Thursday, January 8, 2009

Spy Shows of the Sixties Part Five

"I will not make any deals with you. I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own." (Number Six,from the episode "Arrival" of The Prisoner)

In American television the spy cycle came to an end in the 1967-1968 season. No new spy series would debut for the entirety of the 1968-1969 season. There were a few spy shows remaining on the air. Sadly, the 1968-1969 season would be a very difficult one for most of them.

One of few exceptions was the series Mission: Impossible. Oddly enough, the 1968-1969 season would be the most successful season Mission: Impossible ever had. That season Mission: Impossible made its only appearance in the top twenty shows for the year, at #11. The series would remain on network television until 1973. At nearly seven seasons, Mission: Impossible was the longest running American spy series, and the second longest spy series in either the United Kingdom or the United States (The Avengers beat it by a few episodes).

Both The Prisoner and The Saint would return as summer replacements. The Prisoner had ended production long ago, but for The Saint this was its last season. Having tired of the role, Roger Moore had decided to leave the show. The final season of The Saint debuted on NBC on April 18, 1969.

Get Smart would also survive the season, although it would not remain on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). For its fourth season NBC moved Get Smart from the 8:30 Eastern time slot on Saturday to the 8:00 Eastern time slot that same night. While the difference may have only been a half hour, it was enough to seriously hurt the show's ratings. Opposite The Jackie Gleason Show on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) (it would be 25th in the ratings for the whole season) and The Newlywed Game on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the ratings for Get Smart dropped so low that NBC cancelled the comedy in February 1969. Fortunately, CBS would pick up the series up almost immediately. Get Smart would survive for one more season on CBS. Get Smart would not be the only spy series to leave the air during the 1969-1970 season. It Takes a Thief was cancelled as well. Fellow spy comedy Hogan's Heroes would be cancelled during the 1970-1971 season, a victim of CBS's effort to revamp its schedule to appeal to younger, more urban audiences.

The Avengers had survived the 1967-1968 season with respectable ratings and as a result appeared on ABC's fall schedule for the first time (previously it served as a summer or mid-season replacement). Unfortunately, turmoil in the production of the show and ABC's unfortunate choice of when to schedule The Avengers would spell its doom. It was in April 1967 that Diana Rigg decided to leave The Avengers. This created a crisis for the production team, who were now faced with replacing the wildly popular Emma Peel. In secret the producers began screen testing actresses to find Diana Rigg's replacement. Among the actresses who were considered were Gabrielle Drake (who would go on to appear in the series UFO), Jane Merrow (who had appeared in the 1963 serial Lorna Doone and Danger Man), and Barbara Steele (who had appeared in the movie 8 1/2).

At the same time that the producers started searching for a replacement for Diana Rigg, it was decided to change the style of the show. Throughout the two Emma Peel series, The Avengers had faced a modern day version of the Hellfire Club, a sentient man eating plant, killer pussycats, and a device which could swap minds. Despite the fact that these episodes had been wildly successful on both sides of the Atlantic, the decision was made to move the show away from fantasy and more towards reality. James Bryce, who had produced the majority of the Cathy Gale run of the show, was hired as the new producer. Brian Clemens (who had developed the show for Sydney Newman) and Albert Fennell, both of who had produced the Emma Peel run of The Avengers, left The Avengers very shortly afterwards, unhappy with the direction the series was taking.

It was after Clemens and Fennell had left that a replacement for Diana Rigg was finally found. Although there are other stories, the most common one is that young actress Linda Thorsson was hired with the approval of Don Boyle, then head of ABC in the United States. Linda Thorsson was cast as Tara King, a young woman fresh from training. As a result, initially Tara was a weaker character than Cathy Gale or Emma Peel ever had been. While Mrs. Gale and Mrs. Peel were rarely in need of rescue, Tara often played the damsel in distress. Eventually, the character was revamped so as to be stronger. Linda Thorsson herself would not have it easy starting out on The Avengers. She was immediately sent to a health resort to lose weight. It was also insisted she dye her hair blonde to offer a contrast to Emma Peel. As a result, her hair fell out and she was forced to wear wigs for several months until her naturally brunette locks grew back. The Avengers was also the first time Linda Thorsson had ever appeared before the camera. She was fresh from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she had received no training in acting for television or film.

