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.

Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965.  Part western, part spy show, part thriller.  Now, it might be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer.  Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise.  Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.

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The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.

The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.

Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. Due to his height, the casting office was barred from hiring women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.

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Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.

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Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.

The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.

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The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.

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Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.

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Many of the guest stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him, and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.

Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.

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There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.

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However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.

Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.

A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.

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The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. And did I mention, the boys loved women on and found a romance on every show. We’ll let the characters have the last word:

Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”

Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”

James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”

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Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

It Only Takes One Episode to Get Smart

In the mid-1960s, spy shows were all the rage.  James Bond drew large audiences to theaters:  Dr. No in 1962, From Russia with Love in 1963, Goldfinger in 1964, and Thunderball in 1965. Inspector Clouseau was big at the box office too appearing in The Pink Panther in 1963 and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. If you were checking out books at the library, you probably would have read Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), or Harriet the Spy (1964). On the small screen, The Avengers was ahead of the curve, premiering in 1961, but in the mid-1960s, we would see some of the classic television shows debut: Mission Impossible began in 1966, The Man from UNCLE showed up in 1964 and in 1965, The Wild, Wild West and I Spy got network approval.

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Another show came on the air in 1965 as well – on September 18, 1965, Get Smart was seen for the first time. Dan Melnick, a partner in Talent Associates thought a spy satire might be a good fit for their upcoming schedule. He recruited Buck Henry and Mel Brooks to write the show. The team took the show to ABC. ABC bought it but they wanted a few changes.  They wanted Tom Poston to take the role of Maxwell Smart. They wanted a dog on the show to add “heart.” Finally, they wanted Smart’s mother to be a major role and envisioned Smart coming home at the end of the episode to explain the case to his mother. Henry and Brooks said no to the mother, so ABC rejected the show and sold it back to Talent Associates.

Grant Tinker from NBC agreed to buy the show with the caveat that Don Adams star in place of Tom Poston.  And so, the creative talent of Brooks and Henry brought Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), and the Chief (Edward Platt) to life. The show would stay on the air for five seasons, producing 138 episodes.

The first four seasons were filmed at Sunset Bronson Studios.  In 1970, the show moved to CBS and the last season was filmed at CBS Studio Center.

Mel Brooks left the show after the first year, but Buck Henry stayed through 1967 as the story editor.

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Most of the administrative cast stayed with the show for its run. Leonard B. Stern was the executive producer for all the shows. Irving Szathmary was the music and theme composer, as well as conductor, for all five seasons. Gerald C. Gardner and Dee Caruso were the head writers for the series. Don Adams would get to direct 13 episodes and write 2 of them.

The show centered around the three main characters. Maxwell Smart is Agent 86.  He works for CONTROL, a US government counter-intelligence agency in Washington DC. Max is resourceful.  He is a adept marksman, has hand-to-hand combat skills and is extremely lucky. He uses several cover identities, but the one he uses most often is greeting card salesman. He insists in going by the book and this, along with his clumsy nature, cause problems for him.

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He and his partner Agent 99 take on world threats. We never learn Agent 99’s real name, although we think we have in one episode.  In “99 Loses CONTROL”, she says her name is Susan Hilton but at the end of the episode, we learn she was lying. Agent 99 is smart and competent.  Her father was apparently a spy as well.  (In real life, Barbara Feldon was also smart; she won on The $64,000 Question with the category of Shakespeare.) If you look closely, you will often see Agent 99 slouching, sitting, or leaning on something to conceal the fact that she was a bit taller than Adams.

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Their boss, Chief, whose real name is Thaddeus, is sarcastic and grouchy but also serious, sensible, and smart. He began his career as Agent Q and his cover name is often Harold Clark. Other CONTROL agents we meet during the series are Agents 8, 13, and 14, as well as Larrabee, the Chief’s highly inefficient and bumbling assistant.

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Their primary enemy is KAOS, an international organization of evil founded in Romania in 1904 (a Delaware corporation for tax purposes!). The two KAOS employees we see most often are Conrad Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), the VP for Public Relations and Terror and his assistant Shtarker (King Moody), whose personality can change from sadistic to childlike. While Siegfried and Smart are mortal enemies, they respect each other.  Sometimes they begin talking like old friends.  In one episode, they are discussing the flavor of cyanide pills each side has that month.  CONTROL is giving out raspberry, and Smart tries to give one to Siegfried.  Like CONTROL, KAOS has a bowling team to build rapport and fellowship among their employees.

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Another KAOS agent is Hymie the Robot played by Dick Gautier. Dr. Ratton of KAOS built Hymie for evil, but Smart manages to turn the robot into a CONTROL agent. Hymie is faster and stronger than any human.  He also has the ability to swallow any poison and then identify it. He has emotions and a need to maintain neatness.  Unfortunately, he takes commands literally; if Smart says “Get ahold of yourself,” he literally wraps his arms around himself.

