Yaphet Kotto, an appreciation

Yaphet Kotto in Live And Let Die

Early in his career, Yaphet Kotto (1939-2021) was working as an actor when “Old Hollywood” was holding on for dear life.

For example, he appeared in 5 Card Stud, a 1968 western starring Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. It was produced by Hal Wallis, born in 1900 and as “Old Hollywood” as you could get. His credits included Casablanca as well as Martin and Lewis comedies. And this movie came out before the Wallis-produced True Grit.

Nevertheless, Kotto, not yet 30, more than held his own with his established fellow actors. Kotto’s character is killed but in his dying moments provides the clue needed to track down his killer.

Hollywood was about to change. And Yaphet Kotto would be part of the change.

Kotto made an impact, whether in films or on television shows. As news of his passing circulated, the actor was subject of numerous tributes on social media.

He was one of the most memorable villains in the James Bond film series. Kotto was Bond’s first Black primary adversary in Live And Let Die (1973). His Dr. Kananga led a double life, as the leader of a Caribbean nation who moonlights as an American criminal.

In his two identities, Kotto projected different personalities. Kananga was the seemingly dignified head of government for San Monique. Mr. Big was the street criminal.

It’s not until the second half of the movie, the audience gets to see Kananga’s true self. Kotto gets one of the best “villain speeches” in the series. He explains his plan is to provide free samples of heroin until the number of addicts in the U.S. has doubled.

Roger Moore, making his Bond debut, asks if that won’t upset certain “families” (i.e. the Mafia).

Kotto seizes the set-up line and runs with it.

He says those families will be driven out of their minds and “subsequently out of the business, leaving me and the telephone company as the only growing monopolies in this country for years to come.” Kotto’s delivery makes an impact.

Kotto had a long career. His IMDB.COM entry lists more than 90 credits. He appeared in a variety of genres, everything from science fiction to gritty crime dramas.

Among those paying tribute to Kotto were two film directors:

Sean Connery, original film 007, dies at 90

Sean Connery in a 007 publicity still

Sean Connery in a 007 publicity still

Sean Connery, the original film James Bond, has died at 90. His death was confirmed by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, in a post on Twitter.

Jason Connery, the actor’s son, told the BBC that his father “has been unwell for some time.”

The Scottish actor took on the role of James Bond with Dr. No, when he was 31. By doing so, he became one of the major icons of the 1960s, along with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Connery enjoyed a long career, which extended into the early 21st century. His last live-action performance was 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Connery also did voice work for a 2005 video game that adapted the 007 film From Russia With Love and a 2012 animated film, Sir Billi.  The actor’s honors included an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1987’s The Untouchables.

Despite all that, his seven Bond films — six for Eon Productions as well as the non-Eon production of 1983’s Never Say Never Again — defined his career and made him a star.

Dr. No producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, working with a modest budget, decided on Connery relatively early in pre-production. United Artists, the studio that would release 11 Bond films before it was absorbed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, initially was skeptical.

Eventually, UA executives were sold. It was a decision they would profit from handsomely. The 007 series was UA’s major asset in the 1960s, a decade when the studio also released such films as West Side Story, In the Heat of the Night and low-cost but profitable films featuring The Beatles.

Jack Lord and Sean Connery during Dr. No filming

Jack Lord and Sean Connery during Dr. No filming

Connery’s Bond was both sophisticated and ruthless. The actor was tutored in the former trait by director Terence Young, who helmed three of the first four 007 movies. It was Young who polished the rough diamond of an actor who came from a working-class background in Scotland.

Audiences adored the combination. The first four Bond films were mostly faithful adaptations of Ian Fleming novels. For the American market, Connery’s Bond was a more macho hero than audience members probably expected.

The actor stayed busy with non-Bond projects, including The Hill, a World War II drama. But the conversation kept coming back to Bond, like in an Oct. 3, 1965 episode of What’s My Line?

Connery, the first of two mystery guests, was present because The Hill was opening in New York later that week. He was also in New York filming A Fine Madness, directed by Irvin Kershner, who’d later work with Connery on Never Say Never Again.

But panelist Martin Gabel, one of Connery’s co-stars in the Alfred Hitchcock film Marnie, cited Bond in deducing the actor’s identity.

