Boris Karloff’s visits to ’60s spy entertainment

Boris Karloff (1887-1969) is best remembered for horror roles such as Frankenstein’s monster. But Karloff was quite versatile and in the last decade of his life found himself drawn to spy-related entertainment, particularly on television. A spy boom was underway and the character actor ended up being part of it.

Boris Karloff as Mr. Singh in The Wild, Wild West


The Wild, Wild West, “The Night of the Golden Cobra”: Karloff is Mr. Singh, who abducts James West (Robert Conrad), ace U.S. Secret Service agent, so he can instruct his three sons in the art of killing. Singh doesn’t do things in a small way. Having emigrated from India, he has a palace out in the 1870s American West. The early second-season episode was scripted by Henry Sharp, one of the show’s best writers. Karloff makes the most of Sharp’s witty dialogue.

Boris Karloff clowns around with Stefanie Powers and Robert Vaughn during production of The Mother Muffin Affair


The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., “The Mother Muffin Affair”: Probably one of the best remembered episodes of a series that had a lot of duds. Karloff plays Mother Muffin, who heads up an independent assassination team. Producer Douglas Benton had worked with Karloff on the Thriller anthology series that ran from 1960 to 1962.

According to an interview Benton did in the late 1990s (which is re-enacted in a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words), writer Joseph Calvelli described Mother Muffin as “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton decided to send a copy of the script to Karloff, feeling it would appeal to the actor’s sense of humor. As Benton remembered it, the script came back a few days later with a note that read: “Where and when?” The episode has Robert Vaughn appearing as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo, teaming up with Stefanie Powers’s April Dancer.

The Venetian Affair: This 1967 movie, based on a novel by Helen MacInnes, was a chance for Robert Vaughn to star in a serious spy vehicle compared with the more escapist fare on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Karloff is part of a cast that also includes Elke Sommer and Luciana Paluzzi. The film starts with an American diplomat performing a suicide bombing at a peace conference.

I Spy, “Mainly on the Plains”: Karloff is a scientist who seems to have become a bit unglued and is giving Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) fits. The episode was scripted by series creators Morton Fine and David Friedkin (who didn’t get that creator credit while they were alive; they received it posthumously with the I Spy Returns 1994 TV movie) and directed by Friedkin.

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. available on DVD this week

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., the spinoff series from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will become available on Aug. 23 on DVD from Warner Bros.

The price is $59.95. Be warned: the picture has not been digitally remastered (similar to Warners Bros.’s releases of The FBI) and appears to be a “manufactured on demand,” or MOD. That means no extras. That’s a far cry from Warners’s 2007 release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was loaded with extras.

Girl featured the adventures of agent April Dancer (Stefanie Powers), assisted by fellow U.N.C.L.E. operative Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Leo G. Carroll played U.N.C.L.E. boss Alexander Waverly in both the spinoff and parent series. The pilot for Girl was a second-season episode of Man called The Moonglow Affair, which featured Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell, playing a frumpy, older-than-40, American Mark Slate.

Norman Felton, Man’s executive producer, wasn’t particularly keen on the spinoff, which was the brainchild of executives of NBC. Girl, which ran during the 1966-67 season, often had even goofier humor than Man’s third season. But it has some gems, including The Double-O-Nothing Affair, written by ace Man scripter Dean Hargrove, who also wrote The Moonglow Affair. Double-O-Nothing features Edward Asner is a Thrush operative, with a used-car lot as his cover.

Another notable episode was The Mother Muffin Affair, where Man’s Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) appeared to oppose independent woman criminal Mother Muffin, played by Boris Karloff. Thus, it was the one production with both U.N.C.L.E. characters named by Ian Fleming. (Fleming had suggested the name of April Dancer for a Miss Moneypenny-type character when he met with Felton in 1962.)

Douglas Benton, Girl’s producer, in a late 1990s interview said the production team was thinking about casting Dame Judith Anderson. Joseph Calvelli, the writer, was asked to describe Mother Muffin and he replied, “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton had worked with Karloff on the 1960-62 anthology series Thriller, offered him the role and Karloff, according to the producer, immediately accepted. (The interview is recreated on a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words.)

Finally, for Bond fans, Luciana Paluzzi is a guest star in Girl’s first episode, The Dog Gone Affair.

For more information about the DVD set, including how to order, JUST CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, here’s a clip from The Mata Hari Affair, the fourth episode. Truth be told, it’s not that good despite being directed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best of the Man directors. For some viewers, though, this scene is still a highlight:

Happy birthday No. 98, the real man from U.N.C.L.E.

When somebody reaches their 98th birthday, there’s not much more than can be said. So happy birthday, Norman Felton, executive producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., born this day in 1913.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. Felton was the real man from U.N.C.L.E. He initiated the project, he bluffed network executives with a series proposal done on the fly, he enlisted the talents of people such as Sam Rolfe and Ian Fleming.

In the seventh episode of the 1964-1968 series, The Guioco Piano Affair, Felton was one of four crew members (director Richard Donner, developer-producer Sam Rolfe and associate producer Joseph Calvelli were the others) to appear in the story. You can view the episode’s end titles by CLICKING HERE. Felton can be seen in the final shot of the credits, the chess player at the left of the screen.

1964: U.N.C.L.E.’s crew hams it up, aka Richard Donner, ACTOR

No matter how much a writer or a director or a producer accomplishes, some cannot resist the allure of appearing before the camera. Alfred Hitchcock certainly couldn’t and his cameos in his movies probably egged others on.

In its first season, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took the concept further. Four crew members went before the cameras in a party scene during Act I of “The Giuoco Piano Affair.” Executive Producer Norman Felton is a chess player; producer/developer Sam Rolfe is an oilman (you can tell by his string tie); and associate producer Joseph Calvelli is a writer.

But towering above them all is Richard Donner, ACTOR. The director, who wouldn’t become a big-time movie director for another 12 years, was the only crew member to get lines. Here, he shows David McCallum and Jill Ireland how acting is done. The question is which is louder: Donner’s spoken delivery or his sport coat. The scene lasts for the first 3:30 or so of this clip.