Producer John Bryce soon had problems of his own. He found himself falling far behind the production schedule, with the contract with ABC in the United States to fill. He had only shot three and a half episodes when Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell were invited back and given total control of the series. Clemens and Fennell reshot one of Bryce's episodes and pitched the rest as unacceptable. To save time, they recycled a script that had been meant for Emma Peel, "Split," as a Tara King episode.

The Avengers could perhaps have survived the turmoil taking place during its production (it had before), had it not been for ABC's fall 1968 schedule. ABC scheduled the series at 7:30 Eastern time on Monday night. This placed it opposite Gunsmoke on CBS (which would rank #6 in the top twenty five shows for the season) and Laugh In on NBC (then the number one show for the season). It was hardly a surprise, then, that ABC announced the cancellation of The Avengers in February 1969. With the necessary money from the United States, The Avengers could not continue in the United Kingdom either. The longest running spy series of all time was over.

Strangely enough, the final series of The Avengers was the first to debut in the United States before it did the United Kingdom. The last season of The Avengers debuted in the United States on September 23, 1968. It would not debut in the United Kingdom until January 12, 1969, only about a month before ABC in the United States cancelled it.

While The Avengers was cancelled due to low ratings, The Wild Wild West would be cancelled for an entirely different reason. Following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the television industry was faced with renewed outcries over violence on television. In previous years at most the networks might cancel some of the more offensive series and then go about their business, but in 1968 the networks actually blinked. Initially the networks severely cut the amount of violence contained in television shows. Whereas once many Westerns had featured massive bar fights, the fights were now restricted to a punch or two. And stunts which had once been acceptable on network television shows, such as falling off a horse in a Western, were even counted as possibly being "violent." Even the gunfight which opened every episode of Gunsmoke was cut in favour of a new opening. Indeed, Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik in their book Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television referred to the 1968-1969 season as "the One Punch Season."

Despite the fact that the networks had dramatically cut the amount of violence in their shows, the public outcry continued unabated. At least two networks then took the next step of cancelling shows which had been criticised for violence. In November 1968 NBC bought the contracts for the Saturday cartoons Birdman and the Galaxy Trio and Super President and cancelled both of them while they were still in production. It cost the network around $750,000. Both series went off the air that December. As to CBS, they cancelled another show which the watchdog groups had attacked for violence: The Wild Wild West. While its ratings had fallen since its debut in the 1965-1966 season, the series was still getting respectable ratings when it was taken off the air. In fact, for the 1969-1970 season CBS would air reruns of The Wild Wild West (although they were specifically selected and edited for violence) as a summer replacement. The reruns consistently won their timeslot. Wile only Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, Super President, and The Wild Wild West were cancelled due to violence, the fact that they were cancelled at all because of such demonstrated the turnaround in the networks' attitude towards violence. And unfortunately for the spy series, it also showed the growing power of watchdog groups opposed to violence on television.

Outcries over television violence from watchdog groups would continue well into the Seventies, and among their favourite targets were the spy shows of the Sixties. In fact, The Wild Wild West would be targeted by a watchdog group even as it made its first run in syndication. It was in November 1970 that a group called the Foundation to Improve Television filed a lawsuit to prevent WTOP-TV in Washington D.C. from showing The Wild Wild West before 10:00 PM, contending it violated "the constitutional rights of child viewers" in exposing them to alleged violence. In January 1971 the lawsuit was dismissed in U.S. District Court, but it would not be the last attempt by a watchdog group to remove shows they considered overly violent from the air.

In 1973 the National Association for Better Broadcasting filed a petition with the FCC to deny Los Angeles independent station KTTV's licence renewal on the grounds that its programming was too violent. It was for this reason that on October 1, 1973 KTTV signed an agreement that would remove 42 animated cartoons from the station's programming, including the 1966 series The New Adventures of Superman, Aquaman, Marine Boy, and even Mighty Mouse. The station also agreed to issue a parental guidance warning before 81 live action series the Natonal Association for Better Broadcasting considered violent, including 77 Sunset Strip, Batman, Have Gun-Will Travel, The Untouchables, and, of all things, The Lone Ranger. Among the spy series affected were The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and, of course, The Wild Wild West.

