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.

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.’s 45th anniversary: a spinoff fails to take off

This week is the 45th anniversary for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Its failure to find an audience — it only lasted one season — is a reminder of what can happen when creators don’t especially believe in what they’re doing.

A spinoff of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., featurng a woman agent, was the idea of NBC. The wife of a network executive had even suggested a name for such an operative: Cookie Fortune. Norman Felton, the executive producer of The Man From From U.N.C.L.E., wasn’t keen on the notion. He counterproposed having two hour-long shows each week simply called U.N.C.L.E., where agents could be mixed and matched. NBC stood firm.

Girl’s pilot aired at a second-season episode of Man called The Moonglow Affair, scripted by Dean Hargrove. Hargrove passed on using Cookie Fortune as a name; he ended up going to Ian Fleming’s list of ideas for Man and used April Dancer (envisioned by Fleming as a Miss Moneypenny type character).

In Moonglow, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) are incapacitated. April (Mary Ann Mobley) is assigned to take over the assignment, aided by a middle aged Mark Slate (Norman Fell). For the series, April was recast with Stefanie Powers and Slate was turned into a Brit in his 30s, with Noel Harrison in the role.

What happened next was a vicious cycle. By many accounts, Powers and Harrison couldn’t take the material seriously. Douglas Benton ordered scripts to take a lighter tone, figuring it would play to the strengths of Powers and Harrison. One of the crew was associate producer Max Hodge, who had written the first two Mr. Freeze stories on the 1966 Batman series.

Also, Felton & Co. weren’t comfortable having April actually fight guys (and absorb at least some punishment).
As a result, Slate’s Harrison had to take the beatings for two characters, making him look weaker. Meanwhile, ABC was importing episodes of the U.K.-produced The Avengers featuring Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel. April looked weak by comparison.

A light tone can work when 1) the jokes are funny and 2) the audience laughs with the hero. The problem with Girl is frequently the jokes weren’t funny and came at the expense of April Dancer and Mark Slate. Late in the season, Hargrove returned and wrote The Double-O-Nothing Affair. It was still light (Thrush villain Edward Asner’s base of operations is disguised as a used-car lot) but the jokes worked and April and Mark came across as capable and brave agents. Perhaps Hargrove had invested enough in the character of April Dancer to try to make it work.

Too little, too late. Girl was canceled in the spring of 1967 and an opportunity was lost. The show is now on DVD. Here’s a clip from what may be the worst episode of the series, The Paradise Lost Affair, in which the supposedly professionally trained April looks weak against villain Genghis Gomez VIII (Monte Landis). Warner Bros. uploaded this clip to YouTube to try to get people to buy the DVDs. Oops.

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. available on DVD this week

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., the spinoff series from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will become available on Aug. 23 on DVD from Warner Bros.

The price is $59.95. Be warned: the picture has not been digitally remastered (similar to Warners Bros.’s releases of The FBI) and appears to be a “manufactured on demand,” or MOD. That means no extras. That’s a far cry from Warners’s 2007 release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was loaded with extras.

Girl featured the adventures of agent April Dancer (Stefanie Powers), assisted by fellow U.N.C.L.E. operative Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Leo G. Carroll played U.N.C.L.E. boss Alexander Waverly in both the spinoff and parent series. The pilot for Girl was a second-season episode of Man called The Moonglow Affair, which featured Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell, playing a frumpy, older-than-40, American Mark Slate.

Norman Felton, Man’s executive producer, wasn’t particularly keen on the spinoff, which was the brainchild of executives of NBC. Girl, which ran during the 1966-67 season, often had even goofier humor than Man’s third season. But it has some gems, including The Double-O-Nothing Affair, written by ace Man scripter Dean Hargrove, who also wrote The Moonglow Affair. Double-O-Nothing features Edward Asner is a Thrush operative, with a used-car lot as his cover.

Another notable episode was The Mother Muffin Affair, where Man’s Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) appeared to oppose independent woman criminal Mother Muffin, played by Boris Karloff. Thus, it was the one production with both U.N.C.L.E. characters named by Ian Fleming. (Fleming had suggested the name of April Dancer for a Miss Moneypenny-type character when he met with Felton in 1962.)

Douglas Benton, Girl’s producer, in a late 1990s interview said the production team was thinking about casting Dame Judith Anderson. Joseph Calvelli, the writer, was asked to describe Mother Muffin and he replied, “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton had worked with Karloff on the 1960-62 anthology series Thriller, offered him the role and Karloff, according to the producer, immediately accepted. (The interview is recreated on a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words.)

Finally, for Bond fans, Luciana Paluzzi is a guest star in Girl’s first episode, The Dog Gone Affair.

For more information about the DVD set, including how to order, JUST CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, here’s a clip from The Mata Hari Affair, the fourth episode. Truth be told, it’s not that good despite being directed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best of the Man directors. For some viewers, though, this scene is still a highlight:

Fun facts about Ursula Andress and Luciana Paluzzi (and others)

We mentioned before how NBC’s Thriller series included early performances by Bond women Ursula Andress and Luciana Paluzzi. It turns out that deep in a commentary track on one of the DVDs, there’s some amusing trivia related to the 007 actresses.

This particular commentary track, rather than comment on an episode, is a re-enactment of a 1997 interview with Douglas Benton (1925-2000), who was the show’s associate producer and who went on to a long career producing various TV shows. The part of his father is played by Benton’s son, Daniel, who reads his father’s words.

Andress’s starring turn in “La Strega” was directed by Ida Lupino, with Alejandro Rey as the male lead. Benton quoted Lupino thusly: “Oh golly, it’s such a pleasure to come on the set and find out your leading man is more beautiful than the leading lady.” Benton quotes Lupino as changing her mind. “I’m happy with the way they look, it’s a shame, though, that neither one can act a lick. Alejandro couldn’t even understand English and Ursula was speaking German.”

On Paluzzi, who starred in “Flowers of Evil,” Benton said, “She was fun. She didn’t take acting terribly seriously. Her mother was one of Mussolini’s mistresses and Luciana had grown up in the upper reaches of Fasicist society.”

While this has nothing to do with 007, we couldn’t resist including Benton observations about William Shatner (“Bill was a terrible ham. Directors complained that he over-acted all the time.”) and Mary Tyler Moore (“I thought she was a brat. I was on the stage one day when somebody asked her to do something and she said, ‘I don’t have to do this. My husband Grant Tinker is the vice president of NBC.’…That was a request from the network that we find her a job.”)

Finally, Benton said of Robert Vaughn, the future Napoleon Solo, who also appeared in Thriller: “Robert Vaughn was the same guy I first met him on GE Theater and later on the U.N.C.L.E. show. He was a joy to work with. He is so much more intelligent than the average actor, that it was like dealing with a university professor…There’s no mystique in acting for Robert. He’s certainly no method operator. He’s just a very brainy guy who should be teaching history at one of the Ivy League universities. That is if he couldn’t make five times as much money as an actor.”

One of Benton’s many credits was being producer of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. It was he who came up with the idea of offering Karloff the role of Mother Muffin, the elderly woman leader of a band of assassins. The writer of The Mother Muffin Affair had described the character as “Boris Karloff in drag.”

“I looked at the damn thing and said well, why don’t we get Boris?” Benton said. “I knew him and I knew he’d be amused by this.” The answer Benton received from the actor: “When and where?”

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