Who’s the next spy to be revived? How about Matt Helm?

Matt Helm as he appeared on Fawcett paperbacks, circa 1963

Matt Helm as he appeared on Fawcett paperbacks, circa 1963

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., after a long hibernation, arrives in movie theaters in less that two weeks. If U.N.C.L.E. can stage a comeback, any character can. So who should be the next ’60s spy to be revived from “suspended animation”?

How about Matt Helm, code name Eric?

Strictly speaking, Helm wasn’t a spy. He was a “counter assassin,” taking out various murderous threats to the United States. Created by author Donald Hamilton (1916-2006), Helm was the star of 27 paperback novels, published from 1960 until 1993.

Of course, the general public has, at best, a hazy memory of that. Helm is mostly remembered for four movies starring Dean Martin, which turned Hamilton’s very serious novels into light romps, which resembled a spy version of Dino’s 1965-74 variety show on NBC.

As this blog has noted before, that film series probably affected the 007 films the most. To get Dean Martin involved, he was made a partner in the enterprise. When Dino made more money from The Silencers than Sean Connery got from Thunderball, the Scotsman’s relationship with Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman soured.

In any case, like U.N.C.L.E. (which, after decades in the wilderness, arrives in movie theaters on Aug. 14), Helm has been “in development” in Hollywood for quite some time.

The last word this blog had was in 2012, when The Hollywood Reporter had a story that Helm still was on Paramount’s to-do list. If there’s been Helm news since, The Spy Commander missed it.

Regardless, you won’t find a Matt Helm movie on any list of scheduled movie releases in the near future.

Fans of Hamilton’s novels have long wished for a serious Matt Helm movie. In the jaded 21st century, audiences are more than ready for Helm’s rough stuff.

Still, Hamilton’s novels would be hard to replicate on film. The stories are told in the first person. Hamilton’s prose is so engaging, the reader gets sucked in. When Helm kills somebody, you almost find yourself saying, “Of course. What else was Matt to do?”

The beauty of Hamilton’s novels is they’re told in a gritty way (not unlike Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels), but the author could come up with plots as fanciful as anything Ian Fleming devised. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that many readers enjoyed over more than three decades.

Perhaps the operative with the code name of Eric will never make a screen comeback. Still, if Solo and Kuryakin can return to the screen…..

A cool U.N.C.L.E. publicity still (1965)

Toward the end of the first season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., David McCallum, playing Illya Kuryakin, posed for a series of publicity stills during production of The Girls of Nazarone Affair, the next-to-last episode of the show’s first season.

In this photo, he’s in a convertible with Sharon Tate, who had a small role in the episode. Tate, in this photograph, shows off her personality that made an impression on casting directors. She soon would soon get larger roles.

Looking at this image, you can understand why Dean Martin wanted Tate to return for a planned fifth Matt Helm movie, The Ravagers. Tate had been his co-star in The Wrecking Crew.

It wasn’t to be. Tragically, she would be murdered in 1969 by the Charles Manson family.

David McC, Sharon Tate

Evolution of the spy turtleneck

David McCallum's main titles credit in the final season

David McCallum’s main titles credit in the final season

The unveiling of SPECTRE’s teaser caused a bit of stir when it was released on social media on Tuesday.

Star Daniel Craig, instead of the traditional Bond tuxedo or business suit, wore a black turtleneck as well as a shoulder holster while holding a gun. While a different look for the current 007, turtlenecks and spies have gone together for a half century. Here’s a quick look.

David McCallum, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin had an iconic look with his black turtleneck. Ironically, he actually didn’t wear it that often in the show but it’s an image that many people remember.

As we noted IN THIS POST, Jon Heitland’s Man From U.N.C.L.E. book includes a photo of McCallum making an appearance in a parade accompanied by Boy Scout “bodyguards” wearing turtlenecks and carrying toy U.N.C.L.E. Special guns. The actor, though, was wearing a suit and tie.

Occasionally, Kuryakin might vary his wardrobe by wearing a gray turtleneck or, in a second-season episode, a white one with a red jacket when he was going undercover as a musician. Armie Hammer, who has the Kuryakin role in this year’s movie version of the series, has worn dark turtlenecks.

Dean Martin as Matt Helm with Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Dean Martin and Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Dean Martin, Matt Helm movies: Matt sometimes wore suits but he often favored light-colored turtlenecks, including tan and yellow ones. In the final film of the series, The Wrecking Crew, Helm donned a black turtleneck with white jacket and pants.

Sy Devore designed Dean Martin’s clothes for the 1966-68 film series. For whatever reason, turtlenecks (as well as dress cowboy boots) were a big part of the Matt Helm look. Devore had other celebrity customers, which is noted ON THE HOME PAGE of the store that bears his name.

Another moment of 007 clothing splendor

Another moment of 007 clothing splendor

Sean Connery, Diamonds Are Forever: Some fans make fun of the pink power tie that Sean Connery wore as 007 in his sixth Bond film for Eon Productions.

Yet, he had another outfit that sometimes draws comments: a brown turtleneck with a plaid sport jacket. Anthony Sinclair, it wasn’t. It’s only seen during a brief sequence where Bond accompanies Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) to find out what Blofeld (Charles Gray) has been doing with Whyte’s business empire. Bond is back in a three-piece suit for the climax aboard an oil rig.

Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Roger Moore, Live And Let Die: Many Bond fans reacted to the SPECTRE teaser by saying it was an homage to Roger Moore in his initial 007 film in 1973. The actor donned black turtleneck and pants along with a shoulder holster to sneak around San Monique prior to rescuing Solitaire (Jane Seymour) and taking down Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). The outfit was also similar to an outfit Steve McQueen wore in Bullitt, which came out five years earlier.

UPDATE (March 18): Feedback here (see Orange Wetsuit’s comment below) and on social media call for mentions of:

–Jonny Quest and his trademark black turtleneck. He wasn’t a spy, of course, but Race Bannon was.

–The Saint (Roger Moore), who, while not a spy, did wear turtlenecks as part of “sneaking around” outfits.

–Derek Flint (James Coburn), who wore a white turtleneck as part of a white outfit in In Like Flint.

–The Archer spy cartoon series.

Evolution of a meme: Helm to 007 to Kingsman

The Year of the Spy (in the United States, anyway) shifts into another gear this month with the debut of Kingsman: The Secret Service.

The movie, directed by Matthew Vaughn, strives for a return of the escapist spy film in a century known mostly for the grim and gritty, first popularized by Jason Bourne and then by a rebooted James Bond franchise with Daniel Craig.

Kingsman’s emphasis on escapism even extends to the movie’s ad campaign, which involves a meme that’s been around for decades.

In the ads, members of the Kingsman’s cast, including star Colin Firth, are depicted striding toward a woman with prosthetic feet (a character in the film) who’s holding a drink and a rifle.

kingsman ad

The image evokes the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only, in which Roger Moore’s Bond is standing before a swimsuit-wearing Melina, holding a crossbow.


But 007 wasn’t the first spy character to use such an image.

Fifteen years earlier, The Silencers — produced by Irving Allen, former partner of co-founding 007 producer Albert R. Broccoli — had an illustration of a woman in a similar pose. Matt Helm (Dean Martin) isn’t standing in front of her but his presence is noted regardless.

silencers ad

In any case, Kingsman already is out in Europe. The R-rated movies arrives in U.S. theaters on Feb. 13.

Bruce Lee working on The Wrecking Crew

There’s really not much to be said here. During production of The Wrecking Crew, the fourth and final Matt Helm movie, Bruce Lee was credited as “karate adviser.” In reality, he was the fight arranger.

This photo popped up Facebook. Here, Lee (1940-1973) works with Sharon Tate (1943-1969) and Nancy Kwan (b. 1939) on a fight sequence toward the end of The Wrecking Crew.

Even though Lee didn’t appear on camera, his stunt work/fight arranging made The Wrecking Crew a unique entry in the four-film series starring Dean Martin and produced by Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli’s former producing partner.

Bruce Lee supervises Sharon Tate (left) and Nancy Kwan

Bruce Lee supervises Sharon Tate (left) and Nancy Kwan

Red 2 utilizes a familiar meme

Luciana Paluzzi and Sean Connery during the filming of Thunderball

Luciana Paluzzi and Sean Connery on the set of Thunderball

This weekend’s release of Red 2 includes one of the most dependable memes of spy fiction: the hero and the femme fatale who have been more than friendly.

In the new movie, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Katja is described as “Kryptonite” for Bruce Willis’s Frank Moses. Often the femme fatales are enemies but at times reach an uneasy alliance with the hero — at least until she starts trying to kill him again.

James Bond-Fiona Volpe (Thunderball): In Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s James Bond “recruited” Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore to the side of right. In Thunderball, Connery’s Bond tries it again, albeit unsuccessfully, with Fiona Volpe (Luciana Volpe), the chief executioner for SPECTRE. “What a blow it must have been — you having a failure,” Fiona says. “Well, you can’t win them all,” Bond replies.

Fiona doesn’t survive long after that. But Paluzzi made such an impact that in the next 007 film, You Only Live Twice, Karin Dor’s Helga seems to be a knockoff of Fiona.

Napoleon Solo/Angela-Angelique-Serena Luciana Paluzzi had a dry run before her Thunderball role. When The Man From U.N.C.L.E. pilot was in production, producer Norman Felton had additional footage shot for a movie version for international audiences. Paluzzi’s Angela lures an U.N.C.L.E. agent to his death and tries to do the same with Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. The extra footage for the movie version as used, yet again, in a first-season episode of the series called The Four-Steps Affair.

Other Thrush femme fatale operatives showed up in Man’s first season, Serena (Senta Berger) and Angelique (Janine Gray). Solo has had a history with both but the viewer isn’t provided many details. Serena helps abduct Solo for a double can take his place. But at the story’s climax (the TV version was called The Double Affair, the movie version The Spy With My Face), Serena ends up shooting the double.

Matt Helm/Vadya: In the third Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, The Removers, Helm goes to the “recognition room” to review dossiers of Soviet-bloc assassins. One of the dossiers concerns the mysterious “Vadya.” Helm readers don’t meet Vadya until Hamilton’s sixth Helm novel, The Ambushers. The encounter ends in a draw. Helm meets Vadya twice more in the novels The Devastators and The Menacers. She’s killed off early in The Menacers, but her death is a key part of the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, the 1967 adaption of The Ambushers, starring Dean Martin, includes Vadya (Senta Berger again), except the character has been renamed. The character is killed before the end of the movie.

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.


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