Boat, Blacke's Magic, and Murphy's Law. Mr. Macnee appeared in the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair and a television adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days.
The Nineties saw Patrick Macnee with regular roles on the TV shows Super Force, Thunder in Paradise, and Night Man. He appeared as Dr. Watson opposite Sir Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Incident at Victoria Falls. He played the great detective himself in the TV movie The Hound of London. He guest starred on the shows Dream On; Murder, She Wrote; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Diagnosis Murder; Spy Game; and Family Law. He was the voice of Invisible Jones in the ill-fated 1998 film adaptation of The Avengers. He also appeared in the films Eye of the Widow (1991), Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992), and King B: A Life in the Movies (1993).
In the Naughts Patrick Macnee guest starred on the TV show Fraiser and made his final film appearance in The Low Budget Time Machine (2003).
Patrick Macnee would be remembered if John Steed was the only role he ever played. More so even than such classic characters as Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond, John Steed was the quintessential English hero. Steed was polite, congenial, witty, and charming, yet he possessed a will of iron that allowed him to survive against countless diabolical masterminds. He could be ruthless when the need arose. In episode after episode of The Avengers he defeated opponents armed only with his bowler, umbrella, superior physical agility, and a healthy sense of irony. Steed rarely carried a gun because he didn't have to.
It was a role well suited to Patrick Macnee, who was in many ways the quintessential English gentleman himself. In interviews Patrick Macnee was always unflappable and possessed of good manners. He had a great sense of humour that was often subversive, but never cruel. He was incredibly witty, and could make the drollest comments off the cuff. There was probably never an actor before or since who was so much like the character he was best known for playing than Patrick Macnee.
Of course, Patrick Macnee played more roles than simply John Steed. He even played villains on the original Battlestar Galactica--he was the voice of the Imperious Leader and played the sinister Count Iblis on the show as well. While the quality of Battlestar Galactica might be questionable, Patrick Macnee's performance was not; he was as diabolical a Prince of Darkness as there ever was. He had one of the best parts in This is Spinal Tap, playing Polymer Records head Sir Denis Eton-Hogg. It was a role as far as from Steed as one could get, the pretentious head of a record label. As Captain John Good in the 1979 version of King Solomon's Mines he played a role much closer to Steed, that of a stalwart British hero. It must also be noted that Mr. Macnee played Dr. Watson three times and Sherlock Holmes himself once.
The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and John Steed is one of my favourite characters. I must say that I am then deeply saddened by Patrick Macnee's death, even though I realise he was very old. In many ways I owe a lot to Patrick Macnee and The Avengers. It not simply a case that the show made me an even bigger Anglophile than I would have been otherwise, but I suspect like many other young men I learned a good deal about being a gentleman from John Steed and Patrick Macnee.
Patrick Macnee died today at the age of 93. Many of you probably know him as superspy John Steed from the 1960s British television show The Avengers. Those of you who know me also know that The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and, short of Emma Peel, John Steed is my favourite TV character of all time. Patrick Macnee also happened to be one of my favourite actors. Even though I realise that Mr. Macnee was very old, I am still crushed, so much so that I do not feel up to writing a full fledged eulogy this evening. That having been said, I feel that I have to express my grief at Mr. Macnee's death and my appreciation of the place both he and The Avengers occupy in my life.
Indeed, The Avengers and John Steed have been a part of my life nearly from the very beginning. I first discovered the show when I was only six years on a rainy Sunday afternoon. One of the Kansas City stations were rerunning The Avengers in those days before sport overtook weekend television. I am not sure which episode I saw that day. I am thinking it was probably "The House That Jack Built", although it could have been "From Venus with Love". Either way I was hooked.
Quite simply, The Avengers was very different from anything I had ever seen before. Oh, having been born in the mid-Sixties I had seen spy shows before. By the time I was six years old I had seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West. I had even seen at least one British show before--I remember my family watching The Saint when it ran on NBC. The Avengers was different from any of them. For one thing, there was this drop dead gorgeous woman who could easily dispatch men twice her size with a karate chop or a kick, and look good while doing it. Diana Rigg numbered among the very first crushes in my life. For another thing, there was this dapper English gentleman in a bowler and suit, who faced diabolical masterminds with nothing more than his wit, charm, and umbrella. John Steed was one of the heroes of my childhood. Unlike Batman he didn't need all those gadgets. Unlike the other superspies he didn't need a gun. That made him just about the coolest character around in my mind.
