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.

 

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Bill Dana dies; he had connections to Get Smart

Three Szathmary brothers: Al, Bill (Dana) and Irving in a photo that ran on the Film Music Society website.

Bill Dana, best known as the character Jose Jimenez, has died at 92, according to an obituary published by The Washington Post.

Dana, born William Szathmary, had connections to Get Smart.

The Bill Dana Show, a 1963-65 sitcom with Dana as Jose Jimenez, included Don Adams as a hotel detective, Bryon Glick.

The character of Glick, essentially, was a warm up for Adams playing Maxwell Smart in Get Smart.

The 1965-70 spy spoof originally was developed for ABC with Tom Poston in mind as Maxwell Smart. ABC took a pass. But NBC, which had Adams under contract, took a flier. The Smart character was tweaked to incorporate Adams comedy bits such as “Would you believe…?”

What’s more Dan’s brother, Irvin Szathmary (1907-83) composed the music for the series, including its distinctive theme.

In 1980, a theatrical movie version of Get Smart, The Nude Bomb, was produced. Bill Dana was one of the writers.

Bill Dana also was a guest star in a third-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He was one of the relatively rare male innocents.

Here’s a clip from The Bill Dana Show in which Adams’ warmup to Maxwell Smart is nearly complete.

In an interview for the Archive of American Television, Dana described the origin of Jose Jimenez.

UPDATE (7 p.m.): Reader Stuart Basinger reminds the blog that Bill Dana appeared as Agent Quigley in a fifth-season Get Smart episode titled Ice Station Siegfried.

Don Rickles dies at 90; credits include ’60s spy TV shows

Don Rickles with Don Adams in Get Smart

Comedian and actor Don Rickles has died at 90, according to an obituary posted by The Hollywood Reporter.

Rickles’ insult humor kept him in the public eyes for decades. In the 1960s, he was already well known and became a guest star on a number of spy series of the era.

His spy TV credits include a two-part Get Smart story, The Little Black Book, where he played Sid Krimm, a Korean Army buddy of Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart; a first-season episode of The Wild Wild West where Rickles’ character appears to be the primary villain; and an episode of I Spy, Night Train to Madrid.

Veteran television director Ralph Senensky helmed Rickles’ appearance in The Wild Wild West, titled The Night of the Druid’s Blood. Here is how Senensky described Rickles in a post on his website about the episode.

“Don was a fanatically conscientious actor, deadly serious about his craft. But that was only during rehearsals and filming,” Senensky wrote. “Rickles between shots was the funnyman in charge. Between takes those final four and a half days seemed more like a Las Vegas showroom than a film set.”

That included insult humor aimed at the show’s star, Robert Conrad, according to the director.

“Robert Conrad was not the tallest creature on the planet, but according to Rickles, even with lifts in the shoes he wore, he barely reached the height of Billy Barty,” Senensky wrote.

“Rickles was merciless, but funny….For some reason Don never targeted me. I wonder if it was because he realized which side of the bread his close-ups were buttered on.”

UPDATE (3:35 p.m., New York time): Roger Moore noted the passing of Don Rickles on Twitter.

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Dick Gautier, who played Hymie the Robot, dies

Don Adams and Dick Gautier in Get Smart

Don Adams and Dick Gautier in Get Smart

Dick Gautier, perhaps best remembered as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart, has died at 85, according to an obituary posted by The Hollywood Reporter.

Gautier’s career lasted more than 50 years, according to his IMDB.COM entry. His career highlights included a 1961 Tony nomination for Bye Bye Birdie, according to the Reporter obituary.

Still, he made a big impression in six episodes of the spy spoof Get Smart as Hymie, a robot with a super computer for a brain and incredibly strong. Hymie was originally built by the villainous organization KAOS but became an ally of Maxwell Smart (Don Adams).

Hymie, being a robot, sometimes took things too literally such as one episode where the Chief of Control (Edward Platt) said, “Hymie will you knock that stuff off?” Hymie proceeded to knock some papers on a desk to the floor. In another episode, Hymie said he’d like to work for IBM because “it’s a nice way to meet some intelligent machines.”

The six Hymie episodes were written by actor Gary Clarke under the name C.F. L’Amoreaux, a variation of his real name. Clarke’s acting credits included The Virginian television series.

Gautier appeared one final time as Hymie in a 1989 TV movie, Get Smart, Again! It would be his only appearance without Clarke writing for Hymie.

Pat Harrington Jr. dies; actor appeared on spy TV

Pat Harrington as a dog expert with David McCallum in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Pat Harrington as a dog expert with David McCallum in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Pat Harrington Jr., a comic and actor who also made appearances in spy television shows, died Jan. 6 at age 86, ACCORDING TO AN OBITUARY IN THE WASHINGTON POST.

The Post’s obit, understandably, concentrates on Harrington’s role in the situation comedy One Day at a Time, which ran from 1975 to 1984. But he also had acting appearances related to the spy craze of the 1960s.

His main spy credits were his three guest appearances on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In the first season’s The Bow-Wow Affair, the first episode with David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin getting the primary attention, Harrington was a dog expert named Guido Panzini.

Panzini was an Italian character Harrington had played before, including the Steve Allen version of The Tonight Show. Harrington’s Panzini was there mostly as comedy relief but the character provided Kuryakin with some major assistance against a gypsy who was blackmailing rich people by having their dogs attack them.

This all sounds a bit far out, but the episode is considered a favorite among many U.N.C.L.E. fans. Harrington also appeared in two third-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes.

His other ’60s spy appearance is more of a footnote. In AN EPISODE OF F-TROOP, a Western comedy, Harrington did a parody of Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart. In other words, Harrington’s B Wise was a parody of a parody.

One more, somewhat obscure credit: Harrington was also the voice of The Atom in superhero cartoons produced by Filmation and based on DC Comics in the 1960s.

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.