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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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.

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.