I watched The Avengers loyally every Sunday until such time as either we could no longer receive that particular Kansas City station (our reception of the stations in St. Louis and KC could be iffy at times) or they stopped showing The Avengers. Regardless, the show left a strong impression on me, much stronger than many other shows from my childhood. When The New Avengers started airing on CBS Late Night I watched it. I didn't like it as much as the original show, but I still enjoyed it. If nothing else Patrick Macnee was still John Steed. Eventually CBS Late Night would begin airing the original episodes of The Avengers, so I was able to see the show for the first time in years. Once more I was in love with Emma Peel and John Steed was the hero that I wished I could be.
Since that time I have had ample opportunity to watch The Avengers. Not only did A&E air it for years, but they even aired the episodes with John Steed's partner before Emma Peel, Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman), for the first time ever in the United States. For a time BBC America aired The Avengers. Of course, over the years I got several episodes on VHS, until I owned most of the run of the show.
It is impossible for me to entirely assess the impact of The Avengers on my life. It is probably much of the reason that I am an avid Anglophile. Oh, I have no doubt growing up knowing I was largely English in descent played its role, as did The Beatles, The Who, and other British bands that were popular in my earliest years, but it would be largely The Avengers that would engender in me an interest in British television and film, as well as British culture. Without The Avengers, I might never have discovered Danger Man, The Prisoner, Are You Being Served, Red Dwarf, and many of the other British shows I love.
Beyond making me an even bigger Anglophile I might have otherwise been, I think that more than any other show The Avengers is responsible for making me regard women as equals. Some American shows, such as Star Trek, gave lip service to this idea, but The Avengers actually put it in action. John Steed was never intimidated by his female partners who were every bit as skilled and as accomplished as himself. Indeed, John Steed, who to all appearances was the traditional English gentleman, seemed to appreciate that the women who fought along his side were deadlier than most men. He never spoke down to Cathy Gale or Emma Peel, and it was more often they who rescued him than the other way around. John Steed treated his female partners as equals, and I do believe that made a big impression on my young mind.
As John Steed, the one constant on The Avengers and the show's central character, Patrick Macnee was largely responsible for its success, not to mention the impression it made on young viewers such as myself. He played John Steed as the quintessential English gentleman. In his bowler and impeccable suit, John Steed was entirely unflappable, whether he was facing man eating plants, killer kitty cats, a new incarnation of the Hellfire Club, or indestructible Cybernauts. Over the years Steed and the talented amateur with whom he was working at the moment would face a number of different threats to the United Kingdom and the world, and all the while Steed did it with a sense of humour, charm, and plenty of aplomb. Patrick Macnee would play other characters over the years, but his greatest role is still the one he played the longest, that of John Steed.
It should come as no surprise that Patrcik Macnee in real life appeared to be not much different from John Steed on The Avengers. He always displayed plenty of wit and charm, and he always seemed to be the perfect gentleman. In interviews he always credited Honor Blackman and Dame Diana Rigg with the success of The Avengers, even though it was obvious to the rest of us that the show would not have worked with anyone but himself as John Steed. Patrick Macnee's considerable sense of humour even extended to himself. In his autobiography Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns, Mr. Macnee was brutally honest about his life and himself. displaying a good deal of self deprecating humour. Reading the book one got the feeling that not only did Patrick Macnee have no real ego, but he didn't even realise just how special he really was.
I never had the opportunity to meet or interact with Patrick Macnee. I only knew him from the many television shows and films in which he appeared over the years, as well as the many interviews he gave. It is perhaps silly then that I am mourning as if I have lost an old friend or relative. Regardless, Patrick Macnee had an impact on my life in a way that few other actors would have. Without him as John Steed and The Avengers, I might not be who I am today.
Actor Dick Van Patten, who appeared on the TV shows Mama, Young Dr. Malone, When Things Were Rotten, and Eight is Enough and movies from Charly (1968) to Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), died yesterday, June 23 2015 at the age of 86.
Dick Van Patten was born on December 9 1928 in Kew Gardens, New York. His younger sister Joyce would also go into acting. His career in show business began when he was still a child. He made his debut on Broadway in 1937 in The Eternal Road when he was only 8 years old. In the late Thirties he also appeared on Broadway in the productions On Borrowed Time, Run Sheep Run, The American Way, and The Woman Brown. He also made his debut on radio when he was only 8 years old. Over the years he would appear in over 600 different radio programmes. Among the radio shows on which he appeared were Young Widder Brown, Duffy's Tavern, The Aldrich Family, Let's Pretend, Coast to Coast on a Bus, The Theatre Guild on the Air, and Reg'lar Fellers.
In the Forties young Mr. Van Patten continued to appear regularly on Broadway, appearing in the productions The Lady Who Came to Stay, The Land Is Bright, The Skin of Our Teeth, The Snark Was a Boojum, Decision, Too Hot for Manoeuvres, The Wind Is Ninety, O Mistress Mine, and Mister Roberts. He continued to regularly appear on radio. In 1949 he made his television debut on the show Mama in the regular role of Nels Hansen. It was a role he would play well into the Fifties.
In the Fifties he guest starred on Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, The Silent Service, Rawhide, and The DuPont Show of the Month. In the Sixties Dick Van Patten was a regular on the soap opera Young Dr. Malone. He guest starred on the shows Naked City, I Dream of Jeannie, The Governor & J.J., and Arnie. He appeared in the films Violent Midnight (1963), The Secret Dream Models of Oliver Nibble (1967) , and Charly (1968). He appeared on Broadway in Have I Got a Girl for You!, A Very Rich Woman, Lovers and Other Strangers, and But Seriously.
In the Seventies Dick Van Patten played Sgt. Nelson Higgenbottom on the short lived TV show The Partners, Max Mathias on The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Friar Tuck on When Things Were Rotten, and patriarch Tom Bradford on Eight is Enough. He guest starred on such shows as That Girl, Sanford and Son, Hec Ramsey, The Doris Day Show, McMillan & Wife, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Ellery Queen, Emergency!, Wonder Woman, and The Streets of San Francisco. He appeared on Broadway in Thieves. He appeared in such films as Beware! The Blob (1972), Joe Kidd (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Westworld (1973), Superdad (1973), The Strongest Man in the World (1975), Treasure of Matecumbe (1976), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), and Freaky Friday (1976).
In the Eighties Dick Van Patten was a regular on the short lived show WIOU. He guest starred on such shows as Too Close for Comfort; Insight; The Love Boat; Mike Hammer; Murder, She Wrote; and Crazy Like a Fox. He appeared in the films Lunch Wagon (1981), Spaceballs (1987), and Going to the Chapel (1988).
In the Nineties he appeared on such shows as Diagnosis: Murder, Baywatch, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Boy Meets World, and Touched by an Angel. In the Naughts he appeared in the films Groom Lake (2002), Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003), The Sure Hand of God (2004), Quiet Kill (2004), and Opposite Day (2009). He guest starred on the shows 7th Heaven, Arrested Development, and That 70s Show. In 2011 he made his last appearance, guest starring on Hot in Cleveland.
Dick Van Patten was an animal rights activist who particularly loved dogs. In 1989 he founded Natural Balance Pet Foods. In 2009 he started National Guide Dog Month to help raise awareness for non-profit guide dog schools in the United States.
Dick Van Patten had an incredibly long career. Starting in childhood, his career spanned over seventy years. What is more he was exceedingly prolific. He appeared often on radio in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, and he appeared frequently on the Broadway stage from the Thirties to the Fifties. From the Seventies to the Teens he was regularly seen on television and in films. Generally Mr. Van Patten played roles that were not too far removed from what he was in real life, that of the perpetual nice guy.
Dick Van Patten's characters were friendly, kind hearted, and sometimes (like Friar Tuck on When Things Were Rotten) a bit absent minded. As far as films go, Mr. Van Patten's best roles might have come courtesy of Mel Brooks. He was the guilt ridden, fearful Dr. Wentworth in High Anxiety. He was doting father King Roland in Spaceballs. He was the flustered abbot in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Mel Brooks and Dick Van Patten made a good team, perhaps because they were both men who enjoyed making people laugh. Indeed, it is perhaps for the sheer enjoyment Dick Van Patten brought people that he will be best remembered. From Mama to his guest appearance on Hot in Cleveland, it was hard not to look on Dick Van Patten and smile.
Even in an overall sterling career it can be said Billy Wilder was on a bit of a roll in the Fifties. Starting with Ace in the Hole in 1951 he directed some of his very best films during the decade: Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Billy Wilder ended the decade with what I consider to be his greatest achievement in film: The Apartment (1960). The Apartment is not only my favourite Billy Wilder film. It is also my second favourite film of all time. In fact, I long ago lost count of just how many times I have watched it.