What’s more, Connery’s relationship with Broccoli and Saltzman became troubled. As the budgets and scope of the movies expanded, Connery felt cheated with his share of the enterprise.

In 1966, Columbia Pictures released The Silencers, a spoofy version of Donald Hamilton’s very serious Matt Helm novels. The producer was Broccoli’s former partner, Irving Allen.

To secure the services of star Dean Martin, Allen had to make Dino a partner. That ensured the actor, who received a share of the proceeds, would get a bigger payday than Connery got for 007 films. From then on, Connery would be at odds with his Bond employers.

Connery quit the series after 1967’s You Only Live Twice (the first 007 venture than dispensed with the plot of an Ian Fleming novel).

UA, unhappy with the box office of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, lured Connery back for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever with a big payday, including a $1.25 million fee (which the Scottish actor donated to a trust he founded). Connery also received a percentage of the box office.

After Diamonds, Connery said he was done with Eon for good. But he went back into Bondage one more time with Never Say Never Again.

Connery had more behind-the-camera power than he ever had with Eon. He brought in scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais to do an uncredited rewrite of Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script. The actor also recruited Michel Legrand to score the movie.

Both the script and the music would be among the most criticized aspects of Never Say Never Again. But many Bond fans, happy to see Connery one last time, overlooked the actor’s role as de facto producer.

Sean Connery in 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Regardless, Connery was the building block for Eon’s 007 film series that has lasted more than a half century.

The series, of course, had many talented contributors including director Young, production designer Ken Adam and composer John Barry. However, Connery provided a popular Bond for audiences. All future Bond actors would be compared to Connery.

Some fans and critics have argued that Connery has been surpassed in the 21st century by Daniel Craig. But without Connery at the start, that’s almost a moot point. All of Connery’s 007 successors had the opportunity because of the Scot’s original work.

The Wrecking Crew-Golden Gun mashup

Bruce Lee supervises Sharon Tate (left) and Nancy Kwan during production of The Wrecking Crew

The new movie Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood prompted the blog to again watch The Wrecking Crew, the final Matt Helm film with Dean Martin.

The latter figures prominently in the Quentin Tarantino-directed Once Upon a Time.

After the latest viewing of The Wrecking Crew, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities with the 1974 James Bond film, The Man With the Golden Gun.

Wrecking Crew: Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate) is a klutz.

Golden Gun: Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) is a klutz.

Wrecking Crew: Freya works for British Intelligence.

Golden Gun: Goodnight works for British Intelligence.

Wrecking Crew: One of Freya’s colleagues is known as JB.

Golden Gun: One of Goodnight’s colleagues is James Bond.

Wrecking Crew: Matt Helm (Dean Martin) spends a portion of the movie commenting on Freya’s clumsiness.

Golden Gun: James Bond (Roger Moore) spends a portion of the movie commenting on Goodnight’s clumsiness.

Wrecking Crew: When the mission is completed, Helm’s boss, MacDonald (John Larch) unexpectedly calls Helm in the villain’s private rail car that is towing $1 billion in gold. (You’d think it’d have an unlisted number.)

Golden Gun: When the mission is completed, Bond’s boss, M (Bernard Lee) unexpectedly calls Bond in the villain’s private boat. (You’d think it’d have an unlisted number.)

Wrecking Crew: Movie ends with Helm and Freya making out, about to make love.

Golden Gun: Movie ends with Bond and Goodnight making out, about to make love.

Tarantino’s theater to show an Irving Allen double feature

Dean Martin’s title card for The Wrecking Crew, titles designed by Wayne Fitzgerald.

Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema has scheduled a double feature of movies produced by Irving Allen — The Wrecking Crew and Hammerhead.

Allen (1905-1987) was the partner of Albert R. Broccoli. But the partnership ended in part because Broccoli wanted to make movies based on Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels while Allen was cool to the idea.

Once the 007 film series took off, Allen looked to get in the game.

The Wrecking Crew was the last of four Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin. To entice Martin, Allen made him a partner in the enterprise. That meant Martin, who got a percentage of the action, got paid more for 1966’s The Silencers than Sean Connery got for Thunderball.

