Bruce Lansbury, WWW and M:I producer, dies

Bruce Lansbury (left) with siblings Angela Lansbury and Edgar Lansbury

Bruce Lansbury (left) with siblings Angela Lansbury and Edgar Lansbury

Bruce Lansbury, a prolific television producer and executive, has died at 87, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The younger brother of actress Angela Lansbury made his own mark in the entertainment business.

His credits included The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and his sister’s series, Murder, She Wrote. Bruce Lansbury was also a television executive at Paramount during the 1970s.

Lansbury came aboard as producer of The Wild Wild West part way through the show’s second season. He initially worked under executive producer Michael Garrison, the show’s creator.

However, Garrison died as the result of injuries from a fall in August 1966. Lansbury took command of the series, a mix of spy fi, sci fi and, on occasions, outright fantasy. He would stay for the rest of the show’s run.

Lanbury didn’t lack for things to do. He joined Mission: Impossible during that show’s fourth season. M:I was a series that chewed up producers under the best of circumstances.

By this time, M:I’s best ratings were behind it. Paramount wanted cost cuts and tensions ran high between the studio and executive producer Bruce Geller.

Lansbury was Paramount’s choice to take over as M:I producer, according to The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier by Patrick J. White. Part of the reason why Lansbury’s experience with The Wild Wild West.

During Lansbury’s reign, Peter Lupus as Willy, the Impossible Missions Force’s strongman, was phased out for a time. Lupus’ popularity forced the production team to change course.

Also, Paramount, after a series of disagreements with perfectionist Geller barred the M:I creator from the lot. Geller continued to collect fees and be credited as executive producer. But he was blocked from working on his own show.

Despite all that, Lansbury kept the M:I machinery going. He left the series during the sixth season, when Paramount promoted him to vice president of creative affairs.

Later in the 1970s. Lansbury returned to being a television producer, with credits extending into the 1990s.

Lansbury was born Jan. 12, 1930 in London. He was the twin brother of Edgar Lansbury, a theater producer.

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Bernard Fox, busy character actor, dies at 89

Bernard Fox in The Thor Affair, one of the better episodes in the third season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Bernard Fox in The Thor Affair, one of the better episodes in the third season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Bernard Fox, a busy character actor whose career extended into the 21st century, has died at 89, according to an obituary in The Hollywood Reporter.

Fox, born in Wales, had roles beginning in the mid-1950s to 2001, according to his entry in IMDB.com.

The actor made guest appearances in a number of 1960s spy shows.

Among them: Three episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (a two-parter in the second season as well as the title character in The Thor Affair in the third), one episode of The Girl From U.N.C.LE. (The Mother Muffin Affair, where he played a bumbling lieutenant of Boris Karloff’s Mother Muffin), The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief.

Fox could do both drama and comedy, but was often cast in comedic roles. The Hollywood Reporter obit led with his role as Dr. Bombay in Bewitched. He also played RAF Colonel Crittendon in Hogan’s Heroes.

In the latter role, Fox’s character didn’t know about Colonel Robert Hogan’s espionage operation in Stalag 13. But Crittendon, because he had more seniority, outranked Hogan (Bob Crane) and became the ranking Allied officer in the German prison camp every time he was stationed there.

This, of course, complicated whatever operation Hogan had underway at the time.

MeTV: Good-bye Mr. Solo, hello James West

metv logo

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., after a two-year run, is departing MeTV. But the cable channel isn’t dispensing with spies. It’s adding The Wild Wild West to its schedule.

The changes take effect Sept. 5, MeTV said on its website.

U.N.C.L.E. debuted on MeTV in September 2014, leading off a block of programming on Sunday nights dubbed “The Spies Who Love ME.” That block went away in the fall of 2015, but U.N.C.L.E. was televised early Sunday and early Monday. U.N.C.L.E. finale on MTV will be 2 a.m. Eastern Time, Sept. 5.  The 1964-68 series is being shown overnights on the Heroes & Icons channel.

The Wild Wild West will be on Saturdays at 6 p.m. ET, as part of the channel’s block of western program. The 1965-69 series, which had a lot of fantasy elements, will act as a transition for MeTV’s Saturday night lineup of superhero and science fiction shows.

H&I also shows The Wild Wild West, with two episodes from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET on Sundays.

U.N.C.L.E. and catching lightning in a bottle

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

We were reminded how this month is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles meeting Robert Vaughn, the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The gathering reflected how U.N.C.L.E., for a time in the 1960s, was a very big deal. 

It was the Fab Four who requested the meeting. They were fans of the show and wanted to see the actor.

Vaughn was busy simultaneously being the lead in a U.S. television series and studying for a Ph.D. But the meeting took place anyway.