The agreement between the National Association for Better Broadcasting and the KTTV would force the major television syndicators to take action. In late October, 1973 Kevin O'Sullivan, president of Worldvision Enterprises, called a meeting with 11 other syndication companies to take action against what he called "...the blacklisting and greylisting of television series." As it was, O'Sullivan need not have bothered. It was in September 1975 that the FCC declared the agreement between National Association for Better Broadcasting and the KTTV improper, stating that KTTV had relinquished too much control over their programming to the watchdog group.

KTTV was not the only station targeted by the National Association for Better Broadcasting. The group also petitioned the FCC to deny renewal for the operating licence of KTTV's sister station KCOP on the basis of alleged excessive violence in their children's programming. The FCC responded by stating that Section 326 of the Communications Act prohibited censorship by the Commission and renewed KCOP's licence.

While the National Association for Better Broadcasting's efforts to prevent the renewal of the licenses of television stations whose programming they considered objectionable failed, it would have an impact on one of the spy series of the Sixties. Listed alongside such fare as The Untouchables on the National Association for Better Broadcasting's blacklist, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. became a show that was controversial for its alleged violence. While the series did very well in syndication during its first several years since NBC had cancelled it, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was suddenly shown in much fewer markets than it once had. By the late Seventies, it was difficult to find the show on any local station's schedules. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not the only series affected by the blacklisting of watchdog groups. The classic Western Have Gun-Will Travel was also so affected.

Strangely enough, other spy series of the Sixties were not so adversely affected by the blacklists of watchdog groups. For all that it may have been the prime target of watchdog groups for years, The Wild Wild West continued unabated in syndication. The Avengers would also continue to air on local stations across the United States. In fact, it would even be part of the lineup of The CBS Late Movie in the late Seventies and early Eighties. This leaves the question as to why The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was so adversely affected by being blacklisted by watchdog groups for alleged violence when The Wild Wild West and The Avengers were not. After all, all three series were spy shows that delved heavily into science fiction and fantasy. The reason could simply be due to the nature of the action in the three series. Set in the modern day United States, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sometimes featured gunplay, not as much as The Untouchables and other crime dramas, although it did occur. On The Wild Wild West and The Avengers, most of the action came in the form of hand to hand combat. In fact, it must be pointed out that James West and Emma Peel were among the first characters in the United Kingdom and the United States to use kung fu on the small screen. For a Western gunplay did not occur that often on The Wild Wild West. As to The Avengers, set in the United Kingdom, there were whole episodes in which guns did not appear. It is possible that when looking at shows which were alleged by watchdog groups to have violence, station managers around the United States also paid attention to the nature of that violence, whether it was gunplay or fisticuffs. And given that very few fist fights are fatal, they may not have taken the violence in shows featuring hand to hand combat that seriously. It is notable that other series which were seriously hurt by the blacklists of watchdog groups such as Have Gun-Will Travel and The Untouchables, were also ones in which gunplay played a role.

Even as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. saw its syndication profits dry up due to unfair accusations of violence, a revival in interest in the spy series was beginning. The continued popularity of the Tara King run in France led to a revival of The Avengers called The New Avengers in 1975. The new series would air on The CBS Late Movie starting in 1978. The Saint would be revived in 1978 as Return of The Saint, with Ian Ogilvy playing the famous Simon Templar. Return of The Saint would also run on The CBS Late Movie starting in 1979. Here it must be pointed out that The CBS Late Movie was very significant in the revival of interest in the spy series of the Sixties. Not only did CBS air The New Avengers and Return of The Saint on The CBS Late Movie, but they also aired The Avengers, The Saint, and The Prisoner.

The late Seventies saw a cycle towards television show reunion movies, with the casts of such shows as Father Knows Best and Gilligan's Island reuniting for movie length continuations of their series. Quite naturally, with renewed interest in the spy series of the Sixties, a few of the old spy series would also see reunions. The first such reunion movie would be The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979. It would be successful enough to warrant a sequel, More Wild Wild West in 1980. Given Ross Martin's death in 1981, there would be no more. The Wild Wild West would only be the first of the spy series to have reunions. It would be followed by The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair (1983), Get Smart, Again (1989), and I Spy Returns.

