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.

Dr. No’s 50th anniversary part I: the odd couple

Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman

By mid-1961, there had been multiple attempts to adapt Ian Fleming’s James Bond to other media. A 1954 CBS adaptation of Casino Royale had become reality and was mostly forgotten. No film versions had yet gone before the cameras. That was about to change as American Albert R. Broccoli and Canadian Harry Saltzman agreed to team up. It’d be an eventful, and sometimes stormy, 14 years.

Each had something the other wanted: Saltzman had secured a six-month option on Fleming’s novels other than Casino Royale (and a court settlement would take the 1961-published Thunderball out of that package). Broccoli had studio connections that Saltzman lacked. Broccoli wanted to buy the option from Saltzman, but the latter wanted to go into business with Broccoli.

Saltzman, by multiple accounts, provided a constant flow of ideas. The quality, reportedly, was erratic but when they were good, they were brilliant. (Let’s have Bond “killed” at the start of From Russia With Love.) He could be volatile, almost killing off what would be two of the most popular title songs in the 007 series (Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever). Composer John Barry bemoaned in a 2006 U.K. television special that, “I could never deal with Harry and didn’t.”

Broccoli, by these accounts, was the steadier, more patient of the duo. He had wanted to do Bond for years before meeting Saltzman and was mostly content with 007, a large endeavor of its own. Saltzman, meanwhile, would launch a series based on Len Deighton’s spy novels and pursue other non-Bond projects.

Eventually, the producers grew apart, with Live And Let Die primarily a Saltzman production (although there are shots of Broccoli visiting locations and sets) while The Man With the Golden Gun was primarily overseen by Broccoli. The partnership would end when Saltzman, in severe financial trouble, sold his half of the franchise to United Artists, the studio that released the 007 films.

During work on 1962’s Dr. No, the producers managed to find a collaborative rhythm. James Bond probably would have come to the screen, but likely not in exactly the same form had Broccoli and Saltzman not joined forces.

For their work on Dr. No, the first 007 film, Broccoli and Saltzman received a producer’s fee of $80,000 and 50 percent of the profits, according to the 1998 book Adrian Turner on Goldfinger. The film debuted on Oct. 5, 1962, in the U.K., reaching other countries the following year.

If you CLICK HERE, you can view a 1965 interview the CBC did with Broccoli and Saltzman. At this point, Thunderball was about to be released.

Around the 14:00 mark, Saltzman has to take a call regarding a censorship issue with one of his non-007 movies. At the end, Saltzman works in a plug for his Harry Palmer films. You can view Broccoli’s expressions and draw your own conclusions about what the producer may have been thinking.

NEXT: The $40,000 man

On 007’s 50th, will Harry Saltzman be the forgotten man?

This week, the official 007.com Web site added some new features, including this greeting from Michael G. Wilson, co-boss of Eon Productions:

At the 0:22 mark, Wilson says, “Cubby Broccoli made Dr. No, the first Bond film, in 1962.” Albert R. Broccoli did indeed produce the film with his then-partner Harry Saltzman. Now, Wilson is Broccoli’s stepson and our guess is this isn’t an intention dig at Saltzman, who exited the series in 1975 and died in 1994. It is, after all, a 45-second video, not a definitive history. But it may be a sign that in 2012, the year of the cinema Bond’s 50th anniverary, Saltzman may end up being overlooked.

When Saltzman’s name comes up today, the image is of a cranky, volatile man who almost axed the classic Goldfinger title song, ordered elephant shoes for a movie (The Man With the Golden Gun) that didn’t have any elephants in it, etc., etc. At least one film historian, Adrian Turner, took a different view in his 1998 book, Adrian Turner on Goldfinger.

