American actor Robert Brown dies

Robert Brown (1926-2022)

Robert Brown, an American actor who had a long career on television, has died at 95, The Hollywood Reporter said.

Brown’s bio at IMDB.COM lists 31 credits from 1948 to 1994. He was also in the running for two prominent roles in 1960s television.

The actor was among those considered for the part of Napoleon Solo, according to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book by Jon Heitland. Others included Harry Guardino and Robert Culp.

The role went to Robert Vaughn. At the time of the casting, Vaughn worked for executive producer Norman Felton on The Lieutenant.

Brown was even cast, briefly, as Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O. Former CBS executive Perry Lafferty, in an interview for the Archive of American Television, said Five-O creator Leonard Freeman had second thoughts about Brown.

CBS had Jack Lord under contract for a possible Western series. Rose Freeman, the widow of Leonard Freeman, said at a 1996 fan convention that Lord was cast on a Wednesday and started filming the next Monday. Here’s an excerpt from the Lafferty interview:

The THR obit on Brown emphasizes two important roles: Being the star of Here Come the Brides, a series that ran two years on ABC, and cast as a last-second replacement on an episode of the original Star Trek series.

Happy 89th birthday, David McCallum

David McCallum in a Man From U.N.C.L.E. publicity still

Today, Sept. 19, is David McCallum’s 89th birthday.

He’s almost the last man standing from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert Vaughn is gone. So is Norman Felton, the producer who met with Ian Fleming in 1962. So is Sam Rolfe, who took the Felton-Fleming ideas and put them into a script. Many of the actors are gone, including Leo G. Carroll.

Other contributors such as directors Richard Donner and Joseph Sargent as well as director of photography Fred Koenekamp have passed away in recent years.

There’s not a whole lot that needs saying. McCallum had a great career. He still has many fans who admire him. Happy birthday. We’ll leave it at that.

Ernest Lehman biographer discusses the writer’s spy films

Cover to Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success

Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. His work covers various genres and includes massive box office successes.

A new biography of the writer is coming out this month — Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success.

The blog interviewed the author, Jon Krampner, by email. The interview concentrated on three espionage-themed productions that Lehman scripted: North by Northwest (evoked on the book’s cover image), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Prize, and Black Sunday, Lehman’s final movie project. But Lehman also scripted various dramas such as Executive Suite (1954) and musicals, including West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

North by Northwest, in particular, had a major impact. Released in 1959, its balance of humor and drama coupled with certain set pieces (especially when a crop duster plane chases after Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill) helped set the stage for the 1960s spy film craze.

1963’s From Russia With Love, in a sequence not part of Ian Fleming’s novel, had a helicopter going after Sean Connery’s James Bond.

Here is the interview.

THE SPY COMMAND: How did Ernest Lehman first get connected to Alfred Hitchcock? How did the idea of a spy thriller evolve?

JON KRAMPNER: They were connected by the composer Bernard Herrmann who, appropriately enough, wound up scoring “North By Northwest.” Herrmann told Lehman he thought he and Hitchcock would get along well, so he set up a lunch meeting for them in Hitchcock’s office at Paramount in late August of 1956.

Herrmann was right — the two did hit it off, so they started to work on adapting “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” a maritime drama based on the Hammond Innes novel about an abandoned ship found adrift at sea. But Lehman, as he often did during his career, quit the project, feeling there was no way he could turn it into a good film.

Lehman assumed that would be the end of their working relationship, but Hitchcock, enjoying his company, said they should work together on something else. But what? “The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films,” Lehman said, and “North By Northwest” was born.

(NOTE FROM THE BLOG: The Wreck of the Mary Deare was made into a film with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston)

TSC: Was the Lehman-Hitchcock collaboration a smooth one? Or were there rough patches?

KRAMPNER: Surprisingly, given that they were both control freaks, Lehman and Hitchcock got along pretty well on “North By Northwest,” one exception being when they were working through the crop duster scene in the living room of Hitchcock’s Bel Air home. Hitchcock, who never raised his voice, yelled at Lehman “Why do you insist on telling me how to direct the film?” Lehman would later say he should have told Hitchcock “Why do you insist on telling me how to write it?”

Seventeen years after “North By Northwest,” Lehman and Hitchcock worked together on “Family Plot,” Hitchcock’s last film. That was a different story: Hitchcock was in poor health, but Lehman kept showing up for working and wanting to get on with it. And being an established Hollywood figure himself now, he was less inclined to defer to Hitchcock. That was not a happy collaboration.

TSC: I have written before that North by Northwest had a balance of drama and humor that other films (the Bond series in particular) emulated. What thoughts did Lehman have on this subject?

KRAMPNER: Your observation is apt, but while your question is a good one, I don’t have a good answer. I worked on this book for seven years, but never ran across any musings Lehman had about the James Bond films.

TSC: How did Lehman rank North by Northwest among the movies he scripted?

KRAMPNER: It was not only his signature film, but the only original of his 15 screenplays, so he regarded it highly and with great fondness. Interestingly, the screenplay of his that he identified several times as his favorite was “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” the Rocky Graziano biopic that made Paul Newman a star.

TSC: The Prize came along a few years later. Leo G. Carroll was in the cast. And Paul Newman’s character ends up proposing to the female lead (Elke Sommer). Did Lehman consciously throw in NxNW elements? Or was that in the source material all along?

KRAMPNER: Any plot similarities between “North By Northwest” and “The Prize” were purely intentional on Lehman’s part. As with “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” Lehman didn’t feel he could make a decent script out of “The Prize” and was preparing to abandon it. But then he decided to play up the Cold-War plot aspects that were less prominent in Irving Wallace’s novel and, in Lehman’s own words, turn it into a “road-company, not first-rate North By Northwest-type film.”

Anyone familiar with “North By Northwest” can find echoes of it throughout “The Prize”:  there’s a riff on the scene where Cary Grant takes the police back to the Townsend mansion in a futile effort to show them that’s where he was set upon by Van Damm and his gang. In “The Prize,” there’s a scene at a nudist colony that evokes NxNW’s auction sequence. And it features not one, but two — is auto-homage a word? — of the conclusion of the crop duster scene, where Cary Grant is almost run over by an oil tanker. In reviewing “The Prize,” Variety derisively referred to Lehman’s “Hitchcockeyed screenplay.”

TSC: How did Lehman feel about The Prize? Was he pleased with it? Or were there issues for him?

KRAMPNER: As suggested by the previous answer, Lehman didn’t think much of “The Prize,” although he was still stung by some of the bad reviews it got

TSC: Black Sunday was Lehman’s last movie. Big cast, based on a best-selling novel. But Lehman shared the writing credit with two others. Was Lehman satisfied or dissatisfied with it?

KRAMPNER: Lehman shared the screenwriting credit with, in that order, Kenneth Ross and Ivan Moffat, with Lehman’s name coming first. He had to share the credit because it was the only one of his films he was fired from, by producer Robert Evans and director John Frankenheimer. They may have wanted “thriller insurance” (Ross had worked on a number of such films), but they also got a film that’s more confusing, has lapses in plot logic and is utterly devoid of Lehman’s trademark humor. In a 1976 seminar Lehman gave at the American Film Institute before “Black Sunday” was released, Lehman said sardonically “I hear it’s very exciting.”.

TSC: Black Sunday is more overtly political (Israeli-Palestinian) compared with NxNW and The Prize. How did Lehman feel about that? Was Black Sunday a happy experience? Or did he know it was time to call it day?

KRAMPNER: Congratulations for spotting a hole in my research: the answer is “I don’t know.” One of the things I ordinarily would have done was to read Lehman’s last draft of the screenplay, among his papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. But around the time I would have done so, the plague was upon the land, everyone retreated into their burrows, and I never doubled back to cover that part of the waterfront.

“Black Sunday” was praised for the extent to which it humanized the Palestinian terrorists and their grievances, highly unusual for a big-budget American studio film (that praise was not universal: supposedly the Los Angeles-based B’nai Brith Messenger ran a headline “Robert Evans, Hitlerite.”)

In general, Lehman was pretty apolitical, so if I had to guess, I’d say that one (or both) of the screenwriters who came after him was responsible for that aspect of the script.

TSC: How does Ernest Lehman rank among Hollywood screenwriters? While this interview was concentrated on the spy genre, Lehman handled a variety of subjects. To a layman, such as myself, he seems incredibly versatile.

KRAMPNER: As you might, expect Ernest Lehman’s biographer to say, if he’s not at the top, he’s darn close. William Goldman, another candidate for king of the hill, said, “The three greatest screenwriters are Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, and Ernest Lehman.” The British newspaper The Guardian said “He may have been the most successful screenwriter ever.”

Many are crowded near the top of screenwriting’s pantheon: Nunnally Johnson, Jules Furthman, Nora Ephron, the list goes on. I won’t say Lehman was the best, but he certainly ranked among them.

Ernest Lehman: The Sweet Smell of Success is being published on Sept. 27 by the University Press of Kentucky. For more information, CLICK HERE. It can be ordered at AMAZON and BOOKSHOP.ORG. The latter is a website for independent bookstores and you may want to order there instead of behemoth Amazon.

Bill Russell’s appearance on spy television

Logo for It Takes a Thief

Bill Russell, one of the greatest players in the National Basketball Association, has died at 88, according to The New York Times.

The center for the Boston Celtics from the 1950s to the end of the 1960s, won 11 NBA championships over a 13-year career.

A footnote to Russell’s stellar basketball career was a part in the 1960s spy series It Takes a Thief where Robert Wagner was the star. The episode was titled The Thingamabob Heist in 1968.

In real life, Russell (1934-2022) was an important sports figure and an important civil rights figure. In addition to playing for the Celtics, he was the team’s first Black head coach toward the end of his career.

Here is an excerpt from the Times’ obituary for Russell:

He took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was seated in the front row of the crowd to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and worked with Evers’s brother, Charles, to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He was among a group of prominent Black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when Ali refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.

The Gray Man’s mishmash

Poster for The Gray Man

The Gray Man, the new spy adventure on Netfix, is a bit of a mishmash.

It’s one part Bond (especially one action sequence that seems taken from Die Another Day), one part Bourne (a cynical universe), one part Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible (over-the-top action sequences), one part John Wick (impressive casualty counts) and one part Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The latter is no surprise. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed some of Marvel’s biggest films, including Avengers: Endgame.

In their Marvel movies, the Russos loved to tell you the locations in BIG LETTERS. That carried over to The Gray Man (“BANGKOK,” “VIENNA,” “LANGLEY,” etc.). The brothers also like to have frantic camera movements and that’s the case here as well.

Ryan Gosling as Six, an assassin in the employ of the CIA, is more Bourne than Bond. But the script by Joe Russo and the writing team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, makes sure to work in a Bond reference. “007 was taken,” Six says at one point.

Six has been assigned a kill but doesn’t perform it as planned. This sets up a McGuffin that drives the plot. Six now is a hunted man. One of the hunters is mercenary Lloyd Hansen, played by Chris Evans, who worked on all four of the Marvel movies directed by the Russos.

At Marvel, Evans played the straight-laced Captain America. Since his exit from the MCU, Evans has been doing different types of parts.

Here, Evans revels as the movie’s villain. However, his performance is about as subtle as Snidely Whiplash. (Google it.) The actor achieves this effect, in part, with a weird-looking mustache. He probably had a lot of fun but the Russos might have been better served if they had Evans cool it a bit.

Ana de Armas plays a CIA operative, Dani Miranda, who’s very similar to Paloma in No Time to Die (I originally typed Die Another Day; too many “Die” titles). Dani Miranda gets beaten up more than Paloma.

The Gray Man isn’t the most impressive spy entertainment. But with Bond films in another hiatus and Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series on hold until 2023, it fills a vacuum for spy fans. GRADE: B-Minus.

Russo brothers look to create a spy franchise

Promotional image for The Gray Man

We’re in the midst of another attempt to establish a spy franchise, this one by Anthony and Joe Russo.

The Gray Man had a limited release in U.S. theaters this weekend before being shown on Netflix on July 22.

The Russos directed some of the biggest hits for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War plus two Avengers movies).

The brothers’ new effort has a cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans (retired from playing Cap for Marvel) and Ana de Armas. Streaming service Netflix provided the Russos an estimated $200 million to play with.

The New York Times published a story today about the project. According to the Times, the Russos spent $40 million and one month on a single extensive action sequence.

The Gray Man comes as the James Bond film series has entered a hiatus as it tries to decide where to go following the end of Daniel Craig’s five-film run as Bond. The Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible series is looking to conclude following movies in 2023 and 2024.

So a vacuum does exist in spy entertainment. According to the Times:

Should (The Gray Man) work, the Russos have plans for expanding the “Gray Man” universe with additional films and television series, as Disney has done with its Marvel and Star Wars franchises.

On top of all this, the once-invincible Netflix is having problems. Subscriptions for the streaming service are down. Its stock price also is down. Netflix has cut jobs.

As a result, the stakes are large all around.

Script bible for James Bond Jr.

Logo for the James Bond Jr. cartoon series, circa early 1990s

One of the more interesting parts of the James Bond film series is the James Bond Jr. cartoon series that debuted in the early 1990s.

The cartoon was co-developed by Michael G. Wilson. The show was an attempt to interest young viewers in Bond amid a 1989-1995 hiatus in the movie series.

James Bond Jr., more than three decades after his debut in a syndicated cartoon show, generates a lot of mixed comments from hard-core Bond fans.

Thanks to Bond collector Gary J. Firuta, I received a copy of the “bible” for writers of the cartoon show. Some highlights:

Our series follows the exploits and adventures of James Bond’s teenage nephew; JAMES BOND, JR. (NOTE: For clarity, hereafter, the elder James Bond will be referred to simply as “007.”)

More details:

With the security risk posed by the nature of his uncle’s work, James is enrolled in WARFIELD ACADEMY, a special, high security boarding school on the Southeast coast of Britain.

Warfield was the name of a production company set up by Albert R. Broccoli after his partnership with Irving Allen broke up. It was through Warfield (rather than Eon Productions) that Broccoli produced Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The 1968 children’s film included a combination of veterans from James Bond movies and from the 1964 film made by Walt Disney, Mary Poppins

The James Bond Jr. bible runs more than 200 pages. It describes supporting characters such as Tracy Milbanks (“the attractive daughter of Warfield’s no-nonense headmaster”); Gordon “Gordo” Leiter, “the son of 007’s best friend, CIA agent, FELIX LEITER”; and Phoebe Farragut, “the chunky bespectacled daughter of a fabulously wealthy industrialist/ambassador.”

The bible also describes how each episode of the cartoon series should mirror Bond films. It also describes how the series will have a mix of established Bond villains (Goldfinger, Oddjob, Dr. No) as well as new creations.

Happy Independence Day 2022

Our annual post.

Jim Steranko’s cover to Strange Tales 167

Today, July 4, is Independence Day in the United States.

For this blog, there’s no better image to celebrate the holiday than this Jim Steranko cover from Strange Tales No. 167, published in January 1968. The issue was the climax to a months-long saga that Steranko wrote and drew featuring the intrepid Nick Fury and the forces of SHIELD.

In 2022, there is a lot of division on many political and social issues. But Steranko’s image remains iconic.

For more background, CLICK HERE for a 2000 article that originally appeared on the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website. Happy July Fourth to everyone.

The Johnny Williams era of television

John Williams

John Williams told The Assocated Press earlier this month, that his score for Indiana Jones 5 may be his final movie work.

“I don’t want to be seen as categorically eliminating any activity,” The 90-year-old composer told AP. But a Star Wars score, he said, is a six-month commitment and “at this point in life is a long commitment to me.”

Williams is known mostly for his film scores, which include 51 Oscar nominations beginning in the 1960s for scores and songs. Williams was the composer of choice for director Steven Spielberg, a collaboration that lasted decades.

However, once upon a time, Williams was known as Johnny Williams and his work was all over television in the 1950s and 1960s.

Television Days

Williams played piano on the Peter Gunn theme for Henry Mancini. Williams also played as a musician in film scores such as The Magnificent Seven, Sweet Smell of Success and To Kill a Mockingbird, he recalled in a 2002 tribute to composer Elmer Bernstein.

Before he was famous: John(ny) Williams title card for the Kraft Suspense Theater episode Once Upon a Savage Night (black and white copy of a color original).

Williams was hired in 1958 by Stanley Wilson, music supervisor for Revue television (later Universal), to score episodes of M Squad, a police drama starring Lee Marvin. At that point, the composer was billed as John T. Williams Jr.

Wilson evidently liked the results and kept bringing Williams back for work. One of Williams’ jobs for Revue writing the theme for Checkmate, a 1960-62 series created by Eric Ambler.

Checkmate concerned the exploits of two private eyes (Anthony George and Doug McClure) assisted by an academic (Sebastian Cabot). Williams was now billed as Johnny Williams.

Before he was famous: John Williams title card for the unaired pilot of Gilligan’s Island.

Williams also did the theme (and scored some episodes for) a Revue anthology show, Kraft Suspense Theater. One of the installments he scored, Once Upon a Savage Night, was a particularly tense story about the search by Chicago authorities for a psychopathic killer (Philip Abbott).

In his TV days, Williams was versatile. His credits included the odd sitcom, such as the unaired pilot (plus additional episodes) of Gilligan’s Island as well as the theme for The Tammy Grimes Show, a quickly canceled program in the 1966-67 season.

Producer Irwin Allen brought in Williams to work on series such as Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, which credited Johnny Williams for their themes.

Johnny Williams even showed up on camera in the first episode of Johnny Staccato, a 1959 series starring John Cassavettes and made at Revue. Williams, clean-shaven and with hair, played a jazz pianist. He was listed in the cast as Johnny Williams.

The Johnny Williams era drew to a close by the late 1960s. His credit for the theme of Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants series listed the composer as John Williams. For Williams, the best was yet to come.

McCallum: 2015 Illya was ‘ridiculous’

David McCallum, the original Illya Kuryakin, in a 1965 publicity still.

David McCallum, the original Illya Kuryakin, has said the 2015 version of the character was “ridiculous.”

Excerpts from an interview with McCallum about his career were posted this month on YouTube. One excerpt centered on McCallum’s reaction to the 2015 movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

“It’s the Cold War, it’s the Berlin Wall,” McCallum said. “I thought the character of Illya was ridiculous. But he (actor Armie Hammer) did a nice job.”

The 2015 version of Illya, McCallum added, “was uptight, and crazy, and strangling people.”

In 2015, McCallum had a different view in an interview that was telecast on Fox News.

The movie “in no way encroaches into what we did back in the ’60s and at the same time uses a lot of the elements that Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe created within the old Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” McCallum said at that time.

“I think it’s a wonderful success,” McCallum told Fox News in 2015. “My favorite line in the whole movie, the new movie, is the last one delivered by Hugh Grant because clearly it’s going to lead to at least another Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie. I don’t think there’s any question of that.”

The 2015 U.N.C.L.E. movie did not lead to any sequels.

Here’s the excerpt of the interview where McCallum, who turns 89 in September, talked about the 2015 movie: