Happy 92nd birthday, Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. celebrates his 92nd birthday on Nov. 30. A lot of today’s television viewers either don’t remember EZ Jr. at all or, maybe, notice he supplied the voice of Alfred the Butler in some well-made Batman cartoons. But he held two starring roles on prime-time television in the U.S. almost continuously from 1958 to 1974.

Sample one is from his first television series, 77 Sunset Strip, where he played former OSS agent turned private investigator Stuart Bailey. For much of the series, Bailey was the rock of an agency that employed (either directly or indirectly) a number of colorful characters. Here, in a clip from the second episode, Bailey banters with Kookie (Edd Byrnes), the parking lot attendant next door who’d eventually become a full-time member of the firm:

From 1965 until 1974, EZ Jr. was Inspector Lewis Erskine on The FBI, the Quinn Martin-produced show where Zimbalist sometimes hunted Soviet and Soviet bloc spies. That long-running show also enjoyed a special relationship with Ford Motor Co., which sponsored the series and supplied the many vehicles used for filming. Here’s an original titles sequence from the second season where the Ford logo is incorporated in the main titles. Not only that, but you can view a 1967 Ford commercial. Warning: the sound and video is a bit distorted but it’s a great time capsule.

One reason we like EZ Jr. is, well, he comes across as an adult. We’re now in an age where people act immature well into middle age (see any recent movie with 44-year-old Adam Sandler). EZ Jr. came to age in an era when people were expected to grow up fast. Most Zimbalist performances are subtle but it’s wrong to say he’s sleepwalking through roles. Subtle is something we wouldn’t mind seeing more of these days.

Irvin Kershner, Never Say Never Again director, dies at 87

Irvin Kershner, best known for directing The Empire Strikes Back as well as the “unofficial” 007 film Never Say Never Again, has died at 87, according to an obituary on the entertainment Web site The Wrap. (UPDATE: For a more detailed obit, you can read The New York Times’s account of Kershner’s career BY CLICKING HERE.)

NSNA had a complicated history. It’s a remake of Thunderball (whose 45th anniversary we’ve been writing about). The original book the subject of a court fight between Kevin McClory and Ian Fleming after Fleming did a novel based on scripts of an abandoned film project. Eventually, McClory, having been a partner in the 1965 original film, began efforts to start his own 007 movie based on his Thunderball rights. After years of effort, that film was NSNA, which would bring back Sean Connery as Bond. Kershner drew the directing assignment and it probably didn’t hurt that he had directed the star in A Fine Madness.

The movie generates a mixed reaction among Bond fans. Some just won’t accept anything that’s not part of Eon Productions’ official series. Others love NSNA because Sean Connery came back for one last outing as 007.

One of the memorable scenes in NSNA where Bond dances a tango with Domino (Kim Basinger taking up the role originally played by Claudine Auger). In one sense, it’s typical of NSNA. Fans either love it or hate it, there’s little middle ground.

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part II: a star talks about moving on

Advertisements proclaimed that with Thunderball, “Here Comes the Biggest Bond of All!” For Sean Connery, things had already gotten too big and he sounded as if he was already looking forward to his post-007 career.

Connery detailed his views about James Bond IN AN INTERVIEW WITH PLAYBOY MAGAZINE. The exchange wasn’t like the quick promotional “interviews” now seen on television and on the Internet, where hordes of interviewers are brought in, each one given a few minutes each. Playboy also asked the star questions about his non-Bond movies and he talked enthusiastically about the military drama The Hill, which also came out in 1965.

Connery in his interview comments talked like a man looking forward to ending his Bondage. The interview was a warning sign to 007 fans that big changes were ahead.

PLAYBOY: In any case, Dr. No turned out to be a hit, and you found yourself under contract for a series—exactly what you said you wanted to avoid.
CONNERY: Yes—but it allows me to make other films, and I have only two more Bonds to do.

PLAYBOY: Which ones?
CONNERY: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and possibly You Only Live Twice. They would like to start On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Switzerland in January, but I’m not sure I’ll be free in time and I don’t want to rush it, although they say the snow will be at its best then. I’m not going to rush anything anymore.

