Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Spy Shows of the Sixties Part Three

"As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim."
(the mysterious voice on the tape recorder at the start of every episode of Mission:Impossible)

The 1965-1966 season saw more spy series debut than ever had on the American networks. One would have thought that the market would have been glutted with so many spy shows, but the 1966-1967 season saw more debut. In all, five new spy series debuted that fall.

One new series was actually a spinoff from an old one--The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had become one of the top series on television, ranking 13th in the top twenty highest rated shows according to the Nielsens for the 1965-1966 season. Quite naturally, the producers wanted to capitalise on its popularity with a spinoff. It was decided that the new series would centre on a female U.N.C.L.E. agent, hence the title The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.. For the character's name executive producer Norman Felton chose "April Dancer," the name Ian Fleming gave the secretary of Napoleon Solo's boss in his original outline for the series. Several different actresses were considered for the role of April Dancer. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had wanted Stefanie Powers to play the character, but at the time she was shooting a movie. They also considered Dorothy Provine. Ultimately, the role went to Mary Ann Mobley, a former Miss America.

At that time April Dancer's partner was considered as an older male, who would act as a mentor to her. The role of Mark Slate then went to Norman Fell, who had played on 87th Precinct and would later appear on Three's Company. The pilot for the series was shot an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. "The Moonglow Affair" aired February 25, 1966. The episode met with extremely good ratings, so NBC greenlighted the series. That having been said, it was decided that there would be some changes before The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. made it to the air. By the time the series was approved Stefanie Powers was available. NBC then replaced Mary Ann Mobley with her. As to Norman Fell as Mark Slate, it was decided that The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. should appeal to a younger, hipper crowd. Norman Fell was then replaced with younger, British Noel Harrison (son of actor Rex Harrison) in an effort to appeal to young women (keep in mind The Beatles were all the rage at the time). The series debuted on September 13, 1966.

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. debuted to decidedly mixed reviews, although its ratings were initially very good. In fact, upon its premiere it beat both Combat on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Daktari on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The series would not continue to do so well. The following two episodes dropped in the ratings. By December the series was consistently losing to both Daktari and Combat. In late February 1967, NBC cancelled The Girl From U.N.C.L.E..

Ultimately, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was probably killed by the direction which the original series had taken quite recently. In January 1966 the comedy Batman proved to be the smash hit of the 1965-1966 season. A spoof of the superhero genre, Batman utilised outlandish plots and outrageous situations in a camp style. It is perhaps for that reason that late in the second season episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. began to appear which clearly veered into camp territory. By the series' third season, such episodes dominated the show. Overnight The Man From U.N.C.L.E., originally a dramatic series with tongue planted firmly in cheek, became a very bad comedy. The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. followed this same path. In the end The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was ailing. It dropped from 13th in the ratings for the 1965-1966 season to 46th for the 1966-1967.

The other notable spy series to debut in the fall of 1966 was Mission: Impossible. Unlike other spy shows of the time, Mission: Impossible not only drew upon the spy genre for inspiration, but the caper films of the era as well (Topkapi was a prime source of inspiration). Bruce Geller, a television writer who had written episodes of The Rifleman and Have Gun-Will Travel, conceived a half hour action/adventure series entitled Briggs's Squad. The series would centre on a former special forces squad which would undertake dangerous missions that the government could or would not. Geller was unable to sell Briggs's Squad, being told by the networks that they were no longer in the market for half-hour action series. Geller then altered the concept of the series. He decided that the squad would have to have some sort of semi-official status to be acceptable to the networks. He then decided that they would work as secret agents, although the team would remain a private concern that took jobs that the government could not legally do.

In the end the series would focus on the Impossible Missions Force, originally headed by Daniel Briggs (Steven Hill, later of Law and Order) and for most of the series' run by Jim Phelps (Peter Graves). For each mission the team leader would choose the team for that job, although the team would generally be the same save for the occasional guest star. For the first few seasons, the team consisted of master of disguise and escape artist Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), actress Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), electronics expert Barnard "Barney" Collier (Greg Morris), and strongman Barnard "Barney" Collier (Peter Lupus). Over the years the cast of Mission: Impossible would change dramatically (Steven Hill left after the first year), so that in the end the character of Jim Phelps was the only constant.

In the end the fact that the cast changed frequently on Mission: Impossible may not have been important. The primary focus of the series was always on its intricate plots, with the characters only being of secondary concern. Each mission unfolded much as those of any caper movie, with the IMF meeting complications and plot twists as their mission unfolded. This made the series different from any other show on the air at the time. The series also tended to be more realistic than spy series such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E and The Avengers. The plots, although complex, were much more down to earth and any gadgetry which appeared on the show could actually exist in the late Sixties.

Because of its intricate plots, Mission: Impossible received a good deal of praise from critics in its earliest seasons. During its run it earned 20 Emmy nominations and won six Emmys. While critically acclaimed, Mission: Impossible would take some time to catch on with viewers. During its first season, ratings for the show were respectable but not impressive. Its ratings grew steadily in its first three seasons until in its third season Mission: Impossible ranked 11th in the top twenty shows of the year according to the Nielsen ratings. And while its ratings would drop following its third season, the series had a longer run than any other spy series of the Sixties. Debuting on September 17, 1966, Mission: Impossible would ultimately run for seven seasons. Mission: Impossible probably outlasted its contemporaries because in some respects it was much more adaptable. One week the IMF might take on a third world dictator and the next week they might face an underworld crime lord. Indeed, in its fifth season Mission: Impossible began to shift away from purely espionage plots to plots involving organised crime.

