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.

Matt Helm prequel available

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen

Death Of a Citizen, the original Matt Helm novel.

A prequel novel to Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series of novels is out.

Matt Helm: the War Years is AVAILABLE ON KINDLE. The author, Keith Wease, says he has permission of the Hamilton family. Here’s how he described it on Amazon.com:

Although a cold-blooded killer, Matt Helm has a superb sense of humor, a sharp opinion on just about everything, and is quite capable of falling in love (or lust) during his missions. This book is about his WWII experiences, from his initial recruitment into the agency, his training, and his missions during the war. Matt Helm fans will know the ending, but it would be a “spoiler” to mention it here.

I have been a Donald Hamilton fan since the 1960s and, when he died, decided to write the prequel. Having read the Matt Helm series several times, I researched everything Donald Hamilton wrote about Matt Helm’s wartime experiences and his pre-war life. Incorporating direct quotes from the books, and my own imagination, I filled in many of his mission details (including, of course, the one featuring Tina, who shows up in the first Matt Helm novel, Death of a Citizen) and added several of my own, trying to keep the narrative authentic to Donald Hamilton’s style.

The book was approved by Donald Hamilton’s son (who is CEO of the company holding the rights), who told me that I had “captured Don’s voice quite successfully” and that it was “All in all, a quite good read!”

Hamilton wrote 27 Helm novels, starting with 1960’s Death Of a Citizen, through 1993. Hamilton also wrote an unpublished 28th novel that the family is holding onto in case a new Matt Helm movie develops. Hamilton died in 2006.

Titan Books has also republished the first four Helm novels: Death Of a Citzen, The Wrecking Crew, The Removers and The Silencers.

The non-Bond film that had the biggest impact on 007

Dean Martin as Matt Helm during a dramatic moment in The Silencers.


With the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film series, we got to thinking about the 007 film competitor that had the biggest impact. It’s really not much of a contest. It’s 1966’s The Silencers.

Now, other spy films had an impact on the style of Bond films. Studio executives told The New York Times (without letting their names be attached) in 2005 that The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy comprised the model for Daniel Craig’s rebooted 007, beginning with 2006’s Casino Royale and especially with 2008’s Quantum of Solace. Even non-spy films influenced earlier 007 films such as Live And Let Die (Shaft, Super Fly), The Man With the Golden Gun (Bruce Lee kung fu films) and Moonraker (Star Wars).

But The Silencers rocked the Bond franchise in ways other films didn’t. The 1966 movie was the first of four Matt Helm movies produced by Irving Allen, once the partner of Albert R. Broccoli, the co-founder of the 007 film franchise. Allen (dismissed as a “blowhard” by current Eon Productions co-boss Barbara Broccoli) had been skeptical of 007’s film potential and had insulted Ian Fleming.

Allen, presumably realizing the scope of his mistake, got the film rights to the Matt Helm series of paperback novels by Donald Hamilton. To make a Helm film series a reality, Allen needed a star. He got one — Dean Martin. But to get Dino into the fold, Allen made the Rat Packer a partner. For The Silencers, that meant a $1.2 million paycheck, more than twice the money Sean Connery got for doing Thunderball. To top it off, the Helm series found a home at Columbia Pictures. That was the same studio that passed on doing business with 007 producers Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who ended up taking their project to United Artists.

The Scotsman didn’t like that and tensions accelerated between the star and 007 producers Broccoli and Saltzman. Perhaps Connery would have tired of the role anyway. But the conflict over money — fueled by The Silencers — caused Eon’s relationship with its star to rupture. Broccoli’s relationship with Saltzman was already getting tenuous and making Connery a partner in the enterprise wasn’t going to happen. Broccoli eventually would be proven right in one respect. Once Dean Martin lost interest, the Helm film series went away.

Still, had Allen not brought The Silencers (retooled from Hamilton’s serious novels to almost an extension of Dean Martin’s variety show) to the screen, much could have been different. Perhaps Connery would have stayed longer. Perhaps On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been a lot different with Connery, rather than George Lazenby. The point is, things got a lot bumpier for the franchise as The Silencers worsened tensions lurking beneath the surface.

Other films affected Bond films but The Silencers affected the business of Bond. The new Everything Or Nothing documentary references this in an indirect way. But in a way, the impact of The Silencers is part of Bond film history.

Covers for Titan re-issue of Matt Helm books revealed

The cover for Titan Books’s re-issue of Death of a Citizen


The first covers for Titan Books’s re-issue of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels have been revealed. Amazon.com has pages for the first two Helm novels, Death Of a Citizen and The Wrecking Crew, being republished by Titan.

