Boris Karloff’s visits to ’60s spy entertainment

Boris Karloff (1887-1969) is best remembered for horror roles such as Frankenstein’s monster. But Karloff was quite versatile and in the last decade of his life found himself drawn to spy-related entertainment, particularly on television. A spy boom was underway and the character actor ended up being part of it.

Boris Karloff as Mr. Singh in The Wild, Wild West


The Wild, Wild West, “The Night of the Golden Cobra”: Karloff is Mr. Singh, who abducts James West (Robert Conrad), ace U.S. Secret Service agent, so he can instruct his three sons in the art of killing. Singh doesn’t do things in a small way. Having emigrated from India, he has a palace out in the 1870s American West. The early second-season episode was scripted by Henry Sharp, one of the show’s best writers. Karloff makes the most of Sharp’s witty dialogue.

Boris Karloff clowns around with Stefanie Powers and Robert Vaughn during production of The Mother Muffin Affair


The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., “The Mother Muffin Affair”: Probably one of the best remembered episodes of a series that had a lot of duds. Karloff plays Mother Muffin, who heads up an independent assassination team. Producer Douglas Benton had worked with Karloff on the Thriller anthology series that ran from 1960 to 1962.

According to an interview Benton did in the late 1990s (which is re-enacted in a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words), writer Joseph Calvelli described Mother Muffin as “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton decided to send a copy of the script to Karloff, feeling it would appeal to the actor’s sense of humor. As Benton remembered it, the script came back a few days later with a note that read: “Where and when?” The episode has Robert Vaughn appearing as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo, teaming up with Stefanie Powers’s April Dancer.

The Venetian Affair: This 1967 movie, based on a novel by Helen MacInnes, was a chance for Robert Vaughn to star in a serious spy vehicle compared with the more escapist fare on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Karloff is part of a cast that also includes Elke Sommer and Luciana Paluzzi. The film starts with an American diplomat performing a suicide bombing at a peace conference.

I Spy, “Mainly on the Plains”: Karloff is a scientist who seems to have become a bit unglued and is giving Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) fits. The episode was scripted by series creators Morton Fine and David Friedkin (who didn’t get that creator credit while they were alive; they received it posthumously with the I Spy Returns 1994 TV movie) and directed by Friedkin.

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