HMSS’s favorite character actors: Victor Buono

Victor Buono's character meets his demise in the pilot to The Wild, Wild West

Victor Buono’s character meets his demise in the pilot to The Wild, Wild West

One in an occasional series

Victor Buono was hard to miss. Heavy-set and 6-foot-3, and often delivering his lines in a very theatrical way, Buono made an impression on viewers of television and movies.

Buono was screenwriter Richard Maibaum’s choice for the title role in Goldfinger. “He’s been called a combination of Charles Laughton and Laird Cregar,” Maibaum wrote in a detailed letter to producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman about how to turn the Ian Fleming novel into the film. (The letter was quoted in the 1998 book Adrian Turner on Goldfinger.)

Buono didn’t get that part, which went to Gert Frobe. But as the 1960s spy entertainment boom took hold, he got plenty of work in the genre.

Victor Buono and Bill Cosby in an I Spy episode

Victor Buono and Bill Cosby in an I Spy episode

Producer Irving Allen, Broccoli’s ex-partner, hired Buono as the lead villain in the first Dean Martin Matt Helm movie, The Silencers. Buono was made up to be the Asian head of BIGO, a group not found in Donald Hamilton’s serious novels. It was the Helm equivalent of SPECTRE. Buono’s Tung-Tze didn’t survive his encounter with Dino’s Helm.

Buono also appeared as the main villain in the pilot episode of The Wild, Wild West, though that wasn’t revealed until the last act. Buono’s character was a Mexican made up to look Chinese as part of a plot to start a revolution in the 1870s southwestern United States. Buono later came back in two more episodes of the series as Count Manzeppi, intended to be a second recurring villain in addition to Dr. Loveless. The actor also made one-shot appearances in I Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

During this same general period, he also became part of the Rogues Gallery of Villains as King Tut on the 1966-68 Batman television series. Buono’s IMDB.com bio page uses a still of him in that role.

Even as the spy boom faded, Buono’s career didn’t as he continued to get cast in other roles. The actor even appeared in the 1980 television movie More Wild, Wild West as a pompous U.S. government official modeled on Henry Kissinger. He died, of a heart attack, on Jan. 1, 1982, at the age of 43.

The joke U.N.C.L.E. and Batman shared

We picked up a copy last weekend of Billion Dollar Batman, the new book by Bruce Scivally, examining the origins and television and movie adaptations of Batman. Scivally was part of the crew that in the 1990s turned out documentaries about the making of James Bond films that are part of the DVD extras.

“Holy recycling, Batman!”

We were skimming the chapter about the making of the Adam West-Burt Ward 1966-68 television series and were reminded of how writer Stanley Ralph Ross (1935-2000) managed to get the same joke in a third-season episode of The Man Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

The joke first appeared on The Thor Affair on Oct. 28, 1966, scripted by Ross and Don Richman. Character actor Bernard Fox was the title character, Brutus Thor, who has made a fortune selling weapons. Thor hatches an elaborate plot to assassinate a Ghadhi-like character (Harry Davis) who has pressured major countries into a peace conference. At one point, Thor is interrupted by his butler. “Yes, Rhett, what is it?”

Flash forward to Dec. 15, 1966, and The Bat’s Kow Tow, the second half of a Catwoman story on Batman, scripted this time by Ross solo. The Catwoman (Julie Newmar) has “stolen” the voices of British sensations Chad and Jeremy (don’t ask). Batman and Robin, at one point, visit a British official in the U.S. to discuss the Catwoman’s ransom demands. They’re interrupted by, you guessed it, the official’s butler. “Yes, Rhett, what is it?” Moreover, the same actor plays the butler.

In 1997, Ross contacted The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode guide by e-mail because its reviews of third-season episodes noted the joke in the U.N.C.L.E. episode and how it also appeared on Batman. Apparently because the writer was pleased that somebody spotted the joke (both times). Ross granted an interview via e-mail where he discussed his work on U.N.C.L.E. and Batman (he appeared as an actor on both as well as writing episodes) as well as other shows.

UPDATE: Oops. We should have provided this link before. To get more information on Billion Dollar Batman (including how to order), CLICK HERE to go to the author’s Web site.

Adapt or die: what 007 and Batman have in common

When following debates among James Bond fans — whether on Internet bulletin boards, Facebook or in person — people sometimes say “try reading Fleming” (or a variation thereof) as if it were a trump card that shows they’re right and the other person is wrong.

Read Fleming. That shows Bond is supposed to be a “blunt instrument.” Therefore, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are really true to Fleming.

"Read Fleming!" = "I'm right, you're wrong!"


Read Fleming. That shows Bond is a romantic hero, not a neurotic antihero, therefore, (INSERT BOND ACTOR HERE) was true to Fleming. Meanwhile, (INSERT BOND ACTOR HERE) meant the 007 film series had reached a nadir.

In reality, over a half-century, the Bond films have passed through multiple eras. To some, Connery can never be surpassed and Moore was a joke. Except, the Connery films have more humor than Fleming employed (on the “banned” Criterion laser disc commentaries, Terence Young chortles about how Fleming asking why the films had more humor than his novels). The Moore films, for all their humor, do have serious moments (Bond admitting to Anya he killed her KGB lover in The Spy Who Loved Me or Bond being hurt but not wanting to admit it after getting out of the centrifuge in Moonraker). Other comments heard frequently: Brosnan tried to split the difference between Connery and Moore, Craig plays the role seriously, the way it should be, etc., etc.

Lots of different opinions, all concerning the same character, dealing with different eras and the contributions of multiple directors and screenwriters. Which reminded of us another character, who’s been around even longer than the film 007: Batman, who made his debut in Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939.

Early Batman stories: definitely dark. “There is a sickening snap as the cossack’s neck breaks under the mighty pressure of the Batman’s foot,” reads a caption in Detective Comics No. 30.

Then, things lightened up after Batman picked up Robin as a sidekick. Eventually, there was Science Fiction Batman in the 1950s (during a period when superhero comics almost disappeared), followed by “New Look” Batman in 1964 (which could also be called Return of the Detective), followed by Campy Batman in 1966 (because of popularity of the Batman television show), followed by Classic Batman is Back, circa 1969 or ’70, etc., etc. All different interpretations of the same character.

In the 1990s, there was a Batman cartoon that captured all this. A group of kids are talking. Two claim to have seen Batman. The first provides a description and we see a sequence resembling Dick Sprang-drawn comics of the 1940s, with Gary Owens providing the voice of Batman. The second describes something much different, and the sequence is drawn to resemble Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic of the 1980s, with Michael Ironside voicing Batman.

Eventually, the group of kids gets into trouble and we see the 1990s cartoon Batman, voiced by Kevin Conroy, in a sequence that evokes elements of both visions.

With the Bond film series, something similar has occurred. In various media, you’ll see fans on different sides of an argument claiming Fleming as supporting their view. Search hard enough, and you can find bits of Fleming or Fleming-inspired elements in almost any Bond film. The thing is, the different eras aren’t the result of long-term planning. They’re based on choices, the best guess among filmmakers of what is popular at a given time, what makes a good Bond story, etc.

In effect, both the film 007 and the comic book Batman have had to adapt or die. Fans today can’t imagine a world without either character. But each has had crisis moments. For Bond, the Broccoli-Saltzman separation of the mid-1970s and the 1989-95 hiatus in Bond films raised major questions about 007′s future. Batman, meanwhile, faced the prospect of cancellation by DC Comics (one reason for the 1964 revamp that ended the science fiction era) but managed to avoid it.

None of this, of course, will stop the arguments. Truth be told, things might become dull if the debates ceased. Still things might go over better if participants looked at them as an opportunity. An opposing viewpoint that’s well argued keeps you sharp and might cause you to consider ideas you overlooked.

Cesar Romero and a Man From U.N.C.L.E. mystery

A video has surfaced on the Internet from 1966. An Austin, Texas, television station interivewed cast member of the 1966 Batman movie, based on the 1966-68 Batman TV series. The movie had its world premier in Austin in the summer of 1966. In one of the interviews, Cesar Romero (in full Joker makeup but wearing an undershirt and smoking a cigarette) says one of his upcoming project is a two-part episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Romero had earlier played a villain in a first-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. By the time of the Austin television interview, production had begun on the show’s third season. In August of 1966, The Concrete Overcoat Affair, a two-part episode, would begin filming. Later, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would re-edit the show into a movie for international markets called The Spy With the Green Hat.

The plot of The Concrete Overcoat/The Spy With the Green Hat had U.N.C.L.E. enlisting the aid of three old mobsters, the Stiletto brothers, against Thrush, the criminal organization that was U.N.C.L.E.’s main opponent. Romero likely would have been portraying one of the Stiletto brothers. Initially the U.N.C.L.E. production team wanted Edward G. Robinson to play the Thrush chieftain of the story; instead, Jack Palace got the part.

Still, why did Romero bow out? We’ll probably never know. Romero died on Jan. 1, 1994. Key U.N.C.L.E. production staff of that era (producer Boris Ingster, associate producer Irv Pearlberg and supervising producer David Victor) are no longer with us. To view the Austin television station footage JUST CLICK HERE.

The Romero footage appears in the middle of the video. It begins with Lee Meriwhether (in full Catwoman costume), followed by Romero, followed by Adam West (also in full costume) and producer William Dozier (who also was the narrator of both the 1966 movie and the 1966-68 television series).

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