Beyond reunion movies, two American spy shows would be also be revived. Debuting in 1988 and airing only around two seasons, Mission: Impossible brought Peter Graves back as Jim Phelps, complete with a new IMF team. In 1995 Get Smart was revived, with Don Adams playing Maxell Smart (now Chief of CONTROL) and Barbara Feldon playing Agent 99 (now a politician). Their son Zach (who, sadly, took after Max) was now a CONTROL agent teamed with Agent 66 (Elaine Hendrix). The series did not prove to be successful, lasting only seven episodes.

The Nineties would see Hollywood beginning to adapt old television series with all new casts. There have been a few of the spy series which have been adapted as feature films, although the first such movie at least has its original star. Get Smart was the first of the spy series of the Sixties to be made into a feature film (here I am not counting episodes of shows combined to make a theatrical release). That having been said, The Nude Bomb only features Don Adams as Maxwell Smart and Robert Karvelas as Larrabee from the original series. In fact, Max doesn't even work for CONTROL, but instead for a group called PITS (Provisional Intelligence Tactical Service). Despite this, Max was still fighting KAOS. The movie proved to be a disappointment at the box office and for many fans as well.

Since The Nude Bomb, there have been many other major motion pictures based on the spy shows, and they are largely a mixed lot. In 1996 a movie based on Mission: Impossible was released. Although controversial with some fans and the movie received mixed reviews, but did well at the box office. It was followed by Mission: Impossible II in 2000 and Mission: Impossible III in 2006. A feature film based on The Avengers was released in 1998. The film would bomb with critics and audiences, and particularly with fans of the original series. The year 1999 would see the release of a movie based on The Wild Wild West. Not only was the movie reviled by critics and bombed at the box office, but it offended both its fans and the series' original star, Robert Conrad. In 2002 a major motion picture based on I Spy was released. Sadly the movie departed from the series in incorporating a bit too much comedy and including some outlandish spy gadgets more suited to U.N.C.L.E. or Bond. It fared badly with critics and at the box office. Another feature film based on Get Smart (featuring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway as Max and 99) was released last year. The film received mixed reviews and was largely considered inferior to the original series. The movie did do well at the box office, so well that a sequel is planned.

There may well be other feature films based on spy series in the near future. Reportedly Will Smith has been signed to star in a big budget adaptation of It Takes a Thief, set for release in 2010. There have also been rumours of A Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie for years. For a time director Quentin Tarantino was reported wanted to make a A Man From U.N.C.L.E. film. Later it was reported that director Matthew Vaughn was in negotiations to adapt the series to film.

In addition to feature film adaptations, there is at least one mini-series adaptation of a Sixties spy show. In 2006 it was announced that British network Sky1 and American Movie Classics (AMC) were co-producing a mini-series remake of The Prisoner to last six to eight episodes. Sky1 would pull out of project due to creative disagreements with AMC. ITV (the network upon which the original series first aired) then stepped in to co-produce the miniseries with AMC. The mini-series will be broadcast in both the United Kingdom and the United States sometime this year.

In all, the spy cycle on American television in the Sixties lasted four years and produced several series. It has certainly had a lasting impact with regards to its shows. A Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, and Mission: Impossible all continue to be popular to this day. British series which played such a large role in the sixties spy craze on American television, such as The Avengers, Danger Man, The Saint, and The Prisoner also continue to be popular. All of these series are available on DVD and merchandise for some of these series is sold to this day. Pop culture references to these series abound, in such shows ranging from The Simpsons to NCIS (on which David McCallum, once Illya Kuryakin, plays Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard).

While the shows of the Sixties spy cycle would also leave their mark on pop culture, they would also leave their mark on American television history as well. The spy shows would break barriers and make innovations in American television. Spy shows can take credit for both the first female lead in an American action/adventure series (Honey West) and the first African American in a lead role on an American drama (I Spy). The spy series of the Sixties were groundbreaking in other ways as well. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. presented a world where many nations cooperated in an international organisation to fight crime, and where an American and Russian could not only be partners, but friends as well (keep in mind the show debuted not shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis). Both Mission: Impossible and Hogan's Heroes presented us with teams in which minorities had important roles. Since the Sixties there have been only a very few successful spy shows in the United States, but the spy series of the Sixties long ago left their mark on both American pop culture and American television history.

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