Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Videos – Spy Show Themes

We lost another favourite actor from my 1960s childhood. Robert Culp died this past week at age 79. He apparently collapsed and struck his head on the sidewalk outside his home. For those who grew up in the 1980s he may be best remembered for playing the hard bitten, sardonic FBI agent Bill Maxwell in Greatest American Hero with William Katt and Connie Sellecca – of the three he was undoubtedly the best actor. More recently he had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond playing Ray's father-in-law Warren, opposite Katherine Helmond. His first series was the 1957 CBS western Trackdown, in which he played Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. The series featured a number of noted directors and guest stars including directors Richard Donner and Sam Peckinpaugh, and Oscar winning actors James Coburn and Rita Moreno. The series may be best known for an episode that introduced bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by Steve McQueen. The Randall character was spun off into a series the next year, called Wanted Dead Or Alive which is generally credited with being McQueen's breakout role. However, for people like me, who grew up in the 1960s, Robert Culp is best known for playing CIA agent Kelly Robinson opposite Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott. Rhodes Scholar Scott was the brains of the team while Culp's Robinson was the athletic playboy. Culp not only starred in the show but wrote seven episodes including the first episode to be broadcast (So Long, Patrick Henry) and directed one of the episodes. The series spawned a lifelong friendship between Culp and Cosby, who later teamed up again in the theatrical movie Hickey And Boggs, which Culp directed, and Culp appeared in single episodes of both The Cosby Show (playing a character called "Scott Kelly" – taken from the names of their two characters in I Spy) and Cosby, where he reprised the character of Kelly Robinson in a dream sequence (with Cosby's name being replaced in the show credits with the name of his character in the show, Hilton Lucas). As Mark Evanier explained in his obituary, Culp was very active in union work, both with the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild.

It would be very easy to do this Saturday videos segment using just the themes of I Spy and Greatest American Hero, and maybe trying to find a few clips from both. The one really good clip that I've found of I Spy features a great deal of Walter Koenig (just before he was tapped to play Chekov in Star Trek and very little Cosby and Culp. However in an interesting turn, the first five episodes of I Spy are available in their complete form on YouTube, courtesy of Image Entertainment which has the home video rights to the show. This includes So Long, Patrick Henry.). But just playing those two themes seems a bit pedestrian. In that mid-Sixties period there were a number of series based around spies and espionage on American TV – by 1966 there were a dozen such shows on the American networks. Many of them were done with a varying amount of tongue in cheek humour, ranging from I Spy through Man From U.N.C.L.E. all the way to Get Smart. There was even an odd blending of genres with Wild Wild West, a series that blended the Western with spies. In fact, about the only people who took the espionage genre the slightest bit seriously were the British. Two British series, Danger Man – renamed Secret Agent when it came to CBS – and The Avengers were bought by American networks. The decade ended with one of my personal favourites, It Takes A Thief.

Let's start off our tour of 1960's spy show themes with the one that got me to thinking about this topic, I Spy even though it debuted a year after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. All of these shows drew their inspiration from the James Bond films, particularly Goldfinger, but as we'll see, the title sequence for the first season of I Spy is practically grand theft intro rather than an homage. Subsequent seasons dispensed with this sequence and replaced it with clips from the episodes (and included the title "Emmy Winner Bill Cosby"). In this sequence the emphasis is definitely on Culp's character, who is the one seen in silhouette, but I swear that producer Sheldon Leonard gets the biggest credit of all.

Next up, here's an extended clip, including the opening theme to the British series Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan as John Drake. The series ran in Britain from 1960-1962 as a half hour show and then from 1964-1968 as an hour series. Thus, in its original incarnation it predated the James Bond phenomenon, while its revival was at least partially because of the James Bond phenomenon.

CBS had been involved in financing he show's first version , which they aired as a summer replacement for Wanted Dead Or Alive but pulled out after the first season. When the show was revived the network again acquired it, and replaced the original theme with its own sequence featuring Johnny Rivers singing Secret Agent Man. Here's the American version of the same episode with the original theme reduced to incidental music (so don't stop the player when the commercial starts).

The biggest of the American made spy series that at least tried to be semi-serious was Man From U.N.C.L.E. which starred Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo, Leo G Carroll as Alexander Waverly, and Robert McCallum as Ilya Kuriakin. The show was apparently based on an original concept created by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, and the original plan was to tie the show more closely to the Fleming name. The show itself got increasingly campy as the seasons went on for a variety of reasons, and the quality took a definite downward turn. The show's first season was done in Black & White while subsequent seasons were done in Colour, but while the slide of the show into camp may have coincided with the introduction of colour, the two states were entirely coincidental. The show had a variety of opening sequences during the four seasons it was on the air, but this sequence featuring the bullet proof glass is probably my favourite.

The other big British import was of course The Avengers. The show started in 1961 and actually starred two men – Ian Hendry had the lead role while Patrick Macnee was his partner but his role was secondary to the point where Steed didn't appea in some episodes. It soon became apparent that MacNee's character John Steed was popular and he increasingly became the co-lead. When Hendry quit to do movies after the show's first season Macnee took his place seamlessly. Steed had a number of partners, notably Honor Blackman as Connie Gale, before he started working with "talented amateur" Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg. The two had a definite chemistry, even though Rigg was only on the series for three years. She was in turn replaced by Linda Thorson for the show's final two season... the less said about the better. This was actually the second theme for the series; the first was composed by John Dankworth and was used for the Hendry and Gale episodes. This version of the titles was for the Black & White Emma Peel episodes. The colour title sequence is probably better known but this one features Rigg in her iconic leather cat suit. Edit: Oops, the character played by Honor Blackman was Cathy Gale. There is a character in the current run of the Annie comic strip called Connie Gale and I mixed up the names.

Finally, here's the title sequence for one of my favourite shows of the genre. It Takes A Thief ran for three seasons and featured Robert Wagner as Alexander Mundy, a professional thief who was arrested and given the choice; he could go to prison or he could steal for the government – specifically an agency called the SIA, where his boss would be Noah Bain, played by Malachi Throne, who was replaced by Ed Binns as Wallie Powers in the show's third season. It's not clear when this version of the title is from – I was hoping for a clip from the third season which featured Fred Astaire in a recurring role as Alistair Mundy, Al's equally larcenous but more successful (he never got caught) father, but I can't seem to find one.

Update: This is in fact a third season episode, just not one with Astaire in it. The first two seasons featured the voice of Noah Bain saying, "Hey, look, Al, I'm not asking you to spy... I'm just asking you to steal!"

As I've said, there were a dozen spy shows on TV in 1966 alone. These clips have only scratched the surface of what's out there and I may revisit this area at a later date.


Toby O'B said...

Love this! I just watched a few of them at work and this computer has no speakers. And it didn't matter!

I'll watch them all when I get home in the morning....

Anonymous said...

"Connie" Gale?