I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.

Earle Hagen Whistles a Happy Tune

We don’t often notice music in the background of our favorite shows, but it has a significant impact on our appreciation for a series. One of my favorite CDs in the 1980s was the music from thirtysomething. I admit I didn’t often pay attention to the music while watching the show, but I loved listening to the soundtrack.

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Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the most prolific songwriters in the television industry: Earle Hagen. Earle was born in the Midwest in 1919, in Chicago, but moved with his family to Los Angeles. He began playing the trombone in junior high school.

At age 16 he left home to play with some of the best big bands in the country: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble.

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Photo: earlehagen.net

During his time with Noble, when he was only 20, Hagen composed the song “Harlem Nocturne” as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. It would be recorded by numerous musicians over the years and later was adopted as the theme for both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and The New Mike Hammer.

In 1940 Earle was hired by CBS as a staff musician. Like many of the composers we have been learning about, Hagen enlisted in the military for World War II. When he came home, he became an orchestrator and arrangement writer for 20th Century Fox. He worked on a variety of films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Carousel.

In 1943 he married Lou Sidwell, a big band singer. They would remain married until she passed away in 2002 and produce two sons.

When Earle accepted the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award in 2000, he explained that “In 1953, the studios committed to large screen production and we went from 38 pictures a year to one. There were other pictures on the planning board but not immediate enough to support the huge studio staffs. So, along with 1199 other people, I migrated to television.”

The first show he worked on was a short-lived series, It’s Always Jan which was on the air from 1955-56.

Then Hagen met Sheldon Leonard. As he says, “There again my good fortune held. I teamed up with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard at a time when they were starting a string of hits that lasted 17 years.” Earle wrote the theme for Make Room for Daddy.

Those 17 years were busy. Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for sitcoms, so a lot of background music was required. Hagen said that during that era, the composer was part of the creative team. His opinion was asked for and respected in pre-production, production, and post-production.

He loved working in television. He said that there was “something about the immediacy of TV that I enjoyed. It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me. I think a statistic of which I am most proud is that in the 33 years I spent in television I was associated with some three thousand shows. Every one of them was recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra.”

His work continued with Leonard, and he wrote the theme song for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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Then Sheldon asked him to come up with a theme for a show about some gentle town folks and their sheriff. Earle said he struggled a while trying to come up with the perfect theme. As he described the process: It’s like “peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what’s not.” Finally, he had a brainstorm and “he simply whistled the catchy tune which entered his head.” It’s the whistling of Hagen we hear on The Andy Griffith Show when we hear “The Fishin’ Hole.” Despite the difficulty of coming up with the theme song, Hagen enjoyed his time with The Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I guess my favorite show . . . was The Andy Griffith Show. It covered the spectrum from warmth to complete zaniness. It also was easy to write. Worthwhile, when you are doing four or five different series a week.”

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He went on to work on several shows in the 1960s, including The Bill Dana Show, That Girl, Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle USMC, Mayberry RFD, and The Mod Squad. Hagen based the Mod Squad theme on Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale which added some tension to the scenes, along with a jazzy theme song.

Hagen’s songs are some of the most recognizable ones in television. However, his most innovative and beautiful scores were done for a show that is not remembered much today, I Spy. Leonard wanted original soundtracks for each episode. This humorous spy show was filmed in locations all around the world, so the music had to vary as well.

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This was the first show to star an African American. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were spies who took on assignments around the globe. I would like to say that the reason for the lack of the show being rerun is due to Bill Cosby and the poor personal choices he made which has resulted him being sentenced to jail and the shows he was involved with disappearing from television schedules. However, I rarely remember this show being available even before Cosby’s criminal trials, and I’m not sure why that is. In 2008, all three seasons of DVDs were released.

On the website earlehagen.net, we read that “During the run of the series he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnic music in existence at that time–some of it on commercial records bought in the countries he visited with the production team, but much of it taped live in situ with local musicians. These recordings containing priceless material of musical genres never before recorded, and in some cases, now extinct, were then mixed into the background music produced by the studio orchestra in Los Angeles.  The result was what has been deemed ‘the richest musical palette ever composed for any American television series.’ ”

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Sheldon relied on Hagen to literally scout the world for filming locations. The couple visited Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and New York. Hagen discussed this trip. “Before the show started, at Sheldon Leonard’s invitation, Lou (my wife of 58 years so far), and I were invited to go on a `round the world trip with the Leonard’s scouting locations for the upcoming series, I Spy. On that 52-day trip we traveled first class, stayed in first class accommodations and at every airport were met by a car, driver, and interpreter, who stayed with us as long as we were in the country.”

Earle wanted viewers to remember that these were US spies so he named his music “semi jazz,” which fused local world cultures with American jazz music.

Deborah Young-Groves discusses the variety of music Hagen used in her article, Creating the Perfect Vibes for “I Spy.”

“And who could forget the frantic–almost joyous–chase across the University of Mexico in ‘Bet Me A Dollar’–Spanish brass–almost Copeland-esque (remember ‘El Salon Mexico’?), too loud to ignore but erratic and happy. And yet, like Copeland, Hagen only scored where he deemed appropriate. In that very same episode the child, who urgently seeks help for Kelly, runs in utter silence.  We hear only his pounding feet and his sobbing gasps.

But the two best episodes for music are ‘Home to Judgment’ and ‘The Warlord,’ for equally fascinating reasons. ‘The Warlord’ borrows heavy oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by that American jazz – but it works) using snare drums and brass.  How Hagen can get a trumpet to sound Asian simply by a jagged sequence of notes is still a mystery to me!

Then he changes completely and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds.  It is somber, powerful and almost painful – one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.”

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I Spy was on the schedule for three seasons. Hagen was nominated for an Emmy all three years for his work on the show, and he won it the last year the show aired. When asked about his favorite episodes, Hagen said, “Some of the shows of course stand out in memory: ‘Tatia,’ ‘Laya,’ ‘Home to Judgment’ ‘Warlord,’ and one of my favorites, ‘Mainly on The Plains.’ ”

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The music was so memorable on this show, that Hagen was able to record two albums from the series. The first album was recorded by Warner Brothers and the second was Capitol. He said he enjoyed the Capitol album more only because he was able to work on in the off season, so he had more time to devote to it.

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Earle would continue with his work on television throughout the 1970s, working on a variety of shows, including The New Perry Mason, Eight is Enough, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In the 1980s, he worked on Dukes of Hazard.

During the last decades of his life he taught and wrote books on scoring and music arrangements. He wrote the textbook, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. In 2000, he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of.

In 2005, he married his second wife, Laura Roberts. Hagen died from natural causes in 2008.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Perhaps his website sums up his career best: “When one considers the vast range Earle Hagen’s career has covered, and just where he was at each stage in his life—playing trombone in the big bands during the 30s, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra, working at 20th Century Fox during the reign of Alfred Newman, creating TV themes and scores for Sheldon Leonard shows, not to mention teaching brilliant young composers the art of scoring, and publishing the top texts in his field—it can truly be said that he lived through the best times in each of these worlds.”

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Earle Hagen was another one of the great pioneers in the golden age of television and he should be celebrated for his amazing career.