Monday, January 5, 2009

Spy Shows of the Sixties Part Two

"Always keep your bowler on in time of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds." (Mrs. Emma Peel, from the episode "The Forget-Me-Knot" of The Avengers)

By the spring of 1965 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had gone from a show in danger of cancellation to one of the hottest shows on television. Despite this, it cannot be held responsible for the many spy shows that would debut in the fall of 1965. Quite simply, many of these shows were conceived even before The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had debuted. Indeed, the next spy show to debut on American network season would do so even while it was still on the air. What is more, it would be a TV series that was not exactly new to American television.

The last original episode of Danger Man had aired in the United Kingdom on June 4, 1961. Since that time many things had changed. In the United Kingdom, Danger Man, alongside The Avengers and The Saint, had triggered a spy cycle on British television. On both sides of the Atlantic the James Bond movies Dr. No and From Russia with Love had been huge successes. In fact, to some it may have seemed that the United States was poised for a spy craze of its own. It occurred to producer Ralph Smart that it might now be time for Danger Man to return. That having been said, the new Danger Man would be different in some respects than the original series. The most obvious difference was that while the original Danger Man was only a half hour in length, the new Danger Man would be an hour in length. There were other more subtle differences as well. John Drake no longer worked for NATO, but for the fictional spy agency M9. While Drake showed more of a sense of humour in the new series, he also showed a greater sense of decency. Many more gadgets appeared in the new series, although they were not of the sort seen in the Bond movies or The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. The gadgets on the hour long Danger Man tended to be more realistic devices that were possible within the the technology of the Sixties (miniaturised tape recorders, guns disguised as safety razors, video phones, tracking devices). In most respects, however, the hour long Danger Man differed but little from the half hour version. John Drake still did not carry a gun, nor did he kiss the girls. The new version of Danger Man debuted in the United Kingdom on October 13, 1964. And if anything, it was an even bigger success than the original series.

Such success was not lost on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the United States. The network picked up the series as a summer replacement, with its first episode debuting on April 3, 1965. The new version of Danger Man did not come to the United States without changes. It was retitled Secret Agent in order to capitalise on the growing spy craze in the United States. It was also given a new opening sequence, complete with a new theme song, "Secret Agent Man" sung by Johnny Rivers. Both Secret Agent (and its new theme song) would be a hit in the United States. In fact, Secret Agent achieved something few summer replacement series do--it made CBS's fall 1965 schedule. On both sides of the Atlantic Danger Man (or Secret Agent, as Americans were calling it then) did extremely well. In fact, the only reason the series ended in 1966 was because Patrick McGoohan left the show to pursue his own project. That project would prove to be a TV series that would see even greater success than Danger Man--it was entitled The Prisoner.

The two spy series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Secret Agent, which debuted on American television during the 1964-1965 season were prime examples of two different types of spy series that aired during the spy cycle. One type, of which The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers are examples, often combined espionage with fantastic elements. The plots of these series were often Bondian in scope. Another type, of which Danger Man/Secret Agent and I Spy were examples, were spy dramas which were more realistic. The plots were more down to Earth and there were no gadgets or fantastic devices. A third type, of which The Saint was an example, were shows that were not actually about spies, but shared many of the same trappings (beautiful women, diabolical masterminds, et. al.). None of these types were actually more successful than the others, as each could boast their own hit series.

Regardless, the success of the Bond movies would insure that there would be no shortage of spy shows on the broadcast network's 1965 fall schedules. In fact, in terms of the significance of the shows which debuted in the United States during the 1965-1966 season, it could be the most important season in the American spy cycle. Several of the series which debuted during the season would be very successful in their initial runs and would develop followings that would allow them to still be seen to this day.

Among the most successful of these series was a show that not only took advantage of the ongoing spy craze, but also belonged to a new cycle towards Westerns that included such shows as Branded and A Man Called Shenandoah. The Wild Wild West was conceived by Michael Garrison as "James Bond in the West." Garrison brought the idea up to Hunt Stromberg Jr., then CBS head of programming, who liked the idea. He assigned CBS associate director of programme development Ethel Winant to develop the series. The initial concept that Wiant developed the idea of a Secret Service agent, James West (Robert Conrad), assigned to fight international spies and other villains in the West of the United States during the late 19th century. In the initial concept West did not have his partner, although he did get his gadgets from a travelling peddler. The peddler character eventually developed into West's partner, Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). James West was the gunslinger and man of action, while Artemus Gordon was the master of disguise, con man, and inventor of gadgets. These concepts would be expanded upon by Gilbert Ralston in the series pilot, "The Night of the Inferno."

