Nancy Wilson dies at 81

Nancy Wilson

Nancy Wilson, an accomplished singer who also was cast in dramatic parts on television, has died at 81, according to The Washington Post.

Wilson’s “beguiling expressiveness in jazz, R&B, gospel, soul and pop made her a crossover recording star for five decades,” The Post said. She died on Nov. 13.

An excerpt from The Post’s obituary:

Jazz historian and critic Will Friedwald, in his volume “A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers,” called Ms. Wilson a formidable presence in pop, jazz and blues — “the most important vocalist to come along after these three genres were codified and move freely among them.”

Wilson caught the eye of casting directors, including parts where a character was also a singer.

Among her acting credits were:

I Spy, “Lori”: Wilson played the title character in the episode written by series creators Morton Fine and David Friedkin. Wilson’s Lori was the sister of a man (Greg Morris) suspected of killing members of a team trained in detecting underground nuclear tests. But the situation isn’t as clear as it seems. Wilson was a friend of I Spy star Bill Cosby, according to The Post’s obituary.

Hawaii Five-O, “Trouble In Mind”: Wilson played Eadie Jordan, a singer addicted to heroin. She’s in Hawaii at the same time poison-laced heroin is being circulated. Five-O is trying to find the source of the deadly heroin. The cast included Morton Stevens, composer of the famous Five-O theme, as a musician who dies from poisoned heroin.

The FBI, “The Confession”: Wilson was Darlene Clark, a diva singer. Her manager Abel Norton (Hal Linden) blames her for the death of his son. Norton then kidnaps her daughter. The idea is to force Darlene to publicly confess to a hit-and-run accident years earlier. The cast also included a mustache-less Tom Selleck as an FBI agent.

1966: Bob Hope’s spy parody

Cover to a home video release of Bob Hope television specials

In 1962, the final Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road film, The Road to Hong Kong, provided a kind of preview to what would soon be seen in James Bond movies.

Four years later, in October 1966, Hope devoted most of one of his NBC specials to a parody of James Bond films and other spy entertainment titled, “Murder at NBC.”

In it, Hope plays a mad scientist who has developed a “chemical spray” that can shrink objects or people. He’s demanding $1 billion from the United States or else he’ll sell it to a foreign power.

To be honest, the special is more noteworthy for the comedians assembled than it is for the extended skit itself.

Among the performers: Jonathan Winters, Rowan & Martin, Dan Adams (as Maxwell Smart), Bill Dana (as Jose Jimenez), Johnny Carson (as himself), Don Rickles, Red Buttons, Soupy Sales, Bill Cosby (not playing Alexander Scott fro I Spy), Dick Shawn, Jimmy Durante and Milton Berle (in drag, an old Berle bit).

Some of the misfires: Jack Carter as detective “Charley Chin” (using just about all Asian stereotypes) and Wally Cox as the diminutive Mr. Big, a gag previously used in the pilot for Get Smart when a character by that name was played by Michael Dunn). Finally, there are plenty of Mexican stereotypes in the final sequence.

Put another way, it’s roughly on par with the Eon Productions comedy Call Me Bwana, which also starred Hope.

Toward the end of the story, the mad scientist confronts Mr. Big.

“Who are you with?” Hope’s character asks. “Smersh? KAOS? SPECTRE? What’s your network?”

“NBC,” Mr. Big replies.

If you really want to see it (and how it turns out), a video is embedded below. “Murder at NBC”  begins just after the 8:00 mark following an opening monologue by Hope.

Thanks to Craig Henderson for the tip about this.

 

Garry Marshall dies; wrote an I Spy episode

Garry Marshall (1934-2016)

Garry Marshall (1934-2016)

Garry Marshall, a veteran writer-producer on television series as well as a movie director, has died at 81, according to AN OBITUARY PUBLISHED BY VARIETY.

On television, his credits included developing The Odd Couple as a TV series and creating Happy Days. His movie credits including directing 1990’s Pretty Woman.

For the purposes of this blog, we just wanted to note that Marshall, with his then-partner Jerry Belson, wrote a quirkly I Spy episode titled No Exchange on Damaged Merchandise.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks as U.S. agent Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) writes up a report to his superiors, seeking reimbursements for expenses from an assignment.

His partner Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) wants Kelly to forget it. But Robinson is so annoyed with the bureaucracy, he’s determined to get the reimbursement.

The viewer doesn’t get the entire story until Robinson is about to complete the report. Along the way, Scott was almost killed. Meanwhile, the duo was forced to improvise a prisoner exchange with a corpse.

 

50th anniversary of U.S. TV spymania

Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in an I Spy publicity still

Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in an I Spy publicity still

This week marks the 50th anniversary of spymania in the United States, when three spy television series premiered.

