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.

RE-POST: What was happening in 1962?

Almost a year ago, we posted about some of the events that transpired in 1962, when Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy, James Bond, made his film debut. In honor of New Year’s Day of 2012, the start of the cinematic 007’s golden anniversary year, we’re re-posting that information, about events large and small.

Jan. 15: NBC airs “La Strega” episode of Thriller, starring Ursula Andress, female lead of Dr. No, which will be the first James Bond film.

Jan 16: Production begins on Dr. No, modestly budgeted at about $1 million. Fees include $40,000 for director Terence Young and $80,000 each for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, not counting their share of profits. (Figures from resarch by film historian Adrian Turner). Star Sean Connery tells Playboy magazine in 1965 that he was paid $16,800 for Dr. No.

Inside Dr. No, a documentary made by John Cork for a DVD release of the movie, says about 10 percent of the film’s budget went to the Ken Adam-designed reactor room set, where the climatic fight between Bond and Dr. No takes place. (Date of production start from research by Craig Henderson’s For Your Eyes Only Web site.

Jan. 17: Jim Carrey is born.

Feb 3: U.S. begins embargo against Cuba.

Feb. 20: John Glenn becomes first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.

March 2: Wilt Chamberlain scores 100 points as his Philadelphia Warriors team defeats the New York Knicks 169-147 in a game played in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chamberlain achieves the feat by scoring 36 baskets and, perhaps most amazingly, by hitting 28 of 32 free-throw attempts. (Chamberlain was a notoriously bad free-throw shooter.) The player averaged 50.4 points per game in the 1961-62 season.

April 16: The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming’s latest 007 novel, is published. The novel takes a radical departure from previous Bond novels. The story is told in the first person by a female character, Vivienne Michel, with Bond not appearing until two-thirds of the way through the story. Fleming, in his dealings with Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, specifies only the title is to be used for any movie. Broccoli (after Saltzman departs the film series) does just that in the 10th film of the 007 series, which comes out in July 1977.

May (publication date, actual likely earlier): The Incredible Hulk, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, debuts in the first issue of his own comic book.

June 1: Nazi Adolph Eichmann executed in Israel.

July 3: Future Mission: Impossible movie star Tom Cruise is born.

July 12: Rolling Stones debut in London.

August (publication date actual date probably earlier): Amazing Fantasy No. 15 published, debut of Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, with cover art by Jack Kirby and Ditko.

Aug. 5: Actress Marilyn Monroe dies.

Aug. 6: Michelle Yeoh, who will play Chinese secret agent Wai Lin in the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, is born.

Aug. 16: Future Get Smart movie star Steve Carell is born.

Aug. 16: Ringo Starr joins the Beatles.

Sept. 26: The Beverly Hillbillies debuts on CBS. In a later season, Jethro sees Goldfinger in a movie theater and decides that being a “Double-Naught” spy is his life’s calling.

Oct. 1: Federal marshals escort James Meredith, first African American student at the University of Missippi, as he registers at the school.

Oct. 1: Johnny Carson, a few weeks short of his 37th birthday, hosts his first installment of The Tonight Show. He will remain as host until May 1992. At one point during Carson’s run on the show, he and Sean Connery reference how Carson’s debut on Tonight and Connery’s debut as Bond occurred at around the same time.

Oct. 5: Dr. No has its world premier in London. The film won’t be shown in the U.S. until the following year. The movie will be re-released in 1965 (as part of a double feature with From Russia With Love) and in 1966 (as part of a double feature with Goldfinger).

Oct. 14: A U.S. U-2 spy plane discovers missile sites in Cuba, beginning the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis will bring the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of World War III.

Oct. 22: President John F. Kennedy makes a televised address, publicly revealing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Oct. 28: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announces the U.S.S.R. is removing its missiles from Cuba. (for a more detailed timeline of these events, CLICK HERE.)

Oct. 29: Ian Fleming begins three days of meetings with television producer Norman Felton concerning a show that will eventually be known as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (source: Craig Henderson) Fleming’s main contribution of the meetings is that the hero should be named Napoleon Solo.

Nov. 7: Richard Nixon loses race for governor of California, tells reporters “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” He’ll be back.

Freddie Young and David Lean


Dec. 10: The David Lean-directed Lawrence of Arabia has its world premiere in London. The film’s crew include director of photography Freddie Young and camera operator Ernest Day, who will work on future James Bond movies. Young will photograph 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Day would be second unit director (with John Glen) on The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

For a more comprehensive list of significant 1962 events, CLICK HERE.