The Wild Wild West lived up to the description "James Bond in the West." The plots were often Bondian in scope, with West and Gordon facing such villains as a mad scientist with the ability to create earthquakes, a former British colonel plotting to seize the throne of China, and a twisted matchmaker using young women to kill rich industrialists for their money. By far their most persistent opponent was Dr. Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), who made several appearances throughout the show's run. Among other things, Dr. Loveless invented the most powerful explosive in the world, plotted to drive the entire nation mad with a hallucinogenic powder, and developed a powder which killed all plant life. Although small of stature, Dr. Loveless was a giant of villainy, his plots truly Bondian in scope.

The Wild Wild West proved to be one of the most successful shows in the spy series of the Sixties. It regularly won its timeslot and was still getting respectable Nielsen ratings in its final season. The only reason The Wild Wild West was cancelled was as a scapegoat in the campaign against television violence that occurred following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It would prove to be very influential with regards to the steampunk genre (a subgenre of science fiction involving advanced, usually steam powered device in the Victorian Era).

Another highly influential series to debut that fall was I Spy. The series was conceived by the writing team of William Friedkin and Morton Fine. I Spy centred on the team of Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp--the former star of Trackdown to whom the role of Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was offered), a spy who travelled undercover as a tennis pro, and Alexander Scott (up and coming comedian Bill Cosby), a spy who posed as his coach. Initially Alexander Scott was meant to be a mentor figure to Robinson, played by an older actor. This changed after producer Sheldon Leonard (famed for his many gangster roles in Hollywood movies) saw Bill Cosby's nightclub routine on a talk show. In casting Cosby, Leonard made history. I Spy would be the first drama on American television to feature an African American in a lead role. The two characters were always treated as equals and Scott's race was almost never brought up in the series' episodes.

I Spy relied heavily on exotic locations, with episodes actually shot in foreign countries. Like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West, the success of I Spy relied largely upon the rapport between its two leads. There was always a good deal of hip banter between the two. I Spy differed from both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild Wild West in that its plots tended to be much more realistic. The villains were not would be megalomaniacs with advanced technology at their hands. There were no Bondian gadgets. And at times the series even focused on the darker side of espionage.

I Spy debuted on September 15, 1965 on NBC. It did very well in the ratings in its first two seasons. It even spawned a catchphrase, one often used by Alexander Scott--"Wonderfulness." Unfortunately, NBC would move I Spy from its original Wednesday night time slot to a new time slot on Monday night, where its ratings swiftly dropped. Despite this, NBC was interested in a fourth season of I Spy. Leonard asked NBC if they could guarantee that I Spy would be returned its Wendesday time slot. When NBC said that it could not, Leonard opted to end the show.

It was not simply dramas featuring spies that debuted in the fall of 1965, but also two comedies. The first to debut is not often recognised as a spy show, even though espionage was at the heart of the series. Strangely enough, as originally conceived, not only would espionage not have played a role in the series, but it would not have even been set in World War II. Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy had created a series proposal simply called The Heroes, which would take place in a penitentiary in the United States. Fein and Ruddy spent four years trying to sell the series, to no avail. It was after seeing a fellow passenger on an aeroplane flight reading Von Ryan's Express that Fein decided to change the concept. The series, soon to be called Hogan's Heroes, was moved to a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II with Hogan and his men engaging in espionage and sabotage even as they were imprisoned in the camp. It then became a parody of such prisoner of war films as The Great Escape and Stalag 17. It is because of this that Colonel Robert Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men had access to resources to which no POW would realistically have had (including a tunnel which was never discovered). While Hogan and his men were clearly cast in a heroic mould, The camp's commandant, Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer), and the other Nazis were generally shown as buffoons.

Hogan's Heroes debuted on September 17, 1965 on CBS, scheduled following The Wild Wild West for most of its run. It did extremely well in the ratings. In fact, when it was cancelled it was not because its ratings had dropped dramatically over the years, but rather because its audience had grown too old. It went off network television in 1971.

While Hogan's Heroes was as much as a parody of PoW films as it was a spy series, the second comedy to debut in the fall 1965 season was a straight forward spy parody. Get Smart was created by two comedy veterans. Buck Henry had been a regular on The New Steve Allen Show and had appeared on the American edition of That Was the Week That Was. Mel Brooks was one of the writers on Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour. Together they realised that the growing spy craze was ripe for parody. They created the character of Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 of the spy agency CONTROL. Smart was overzealous, bumbling, and wholly incompetent. Fortunately his partner was Agent 99, who was an extremely competent agent. She was also, for some odd reason, in love with Max. Just as U.N.C.L.E. fought THRUSH, CONTROL fought the evil organisation called KAOS. Several times, Max and 99 faced Siegfriend, the head of KAOS. Cast in the role of Maxwell Smart was Don Adams, who used the William Powell imitation he had also used as hotel detective Byron Glick on The Bill Dana Show. Cast in the role of Agent 99 was Barbara Feldon.

