Friday, July 30, 2004

Spy Shows of the Sixties

I hope no one reading this minds me going back once more to the subject of television. It is a subject with which I am fascinated, particularly the television shows of my childhood. Indeed, I have to admit that I have a fascination for television history, particularly the cycles through which network television goes. Discussing the legal drama cycle which appears to finally be coming to an end got me to thinking of one of my favourite cycles of television history--the spy shows of the Sixties. I was far too young to remember most of them, although I did catch many of them in reruns.

The spy show cycle of the Sixties is interesting in that it is probably the only cycle that did not begin here in the United States. It started in the United Kingdom with two shows, The Avengers and Danger Man, both of which debuted within months of each other. Today most people think of The Avengers as featuring superspy John Steed and one of his female partners (in succession, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King), however, this was not the case in the series' first season (unaired here in the United States). In the first season the main character was Dr. David Keel (played by Ian Hendry), a surgeon who set out to avenge his fiance's death. In the course of that first episode, which dealt with Dr. Keel's quest for vengeance, he encountered the mysterious superspy Steed (played by Patrick Macnee). Thereafter the two teamed up to fight crime and threats to British national security. A writer's strike immediately followed The Avengers' first season and Hendry decided that he wished to pursue other projects. John Steed then became the main character of the series and was teamed with a woman, Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman). Blackman left after two seasons and was replaced by Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. With the first Diana Rigg season the show made its way to the States; hence, Emma is the best known of Steed's partners here. The Avengers is my all time favourite series. It was played with its tongue definitely in its cheek. Throughout its run Steed and his various partners faced a plan to repeat the Gunpowder Plot (only this time with an atomic bomb), a plot to return the Stuarts to the throne of Britain, a sentient man eating plant, unstoppable robots, and a modern day Hellfire Club. And they did it all with wit and charm.

Danger Man featured Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a security specialist working for NATO. The series' flavour was more realistic than either The Avengers or the Bond movies. There were almost never plots that threatened the whole world and any gadgets that appeared were strictly within the realm of possibility for 1960's technology. Drake himself was also very different from other superspies. He never kissed a woman, let alone slept with one (McGoohan felt that doing so could teach children that promiscuity was acceptable). Drake also rarely carried or used a gun (McGoohan did not want to send the message that violence was an acceptable solution to problems). Danger Man aired briefly on CBS in 1961, making it the first spy series to air on American television in the Sixties. When it was revived as an hour long series in 1964, it once more gained a slot on CBS's schedule, this time under its American title Secret Agent. It also picked up a new theme song--"Secret Agent Man."

With the success of Danger Man and The Avengers, a spy craze built in Britain. Perhaps partially because of this spy craze and perhaps partially because of the growing popularity of the novels here in the States (due in part to John F. Kennedy's love of them), James Bond finally made it to the big screen in Dr. No in 1962. Dr. No was followed by the equally successful 007 movies, From Russian With Love and Goldfinger. With the popularity of the Bond movies, the spy craze that had begun in Britain arrived on American shores.

While the Bond movies brought the spy craze to American shores, however, the first American spy series of the Sixties, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was in development before 007 ever saw the inside of an American movie theatre. In the fall of 1962 TV producer Norman Felton asked Ian Fleming to develop a series loosely inspired by the Hitchcock movie North by Northwest. As Dr. No was not released in America until May 1963, the beginnings of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. occurred before the spy craze reached American shores.

Regardless, Fleming had to drop out of the project because of contractual obligations with Eon Productions (the producers of the Bond movies). In his time on the project, he had only come up with a vague outline dealing with a spy named Napoleon Solo, who resembled Bond a good deal. Felton then hired Sam Rolfe, creator of the classic Western series Have Gun--Will Travel, to further develop the series. Rolfe expanded Solo's character so that he no longer resembled 007 and created the character of Solo's partner, Illya Kuryakin. He also created the organisation called U.N.C.L.E., an international organisation which dealt with threats to the security of the whole world. Rolfe also created the international crime syndicate originally called WASP, but renamed THRUSH before the series hit the air. Like North by Northwest (in which Cary Grant's character inadvertently gets involved in an espionage plot), each week on the The Man From U.N.C.L.E., an innocent, ordinary person would get swept into a plot involving the U.N.C.L.E. agents.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted in September 1964 to decidedly less than spectacular ratings. In fact, as of December 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not even on NBC's tentative fall schedule for fall 1965! Fortunately, three things would save the series. One was the fact that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was developing a following on college campuses through word of mouth. Naturally, when these college students returned home for Christmas and spring break, they told their families about this cool new show they'd discovered. The other thing which saved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a publicity tour of particularly important television markets on which Robert Vaughn (who played Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (who played Illya Kuryakin) were sent. Often they would even shoot promos for the local affiliates in these markets. The third thing which saved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. from extinction was the growing following David McCallum had among female viewers. He soon appeared in many fan magazines of the day and at every public appearance there would be scores of girls and young women waiting just to see him.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s ratings then began to rise until it essentially became a fad. During the Sixties, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. merchandise is perhaps surpassed only by Batman in the sheer numbers. Nearly every major magazine published at least one article on the show. Robert Vaughn appeared as Napoleon Solo on the sitcom Please Don't Eat the Daisies and in a cameo as Solo in the Doris Day vehicle The Glass Bottom Boat. McCallum had a cameo as a "Casino Patron (ostensibly Illya himself)" in the Bond spoof Casino Royale. Both men appeared on a number of talk shows. The series even produced a spin off, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., with Stefanie Powers as U.N.C.L.E. agent April Dancer.