While The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible were set in the present day, Jericho was set during World War II. Created by Larry Cohen (who would go onto create The Invaders and a low budget movie career), Jericho centred on a team of Allied intelligence agents, code named "Jericho," working behind the lines in Nazi Germany. The series feature Don Francks (later of La Femme Nikita) as Franklin Sheppard, John Leyton as Nicholas Gage, and Marino Masé as Marino Jean-Gaston Andre. Jericho debuted on CBS on September 15, 1966. Unfortunately, it would be gone by January 1967. Scheduled against Daniel Boone on NBC and Batman on ABC, the show really didn't have a chance.

Despite its title The Man Who Never Was had no connection to the 1954 book or the 1956 movie based on the book. The series cast Robert Lansing as secret agent Peter Murphy. While escaping from East Berlin he encounters his exact double, millionaire Michael Wainwright. Unfortunately for Wainwright, he is mistaken for Murphy by the KGB and killed by them. Murphy then assumed Wainwright's identity. Wainwright's widow, Eva (Dana Wynter) went along with the deception for her own reasons. The series was filmed entirely in Europe. The Man Who Never Was debuted on September 7, 1966 on ABC. Scheduled against Green Acres on CBS, The Man Who Never Was only lasted 18 episodes.

Like The Saint, T.H.E. Cat was not strictly speaking a spy show, although it used many of the trappings of such. T.H.E. Cat starred Robert Loggia as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, a retired circus aerialist and former cat burglar. Giving up his life of crime, T.H.E. Cat now sells his unique skills as a bodyguard to both the government and private clients whose lives are being threatened. T.H.E. Cat never carried a gun, relying on his wits or martial arts to get out of situations. Scheduled against The CBS Friday Night Movies, T.H.E. Cat lasted only one season.

While primetime was filled with spies, Saturday morning would see another spy make his home there as well. Cool McCool was created by Bob Kane, co-creator of Batman and produced by Al Brodax of King Features, who also produced The Beatles cartoon. Much like Get Smart, Cool McCool was a parody of spy dramas. Cool did have some things in common with James Bond and Napoleon Solo. He was handsome, dashing, and charming. He even had his own catchphrase: "Danger is my business!" Unfortunately, he was also a total bumbler. Cool McCool reported to the mysterious Number One, who was never seen on camera 9much like Charlie on Charlie's Angels). Riggs provided Cool McCool with his gadgets, of which there was no shortage. The bumbling spy used a wide array of them, most frequently his moustache radio and the Coolmobile (which would even come to him when he whistled). While Cool McCool was a spy, the villains he usually battled could have come from out of the comic books. Among the opponents he faced were Hurricane Harry (whose breath was as powerful as hurricane winds), Dr. Madcap (whose hat was equipped with a wide array of weapons), and Jack-In-The-Box (who, like the legendary Spring Heeled Jack, had boots equipped with springs to make incredible leaps). Cool McCool proved popular, running for three seasons. It debuted on NBC on September 10, 1966.

While The Avengers would return to ABC in January 1967, there would not be another new spy series on the American networks until the summer. In fact there would be two (well, one was new to the networks, not American television). One of these would be The Saint. While NBC had initially rejected the series, the network would try the syndicated show out on its local stations. The network was rather shocked at its success and surprised that they could be so wrong. When ABC picked up The Baron as a mid-season replacement for the 1965-1966 season, this served to spark NBC's interest and even saved The Saint from an early cancellation. The Saint made its debut on NBC on May 21, 1967 as a summer replacement for The Dean Martin Show. While the series would go off the air at the end of the summer season, the success The Saint had seen would insure it would return to NBC's schedule.

The second new series to debut after the fall would turn into the cult series of the summer of 1967. Unfortunately, even with such success, the show could not go on. The show in question was Coronet Blue, created by Larry Cohen. The show grew out of an episode of The Defenders written by Cohen entitled "The Traitor," in which the father and son lawyer team must defend an accused traitor.

Coronet Blue centred on Michael Alden (Frank Converse), a man with amnaesia who can only remember the mysterious phrase "Coronet blue." Found floating in a harbour, Alden took his name by combining the names of the hospital to which he was admitted and the doctor who treated him. Quite naturally, Alden begins a search for his real identity. Unfortunately as he does so he is pursued by mysterious assassins Alden calls "Greybeards."

While Coronet Blue debuted on May 28, 1967, it had actually been filmed in 1965. The series had shot 17 episodes when for some reason CBS cancelled the show. It received its spot on the summer 1967 schedule only because the network wanted to recoup the show's costs. As a result, regardless of its success, CBS could not place Coronet Blue on its fall schedule. Star Frank Converse had already moved onto the series N.Y.P.D. and the rest of the production team had moved onto other projects as well. Another result is that the series ended with the secret of Coronet Blue never having been revealed. It would not be until Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker, published in 1996, that Cohen revealed Michael Alden's secret and the meaning of the words "Coronet Blue." In truth Michael Alden was not an American, but a Soviet agent belonging to an espionage unit codenamed "Coronet Blue." He had been trained to appear as an American in every respect. Alden had decided to defect, which led to other Russian agents being sent to kill him lest he reveal the secrets he knows. It was after one of these attacks that he developed amnaesia.

While some of the shows which debuted during the 1966-1967 season were successful (Mission: Impossible, Coronet Blue), as the season progressed it would seem the spy cycle was slowing down. After the fall premieres only two new spy series debuted all season, a stark contrast to the number of shows that had debuted at mid-season during the 1965-1966 season. The casualty rate for these new shows were also very high. Out of the nine spy shows which debuted in primetime during the 1965-1966 season, five survived the season. By contrast, out of the eight spy shows to debut during the 1966-1967 season, only two (Mission: Impossible and The Saint) would survive. The spy craze, so strong at the beginning of the 1966-1967 season, appeared to be winding down.

No comments: