Nehemiah Persoff, veteran character actor, dies

Nehemiah Persoff in Mission: Impossible

Nehemiah Persoff, a character actor who excelled at playing villains, has died at 102, according to Deadline: Hollywood and other outlets.

Persoff, over a career lasting from the late 1940s to almost 2000, played:

–A Blofeld-like villain in the 1961 John Wayne Western The Comancheros;

–A secondary Thrush villain out to kill his former mentor Mandor (Jack Lord) in The Master’s Touch Affair in the final season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.;

–Three episodes of The Wild Wild West, including the show’s 1965 pilot;

–Two episodes of I Spy, three episodes of Mission: Impossible, an episode of It Takes a Thief, and seven episodes of Hawaii Five-O.

Persoff could play heavies in comedies as well as dramas.

For example, Persoff played gangster Little Bonaparte in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. The mobster was hearing impaired, wearing hearing aids. Little Bonaparte has fellow gangster Spats Columbo (George Raft) and his men gunned down at a party, with the killer coming out of a large cake.

A lawman played by Pat O’Brien enters asking what happened.

“There was something in that cake that didn’t agree with them,” Little Bonaparte replies.

The actor was versatile and didn’t only portray villains.

In a 1975 episode of Columbo, he played a nightclub owner who is blackmailing a former Nazi (Jack Cassidy). Persoff’s character is killed by Cassidy’s magician character during the middle of his act.

In the final episode of Gunsmoke, he played an immigrant father who pressures his eldest son (Robert Urich) to fight him as a rite of passage.

Hard reboots vs. continuations

In the coming years, the James Bond franchise will need to decide how to continue. The basic paths involve hard reboots (which Bond has done once) versus continuations.

What follows is a sampling of each.

Mission: Impossible (1988): A new television version of Mission: Impossible debuted in 1988. Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) came out of retirement after his protege was murdered.

Phelps took command of a new collection of agents. Some of the original operatives, played by Greg Morris and Lynda Day George, appeared in one-offs. The series ran for two years.

Mission: Impossible (1996 and beyond): When Mission: Impossible went to the big screen in the 1990s, there was a hard reboot. So hard that Phelps (now played by Jon Voight) was the villain, leading star-producer Tom Cruise to become the lead figure. That has continued into the 21st century.

Casino Royale (2006): Eon Productions opted to start over with Casino Royale (a very hard reboot) when Eon’s Barbara Broccoli pushed hard for Daniel Craig to become the new James Bond. That era has now been completed with 2021’s No Time to Die.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015): So much time had elapsed from the 1964-68 television series (and a 1983 made-for-TV movie), a movie would have to do a hard reboot. Early takes included an older Solo paired with a young Kuryakin but it ended up with two actors near the same age, like the original TV show.

The 355 flops as spy movies struggle to find an audience

The 355 movie poster

The 355, a spy movie with a mostly female cast, flopped over the weekend in its U.S. debut.

The film’s opening U.S. weekend totaled an estimated $4.8 million, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box office data. It was the first film of 2022 with a “wide” opening (3,000 screens or more).

The 355 shows it’s hard for spy movies not part of the James Bond or Mission: Impossible films series to get much traction.

At one time (the early 2000s), Jason Bourne was a big success, even prodding Eon Productions to change the tone of its 007 productions and dump Pierce Brosnan in favor of Daniel Craig as Bond. In the mid- to late-2010s, director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman series, mixing violence and comedy, appeared to be something new.

However, Bourne’s success has been difficult to extend without Matt Damon. In 2016, there was another Bourne entry with Matt Damon (simply titled Jason Bourne). But nothing has happened since then. 2017 saw Atomic Blonde with a global box office of $100 million. However, no sequel resulted. And Matthew Vaughn’s most recent Kingsmen effort, The King’s Man, flopped.

Other spy film attempts have been a mixed bag.

Salt (2010) had a respectable $293.5 million at the global box office but never generated a sequel. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015), (loosely) based on the 1964-68 TV show, had a global box office of $107 million. Hopes for a revived U.N.C.L.E. disappeared.