Unfortunately, the fad would not last. Ratings for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. declined and the show left the air in January 1968. In the meantime, however, it gave even more fuel to the spy craze on American television. Both The Avengers and Danger Man (renamed Secret Agent here in the States) would make the trip across the Atlantic to American television. Amos Burke, police detective and hero of Burke's Law would trade in his badge to become Amos Burke, Secret Agent.

Among the series which debuted in the wake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was The Wild Wild West. The Wild Wild West differed from any other series in that it dealt with two agents for the United States Secret Service, James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), assigned to the American West. Amidst the tumbleweeds and sagebrush the two spies faced opponents with definitely advanced technology for the 1800's: a man made almost entirely of steel, a crazed geologist who can create earthquakes, a crazed ex-army major with his own tank, and a mad doctor with a germ that causes instant paralysis. Their greatest opponent was Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), the Napoleon of the West. A midget in size, he was a giant in intellect. Again and again he squared off against West and Gordon. Among his plots were a powder which causes madness, a powder which can shrink people, and a chemical that can kill all life (plants, animals, people).

Another series which followed in the wake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was I Spy. I Spy was historic in featuring the first African American in the lead role of a drama, Bill Cosby as secret agent Alexander Scott. Scott and his partner Kelly Robinson (played by Robert Culp) travelled the world on espionage missions, all the while posing as a tennis player (Robinson) and his trainer (Scott). Unlike The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or The Wild Wild West, I Spy tended to be more realistic in its portrayal of espionage. There were no outlandish gadgets and no threats to the entire world.

Perhaps the series with the longest lasting success to emerge from the Sixties spy craze was Mission Impossible. Mission Impossible dealt with the Impossible Missions Force, a covert group headed initially by Daniel Briggs (Steven Hill) and for most of its run by Jim Phelps (Peter Graves). The IMF tackled situations which could not be resolved by traditional means, often using technology, disguises, con games, and so on to accomplish their ends. Unlike other spy series, Mission Impossible took its inspiration not from the James Bond novels or Hitchcock spy thrillers, but from such caper movies as Topaki and Rififi.

Very early in the spy craze, the genre was ripe for parody. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart followed the adventures of inept Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), agent 86 for CONTROL. Accompanied by his partner, Agent 99 (Barbara Felton), Max faced agents of KAOS, an international criminal syndicate. There were plenty of advanced gadgets in Get Smart, always played for laughs. Most often seen was Max's shoe phone. Smartly written and very funny, Get Smart outlasted many of the more serious spy dramas.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the British series The Prisoner. On The Prisoner, a secret agent who resigns from the service (Patrick McGoohan) finds himself abducted to the Village, from whence there is no escape, and given a number rather than a name (Number Six). Precisely who runs the Village, its location, and even its primary purpose, is never revealed. Regardless, Number Six's keepers at the Village constantly seek "information" as to why he resigned. At the same time, Number Six seeks both to escape the Village and find out its true nature. The Prisoner was an intellectual spy drama, dealing with such themes as the importance of self, personal identity, democracy, the effects of violence, and other such topics. Throughout the series, the true identity of Number Six was never revealed, although many fans believe that he was none other than Patrick McGoohan's hero from Danger Man, John Drake himself! The Prisoner debuted in the UK in September 1967 and then in the United States on CBS in June 1968. It almost immediately became a cult series.

Between 1964 and 1968, around twenty different spy series, whether domestic or British, aired on American network television. I enjoyed them as a child, catching most of them in reruns over the years. In fact, I perhaps watched too many of them. As a young child I had a recurring dream that I was a superspy, often teamed with a beautiful woman as a partner. I suppose that is what happens when one watches The Avengers and The Wild Wild West too much. At any rate, I still love the Sixties spy dramas. In fact, I own the entire run of The Prisoner and much of The Avengers on tape. In my opinion, they never have quite matched those spy series of old.

No comments: