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.

Boris Karloff’s visits to ’60s spy entertainment

Boris Karloff (1887-1969) is best remembered for horror roles such as Frankenstein’s monster. But Karloff was quite versatile and in the last decade of his life found himself drawn to spy-related entertainment, particularly on television. A spy boom was underway and the character actor ended up being part of it.

Boris Karloff as Mr. Singh in The Wild, Wild West


The Wild, Wild West, “The Night of the Golden Cobra”: Karloff is Mr. Singh, who abducts James West (Robert Conrad), ace U.S. Secret Service agent, so he can instruct his three sons in the art of killing. Singh doesn’t do things in a small way. Having emigrated from India, he has a palace out in the 1870s American West. The early second-season episode was scripted by Henry Sharp, one of the show’s best writers. Karloff makes the most of Sharp’s witty dialogue.

Boris Karloff clowns around with Stefanie Powers and Robert Vaughn during production of The Mother Muffin Affair


The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., “The Mother Muffin Affair”: Probably one of the best remembered episodes of a series that had a lot of duds. Karloff plays Mother Muffin, who heads up an independent assassination team. Producer Douglas Benton had worked with Karloff on the Thriller anthology series that ran from 1960 to 1962.

According to an interview Benton did in the late 1990s (which is re-enacted in a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words), writer Joseph Calvelli described Mother Muffin as “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton decided to send a copy of the script to Karloff, feeling it would appeal to the actor’s sense of humor. As Benton remembered it, the script came back a few days later with a note that read: “Where and when?” The episode has Robert Vaughn appearing as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo, teaming up with Stefanie Powers’s April Dancer.

The Venetian Affair: This 1967 movie, based on a novel by Helen MacInnes, was a chance for Robert Vaughn to star in a serious spy vehicle compared with the more escapist fare on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Karloff is part of a cast that also includes Elke Sommer and Luciana Paluzzi. The film starts with an American diplomat performing a suicide bombing at a peace conference.

I Spy, “Mainly on the Plains”: Karloff is a scientist who seems to have become a bit unglued and is giving Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) fits. The episode was scripted by series creators Morton Fine and David Friedkin (who didn’t get that creator credit while they were alive; they received it posthumously with the I Spy Returns 1994 TV movie) and directed by Friedkin.

45th anniversary of TV spy mania part III: I Spy’s touch of reality

The television spy mania of September 1965 had a mostly escapist flavor. The primary nemesis of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was Thrush, a “band of renegades” out “to rule the world.” The Wild, Wild West’s pilot concerned a plot to take over much of the western United States and its third episode would introduce a dwarf mad scientist named Dr. Loveless who had ambitions far beyond that.

I Spy was different. U.S. agents Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) dealt with, well, Soviet and Chinese agents. In other words, it was a series grounded in the Cold War. It wasn’t exactly John Le Carre. We still got exotic locations (or at least exotic for most viewers in the mid-1960s). Like other spy shows of the era, it had its share of challenges to get on the air.

The series was created by writer-producers Morton Fine and David Friedkin. They would be denied a creators credit until the 1994 television movie I Spy Returns, which didn’t air until both men had died. They joined forces with executive producer Sheldon Leonard, who cranked out popular half-hour sitcoms for CBS such as The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Leonard was looking to expand his customer base (with NBC agreeing to air I Spy) and wanting to do something other than a sitcom.

Robert Culp, however, wasn’t pleased with the Fine-Friedkin scripted/Leonard-directed pilot. In a DVD commentary recorded many years after the series, Culp described locking himself away to work on his own scripts for the show, without knowledge of the producers. Before production began, he had four completed scripts. He took one of them to the producers who, while admitting it was quite good, said he couldn’t just drop off a complete script. Culp was told he’d have to do a “treatment,” or outline, before submitting another.

Culp went back worked up a treatment for the second of his already-completed scripts. The producers liked it and said to write it up. He dropped off a copy the same day. Realizing they’d been had, the Fine-Friedkin team asked just to see what Culp had.

NBC evidently agreed with Culp. The network wouldn’t air the pilot until midway through the 1965-66 season. For the first episode to be broadcast, NBC chose So Long Patrick Henry, one of the Culp-scripted episodes. Here’s the entire episode on YouTube.

I Spy was a landmark show because it featured a white man and a black man as equals while the civil rights movement was in full swing. It also helped make Bill Cosby a huge star. The premier episode can also be enjoyed for Culp’s script (including a bit of dark humor but is also politically incorrect toward Asians, it should be noted), the performances its guest stars. Composer Earle Hagen even managed to drop “The James Bond Theme” in the show’s epilogue. It’s easy to understand why NBC selected So Long Patrick Henry to kick off the series.

I Spy now on YouTube

YouTube recently cut a deal with Hollywood studios that is enabling complete episodes of some old TV shows to be on YouTube. One of the shows is I Spy, the groundbreaking 1965-1968 series that featured white and black agents paired together. It also helped make a star of Bill Cosby.

So far, only five episodes of the first season are on YouTube. Also, YouTube appears to have decided to not permit the episodes to be embedded on Web site. In any event, the episodes available (and we’re linking them via their titles) are as follows:

So Long Patrick Henry: Agents Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) are to present defected athlete Leroy Browne (Ivan Dixon) a chance to regain his U.S. citizenship. Written by Culp, this was the first episode broadcast but it’s not the pilot. Directed by Leo Penn, son father of actor Sean. Composer Earle Hagen actually incorporates The James Bond Theme (rather effectively) in the epilogue.

A Cup of Kindness: Russ Conley, Kelly’s old teacher in spy school, shows up in Hong Kong and gives Kelly and Scott an envelope. The contents, once decoded, are instructions saying Conley’s a double agent and has to be killed. Written by series creators Morton Fine and David Friedkin, with Friedkin playing Conley.

Carry Me Back to Old Tsing-Tao . A Chinese criminal wants to return to his home on Taiwan (called Formosa here). The U.S. will permit him to do so IF he makes good on $1 million in back taxes. The problem: the criminal has three badass sons-in-law (Bernard Fox, David Sheiner and Michael Conrad) who want the money for themselves.

Chrysanthemum . Composer Hagen incorporates a tune he originally wrote in the 1940s and which he’d revive in the 1980s for a Mike Hammer series starring Stacy Keach.

Dragon’s Teeth. Kelly runs into an old flame while on assignment. Don’t be surprised if it turns out badly.