The Rhythm Section (2020), made by Eon Productions, had a worldwide box office of not quite $6 million. Clearly, the makers of the Bond films weren’t able to duplicate the success of the 007 movies.

We’ll see. Matthew Vaughn has another spy project titled Argylle which will star Henry Cavill (who played Solo in the 2015 U.N.C.L.E. movie).

Hope springs eternal when it comes to spy films.

When is a character’s appearance ‘official’?

On social media this week, there was a discussion of when an actor’s appearance as a character is official or not.

For example, in the 1990s, there was a License to Thrill ride at some U.S. theme parks. Bond fan Paul Scrabo made a video about it. The video was taken at a Virginia park. I went on the same ride at a park in Ohio near Cincinnati.

In any case, part of the ride included a video where Judi Dench played M and Desmond Llewelyn played Q. How official should this be treated?

There are other examples of where the Bond cinematic universe blurred with other media.

Roger Moore played James Bond in a 1964 British television show. Likely nobody took it seriously at the time. Sean Connery was in the midst of his 1960s run as Bond in movies made by Eon Productions. It’s more of a footnote.

However, Pierce Brosnan played Bond in a 1990s Visa commercial, with Desmond Llewelyn along for the ride as Q. This ran in the middle of Brosnan’s 007 films. MI6-HQ.com uploaded a copy to YouTube.

Nor is this sort of thing restricted just to James Bond. A few other examples:

–“Illya Kuryakin” in Hullabaloo, 1965: This half-hour weekly show featured a guest host introducing various musical acts. David McCallum was in character as Illya Kuryakin and was introduced as his fictional alter ego. Leo G. Carroll picked up some spare change doing some voice-over work as U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverly.

David McCallum, Patricia Crowley and Robert Vaughn in a publicity still for Please Don’t the Daisies

–“Napoleon Solo” and “Illya Kuryakin” in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1966: Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are listed in the end titles as their U.N.C.L.E. characters and not their actual names. McCallum as Kuryakin is at the start of the episode, Vaughn as Solo is at the end. Children of a suburban family think their dad is a spy after he meets Kuryakin. Solo sets them straight in the conclusion.

–Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo in The Glass Bottom Boat, 1966: This comedy was Doris Day’s entry in the 1960s spy craze. Robert Vaughn as Solo makes a cameo during a party scene. Jerry Goldsmith’s theme for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. plays.

Ad for Here’s Lucy

–Mike Connors as Joe Mannix in Here’s Lucy, 1971: Mike Connors starred in the private eye drama Mannix (1967-1975). In the middle of that run, Connors played Mannix in an episode of the situation comedy Here’s Lucy starring Lucille Ball. Is it an “official” appearance? Both series ran on CBS.

–Mike Connors as Joe Mannix in Diagnosis Murder, 1997: Diagnosis Murder featured Dick Van Dyke as a crime-solving doctor. Joe Mannix shows up in an episode that’s a sequel to a 1973 Mannix installment. Guest stars from the earlier show (Pernell Roberts, Julie Adams and Beverly Garland) reprise their roles from 24 years later. Clips from the 1973 Mannix episode are used as flashbacks. That’s as official as you can get.

–Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter in Diagnosis Murder, 1997: Diagnosis Murder worked up an episode featuring actors from 1960s spy series as guest stars. Only one, Barbara Bain, actually reprised her 1960s part, Cinnamon Carter from the original Mission: Impossible series. Robert Culp, Patrick Macnee and Robert Vaughn played new characters for the story.

Evolution of spy entertainment 1960s-present

Sean Connery in an insert shot during the pre-titles sequence of Thunderball (1965)

In the newest episode of James Bond & Friends, Dr. Lisa Funnell raises the question whether spy entertainment has evolved beyond James Bond.

You could make the argument that things have regressed since the 1960s spy craze.

In 1965 alone, you could go to a movie theater and see the likes of Thunderball (the fourth James Bond movie and definitely on the escapist end of the spectrum) as well as The Ipcress Files (produced by Harry Saltzman with Bond film crew members along for the ride) and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (based on a John le Carre novel).

That’s a lot of variety for a single year.

On British and American television, you could see series either affected by Bond (The Avengers and Danger Man) or started because of the spy craze (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, I Spy and Mission: Impossible).

Today? Well, Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman series was influenced by early Bond movies as well as U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers.

Le Carre novels continue to be adapted but they often appear on TV mini-series.

The 1960s was the decade of the spy craze. The 1970s was a barren time for spy TV. It has waxed and waned since then.

Douglas Cramer, controversial M:I figure, dies

Dougas S. Cramere title card on a third-season episode of Mission: Impossible.

Douglas S. Cramer, a successful TV executive and producer, has died at 89, according to The Wrap. His credits include the likes of the likes of The Love Boat, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series and Vega$. But he was also a controversial figure with the original Mission: Impossible television series.

Background: Mission: Impossible originated with writer-producer Bruce Geller who had landed at Desilu. During M:I’s second season, Lucille Ball sold Desilu to the parent company of Paramount. Suddenly, Desilu became Paramount Television.

In M:I’s third season, Geller was now dealing with Douglas S. Cramer, who more cost-conscious that previous management.

Among many Mission: Impossible fans, Cramer is seen as a villain. It was under his tenure that Martin Landau and Barbara Bain departed the show. Landau had never signed a long-term series deal and negotiated his salary a season as a time.

It was during the Cramer regime at Paramount that Landau’s bargaining power ran out. Bain, his wife at the time, went with him out the door.

The 1991 book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier by Patrick J. White included interviews with Cramer.

“Bruce had a wonderful concept of the show, put it together beautifully, but paid no attention to budget,” Cramer told the author. “Secondly, he traditionally wrote bigger shows than we could afford to do….Bruce was a madman about scripts and there would be layer after layer of writers working on them.”

There were other Mission: Impossible conflicts. Bruce Geller, as executive producer, clashed with writer-producers William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter during the third season. The Woodfield-Balter team, who had authored many of the best episodes, left.

Still, the big conflict was the one with Geller and Cramer. The latter described his perspective to author White.

“Bruce and his refusal to pay any attention to budget had permeated all the people that worked for him,” Cramer said. In the book, Cramer referred to Geller as a “mad dictator.”

For many Mission: Impossible fans, Cramer was in the wrong and Geller was proven correct in the end. M:I ran seven seasons, the longest run of the 1960s spy craze and spawned a successful series of Tom Cruise movies.

Regardless, Cramer’s story is a reminder that making a television series it never easy. It’s always a balance of art and commerce.

A pair of O’Briens

Hawaii Five-O logo in the main title; Liam O’Brien, brother of actor Edmond, was story consultant in the third season.

A major h/t to .@smilingcobra on Twitter. Sometimes you don’t get the connections. But it turns out actor Edmond O’Brien and his brother Liam O’Brien had connections to spy entertainment.

Edmond O’Brien (1915-85) had been a major player in movies such as White Heat, D.O.A., The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Fantastic Voyage. He was also a villain in a second-season episode of Mission: Impossible titled The Counterfeiter.

In the 21st century, less well known is Liam O’Brien, who died in 1996. His Los Angeles Times obituary described him as “a poet and cartoonist and then worked as a labor organizer before turning to writing plays.”

For the 1970-71 season of Hawaii Five-O, Liam O’Brien got the title of “story consultant.” In those days, a story consultant might be an in-house writer or he or she may have arranged free-lance writers to do scripts.

During his one season on Five-O, Liam O’Brien didn’t get any writing credits. Many of the episodes were written (or re-written) by scribes Jerry Ludwig and Eric Bercovici, either by themselves or as a team.

Given O’Brien’s story consultant title, he may well have been involved in assigning scripts or conducting story meetings during that Five-O season.

Later in his career, Liam O’Brien worked on series such as Police Story and Miami Vice.

Cicely Tyson and the spy craze

Cicely Tyson and Ivan Dixon in So Long Patrick Henry, the first episode of I Spy broadcast by NBC in 1965.

Cicely Tyson has died after a long and distinguished career in acting. Her passing on Jan. 28, at the age of 96, prompted many tributes.

“In a remarkable career of seven decades, Ms. Tyson broke ground for serious Black actors by refusing to take parts that demeaned Black people,” according to an obituary in The New York Times. “She urged Black colleagues to do the same, and often went without work.”

Tyson made her presence known during television shows created during the 1960s spy craze.

She played a supporting role in So Long Patrick Henry, the first episode of I Spy that was broadcast on Sept. 15, 1965. Tyson portrayed an African princess who was engaged to Elroy Browne, a U.S. athlete who had defected to China during the 1964 Olympics in Japan.

The episode was not the show’s pilot. But it was one of four first-season episodes written by star Robert Culp. NBC moved the episode up to be the premiere for the series.

Tyson returned in a second-season episode of I Spy, Trial by Treehouse, that aired during the show’s second season.

The actress also was a guest star in a 1970 episode of Mission: Impossible, Death Squad. The IMF’s Barney Collier (Greg Morris) is vacationing in a Latin American country and falls in love with Tyson’s character, artist Alma Ross.

The brother of a police official obsesses over Alma. The police official runs a death squad and Barney soon is targeted to be its next victim.

What follows is a sampling of the many tributes to Tyson.

Pluto TV starts a Mission: Impossible channel

Pluto TV, a free streaming service (with commercials) started a Mission: Impossible channel today. At 1 p.m. Eastern time, the channel streamed the pilot for the 1966-73 series.

The pilot was written by series creator Bruce Geller. His script won an Emmy. Team leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) comes up with a plot to steal two nuclear warheads from a Caribbean nation unfriendly to the United States.

At first glance, it was hard to tell how many M:I episodes Pluto TV will televise.

Regardless, it’s another chance for spy fans to sample to the original show that begat the Tom Cruise film series that has been in production (on and off) since 1996.

UPDATE: Pluto TV appears to be showing the episodes in broadcast order. The second episode was “Memory,” same as the first-season broadcast order.

Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) initially goes in the discard pile when Briggs selects his team. The guest agent is Baresh, played by Albert Paulsen, who normally played villains (and would so in later M:I episodes). But Rollin provides an assist later in the story.

Also, Bruce Geller’s photo (wearing sinister looking sunglasses) also goes in the discard pile.

Herbert Solow, who helped revive Desilu in ’60s, dies

Herbert F. Solow title card from a second-season Mission: Impossible episode

Herbert F. Solow, an executive who helped revive Desilu in the mid-1960s, died this week at 89, Variety said.

Desilu, one a major producer of TV shows, was primarily leasing studio space by the middle part of the 1960s. Solow was brought in to revive production.

The executive sold Star Trek to NBC and Mission: Impossible to CBS for the 1966-67 season.

“This was a particularly sweet time for me,” Solow said in the 1996 book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, co-authored with Robert H. Justman. Justman worked as associate producer on both pilots and was on the crew for most of Star Trek’s original three-year run.

“Star Trek and Mission were the first projects I’d put into development after I joined Desilu,” Solow said in the book.

Both would be complicated shows to make, especially for a studio that had been relatively inactive. “I’d fought the budget battles and the casting problems, the network egos and the studio’s old-fashioned polices,” he wrote.

A year later, Solow sold another series, Mannix, a private eye drama, to CBS for the 1967-68 season. That would be the final Desilu series. Gulf + Western, then Paramount’s parent company, purchased Desilu from Lucille Ball. Desilu became Paramount Television.

Solow stayed for a time but departed. Paramount management put on more pressure to cut costs.

“It wasn’t the same, so I asked out of my contract,” Solow told Patrick J. White, author of The Mission: Impossible Dossier. Solow ended up at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as an executive.

UPDATE: Here is a YouTube video of Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman reading from their 1996 book. h/t @Stingray_travel for the heads up.