For those who have never seen the movie, The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon), a clerk at Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a rather unusual problem. Quite simply, he finds himself constantly lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendezvous. While this puts him in good with his bosses, it otherwise makes his life miserable (for instance, he can't always go straight home from work). Complicating matters even further, Baxter is carrying a torch for elevator operator Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a situation which can only serve to make Baxter even more miserable.
The inspiration for the unusual premise of The Apartment stemmed from the first time Billy Wilder saw Brief Encounter, David Lean's film about an affair between two married people. At one point in the film the two lovers meet in an apartment belonging to a co-worker of the man in the affair. Billy Wilder found himself more interested in the co-worker to whom the apartment belonged than the two people having the affair.
The Apartment also took some of its inspiration from a real life Hollywood scandal. Agent Jennings Lang had an affair with actress Joan Bennett, some of their meetings taking place in an apartment belonging to one of his subordinates at his agency. Ultimately Joan Bennett's husband, producer Walter Wanger, would wind up shooting Jennings Lang in a fit of jealousy. Jennings Lang survived while Walter Wanger served four months in prison. Yet another source of inspiration for The Apartment was a story that Billy Wilder's co-writer I. A. L. Diamond heard about a woman who had committed suicide in a man's apartment as an act of revenge against him.
From the beginning Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond had intended for Jack Lemmon to play C. C. Baxter. Having worked with Jack Lemmon on Some Like It Hot (1959), Billy Wilder wanted to work with him again. Shirley MacLaine was cast in the role of Miss Kubelik. At the time Miss MacLaine was an up and coming star, having already appeared in such films as The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Matchmaker (1958), and Some Came Running (1958). She had been nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the last film.
Originally the role of the oily chief executive of the Consolidated Life Insurance Company and the film's antagonist, Mr. Sheldrake, was planned to go to character actor Paul Douglas. Mr. Douglas appeared in such films as Angels in the Outfield (1951), Executive Suite (1954), and Beau James (1957). Sadly, Paul Douglas died of a heart attack at age 52 only shortly after completing the Twilight Zone episode "The Mighty Casey" and not long before production was set to begin on The Apartment. It was then that Fred MacMurray was cast in the role Sheldrake. Fred MacMurray was initially hesitant to take the role. Not only was he well known for having generally played nice guys over the years, but he was just beginning his long running TV sitcom My Three Sonsand he had just signed a contract with Disney to star in a series of family films. Fortunately Billy Wilder was able to persuade Fred MacMurray to take the role. Mr. Wilder had previously persuaded Fred MacMurray to play against type as the none-too-nice Walter Neff (who also happened to be in the insurance industry) in Double Indemnity (1944).
The role of Baxter's neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss, would also go to an actor other than the one Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond originally had in mind. They had originally intended for character actor Lou Jacobi to play the role. At the time Mr. Jacobi may have been best known for his work on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank. As it turned out Lou Jacobi was already committed to another Broadway play, The Tenth Man, and its producers would not release him from his contract so he could appear in The Apartment. Jack Kruschen was then cast as Dr. Dreyfuss. Jack Kruschen was a frequent guest star on television shows in the Fifties, and he had appeared in such films as The Buccaneer (1958) and The Man Who Understood Women (1959).
Not only does The Apartment take place roughly during the holiday season, it was also shot largely during the holiday season as well--from November 1959 to February 1960. And while much of the film was shot in Hollywood, parts of it were shot on location in New York City, including scenes set at Columbus Avenue, 59th Street, and the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street. If at times the actors in The Apartment look as though they really are cold, it is probably because they are.
Many of Billy Wilder's films would begin shooting before their screenplays were even finished. This was no less true of The Apartment. When it began shooting only half the script was finished. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond finished the script as filming progressed.
The Apartment would prove to be both a critical and commercial success. The film received generally positive reviews. In The New York Times Bosley Crowther gave the film a glowing review, calling The Apartment "...a gleeful, tender and even sentimental film." Variety also gave The Apartment a positive review, opening with, "Billy Wilder has furnished The Apartment with a one-hook plot that comes out high in comedy, wide in warmth and long in running time." Given the generally positive reviews The Apartment received, it should come as no surprise that the film did well at the Academy Awards. The Apartment won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing (Original Screenplay), Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White). It also received nominations for Oscars for Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), and Best Sound. The Apartment would also prove to be a hit at the box office. It made $6,700,000 and was the sixth highest grossing film for 1960. By 1970 The Apartment had grossed $25,000,000 worldwide.