U.N.C.L.E.’s history is very much one of ups and downs. It almost got canceled in its first season. It enjoyed its best ratings in its second season (1965-66).

In fact, James Bond films actually benefited from U.N.C.L.E. Two 007 television specials, The Incredible World of James Bond and Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond (made to promote Thunderball and You Only Live Twice), aired in U.N.C.L.E.’s time slot on NBC.

But by January 1968, U.N.C.L.E. was canceled as its ratings plunged.

For the most part, U.N.C.L.E. was like catching lightning in a bottle — bright and powerful. For enthusiasts (including the Spy Commander, it should be noted), the light still shines bright. To the broader population, not so much. The same applies to other ’60s spy entertainment such as The Wild Wild West, I Spy and other shows.

In the 21st century, the “lightning in a bottle” shows still are fondly remembered by the original fan base. Trying to interest younger viewers remains a challenge. A year ago this month, a new movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. didn’t find an audience even as the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible film series was a hit.

So it goes. Nevertheless, those who were along for the ride originally still have their memories.

Gene L. Coon: More than just Star Trek

Poster for The Killers, a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Poster for The Killers (1964), a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

For the purposes of this post, we’re stretching the definition of “unsung.” Gene L. Coon was a major figure for the original Star Trek series (where he was producer for part of the first and second seasons) and he’s mostly remembered for that.

However, the writer-producer performed work in other genres. That included 1960s spy shows, serving as a producer for some episodes of The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief. He also wrote episodes of war dramas and westerns.

Coon also did the script for the 1964 version of The Killers, with a cast headed by Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan. The crew included composer John Williams.

The Killers was intended by Universal to be a made-for-television movie. What producer-director Don Siegel delivered was deemed to be too violent for the small screen. So The Killers got a theatrical release instead.

Coon had a reputation as a hard worker. He had an admirer in director Ralph Senensky. Here’s what Senensky said about Coon in a reply to a post about an episode of The Wild Wild West titled The Night of the Druid’s Blood:

I think Gene Coon is one of the unsung heroes of television. Both on this series and later on STAR TREK his work (and he was a rewriting machine) set a standard that elevated both series to levels that were seldom reached after his departure.

Coon produced only six episodes of The Wild Wild West near the end of that show’s first season (1965-66). The following television season, he joined Star Trek as producer, working under creator-executive producer Gene Roddenberry. Coon’s main task was to secure and produce a steady stream of scripts.

Coon’s major contributions included the Klingons and co-writing Space Seed, the episode that introduced Ricardo Montalban’s Khan character. Khan would be brought back twice (once with Montalban and once with Benedict Cumberbatch) as villains in Star Trek movies.

Put another way, Coon’s contributions had an impact on Trek productions long after he first made them.

The writer-producer continued into Trek’s second season but departed. He ended up at Universal’s television operation. However, he did some moonlighting, writing some Trek scripts under the pen name Lee Cronin.

One of them, Spock’s Brain, in which Spock’s brain is taken from him, still generates groans from Trek fans decades later. Well, everyone has an off day and the writing conditions (doing it on the side while working full-time at Universal) weren’t ideal.

Gene L. Coon died of cancer on July 8, 1973, just 49 years old. His final writing credit was for an episode of The Streets of San Francisco titled Death and the Favored Few. That show aired in March 1974.

Stephen Kandel: Have genre, will write

Stephen Kandel from an interview about The Magician television series.

Stephen Kandel from an interview about The Magician television series.

Another in an occasional series about unsung figures of television.

Stephen Kandel, now 89, was the kind of television who could take on multiple genres and do it well.

Science fiction? He wrote the two Star Trek episodes featuring Harry Mudd (Roger C. Carmel), one of Captain Kirk’s more unusual adversaries.

Espionage? His list of credits included I Spy, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, It Takes a Thief and A Man Called Sloane.

Crime dramas? Hawaii Five-O and Mannix, among too many to list here. His work included a Cannon-Barnaby Jones crossover, The Deadly Conspiracy, a 1975 two-part story airing as an episode of each series.

Not to mention the occasional Western, drama, super hero series (Batman and Wonder Woman) and some shows that don’t easily fit categories (The Magician, MacGyver).

Writer Harlan Ellison in 1970 referred to Kandel as “one of the more lunatic scriveners in Clown Town.” In a column reprinted in The Other Glass Teat, Ellison wrote that Kandel was assigned to write an episode of a drama called The Young Lawyers that was to introduce a new WASP character.

According to Ellison, ABC opted to tone down socially conscious stories among other changes. Kandel wasn’t a fan of the changes. He initially named the new WASP character “Christian White.”

“It went through three drafts before anyone got hip to Steve’s sword in the spleen,” Ellison wrote.

Other in-joke humor by Kandel that did make it to television screens.