Get Smart was originally greenlighted by the American Broadcasting Company (hereafter ABC-US, to avoid confusion). Upon seeing the pilot, however, ABC-US decided not to go ahead with the series, considering the pilot "unfunny." The pilot was then taken to NBC, who approved the show. Get Smart debuted on September 18, 1965. Not only did Get Smart do exceedingly well in the ratings, but it also fared with critics and received three Emmy awards. NBC cancelled Get Smart during the 1968-1969 season, but the series was picked up for one more season by CBS. It ended its network run in 1970.

I Spy was not the only spy show to debut in the fall of 1965 that was groundbreaking in its casting. The character of Honey West had originated in the 1957 novel This Girl for Hire by Gloria and Forest Fickling writing as "G.G. Fickling." She would make her first appearance on television, played by Anne Francis, in an episode of Burke's Law entitled "Who Killed the Jackpot." True to form, Honey even outwitted the great Amos Burke. The character proved popular and so the go ahead was given for a Honey West TV series. Initially Honor Blackman, who had played Cathy Gale in The Avengers, was considered for the role. Having left The Avengers for film, she did not want to do the series. Anne Francis was then once more cast as Honey West. While in the novels Honey West is a straight forward detective, producer Aaron Spelling reshaped the series to fit with current craze for Bondian gadgets and plots. While still a private eye, Honey was equipped with such gadgets as earrings that sprayed tear gas, a lipstick case radio, and an exploding compact. The plots were often similar to those found on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as well. Over the course of the series, Honey West and her partner Sam Bolt fought a modern day Robin Hood, a murderous and oversized toy robot, and a exact look alike of Honey herself.

Honey West was groudbreaking in being the first American action series to feature a woman in the lead role. Like Mrs. Cathy Gale before her, Honey West fought men using the martial arts and was very rarely in need of rescue. It would have seemed that it should have been a hit as The Avengers had in England and would be in the United States. And following its debut on September 17, 1965 on ABC, it did respectfully well in the ratings. Unfortunately, Honey West aired opposite Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., then a top rated show. In the end it was cancelled after thirty episodes.

While Honey West was transformed from a straight forward private eye to one who used gadgets, the hero of Burke's Law would be changed from a police detective to a spy. Originally Burke's Law featured Gene Barry as a millionaire and detective Captain Amos Burke who solved cases among the rich and powerful. With ratings declining in its second season and well aware of the growing spy craze, ABC-US forced producer Aaron Spelling to revamp Burke's Law as Amos Burke, Secret Agent. Spelling disliked the idea, but felt he had little choice if he wanted to keep the show on the air. The entire cast was fired except for Gene Barry as Amos Burke, and Carl Benton Reid was hired to play his new boss, a mysterious figure known as only "The Man." The new format was poorly received. It lasted only seventeen episodes.

The spy craze which had gripped the United States in the wake of the Bond movies even spread to Saturday morning. On NBC on September 12, 1965 there debuted a series called The Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show. The first part of the show was devoted to an ant who was also a superhero. The second half of the show featured the first spy created for a Saturday morning cartoon. Secret Squirrel was Agent 000 whose boss was simply known as Double-Q. He was assisted in his adventures by Morocco Mole. He had an archnemesis in the form of Yellow Pinkie. The series proved popular enough to last three years.

While The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not responsible for the plethora of spy oriented shows which debuted in the fall of 1965, it may have been responsible for some of those that debuted mid-season. There can be little doubt that in the spring of 1965 the other networks observed the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and decided to get into the spy game themselves. It is hear that we must make a detour into television programming history. Prior to January 1966, mid-season replacements were not unknown, but they were by no means common either. It was in January 1966 that struggling ABC-US would seek to change that. It was that month that ABC-US cancelled many of its shows and moved others to new time slots. In fact, the network replaced more shows at mid-season than any network had done before. ABC-US advertised this reshuffling as the "Second Season." In the end ABC-US would not create a "Second Season" of television separate from the fall, but it would make the practice of replacing shows at mid-season much more common.