The Wrecking Crew also is referenced in Tarantino’s upcoming movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywwod. The cast includes Margo Robbie as actress Sharon Tate. A recent trailer for the movie shows Robbie’s Tate going to see herself in The Wrecking Crew.

Hammerhead was based on a novel by James Mayo (real name Stephen Coulter), whose books featured a hero named Charles Hood. Vince Edwards played Hood in Hammerhead. One of the screenwriters was Herbert Baker, who had worked on three Matt Helm movies for Allen.

The Wrecking Crew and Hammerhead are scheduled to be shown June 12 and 13, according to the New Beverly’s website. The theater is showing a new 35mm print of The Wrecking Crew.

Dino’s Matt Helm movies to be shown Sept. 26 on TCM

Dean Martin and Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Movie channel TCM will present all four of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films on Sept. 26. It’s part of a month-long salute to Dino, with Martin movies being shown on Wednesdays.

The Helm movies were produced by Irving Allen, former partner of Albert R. Broccoli. That partnership ended, in part, because Broccoli wanted to make movies based on Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Allen wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea.

After the early Bond films, produced by Broccoli and his new partner, Harry Saltzman, had become a success, Allen searched for his own spy property to pursue.

He ended up with Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series of serious spy novels. But Allen got Dean Martin to participate as a partner. So the movie adaptations took a much lighter tone and, in effect, were spy versions of Martin’s variety show.

The Silencers will be shown at 8 p.m. ET, followed by Murderers’ Row at 10, The Ambushers at midnight and The Wrecking Crew at 2 a.m., Sept. 27.

For more about the Helm film series, read MATT HELM, AMERICA’S LOADED WEAPON.

h/t to reader Mark Henderson, who flagged this on The Spy Command’s Facebook page.

Ford cars, RIP

“Have you not heard? Ford is getting out of the car business!”

This week, Ford Motor Co. said it was virtually exiting the car business in North America, its home (and most profitable) market. By 2020, Ford announced, it will just have two cars in its lineup: the Mustang sports car and the Ford Active crossover due out next year. Ford will concentrate on trucks, SUVs and “crossovers.”

For people of a certain age this seems almost unthinkable. Ford always was aggressive with product placement. Ford cars have been in generations of films and U.S. television shows.

Here’s a look at some prominent examples.

James Bond films: The Bond Cars website provides a list, which says Ford shows up early in the 007 film series produced by Eon Productions. For example, it’s a Ford that serves as the hearse used by Dr. No’s assassins when they kill MI6 operative Strangways.

Ford’s relationship geared up in Goldfinger. A Lincoln Continental is crushed. Felix Leiter rides around in a Ford Thunderbird. Auric Goldfinger uses Ford trucks to transport his larger laser gun to Fort Knox.

And, of course, the movie marked the film debut of Mustang. The sports car was introduced in the spring of 1964 while filming was underway on Goldfinger. Mustangs would also show up in Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever.

Thunderball also featured a lot of Ford cars, including the Continental, Count Lippe’s Ford Fairlane and a station wagon among other vehicles. Emilo Largo drives a Ford Thunderbird on his way to SPECTRE headquarters immediately after the film’s main titles.

The automaker had an on-and-off relationship with the series. Teresa Bond (Diana Rigg) favored a red Mercury Cougar in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. A number of Ford cars are crashed in the moon buggy chase in Diamonds Are Forever.

Ford also owned Aston Martin from 1987 until 2007. For Die Another Day, Ford had a huge product placement deal, mostly to promote European brands it owned at that time, including Aston, Land Rover and Jaguar. However, a Ford Thunderbird (driven by Halle Berry’s Jinx) also showed up.

The company’s ties to the film series ended with 2008’s Quantum of Solace. Land Rover would return in the 2010s, but after Ford had sold it off.

Matt Helm and Gail Hendricks (Dean Martin and Stella Stevens) in Matt’s Mercury station wagon equipped with a bar.

Matt Helm film series: For four 1960s Matt Helm movies with Dean Martin, Ford provided the vehicles.

Perhaps the most offbeat car was a Mercury station wagon, which was Matt Helm’s personal car in The Silencers (1966). It was equipped with a bar (!) in the back seat. Matt encourages Gail Hendricks (Stella Stevens) to have a drink or two to loosen up. She ends up consuming too much and passing out.

Other Ford-made cars in the series included a Thunderbird Matt drove around Monte Carlo in Murderers’ Row. It had some extras, including a device where words dictated into a microphone are spelled out on the car’s tail lights. (“If you can read this, you’re too close…”)

Hawaii Five-O (original series): Steve McGarrett’s signature car was a Mercury (a two-door model in the pilot, a four-door version thereafter). Lots of other Ford-made cars showed up during the 1968-1980 series.

Ford even supplied cars for an 11th season episode filmed in Singapore. The cast of that two-hour installment, The Year of the Horse, included George Lazenby, who received “special guest star” billing.

Erskine in a Mercury made by Ford Motor Co. in a sixth-season end titles of The FBI.

The FBI: Ford supplied cars for a number of Quinn Martin-produced shows. But the tightest relationship between the company and QM Productions was this 1965-1974 series.

Ford cut a deal to sponsor the show, which was broadcast on ABC. The automaker agreed to kick in extra money to ensure the series would be filmed in color. Executives felt a color series would show off Ford cars better. When The FBI debuted in fall 1965, most of ABC’s lineup was still produced in black and white.

Ford also vetoed the broadcast of one first-season episode, The Hiding Place, because there had been talk of a boycott being organized. The episode finally saw the light of day in 2011 when Warner Archive began releasing the show.

Symbolic of the ties between Ford and show came in the end titles. Inspector Lewis Erkine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) came out of the FBI Building (now the Department of Justice Building) and drove a Ford product home. It was a Mustang for the first four seasons. Subsequent seasons had different Ford-made cars.

The end titles were productions in and of themselves. Zimbalist traveled to Washington for annual meetings with then-Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover. Ford would transport a car for him to drive in Washington for the following season’s end titles. Some of the cars were prototypes and weren’t the most sturdy.

This post merely scratches the surface. There have been many series over the years featuring Ford cars. It won’t be quite the same with Ford cars going away.

Is The Ambushers coming true?

Poster for The Ambushers (1967)

Today, the Reuters news service had a story with the following first paragraph:

“High exposure to radiofrequency radiation of the type emitted by cell phones has been linked to tumors in tissues surrounding nerves in the hearts of male rats, but not female rats or any mice, according to a draft of U.S. government studies released on Friday.”

The blog couldn’t help it, but the first thing that came to mind was the 1967 movie The Ambushers, the third Matt Helm movie starring Dean Martin.

That film centered around a U.S. built flying saucer that could only be piloted by women. Why? Well, its power source killed men but left women unharmed.

At the beginning of The Ambushers, the U.S. flying saucer is undergoing its first flight. But it’s promptly hijacked by villains utilizing a giant magnet. The audience sees the saucer is piloted by Shiela (Janice Rule) but the angle about the power source killing men isn’t explained until later.

One other then-futuristic aspect of the movie has already come true. In the movie, Dino’s Helm is taking pictures with a seemingly innocent camera. He’s force to take the film out by a thug.

But it doesn’t matter because the camera already is broadcasting a digital image (though that term isn’t used) to Washington where Mac (James Gregory), the boss of ICE (Intelligence and Counter Espionage), and his assistants can view it.

Thus, Matt Helm had a digital camera decades before they became common.

Happy 100th birthday, Dino

Dean Martin (1917-1995), a lover not a fighter

Dean Martin (1917-1995), a lover not a fighter in The Ambushers (1967).

Today, June 7, is the 100th anniversary of the birthday of Dean Martin. Dino, in his day, was the epitome of cool and charm. For many, he still is.

His contribution to spy entertainment was starring in the four-film Matt Helm series produced by Irving Allen, former partner of Eon Productions co-founder Albert R. Broccoli.

To entice Dino, Allen made the actor his partner. As a result, Martin enjoyed a bigger pay day for the first Helm film, The Silencers, than Sean Connery got for Thunderball. Connery noticed and wanted to be a partner in the Bond franchise..