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The opening sequence of the show is one of the most spoofed openings in television.  Smart walks through doors that continue to other doors. It was ranked as the number 2 opening out of the top ten by TV Guide viewers in 2010.

The show is still known for its catch phrases that became part of the American vocabulary including “Would you believe?”, “Sorry about that Chief,” “And loving it,” and “I asked you not to tell me that.”

The series is identified with its James Bond-like gadgets.  Telephones could be concealed in neckties, combs, and watches, but most often it is in Smart’s shoe which he had to take off to answer. Agent 99 has a compact phone and a fingernail phone which forces her to look like she is nervously biting her nails to talk on it.

The show features a bullet-proof invisible wall in Smart’s apartment which lowers from the ceiling; he often forgets to put it back up and runs into it. Cameras can be in a bowl of soup.  A laser weapon was concealed in a suit jacket button, the blazer laser. The Cone of Silence are two glass domes that cover Smart and the Chief when they talk about a case.  Smart insists on using it because it’s  regulation; however, they can hardly hear each other, but anyone on the outside can hear their conversation clearly and often reports what the other person said.

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Other weapons and aids for the spies included a parking meter telegraph, a perfume bottle radio transmitter, invisible icing, and a pencil listening device. Guns were hidden in a charm on a charm bracelet, in a pool cue, as a hairbrush, as a flashlight, and in a crutch. CONTROL even had gloves with fingerprints already on them – the fingerprints were KAOS agents so they would get the blame for a break-in.

Blowing up stuff is always good on a spy show and Get Smart had explosive rice; toothpaste that is really a fuse; an exploding wallet, ping pong ball and golf ball; and a horoscope book or lipstick case that contained knock-out gas.

Smart had several cars but his most famous was a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger.  The two-seat roadster had a machine gun built in, a smoke screen, a radar tracker, and an ejection seat.  When the series went off the air, Don Adams received the car and continued to drive it for ten years.

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Get Smart probably had some of the most famous guest stars of any show.  Just a few of these celebrities include Steve Allen, Barbara Bain, Milton Berle, Ernest Borgnine, Carol Burnett, James Caan, Johnny Carson, Wally Cox, Robert Culp, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, Jack Guilford, Bob Hope, Martin Landau, Julie Newmar, Pat Paulson, Tom Poston, Leonard Nimoy, Vincent Price, Don Rickles, and Fred Willard.

The show stayed true to its character through its entire run.  In Season 1, Hymie is introduced and the dog, Fang, disappears. In Season 2, we meet Siegfried. Smart and Agent 99 get engaged and marry in Season 4.  NBC demanded the change to boost ratings. In Season 5, they have twins.  Agent 99 continues working and is one of the first, if not the first, mother to be viewed as a working woman.  When the ratings did not increase, the show was cancelled. It went into syndication where it was very successful. Unfortunately, the DVD set was held up in legal battles and only came out weeks before Adams died.

Get Smart was one of the most clever and creative sitcoms ever airing on television.  It had `21 Emmy nominations including two for Feldon and won 7 of those awards.  Don Adams won best actor on a comedy three times and the show won best comedy twice.

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William Johnston came out with 9 paperbacks based on the series in the late 1960s and Dell Comics issued 8 comic books in 1966 and 1967. For the March 5-11, 1966 TV Guide, Andy Warhol designed a pop art piece using Barbara Feldon. Numerous collectibles were created:  board games, lunch boxes, dolls, and model cars.

The show produced many spin-off projects. The Nude Bomb was a theatre release in 1980 with Feldon and Smart reprising their roles. Get Smart Again debuted in 1989 as an ABC TV movie.  After its release, a show appeared on FOX starring Feldon and Smart again called Get Smart in 1995.  In 2008 a movie was made starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. Don Adams was known to later generations as the voice of Inspector Gadget.

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Of course, everyone has their favorite episodes, but after reviewing several polls and interviews with Nick at Nite and other 50th anniversary celebrations, I have come up with these top five.  Take a rainy fall day and give them a peek. However, if we are looking just at titles, I have to give a shout out to “Spy, Spy Birdie”, “Bronzefinger”, “Impossible Mission”, and “Tequila Mockingbird”.

  1. A Spy for a Spy
  2. The Not-So-Great Escape
  3. Ship of Spies
  4. The Amazing Harry Hoo
  5. The Little Black Book

 

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Unfortunately, this is one of those shows that doesn’t get as much recognition and respect as it deserves.  Considering how much technology has developed in the last 50 years, the show is still up to date. The dialogue is witty; the characters are likable, even when they’re mortal enemies; and the show is just plain fun.