I Spy (Sept. 15): The hour-long drama on NBC was the most serious, least escapist spy program on U.S. television. Its greater significance, however, was having an African American actor receiving equal billing with a white star.

That African American actor was Bill Cosby. Cosby has been in the news since last year for numerous accusations of rape, the subject of a notable cover of New York magazine this summer.

A half century ago, Cosby’s presence on I Spy was a major breakthrough for U.S. television. The show debuted in the midst of  the Civil Rights Movement.

Robert Culp, the show’s other star, also wrote episodes that gave Cosby’s Alexander Scott plenty to do and Cosby ample opportunity to show his acting ability.

“People writing…said that I was the Jackie Robinson of television drama,” Cosby said during a 2010 appearance. “I say to all of you if this true that Robert Culp has to be Eddie Stanky, Pee Wee Reese.” He said Culp’s “contribution in I Spy was very valuable in terms of civil rights.”

Besides the show’s social significance, I Spy also had extensive location filming. The lead actors accompanied a small crew that actually traveled to places such as Hong Kong and Tokyo to film exteriors. That footage would be paired with interior scenes shot at stages leased from Desilu Studios.

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

The Wild Wild West (Sept. 17): The show was originally pitched to CBS as something like “James Bond and cowboys.” It became something much greater.

The series concerned the adventures of ace U.S. Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin). They traveled in style on a train.

They traveled a lot taking on, among other foes, a 19th century cyborg (John Dehner); Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn), a short scientist with major plans, such as wiping out the world’s population to restore ecological balance; and Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono), a villain whose magic tricks might not be tricks at all.

Highlights included Conrad frequently fighting a roomful of thugs. In reality, it was usually the same group of stuntmen and it took ingenuity to disguise that fact from the audience. Also a highlight was Martin donning various disguises.

The Wild Wild West really was catching lightning in a bottle. Attempts to recapture the magic (made-for television movies in 1979 and 1980 as well as a 1999 feature film) fell short.

Cast of Get Smart on a TV Guide cover

Cast of Get Smart on a TV Guide cover

Get Smart (Sept. 18): The half-hour comedy created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry originally was developed for ABC with Tom Poston in mind. The network rejected it. NBC, looking for a show for Don Adams, snapped it up.

Brooks and Henry revamped the script to adapt it for Adams. For example, Adams had already perfected his “would you believe?” bit, using it on The Bill Dana Show situation comedy series. Thus, it was incorporated into the Get Smart pilot.

Adams’ Maxwell Smart was a force of nature. He bumbled his way through his adventures but, always confident in himself, emerged triumphant. It helped to have Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon) on his side.

Get Smart, naturally, parodied the spy genre, including one episode that did a takeoff on I Spy. But the series had other targets, including an episode that parodied The Fugitive. There have been various attempts over the decades to revive Get Smart, most recently a 2008 feature film with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.

The rise of the ‘origin’ storyline

Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale

Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale

Fifty, 60 years ago, with popular entertainment, you didn’t get much of an “origin” story. You usually got more-or-less fully formed heroes. A few examples:

Dr. No: James Bond is an established 00-agent and has used a Baretta for 10 years. Sean Connery was 31 when production started. If Bond is close to the actor’s age, that means he’s done intelligence work since his early 20s.

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: During the first season (1964-65), Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) has worked for U.N.C.L.E. for at least seven years (this is disclosed in two separate episodes). A fourth-season episode establishes that Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) graduated from U.N.C.L.E.’s “survival school” in 1956 and Solo two years before that.

Batman: While played for laughs, the Adam West version of Batman has been operating for an undisclosed amount of time when the first episode airs in January 1966. In the pilot, it’s established he has encountered the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) before. There’s a passing reference to how Bruce Wayne’s parents were “murdered by dastardly criminals” but that’s about it.

The FBI: When we first meet Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) in 1965, he’s established as the “top trouble shooter for the bureau” and is old enough to have a daughter in college. We’re told he’s a widower and his wife took “a bullet meant for me.” (The daughter would soon be dropped and go into television character limbo.) Still, we don’t see Young Lewis Erskine rising through the ranks of the bureau.

Get Smart: Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) was a top agent for CONTROL despite his quirks. There was no attempt to explain Max. He just was. A 2008 movie version gave Max a back story where he had once been fat.

I Spy: Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) have been partners for awhile, using a cover of a tennis bum and his trainer.

Mission: Impossible: We weren’t told much about either Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) or Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), the two team leaders of the Impossible Missions Force. A fifth-season episode was set in Phelps home town. Some episodes introduced friends of Briggs and Phelps. But not much more than that.

Mannix: We first meet Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) when he’s the top operative of private investigations firm Intertect. After Joe goes off on his own in season two, we meet some of Joe’s Korean War buddies (many of whom seem to try to kill him) and we eventually meet Mannix’s father, a California farmer. But none of this is told at the start.