It appears Titan is going with a standardized format, featuring a shadowy Helm ready to fire a semi-automatic pistol. Just below the image it says “A Matt Helm Novel,” with the character’s name in large type. Below that is the name of the novel and Hamilton’s name. At the top is an illustration based on the novel’s plot.

While it’s a different look, Titan indirectly is paying homage to the 1960s Fawcett paperbacks. With the publication of the sixth Helm novel, 1963’s The Silencers, Fawcett devised a standard format: a “portrait” of Matt Helm at the top of the cover, the title and Hamilton’s name below that, and an illustration based on that particular story.

A 1963 re-issue of Death Of a Citizen


Fawcett tweaked the format in the 1970s (the Matt Helm portrait changed at least twice), but the basic idea remained. By the 1980s, the standard Matt Helm portrait disappeared and each cover just had an illustration.

The Titan re-issues will be available in February. You can CLICK HERE to see Amazon.com’s page for the Titan edition of Death of a Citizen, the first Helm adventure, originally published in 1960. You can CLICK HERE to see Amazon’s page for the second novel, The Wrecking Crew, also published in 1960.

Hamilton wrote 27 published Helm novels, the last appearing in 1993. He also wrote a 28th unpublished Helm story, The Dominators, around 2001 that isn’t part of the Titan Books deal. Hamilton died in 2006.

Thanks to Paul Bishop for the point out.

Matt Helm project still kicking around at Paramount, THR says

Matt Helm: still waiting for another shot at the big screen

Paramount is still interested in a serious Matt Helm movie, according to Web site of The Hollywood Reporter.

In A STORY THIS WEEK, there was this nugget from an interview with Adam Goodman, president of Paramount Film Group:

Goodman faces his share of challenges as Paramount looks to make up for the defection of Marvel movies to Disney and the possible end of its relationship with DreamWorks Animation in December. Sitting down with THR recently in his spacious, bright corner office on the Melrose lot, he revealed that Tom Cruise likely is close to signing a deal to star in a Top Gun sequel and that Ehren Kruger has returned to write Transformers 4, even as Shia LaBeouf exits. He also disclosed that he’s moving ahead with franchise hopefuls Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Matt Helm, Earthseed, J.J. Abrams’ Micronauts and Without Remorse. (emphasis added)

No additional details about the Helm project, to be based on Donald Hamilton’s 27 published novels from 1960 to 1993. This is essentially the first whisper of any movement in three years. Back AT THAT TIME, there was talk that Steven Spielberg might be interested in producing, Gary Ross in directing and Bradley Cooper in starring.

None of that, obviously, happened. Spielberg has had multiple movies subsequently while Ross had a mega-hit with The Hunger Games. Cooper’s name surfaced as, for a time, the leading contender to play Napoleon Solo in a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but that evaporated in the latest chapter of the U.N.C.L.E. curse.

Prospects for the first Helm movie since the four Dean Martin comedies of the 1960s? Personally, we suspect the new Titan Books editions of Hamilton’s novels will be out long before any film.

TCM to have an evening of the Other Spies on Jan. 24

Turner Classic Movies is having an evening of the “other” spies on Jan. 24, emphasizing lighter fare.

The evening starts at 8 p.m. New York time with In Like Flint (1967), the second of two James Coburn outings as Derek Flint. The intrepid adventurer shows off his ability to talk to porpoises, infiltrates the Kremlin and ends up in outer space.

Next up at 10 p.m. is Where The Spies Are (1966) with David Niven, once Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond in what amounts to a warmup for the 1967 Casino Royale spoof. Midnight brings Agent 8 3/4 (1964) with Dirk Bogarde. At 2 a.m. (actually on Jan. 25, of course), TCM is scheduled to telecast 1966’s The Silencers, the first of four films with Dean Martin performing a spoof version <a.of Donald Hamilton’s counter assassin, Matt Helm.

TCM’s final spy entry at 4 a.m. is Salt and Pepper (1968), with Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. The duo had done an episode of The Wild, Wild West together (The Night of the Returning Dead) and liked how director Richard Donner operated. Thus, Donner was hired to direct Salt and Pepper, one of Donner’s first theatrical films.

Titan Books’ Matt Helm deal doesn’t include The Dominators


The Dominators, the unpublished 28th Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, isn’t part of Titan Books’ plans to reissue the series of novels starting in 2013.

Gordon Hamilton, son of the late author, relayed the news to a listserv concerning the literary Helm. Here’s the full text of the short message:

” That is not part of the present deal, but l am working on getting it edited, and then we’ll see.”

The first 27 Helm novels were published from 1960 until 1993, with the first five published 1960 to 1962. Donald Hamilton wrote The Dominators around 2001-2002 but couldn’t secure a publishing deal. Hamilton died in 2006.