One was a 1973 episode of Mannix, Sing a Song of Murder. Kandel named a hit man Anthony Spinner. Kandel had earlier worked for Spinner on the QM series Dan August.

Presumably Spinner didn’t mind. Kandel ended up working for Spinner on Cannon.

Another bit was Kandel’s script for A Man Called Sloane episode titled The Seduction Squad. Robert Culp played a Blofeld-like criminal, except he carried around a small dog instead of a cat.

Kandel wrapped up his television career with MacGyver. Today, somewhere in the world, there may be an episode of some series written by Kandel being shown.

 

In praise of the 2-part (or more) episode

In the 21st century, many television series are serialized, featuring a story line, or arc, that lasts an entire season. However, there was a time when a story that lasted two (or more) episodes was special, something to savored.

For viewers of the era, such multi-part episodes could be special. Because it wasn’t the norm, such story lines drew attention to themselves. What follows is a sampling.

Poster for One Spy Too Many, movie version of Alexander the Greater Affair

Poster for One Spy Too Many, movie version of Alexander the Greater Affair

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: In the first-season of the 1964-68 series, extra footage was shot so two episodes could be re-edited into feature films for the international market. Starting with the second season, the show produced two-part episodes that could be more easily be turned into movies.

Six such two-part episodes were made, two each for seasons two through four. One of the best was Alexander the Greater Affair at the start of Season Two. Industrialist Alexander (Rip Torn) was a fan of Alexander the Great and sought to control the world like his namesake. The movie version was titled One Spy Too Many. The television version, though, didn’t make the show’s syndication package and wasn’t seen again until 2000.

Mission: Impossible: The 1966-73 series included a number of two-part episodes. A second-season two parter was re-edited into a movie for international audiences called Mission: Impossible Versus the Mob.

M:I’s biggest multi-part adventure was a three-parter called The Falcon, which aired during the show’s fourth season. Arguably, The Falcon (written by Paul Playdon), was the series most intricately plotted story.

Hawaii Five-O: Another series with multiple two-part stories, some of which (FOB Honolulu, The Ninety-Second War) included Steve McGarrett opposing his arch enemy Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh). That includes the series’ pilot, which was re-edited into a two-part story at the end of the show’s first season.

What’s more, Wo Fat stories in the eighth and ninth season kicked off the season and were presented as two-hour episodes. The latter, Nine Dragons, featured extensive location shooting in Hong Kong.

Five-O’s fifth season also had a three-part episode where McGarrett took down the Vishons, a Hawaiian crime family. In the third part, McGarrett has been framed and doesn’t appear to have much chance to beat the rap. For one of its reruns on CBS, the story was re-edited into a two-and-a-half-hour presentation aired on a single night.

Also, a 1979 two-hour episode, The Year of the Horse, featured one-time 007 George Lazenby with “special guest star” billing, though he was a secondary villain. That installment included extensive on-location shooting in Singapore.

Poster for Cosa Nostra, an Arch Enemy of the FBI, movie version of a two-part episode of The FBI

Poster for Cosa Nostra, an Arch Enemy of the FBI, movie version of a two-part episode of The FBI

The FBI: The longest-running series from producer Quinn Martin had four two-part stories. The Defector, the show’s first-season two-parter, was an impressive espionage-themed effort.

The show’s two parter for the second season was The Executioners, which was edited into a movie for international audiences titled Cosa Nostra, an Arch Enemy of the FBI.

The series’ final two-parter, The Mastermind in the seventh season, featured three actors (Bradford Dillman, Steve Ihnat and Scott Marlowe), who were a kind of all-star collection of QM villains.

Mannix: The private eye drama featured a first-season story where Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), the boss of Mannix’s detective agency, appears to freak out for no reason. Part I included a massive fight between Wickersham and Mannix (Mike Connors).

The series wouldn’t do another two-part episode until its seventh and eight seasons, when Mannix (Mike Connors) ran his own private eye agency. Both stories took Mannix out of the United States. The final two parter also included composer Lalo Schifrin’s final original score for the series.

The Wild Wild West: The 1965-69 series combined spies and cowboys. It only had one two-part story, The Night of the Winged Terror, but it was a doozy. It features Raven, a group trying to take over the world, which has demonstrated its power by programming officials into performing various destructive acts.

When the story (written by Ken Pettus) was filmed, co-star Ross Martin was recovering from a heart attack. So character actor William Schallert (1922-2016) played a substitute agent to work with Robert Conrad’s James West.

77 Sunset Strip: The show’s final season (1963-64) began with a *five*-part episode, simply titled “5.” Jack Webb, who had taken command of Warner Bros. television unit, ordered up a major revamp of the private eye series.

Only Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was retained, and his Stuart Bailey character was transformed into a lone wolf detective. “5” plunged Bailey into international intrigue, with an all-star cast of guest stars.