At this point, Connery still left the door open for future Bond films after his contract ended — while indicating his price would go up. “But as far as this series is concerned,” he told Playboy, referring to the Bond movies, “after the next two, the only condition for making any more would be $1 million plus a percentage of the gross.” Connery told Playboy he only got 6,000 British pounds, or $16,800 at the time, to play 007 in Dr. No. When asked by Playboy’s interviewer if $500,000 was “off the mark” for his Thunderball salary, Connery replied, “No, not really.”

The star also told the magazine that “with Thunderball we’ve reached the limit as far as size and gimmicks are concerned…. What is needed now is a change of course—more attention to character and better dialog.”

Producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman adjusted Connery’s contract so he’d be free after the next Bond film, 1967’s You Only Live Twice (deciding to delay OHMSS). In the interim, Connery unsuccessfully sought to be made a partner after watching Dean Martin make more money than the Scotsman did because of such a parternship arrangement with the Matt Helm movies.

Broccoli and Saltzman threw out the plot of Ian Fleming’s Twice novel to try and outdo Thunderball in terms of spectacle and not the change of course that Connery was seeking.

The duo were unable to entice Connery back for Majesty’s — a film that would have provided Connery the chance to get more into characterization as Bond.

Leslie Nielsen dies at 84, parodies included ‘Spy Hard’

Surely we’re not serious? Unfortunately, we are. Actor Leslie Nielsen has passed away on Nov. 28, the Associated Press reported, citing the actor’s agent.

Nielsen was a dramatic actor for years until the 1980 movie Airplane! From then on Nielsen was known mostly for comedy. A short-lived 1982 parody of police dramas, Police Squad!, led six years later to the first of three films featuring his Frank Drebin character, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. Frank had a knack for becoming involving in international intrigue and political conspiracies, like this one:

So, of course, at some point Nielsen had to parody spy entertainment. So he did 1996’s Spy Hard, playing secret agent Dick Steele:

Thunderball’s 45th anniversary part I: Bondmania peaks

December is the 45th anniversary of the fourth James Bond film, Thunderball. In some ways, it’s a bittersweet anniversary for 007 fans. Bondmania hit its peak with Thunderball for the general public and it would never make it back to those levels.

Obviously the series has remained popular, generating 18 installments over the next 43 years. But it wouldn’t be the entertainment phenomenon it was in 1964 and 1965.

Thunderball grossed about $63.6 million in the U.S. Adjusted for inflaton, assuming an averge ticket price of $7.95, that translates to almost $595 million in 2010 dollars, according to information compiled by Box Office Mojo Website. On the adjusted gross basis, Thunderball is No. 27 all time and outranks Spider-Man, some (but not all) of the Star Wars series, Forrest Gump and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King among others.

Again, the Box Office Mojo list is U.S.only. Thunderball had a worldwide gross of $141.2 million, according to a list of unadjusted grosses compiled by Numbers.com Assuming a similar adjustment for 2010 (as in the Box Office Mojo U.S. list), you’re looking at an adjusted gross of more than $1 billion for Thunderball.

However, on the adjusted U.S. list, the only other 007 film is 1964’s Goldfinger at No. 41 ($51 million actual U.S. gross, $527 million adjusted for 2010 dollars). In the bottom 10 of the adjusted list, you’ll see the likes of Seargeant York, House of Wax and Toy Story 2. You won’t find Quantum of Solace, the most recent 007 film that had the highest actual U.S. gross in the Bond series of $169.4 million.

Bond, of course, is popular outside of the U.S. Still, if you assume Thunderball has an adjusted gross of $1 billion or better worldwide, then the top unadjusted worldwide grossing Bond film — 2006’s Casino Royale at $596.4 million — isn’t nearly as popuar as the 1965 film was.

Earlier this year, on message boards of Bond fan Web sites, fans argued that adjusted grosses were the true measure of Bond’s popularity. This came in response to stories LIKE THIS ONE that the Harry Potter series had passed 007 in total unadjusted grosses.

But if adjusted is the real standard, then Bond’s *biggest* days are behind him. That doesn’t mean that 007 isn’t popular. And yes, comparing financial performance of movies from different eras is actually more complicated because there are more revenue sources now than in previous decades. Still, it doesn’t change the fact the Thunderball anniversary is also the anniversary of an end of an era, an era that seems unlikely to return.

HMSS’s latest odds on spy movie projects

With recent developments, including bankruptcy filings and intriguing reports in the entertainment trade press, it’s time to revise our odds for spy movie projects in development once more.