Of course, this is not to say that The Apartment was not the source of some controversy. Not everyone was happy with the film, which portrayed martial infidelity as rather commonplace. Hollis Alpert of The Saturday Review referred to it as "a dirty fairy tale". Allegedly Chicago critic Ann Marsters told Billy Wilder in person that he had made a dirty film. Not only did Fred MacMurray find himself receiving hate mail for having played the smarmy Mr. Sheldrake, but he even found himself being accosted on the street by people for having made a "dirty" movie. Although tame by today's standards, The Apartment was considered racy in 1960.
Regardless of its few detractors in 1960, The Apartment would prove to have an impact on the careers of its lead actors. It established Jack Lemmon as a leading man in his own right. It was because of The Apartment that Jack Lemmon appeared as the lead in such films as The Notorious Landlady (1962), Good Neighbour Sam (1964), The Great Race (1965), and many more films throughout his career. What is more, it was following The Apartment that Jack Lemmon, a comic actor earlier in his career, began playing dramatic roles as well. The Apartment would have a similar impact on Shirley MacLaine's career. While Some Came Running established her as a major star, The Apartment more than affirmed it.
Ultimately The Apartment would become regarded as a classic. It would be the last black and white film to win Best Picture until Schindler's List (1993). It also provided the basis for the 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises, and the inspiration for films from the 2005 Malaysian film Salon to the 2007 Bollywood film Life in a... Metro.
As to why The Apartment was so successful upon its initial release and has since become considered one of Billy Wilder's greatest movies, it is perhaps because it is a sophisticated and complicated movie, despite its somewhat simple premise (C. C. Baxter loans out his apartment to his superiors at work). In many respects The Apartment is surprisingly dark, much darker than many of Billy Wilder's other comedies. The Apartment is not only set in a world where marital infidelity is commonplace, but where corporate executives regularly exploit their underlings for their own benefit. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to say whether The Apartment is indeed a comedy or if it is instead a realistic drama that just happens to have a good deal of humour. Regardless, The Apartment can be both deeply cynical and very serious in ways that many of Billy Wilder's comedies are not.
Of course, this is not to say that The Apartment is not a very funny film. In fact, I believe it is the funniest film Billy Wilder ever made, despite the darker and more serious themes that pervade the movie. Even more so than Some Like It Hot, The Apartment has a large number of extremely funny and very quotable lines. It also has a number of very funny, if very human and very realistic, scenes. Indeed, the film does have its share of physical humour. It then seems possible that The Apartment could be described as a dark comedy with a good deal of drama.
While The Apartment takes a very dark of view of corporate America, the film also has a sweetness to it, although it never becomes overly saccharine. At the core of The Apartment is not Baxter's predicament with his apartment or even his predicament with his superiors at work, but instead his relationship with Miss Kubelik. Unlike "playboys" Richard Sherman (played by Tom Ewell) in The Seven Year Itch or Joe (played by Tony Curtis) in Some Like It, C. C. Baxter is not seeking merely to bed Miss Kubelik. Although neither he nor Miss Kubelik realise it, Baxter is sincerely, genuinely in love with her, and that fact propels much of the plot of the film. The Apartment is a true romantic comedy in a way few modern "romcoms" are.
The Apartment is also a treat for fans of 20th Century popular culture. Early in the film C. C. Baxter settles down to watch television only to find every single television station is showing Westerns except for one (it is showing Grand Hotel), a reference to the huge cycle towards Westerns then dominating television in the late Fifties. With regards to its reference to Grand Hotel, The Apartment is the first Best Picture winner to reference earlier Best Picture winners according to the website IMDB. The other Best Picture besides Grand Hotel referenced in The Apartment is The Lost Weekend. This is something of an in-joke, as The Lost Weekend was also directed by Billy Wilder. The Apartment also references Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Mae West, The Untouchables, and then hit Broadway musical The Music Man. In more ways than one The Apartment captured the zeitgeist of 1959.
In some respects The Apartment could be considered the quintessential Billy Wilder film. Unlike many other directors, Billy Wilder was equally adept at comedy and drama, and with The Apartment he blended them together seamlessly. The cynicism of many of his films is also blended with the sentiment he sometimes expressed in others. What is more, The Apartment features the witty dialogue and complex characters for which he was so well known. While many might point to Sunset Boulevard (1950) or Some Like It Hot (1959) as Billy Wilder's greatest masterpiece, I am convinced it is The Apartment.