Hawaii Five-O: Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) is the established head of the Hawaiian state police unit answerable only to “the governor or God and even they have trouble.” When the series was rebooted in 2010, we got an “origin” story showing McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) as a military man, the unit being formed, his first meeting with Dan Williams, etc.

And so on and so forth. This century, though, an “origin story” is the way to start.

With the Bond films, the series started over with Casino Royale, marketed as the origin of Bond (Daniel Craig). The novel, while the first Ian Fleming story, wasn’t technically an origin tale. It took place in 1951 (this date is given in the Goldfinger novel) and Bond got the two kills needed for 00-status in World War II.

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, co-bosses of Eon Productions

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Nevertheless, audience got an “origin” story. Michael G. Wilson, current co-boss of Eon Productions (along with his half-sister, Barbara Broccoli) wanted to do a Bond “origin” movie as early as 1986 after Roger Moore left the role of Bond. But his stepfather, Eon co-founder Albert R. Broccoli, vetoed the idea. With The Living Daylights in 1987, the audience got a younger, but still established, Bond (Timothy Dalton). In the 21st century, Wilson finally got his origin tale.

Some of this may be due to the rise of movies based on comic book movies. There are had been Superman serials and television series, but 1978’s Superman: The Motion Picture was the first A-movie project. It told the story of Kal-El from the start and was a big hit.

The 1989 Batman movie began with a hero (Michael Keaton) still in the early stages of his career, with the “origin” elements mentioned later. The Christopher Nolan-directed Batman Begins in 2005 started all over, again presenting an “origin” story. Marvel, which began making movies after licensing characters, scored a big hit with 2008’s Iron Man, another “origin” tale. Spider-Man’s origin has been told *twice* in 2002 and 2012 films from Sony Pictures.

Coming up in August, we’ll be getting a long-awaited movie version of U.N.C.L.E., this time with an origin storyline. In the television series, U.N.C.L.E. had started sometime shortly after World War II. In the movie, set in 1963, U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t started yet and Solo works for the CIA while Kuryakin is a KGB operative.

One supposes if there were a movie version of The FBI (don’t count on it), we’d see Erskine meet the Love of His Life, fall in love, get married, lose her and become the Most Determined Agent in the Bureau. Such is life.

Real life intrudes on a legacy of the ’60s spy craze

Bill Cosby with Victor Buono in an I Spy episode

Bill Cosby with Victor Buono in an I Spy episode

As 2014 draws to a close, one of the proudest accomplishments of 1960s spy entertainment may be forgotten because of a scandal.

The scandal? The numerous allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, now 77. The accomplishment? How I Spy, the 1965-68 television series, had a major social impact in the United States.

To recap: In the fall of 1965, an African American (Cosby) starring along side a white actor (Robert Culp) on television was a huge deal. I Spy was the least glamorous, most somber, of the American spy series. The show reflected a major social movement. It was more than another television series. After I Spy was canceled by NBC, Cosby’s career advanced to many levels of success.

But, by the end of this year, Cosby was depicted as a fallen icon. The New York Times, IN A DEC. 28 STORY by Lorne Manly and Graham Bowley examined how Cosby’s legal team dealt with the allegations.

As accusations of sexual assault continue to mount against Mr. Cosby — more than two dozen women have gone public, the latest last Monday — the question arises as to why these stories never sparked a widespread outcry before. While many of the women say they never filed police complaints or went public because they feared damaging their reputations or careers, the aggressive legal and media strategy mounted by Mr. Cosby and his team may also have played a significant role.

The final outcome of the allegations remains to be seen. Still, what had been one of the high points of the 1960s spy craze may never be looked at the same way. Real life has a way of intruding — and is always more serious than fiction.

Richard Sarafian, director of TV spy shows, dies at 83

Richard C. Sarafian

Richard C. Sarafian

Richard C. Sarafian, who directed episodes of 1960s spy television shows, died Sept. 18, according to AN OBITUARY POSTED BY VARIETY.

Sarafian directed the 1965 pilot for The Wild, Wild West, which combined spies with the Wild West. Star Robert Conrad, in a commentary track for the first-season DVD set, said that pilot, The Night of the Inferno, was expensive by mid-1960s standards. The Sarafian-directed episode sold the series and the director returned for one more first-season installment.

Sarafian also helmed EIGHT EPISODES of the 1965-68 I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, which was probably took the darkest take among ’60s spy shows. His final work on the series was the 1968 episode Home to Judgment, which had a plot SIMILAR TO THE 2012 007 MOVIE SKYFALL.

In the 1970s, Sarafian got the chance to direct some feature films, including Vanishing Point and THE NEXT MAN, in which Sean Connery played an Arab diplomat who’s the target of assassination plots.

To read the Variety obituary, CLICK HERE. To see a list of Sarafian’s directing credits on IMDB.com, CLICK HERE.