Bond 23: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer filed for bankruptcy but is hoping it’s a quick trip and the company will shed that status next month. As part of its filings, the company said it wants to have the next Bond movie out in November 2012 and resume an every-other-year schedule after that.

For Bond fans, that’s been the best news in some time. Still, Eon Productions, which controls the other half of the Bond franchise that MGM doesn’t, hasn’t commented publicly. Eon’s hiring of screenwriter Peter Morgan apparently didn’t work out. We don’t really know how far along Bond 23 is and whether Eon could get a film ready for the time MGM envisions.

PREVIOUS ODDS: 10-1
NEW ODDS: 5-1 (mostly for uncertainty about time frame)

Mission: Impossible 4: When last we visited this subject in July, things were firming up, with Brad Bird confirmed as director and Tom Cruise returing to star. Filming is now underway and the filming of a stunt got a lot of publicity. Here’s a video by the Associated Press:

PREVIOUS ODDS: 3-2
NEW ODDS: Prohibitive. It would take an utter disaster for it not to happen. Paramount has targeted the film to premier in late 2011.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: In the past couple of weeks, the entertainment media has reported that Warner Bros. is negotiating with Steven Soderbergh to direct and George Clooney to star in a film version of the 1960s spy show.

At face value, that would indicate there’s some momentum building. But there also appears to be some manipulation going on. Earlier this year, there were reports that Warners was supposedly enthusiastic about a script by Max Borenstein. But under the Soderbergh-Clooney scenario, they’re starting all over on a new script. As Jerry Seinfeld said famously, “What’s up with that?”

Also, some U.N.C.L.E. fans aren’t so keen on the idea of 49-year-old Clooney playing U.N.C.L.E. ace agent Napoleon Solo. Clooney was quite fit in The American but do you want to build a multi-film franchise around him? Robert Vaughn turned 31 during filming of the U.N.C.L.E. pilot (that birthday was the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas). Vaughn turned 50 during production of the 1983 TV movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E., which had Solo being coaxed out of retirement.

Until Soderberg and/or Clooney sign on the dotted line, we’re still wary.

PREVIOUS ODDS: 25-1
NEW ODDS: 15-1. Where there’s smoke, there’s (sometimes) fire.

New (serious) Matt Helm movie: There hasn’t been any news or even rumors for months. Usually, there’s at least some buzz before a project becomes reality.

PREVIOUS ODDS:10-1
NEW ODDS:15-1. This is basically a hunch admittedly, given lack of news.

45th anniversary of The Incredible World of James Bond

This week (Nov. 26 to be precise) marks the 45th anniversary of the 007 infomercial, The Incredible World of James Bond. The program reflected how Agent 007 was reaching his peak popularity.

NBC pre-empted The Man From U.N.C.L.E., enjoying the best ratings that ’60s spy show would achieve, to show Incredible World. The move made a lot of sense for a number of reasons. It was a holiday week, when a lot of people would be at home. The special would inherit U.N.C.L.E.’s audience as well as drawing in Bond fans. And it aired as United Artists was already drumming up publicity about the upcoming fourth Bond film, Thunderball. In fact, Incredible World was a big part of that effort, with UA joining forces with David L. Wolper’s production company.

Producer-Director Jack Haley Jr. brought in actor Alexander Scourby (who had played an U.N.C.L.E. villain the season before) to read the narration written by Al Ramrus (who’d co-write an U.N.C.L.E. episode the following season). Scourby’s voice had an air of soft-spoken authority, as he described the Bond movies as comic strips for adults, which were kindred spirits of adventure stories of centuries past.

The term infomercial hadn’t been coined yet and, to be technical, Incredible World wasn’t exactly an informercial because NBC sold ads to other companies. (Thus, it was a great deal for UA — an hour-long promotion without having to pay for the time.) But the program certain shared some of attributes of infomercials; it was essentially a longer, extented promotion for Thunderball by showing viewers 007’s first three film exploits. Plus there were “candid” shots (which, truth be told, probably weren’t that candid) showing production of the upcoming Bond film.

In a cute touch, the end titles had a “cast of characters” list just like the end titles of a movie. Thus, for one occasion, you had “James Bond…..Sean Connery” heading a list of the major actors and characters of Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball. Also, in the special, viewers could hear Thunderball’s Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi *before* they were dubbed over in the final film.

Here’s the start of what viewers first saw 45 years ago: