North by Northwest: Feast of the character actors

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo right after his "directed by" credit in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo right after his “directed by” credit in North by Northwest

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy 1959’s North by Northwest, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers. Among them: a slick performance by Cary Grant. Eva Marie Saint as the heroine, James Mason as the villain, Martin Landau as the villain’s main assistant, Ernest Lehman’s script, Bernard Herrmann’s music, etc.

The purpose of this post, though, is to point out the wealth of character actors, especially for those familiar with 1960s and 1970s television shows in the U.S. Hitchcock’s 136-minute film provided plenty of parts, albeit small in most cases, for busy character actors.

What follows is a sampling:

Leo G. Carroll (The Professor): Carroll, by this point, was something of a Hitchock regular, having previously appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound. Here’s he appears as “The Professor,” a high-ranking official of U.S. intelligence. It’s a preview of his performances as Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Jessie Royce Landis (Roger Thornhill’s mother): Landis was born in 1896, just eight years before Cary Grant. She steals almost every scene she’s in here, especially when she’s skeptical of her son’s wild story of spies. Her career spanned decades.

Edward Platt (Thornhill’s lawyer): At his point, Platt was six years away from his best-known role, The Chief in Get Smart.

Ken Lynch (Chicago policeman): Lynch showed up as gruff cops (he had a recurring role on the 1970s show McCloud as a New York cop) or gruff villains. With 189 acting credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY, he never lacked for work.

Malcom Atterbury (Man at Bus Stop): The busy charactor actor (155 credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY) only gets a few lines as he chats with Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in the middle of nowhere. But Atterbury’s observation about the crop dusting plane sets up a classic sequence, which would be an influence in the Terence Young-directed From Russia With Love.

Lawrence Dobkin (U.S. intelligence official): He’s one of the people who participates in a meeting chaired by The Professor. In the 1970s, he’d double as a director on various series as well as being a character actor (including being the villain in the pilot of The Streets of San Francisco).

Les Tremayne (Auctioneer): Blessed with a smooth, silky voice, Tremayne remained busy for decades, including a part in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds.

Olan Soule (Assistant Auctioneer): Another actor blessed with a smooth voice. He had a slight build, but an enormous voice, ensuring he could get work frequently. His many voice-only roles included playing Batman in cartoons produced by Filmation and Hanna-Barbera.

Alfred Hitchcock (Man at New York Bus Stop): One of Hitchcock’s more prominent cameos, he misses the bus immediately after his “directed by” credit.

And no this is not a comprehensive list (sorry, Edward Binns and Ned Glass, among others).

 

50th anniversary of The Wild Wild West’s best episode

End title images for The Night of the Murderous Spring

End title images for The Night of the Murderous Spring

April 15 is the 50th anniversary of what may be the best episode of The Wild Wild West, The Night of the Murderous Spring. If not the series’ best outing, it’s in the conversation.

It was the next-to-last episode of West’s first season and the fourth to feature Michael Dunn as Dr. Loveless.

The episode, written by John Kneubuhl (creator of Dr. Loveless) and directed by Richard Donner, removed all of the limits from the villain’s initial encounters with U.S. Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin).

Loveless is determined to kill humanity to restore Earth’s ecological balance. The villain has come up with a chemical, when mixed with water, will spur men to hallucinate and go into a murderous rage.

Loveless’ first test subject is James West himself. The Secret Service agent imagines he kills his partner.

That’s just the start. Loveless conducts another test where his lackeys kill each other. Loveless does so simply to demonstrate to West and Gordon he means business.

As an aside, one of Loveless’ thugs is played by Leonard Falk, the real life father of Robert Conrad.

This was not Loveless’ final appearance on the show. But it was arguably the most memorable. The only significance weakness was the episode didn’t have an original score, forcing music supervisor Morton Stevens to dip into the music library of CBS. Among the music used is the original Dr. Loveless theme, composed by Robert Drasnin, who scored the first Loveless episode of the series.

 

Happy 100th, Donald Hamilton

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

Today, March 24, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of author Donald Hamilton, creator of Matt Helm.

It has been 23 years since the last Helm novel, The Damagers, was published. It’s common for fans of the series to get out their copies every so often to re-read the adventures of the American “counter-assassin.”

The Helm novels, unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, were written in the first person. The stories are like a cross between Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and the more fantastic elements of Fleming’s 007 stories. Because the reader only discovers things as its hero (or anti-hero) does, you get sucked into the rhythms of the story before realizing just how much fantasy there is in them.

For example, with the sixth novel, The Ambushers, Helm ends up in a machete fight with an ex-Nazi while a missile is ready to be fired. But the journey to that point is pretty grim and gritty. By the time of the machete fight, you’re so caught up in the story you’re not going to stop there.

The first novel of the series, Death of a Citizen, was done as a one-off. Helm, who has been living peacefully for 15 years after World War II, is suddenly drawn back into his former violent life. An editor suggested with a few changes (including the character’s first name, George and killing off Helm’s wife) it could be turned into a series. The character became Matt Helm. Hamilton settled for Mrs. Helm getting a divorce.

The books were turned into comedies with Dean Martin, produced by Irving Allen, the former partner of James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. There has been talk for years of a series Helm film but nothing has developed.

Hamilton died in 2006. There is one unpublished Helm novel but the Hamilton family has held onto it in case a new movie develops. For now, fans of the novel have to be satisfied with re-reading Hamilton’s well-told stories.

1965: Jim West’s first encounter with Dr. Loveless

James West (Robert Conrad) has his first encounter with Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn)

James West (Robert Conrad) has his first encounter with Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn)

Two recent birthdays spurred us to check out the first encounter between James West and Dr. Loveless in The Wild Wild West.

Robert Conrad, who played the intrepid Secret Service Man, celebrated his 81st birthday on March 1. Leslie Parrish, a busy actress in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, also celebrated her 81st on March 13.

Both were in the third episode of The Wild Wild West, The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth, the first story to feature mad scientist Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn).

CBS apparently realized the episode was out of the ordinary. The network moved up Wizard so it would be one of the first stories aired (it was broadcast on Oct. 1, 1965).

The John Kneubuhl script gave Dunn a lot to do. His Loveless barely is holding onto his sanity. Yet, Loveless clearly is brilliant. In the second half of the story. West is shown some of Loveless’ prototypes for inventions including television, penicillin (mere “bread mold,” as Loveless tells West), automobiles and airplanes.

The James Bond influence on the show also is in evidence.

At this point, Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) is more like Q rather than West’s full partner. Artemus has built a horse-drawn coach that is the equivalent of 007’s Aston Martin, even including an ejector seat.

However the coach, similar to the DB5 in Goldfinger, only provides the hero a momentary respite from those who threaten him.

What’s more, the episode provides a preview of an actor who’d show up in the Bond films more than a decade later — Richard Kiel, who plays Voltaire, the main henchman for Loveless. The 5-foot-8 Conrad eventually vanquishes the 7-foot-2 Kiel.

The episode made an impression on the production team and the network. Loveless would return for nine more episodes, including three more in the first season.

 

40th anniversary of Hawaii Five-O’s Nine Dragons

Wo Fat triumphs (for a while) over McGarrett in Nine Dragons

Wo Fat triumphs (for a while) over McGarrett in Nine Dragons

This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the best episodes of the original Hawaii Five-O series, the two-hour Nine Dragons.

The first episode of the 1976-77 season was one of the best encounters between the original Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) and the original Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh).

The episode also featured the most James Bond-like plot of the original 1968-80 series. Wo Fat intends to lead a coup of China, then launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the United States.

To ensure no other nations retaliate, Wo Fat abducts McGarrett. The lawman, under torture, is recorded as saying the U.S. was responsible for the deaths of Chinese leadership (that Wo Fat plans to accomplish). The film will be broadcast as the attack against the U.S. takes place, causing other countries to not attack China.

All of this, of course, is rather fantastic. Nevertheless, it features one of the best performances by Khigh Diegh as Wo Fat. The actor (1910-1991) essentially gets a chance to meld his two best-known characters: Wo Fat and the Chinese brain washing expert in the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate.

What’s more, Jack Lord’s McGarrett, for once in the series, is utterly defeated, at least for a time. Despite McGarrett’s resistance, he eventually gives in. McGarrett, naturally, rallies and escapes. McGarrett has no memory of the defeat until he gets a chance to view the film shortly before Wo Fat intends to use it.

Nine Dragons included contributions from one of Five-O’s best writers (Jerome Coopersmith, his next-to-last script) and directors (Michael O’Herlihy, his final effort for the series). Above all, it features one of the best scores for the show by Morton Stevens, who composed the classic Five-O theme.

Finally, the episode includes on-location filming in Hong Kong, a first for the show. To defray the cost, CBS struck a deal with Air Siam (everybody in the epiosde who takes a flight flies on Air Siam).

Five-O would not have such on-location filming until the end of the 11th season, where a two-hour episode was filmed in Singapore (The Year of the Horse), that included one-time 007 George Lazenby.

U.N.C.L.E.’s Mr. Fixit

George M. Lehr silhouette  (far right) incorporated into the title of Batman '66 Meets The Man From U.N.C.L.E. No. 6

George M. Lehr silhouette (lower, far right) incorporated into the title of Batman ’66 Meets The Man From U.N.C.L.E. No. 6

One of an occasional series on unsung heroes of television.

In the end titles of many television series, there are credits that don’t really don’t provide a viewer what a crew member really does.

So it was with George M. Lehr on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

In the first season of Man, which ran from 1964 to 1968, Lehr had the title “assistant to producer.” In reality, he was a key member of the production team, headed by executive producer Norman Felton and producer-developer Sam Rolfe.

Lehr was, “for all intents and purposes, the third member of the Felton-Rolfe team,” Jon Heitland wrote in his 1987 book about U.N.C.L.E. “He undertook a myriad of duties on the show, including all postproduction work.”

That covers quite a bit of ground, from film editing to music scoring. That meant that Lehr touched a lot of bases with accomplished professionals.

U.N.C.L.E. was produced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where John Dunning (1916-1991), who won an Oscar for Ben-Hur, was the supervising editor. Franklin Milton (1907-1985), another Ben-Hur Oscar winner, was the recording supervisor.

Lehr even appeared on-screen, in a fashion. Starting with the eighth episode, The Double Affair, the main titles began with the silhouette of an attacker inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters who fires a gun at Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn). This would last through the end of the first season. Lehr provided that silhouette.

During the second half of the show’s second season, Lehr got a promotion to associate producer (which meant a bigger credit in the end titles), a recognition of his contributions. For the 1966-67 season, he held the same title at The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (sharing it with Max Hodge).

After that series was canceled following its only season, he rejoined Man’s crew for its final campaign for the 1967-68 season, again with the title of associate producer. Lehr was around for the entire development of U.N.C.L.E.

“(H)e also helped to create the…”whip pan” by inserting blurred images between scenes,” Cynthia W. Walker wrote in Work/Text Investigating The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The “whip pan” was used as a transition and a key part of the show’s look.

Lehr’s silhouette from U.N.C.L.E.’s first season has surfaced on the cover of the Batman ’66 Meets The Man From U.N.C.L.E. mini-series published by DC Comics. The silhouette is altered slightly to make it appear that of an U.N.C.L.E. agent.

Meanwhile, you can see him in the video below, explaining the origin of the U.N.C.L.E. Special. It was part of an extra originally made for a 2007 DVD release of the show.

Norman Hudis, busy spy TV writer, dies at 93

Norman Hudis

Norman Hudis

Norman Hudis, who penned episodes of various spy and spy-related television shows, has died at 93, ACCORDING TO AN OBITUARY BY THE BBC.

In his native England, Hudis is remembered as the writer of the first six “Carry On” comedy films that began in 1958.

Hudis was very busy with spy-related entertainment. He wrote episodes of The Saint and Danger Man. He moved to the United States, where he wrote episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (including its final two-part story, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, released outside the U.S. as the film How to Steal the World), The Wild Wild West, Hawaii Five-O, It Takes a Thief, The FBI and Search, among others.

According to Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. timeline website, producer Norman Felton in 1971 responded to an NBC suggestion that U.N.C.L.E. be revived as a TV movie by saying Hudis would be a good writer for such a project. Nothing came of the suggestion.

UPDATE: According to Hudis’ IMDB.COM ENTRY his writing credits included the following.

The Saint: The Imprudent Politician, The Frightened Inn-Keeper, The Checkered Flag, The Persistent Parasites

Danger Man/Secret Agent: Koroshi, Shinda Shima

The Wild Wild West: The Night of the Tottering Tontine

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Yo-Ho-Ho And a Bottle of Rum Affair, The Five Daughters Affairs Parts I and II (released as The Karate Killers overseas), The “J” for Judas Affair, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair Parts I and II (released as How to Steal the World overseas).

Hawaii Five-O: The Big Kahuna

The FBI: The Inside Man

It Takes a Thief: Nice Girls Marry Stockbrokers, To Sing a Song of Murder, Beyond a Treasonable Doubt

Search: The Clayton Lewis Document, Suffer My Child

 

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