The Helm series doesn’t get respect in the 21st century. Many who like the movies refer to their affection as a “guilty pleasure.”

The Helm movies, rather than doing straight adaptations of Donald Hamilton’s serious novels, incorporated Dino’s “lovable lush” act.

One of the movies, Murderers’ Row, even had a plot point where Matt gives his boss Mac (James Gregory) a clue by deliberately misstating his alcohol preference. (“Matt Helm never drank a glass of bourbon in his life!” Mac says as he tries to figure out the traitor in his organization.)

For the record, this blog would greatly appreciate a new Helm movie that faithfully adapted the Hamilton novels. At the same time, the Spy Commander discovered the novels *because* of the Dean Martin films. Speaking strictly for myself, I’m very fond of both, despite the flaws of the movies.

Regardless, today is a day of celebration. Bottoms up, Dino.

Daliah Lavi, ’60s spy femme fatale, dies

Daliah Lavi, right, chats with Dean Martin during filming of TheSilencers. Director Phil Karlson is at left.

Daliah Lavi, who co-starred in the 1967 Casino Royale spoof as well as The Silencers, has died at 74, according to an obituary posted by The Hollywood Reporter.

Lavi also appeared in Some Girls Do and The Spy With the Cold Nose.

In 1966’s The Silencers, Lavi played Tina, a character actually in the first Matt Helm novel, Death of a Citizen.

While the movie was done as a spoof, the basic dynamic was retained from the serious original story. Helm thinks Tina is on his side when she’s really working for the other.

The ’66 movie, starring Dean Martin, took the basic plots of two serious Donald Hamilton novels and went in an outlandish direction.

Lavi’s career extended from the 1950s into the late 1990s. She was born in Palestine. The former actress died May 3 in Asheville, North Carolina, according to an obit published by the Asheville Citizen-Times.

That obit says her “funeral and interment will take place in her native Israel.”

1991: Donald Hamilton discusses Matt Helm films

Donald Hamilton

Donald Hamilton

Over on The Spy Command’s Facebook page, reader Bill Groves shared a 1991 letter he received from Matt Helm creator Donald Hamilton.

In the letter, Hamilton commented about the four 1960s Matt Helm movies starring Dean Martin.

The films took Hamilton’s very serious novels and made them into comedies that incorporated bits from Dino’s variety show. The hero supposedly drank heavily (like Dean on his show) and was frequently surrounded by beautiful women. The Ambushers (1967) even had a joke referencing Martin’s birthplace of Stubenville, Ohio.

Poster for The Silencers

Poster for The Silencers

As it turns out, Hamilton wasn’t upset about the changes. Groves gave us permission to do a post about the letter. What follows is a portion of the text. The word is boldface was underlined by Hamilton in the original.

 

Dear Mr. Groves:

With respect to the Helm movies, my philosophy is that I write to entertain and once I’ve done a book or story to my satisfaction, anybody who can use my material entertainingly, and is willing to pay me for the privilege, is welcome, even if he doesn’t stick very closely to my original vision (if I may use a fancy word for it).

From this standpoint, I found the movie of THE SILENCERS enjoyable even though the playboy character played by Dean Martin was pretty far from the grimmer character I’d visualized. So it wasn’t my SILENCERS; it was still a fun movie, and I had no objections. (Of course a writer would always prefer to see his work brought to the screen the way he wrote it, but that happens so seldom, it’s only a dream.) The other Helm movies, unfortunately, were pretty mechanical and I didn’t like them much, not because they treated my ‘vision’ disrespectfully, but simply because they were not very enjoyable as movies.

(snip)

PS: For a much more satisfactory job, from the writer’s standpoint, try to catch a rerun of the movie made by William Wyler from my book THE BIG COUNTRY.

The Silencers, released in 1966, was the first film in the Helm series. It actually took material was from both 1960s’s Death of a Citizen, the first Helm novel, and 1962’s The Silencers, the fourth.

The four movies used varying amounts of Hamilton content from the books. For more details, read this 2000 article, which includes updates from 2006 and 2015.

Meanwhile, for those unfamiliar with it, The Big Country was an epic 1958 film with Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives and Chuck Connors. Ives won an Oscar as best supporting actor.