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.

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Daliah Lavi, ’60s spy femme fatale, dies

Daliah Lavi, right, chats with Dean Martin during filming of TheSilencers

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.

Happy 100th, Donald Hamilton

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

Today, March 24, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of author Donald Hamilton, creator of Matt Helm.

It has been 23 years since the last Helm novel, The Damagers, was published. It’s common for fans of the series to get out their copies every so often to re-read the adventures of the American “counter-assassin.”

The Helm novels, unlike Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, were written in the first person. The stories are like a cross between Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and the more fantastic elements of Fleming’s 007 stories. Because the reader only discovers things as its hero (or anti-hero) does, you get sucked into the rhythms of the story before realizing just how much fantasy there is in them.

For example, with the sixth novel, The Ambushers, Helm ends up in a machete fight with an ex-Nazi while a missile is ready to be fired. But the journey to that point is pretty grim and gritty. By the time of the machete fight, you’re so caught up in the story you’re not going to stop there.

The first novel of the series, Death of a Citizen, was done as a one-off. Helm, who has been living peacefully for 15 years after World War II, is suddenly drawn back into his former violent life. An editor suggested with a few changes (including the character’s first name, George and killing off Helm’s wife) it could be turned into a series. The character became Matt Helm. Hamilton settled for Mrs. Helm getting a divorce.

The books were turned into comedies with Dean Martin, produced by Irving Allen, the former partner of James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. There has been talk for years of a series Helm film but nothing has developed.

Hamilton died in 2006. There is one unpublished Helm novel but the Hamilton family has held onto it in case a new movie develops. For now, fans of the novel have to be satisfied with re-reading Hamilton’s well-told stories.

George Kennedy and the art of scene stealing

George Kennedy's Patroni steals a scene from Burt Lancaster, the star of Airport.

George Kennedy’s Patroni steals a scene from Burt Lancaster, the star of Airport.

We deviate from our normal format to note the passing of character actor George Kennedy, who has died at the age of 91, according to an obituary at  THEWRAP WEBSITE.

Kennedy won an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke. But he also provided a kind of acting lesson in the 1970 film Airport — namely, a practical demonstration of how a supporting player can steal a movie from its stars.

Airport has been copied and parodied over the years. But in 1970, it was a big, prestigious film, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. It eventually was nominated for Best Picture and the distinguished actress Helen Hayes, who appeared in the film, picked up an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Nevertheless, Kennedy in a secondary role actually dominates the scenes he’s in. He plays Joe Patroni, a gruff airliner mechanic. For much of the movie he has a cigar. He also takes great advantage of the structure of the Big Movie.

Tom Mankiewicz, the one-time James Bond screenwriter, in his audio commentary for Live And Let Die describes a type of character such movies can’t do without — Leo The Explainer.

These characters provide expository dialogue, giving the audience information it needs to know. As Mankiewicz told it, stars don’t like providing such explanations. So Leo The Explainer serves that purpose.

The thing is, Kennedy’s Patroni — Airport’s Leo The Explainer — does so in an entertaining fashion that draws attention to himself.

In the movie, a mentally disturbed man (Van Heflin) intends to explode a bomb aboard a flight to Rome so his wife will collect insurance. The authorities have figured this out but the question is how to stop him.

There’s a scene in the office of airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Lancaster) with a model of a Boeing 707. Patroni talks about what what happens when there’s sudden decompression, giving a semi-graphic explanation. (Patroni says he once witnessed such an incident personally.)

Eventually, the disturbed man sets off the bomb. Later, it’s up to Patroni to get a stranded airliner, stuck in snow, to free up the airport’s main runway so the returning, damaged jet can land safely. With time running out, Patroni declares, “We’re going for broke!” and against all odds moves the stranded plane out of the way.

Universal, the studio that released Airport, decided to release other Airport movies between 1974 and 1979. The one constant: George Kennedy as Patroni. Acting schools teach you about the craft. But Kennedy’s performance in the original Airport is a lesson for aspiring actors about the reality.

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