Three of the shows which would debut as part of this Second Season were spy series. In fact, one of them was an outgrowth of The Saint. By 1965 there was concern that another series of The Saint might not be made. Producers Robert Baker and Monty Berman then looked to books once more for their new series. Namely, they bought the rights to "The Baron," who had first appeared in the 1937 novel Meet the Baron by John Creasey. In the books The Baron was a reformed British jewel thief who then put his skills to use fighting crime. Baker and Berman would make substantial changes to the character for the TV show. The Baron was now a Texan rancher who operated both as an antiques dealer in London and an undercover agent for British Intelligence. With the American broadcast networks increasingly wanting only series shot in colour, Lord Lew Grade of the Independent Television Company (ITC) decided that The Baron would be their first live action series shot in colour. Having made this decision, Lord Grade was able to sell the series to ABC in the United States. This would actually save The Saint. When NBC found out that ABC-US had bought The Baron, they expressed new interest in The Saint. Baker and Berman then parted ways so they could get both series on the air. Baker went back to The Saint. Berman stayed with The Baron.

With American Steve Forrest in the lead role, The Baron would actually debut in the United States on January 20, 1966. It would not debut in the United Kingdom until April 17 of that year. Sadly, The Baron did not do well in the ratings in the United States. Ultimately, only 30 episodes would be shot.

The other spy series to debut at mid-season was Blue Light. Debuting on January 12, 1966, Blue Light featured Robert Goulet as American correspondent David March. While claiming to have renounced his American citizenship to work for the Nazis, in actuality he was as a double agent working for a group code named "Blue Light." Many of the episodes of Blue Light were written by Larry Cohen, who would go onto create the series The Invaders and to direct such films as It's Alive and Q.

The ongoing spy craze perhaps guaranteed that Get Smart would not be the only spy comedy on the air. The Double Life of Henry Phyfe featured Red Buttons as Henry Phyfe, a milquetoast who is recruited by an American spy agency to impersonate a dead foreign agent known only as U-31. The series only lasted sixteen episodes.

The final spy show to debut on American television during the 1965-1966 season was not a new show. In fact, it had already been on the air for nearly five years. It was on March 28, 1966 that The Avengers finally debuted on American television. It was early in 1964 that an American network expressed interest in buying the show for the fall 1965 schedule. Unfortunately, it was only a few weeks later that the producers experienced a major crisis. Honor Blackman announced that she was leaving the show for a career in films (she would appear as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger). If the producers wanted the show to make it to the United States, then, they would have to find a new partner for John Steed. Indeed, since Blackman was so identified with Mrs. Gale, they would also have to create a whole new character.

That character would be Mrs. Emma Peel (named by the production's press officer, Marie Donaldson, who thought the character should have "Man Appeal" or "M Appeal"). Emma Peel was the young widow of pilot Peter Peel and the daughter of a wealthy shipowner. She lived in a penthouse and wore the latest fashions and drove the sportiest cars. Initially, actress Elizabeth Shepherd (who had been in Bleak House and the movie The Tomb of Ligeia) was cast in the role. It soon became apparent after viewing rushes for the first new episode, "Town of No Return," that she was not suited to the role. Fortunately, the production's casting director, Dodo Watts, had found an actress in an episode of Armchair Theatre. Her name was Diana Rigg. The rest, as they say, is history.

While the producers had found the perfect replacement for Honor Blackman, they also had the problem of breaking into the American market. NBC had expressed interest in the series, but worried that being so British in flavour it might not appeal to Americans. Another stumbling block was that the series had been shot in black and white, while it was NBC's intention to go entirely to colour (and they would in the 1966-1967 season). Associated British Corporation (hereafter ABC-UK) then struck upon a plan to sell the series to an American network. They had two offers. The first was that if a network ordered the first 13 episodes in monochrome, they would then order the second 13 episodes in colour. The second was that they could order the entire second series of Emma Peel episodes in colour. ABC-US took ABC-UK up on the second offer, so that at last The Avengers would debut in the United States. Of course, as it turned out, desperate for programming ABC-US bought the first, black and white season featuring Emma Peel.

Debuting as part of the American Broadcasting Company's so called "Second Season," The Avengers proved to be the most successful of the network's mid-season replacements save for an American product called Batman (which would become a craze unto itself). In fact, even in its first run in the United States, The Avengers developed a bit of a cult following. When the series did not show up on the fall schedule of ABC-US, both viewers and critics were upset. Fortunately The Avengers was taking only a short break from American airwaves while its first colour series was being filmed. The series returned to the American Broadcasting Company in January 1967 for a continuous run until 1969.

In the end, the 1965-1966 season would see nine different spy series debut on American prime time television. One would have thought that by now the market would have been glutted with spy dramas. It would seem that this was not the case. The spy craze of the mid-Sixties was such that even more spy series would debut on American broadcast television in the 1966-1967 season.

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