“To begin with, Saltzman took the responsibility for the scripts” of the early 007 films, Turner wrote. “Having worked with John Osborne, it’s clear he thought that Richard Maibaum — Broccoli’s man — was little more than a hack.” Obviously, that’s hardly a unanimous opinion of Maibaum. Still, Maibaum is quoted on page 100 in author James Chapman’s 2000 book Licence to Thrill as saying that Saltzman did bring in U.K. screenwriter Paul Dehn to do the later drafts of Goldfinger (the notes section of the book says the quote is from page 285 of a book called Backstory.)

We only bring this up to show that Saltzman’s contributions extended beyond being an eccentric crank. The Broccoli-Saltzman partnership wasn’t an easy one. Eventually, the pair largely alternated producing the films while both were listed as producers. Saltzman primarily responsible for Live And Let Die (though Broccoli did visit the set in Louisiana and posed for a photograph with Saltzman and star Roger Moore) while The Man With the Golden Gun was Broccoli’s picture.

The Broccoli-Wilson clan, now headed by Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, has supervised the 007 series since 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Nobody is suggesting that Cubby Broccoli wasn’t a master showman, who deserves a lot of credit for launching Bond on the screen. Still, it would be a shame if Saltzman ends up being the forgotten man as fans look back on a half century of 007 films.

Also, here’s a shoutout to Dell Deaton, who blogs about James Bond watches. A tweet of his got us to thinking about all this.

An unofficial James Bond short story

As we’ve discussed before, the British film historian Adrian Turner did a 1998 book on Goldfinger, the 1964 film that made 007 a huge film franchise. But the book also contained something else: a James Bond short story.

The story, The Scarlet Letter, is not an officially authorized Bond story. But, in the U.S. at least, there’s something called “fair use” of copyrighted material, which includes parody. We suspect Turner could make the case his story was a parody of Bond, something that would not be confused with the real thing.

However, the story combines elements of sometimes maligned fanfiction. In this case, Turner tied Goldfinger in with Marnie, the Alfred Hitchock film that starred Sean Connery.

The film historian Adrian Turner wrote what amounted to a piece of fanfiction in his 1998 book on Goldfinger where he, too, tied Bond to Marnie. In the piece, an aging Bond gets a letter from the daughter of Pussy Galore about the demise of her mother.

A few examples follow. First Bond reflecting on his past:

There was that dreadful year of 1978, when the garbage was piled high in the streets, the year when England seemed to go mad. Mrs Thatcher’s revolution brought about further turbulence and the England that Bond loved and defended vanished forever…Bond sold his flat for a song and left for Jamaica, where he bought a small but lovely house in the hills above Ochos Rios.

Bond gets a letter.

Bond studied the letter carefully. It was handwritten and postmarked in Boston a month earlier. None the wiser, Bond slit open the envelope, which contained a long letter and a smaller sealed envelope, which was slightly heavy. There was obviously a small object in it, hard and rectangular, about an inch long. He looked at the signature: Moorea Rutland. The name meant nothing to him.

Well, as it turns out the marriage of Mark Rutland (Connery’s Hitchcock character) to Marnie (the heroine of the Hitchcock film) wasn’t work out. Mark Rutland had an affair with Pussy Galore. Upon hearing this news, Marnie commits suicide. Mark and Pussy marry in 1967.

As it turns out that smaller envelope contains another letter and a couple of objects. The text of the second letter tells you all you need to know about who wrote it (at least if you’ve seen Goldfinger as often as we have.

Hi handsome!
I don’t have the words eo express what I feel. I think of you often and hope you are well and at peace with the world. I am unwell but I have found peace. All I have to remind me of you is this little momento of our time together.
Silly isn’t it?
All my Love, my darling James,
Pussy.

With the second note is the “slightly buckled” homer device that Bond had planted on the gangster Mr. Solo plus a small piece of paper with Mr. Solo’s “dired and faded blood on it.” Again, if you’ve seen the movie, you know what we’re talking about.

The payoff:

Bond held the Homer and the piece of paper for a long time, string into space and not resisting the tears which flooded into his eyes.

(Adrian Turner on Goldfinger, pages 180-187)