Leonard Nimoy dies at 83, dabbled in spy entertainment

Leonard Nimoy with his future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Leonard Nimoy with his future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Leonard Nimoy, best known for playing Spock on Star Trek but who also dabbled in spy entertainment, has died today at 83, according to an obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES.

A brief excerpt:

His wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, confirmed his death, saying the cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Mr. Nimoy announced last year that he had the disease, which he attributed to years of smoking, a habit he had given up three decades earlier. He had been hospitalized earlier in the week

Nimoy’s greatest fame was as Spock. He first played the role in an unsold 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Pike. A second pilot, with William Shatner as Capt. James Kirk, did sell and a series aired on NBC for three seasons. Much later, Star Trek was revived for theatrical movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation, a syndicated series set decades after the original. Nimoy’s Spock showed up at one time or another in some of the films and the later series.

Still, he appeared in spy shows as well. He and Shatner were in a 1964 episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Project Strigas Affair. Shatner was an “innocent” recruited by Napoleon Solo as part of a complicated plot. Nimoy was a secondary villain.

Nimoy also replaced Martin Landau on Mission: Impossible for that show’s fourth and fifth seasons. Nimoy played Paris, a magician and master of disguise. Executives at Paramount forced out Landau, who never signed a long-term contact and who had previously won salary raises in negotiations.

Landau was was popular as disguise expert Rollin Hand and the departure also cost M:I of the services of his then-wife, Barbara Bain. As a result, Nimoy came aboard as the show’s ratings slipped. He left before the series changed to a format where the Impossible Missions Force battled only organized crime in the final two seasons.

UPDATE: Leonard Nimoy was active on Twitter. This is his last Tweet:

UPDATE II (7 p.m.): MeTV, the U.S. cable channel of classic television shows, is showing a lot of episodes of shows where Nimoy was the guest star. On Sunday at 10 p.m., it will show The Project Strigas Affair episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., followed by one of Nimoy’s appearances on Mission: Impossible (“The Hostage) at 11 p.m., followed by an episode of Get Smart (The Dead Spy Scrawls) with Nimoy. For more details, CLICK HERE.

49th anniversary of the first Shatner-Nimoy pairing

Napoleon Solo has to steady an "innocent" who's had too much to drink

Solo helps an “innocent” who’s had too much to drink

This month marks the 49th anniversary of the first pairing of actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. On Nov. 24, 1964, two years before Star Trek, Shatner was the featured guest star on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with Nimoy as a supporting player.

The episode was The Project Strigas Affair, in which U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) are assigned to bring down a leading diplomat of an unnamed nation that’s causing major friction between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Strigas is one of the highlights of the show’s first season, and not for being the answer to a Shatner-Nimoy trivia question. Strigas is almost like a blueprint for Mission: Impossible (which also didn’t debut until 1966); the viewer is only given teases of the Solo-Kuryakin plan. The U.N.C.L.E. operatives also have to improvise to keep the scheme on course.

Shatner gets the primary guest star billing because he’s the “innocent” of the story, a man who departed a high-paying corporate job to start his own pest-extermination business. U.N.C.L.E. utilizes the man’s background as part of the plan. Nimoy is the deputy of the targeted diplomat (Werner Klemperer).

Shatner and Nimoy actually don’t have that many scenes together. One occurs during a party where Shatner’s Michael Donfield is supposed to be a little tipsy (and talkative, to further the trap) but may have gotten into his part too much.

A disguised Illya about to spring the trap

A disguised Illya helps to entice the target of the affair

Strigas (short for “strike gas,” the supposed name of a secret operation) was the first of 11 Man episodes directed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best directors to work on the series. Based on Strigas, it’s easy to see why Sargent was brought back repeatedly. Sargent would helm U.N.C.L.E. episodes into the third season.

Finally, the episode has what seems to be an amusing in-joke. McCallum’s Kuryakin spends much of the episode disguised as a young Leon Trotsky. While Kuryakin was Russian (and U.N.C.L.E. an international organization), the show was always careful to keep the references low key.

To long-time U.N.C.L.E. fans, this is old hat. But with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie now in production, The Project Strigas Affair is an episode potential new fans should check out.

Season one episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. EPISODE GUIDE

The Project Strigas Affair entry on IMDB.COM

The FBI season 6: Erskine takes on the ’70s

Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

The sixth season of The FBI is now available on DVD. The sales pitch from Warner Archive, which markets manufactured-on-demand home video products for Warner Bros., reflects the changing era for the show.

At the dawn of the Seventies the Culture War captured as much attention as the Cold War, and the storylines seen in this sixth season of The FBI (drawn from real Bureau files) reflected this. While still on the watch for saboteurs and spies acting as agents for foreign powers, the dedicated crimebusters of the Bureau, as personified by Inspector Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.), Special Agent Colby (William Reynolds), and Assistant Director Ward (Philip Abbott) were just as likely to be tasked with tracking down psychotic Vietnam veterans or stopping college kids with a terrorist bent.

The series still was coming up with some espionage stories such as The Target, an episode featuring one-time James Bond actress Karin Dor.

The sixth season also has a mix of actors who’d gain fame later, including Martin Sheen (who had already done a guest shot back in the third season), Michael Douglas (shortly before being employed by producer Quinn Martin) and Diane Keaton (a year before doing The Godfather). Also, the roster of guest stars includes William Shatner being, well, William Shatner.

For Quinn Martin, The FBI was now his flagship show. The creative team led by producer Philip Saltzman remained in tact from the previous season. For QM Productions, it was steady as she goes amid the changes in society that were affecting storylines.

For information about ordering the season 6 set, you can CLICK HERE. There’s a sample clip from The Condemned, the first episode of the season.

UPDATE (Oct. 18): Here’s the preview clip from The Condemned:

77 Sunset Strip’s experiment with film noir for TV

A cast shot of 77 Sunset Strip. All except Efrem Zimbalist Jr., would be gone for the sixth season.

77 Sunset Strip is one of those shows that, despite being popular in its time, doesn’t strike a chord with a lot of people today. It was one of Warner Bros.’s first hits on television and spawned three similar detective shows (Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6). Even more obscure is 77’s final season, which did a drastic makeover and began with an experiment of producing film noir for television.

William Conrad, producer-director of “5.”

A new producing team of Jack Webb (yes, that Jack Webb) and William Conrad (yes, that William Conrad) fired the entire cast except for star Efrem Zimbalist Jr. The actor’s Stuart Bailey character was now a hard-boiled, lone wolf private eye worried about paying his rent. The catchy Mack David-Jerry Livingston song was gone as well, replaced by an instrumental by Bob Thompson.

To kick off the new format, Webb and Conrad began with a five-part episode simply titled “5,” written by Harry Essex and directed by Conrad. The producer-director also made a cameo toward the end of the conclusion.

The show enlisted a large roster of guest stars. Some were key characters in the story, others eccentric cameo roles. The group included two actors who either had or would play James Bond villains (Peter Lorre and Telly Savalas) and others who’d play villains on the ABC Batman show (Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Walter Slezak and Victor Buono). And being a 1960s event, of a sort, it wouldn’t be complete without William Shatner in the mix.

Anyway, “5” recent showed up online (but unofficially). It comes across as very ambitious for its time with some attempts at innovation but with some flaws as well.

Positives: At the end of part I, Bailey is caught off guard by an attack by a thug and rolls down a stairway. Conrad and his crew came up with some kind of rig so the camera in a point-of-view shot seems spin, matching the PI’s fall. Also, there’s some pretty good tough-guy PI dialogue. (“Did I hit a nerve?” asks New York City detective played by Richard Conte. “You couldn’t find one in a dental college,” Bailey replies.)

Negatives: At the start of the final part, the story runs out of a gas a bit and there’s a long recap of the first four installments. Also, it seems improbable that Bailey would lug a big 1963 tape recorder around. The tape recorder is merely a device to justify first-person narration by Zimbalist. It might have been better to just go with the narration and not worry about the recorder.

In any case, “5” nor the new format was a commercial success. Only 20 episodes were made at a time 30 or more episodes made up a full season. ABC showed reruns from previous seasons to fill out the 1963-64 season according to the show’s entry in Wikipedia.

Still, “5” was an interesting experiment and fans of film noir ought to check it out as Stuart Bailey travels from Los Angeles to New York to Europe to Israel and back to New York on the marathon case. We’ve embedded part one below. If interested, you can also go to PART TWO, PART THREE, PART FOUR and THE CONCLUSION. Warning: you never know who long these things will stay on YouTube.

Fun facts about Ursula Andress and Luciana Paluzzi (and others)

We mentioned before how NBC’s Thriller series included early performances by Bond women Ursula Andress and Luciana Paluzzi. It turns out that deep in a commentary track on one of the DVDs, there’s some amusing trivia related to the 007 actresses.

This particular commentary track, rather than comment on an episode, is a re-enactment of a 1997 interview with Douglas Benton (1925-2000), who was the show’s associate producer and who went on to a long career producing various TV shows. The part of his father is played by Benton’s son, Daniel, who reads his father’s words.

Andress’s starring turn in “La Strega” was directed by Ida Lupino, with Alejandro Rey as the male lead. Benton quoted Lupino thusly: “Oh golly, it’s such a pleasure to come on the set and find out your leading man is more beautiful than the leading lady.” Benton quotes Lupino as changing her mind. “I’m happy with the way they look, it’s a shame, though, that neither one can act a lick. Alejandro couldn’t even understand English and Ursula was speaking German.”

On Paluzzi, who starred in “Flowers of Evil,” Benton said, “She was fun. She didn’t take acting terribly seriously. Her mother was one of Mussolini’s mistresses and Luciana had grown up in the upper reaches of Fasicist society.”

While this has nothing to do with 007, we couldn’t resist including Benton observations about William Shatner (“Bill was a terrible ham. Directors complained that he over-acted all the time.”) and Mary Tyler Moore (“I thought she was a brat. I was on the stage one day when somebody asked her to do something and she said, ‘I don’t have to do this. My husband Grant Tinker is the vice president of NBC.’…That was a request from the network that we find her a job.”)

Finally, Benton said of Robert Vaughn, the future Napoleon Solo, who also appeared in Thriller: “Robert Vaughn was the same guy I first met him on GE Theater and later on the U.N.C.L.E. show. He was a joy to work with. He is so much more intelligent than the average actor, that it was like dealing with a university professor…There’s no mystique in acting for Robert. He’s certainly no method operator. He’s just a very brainy guy who should be teaching history at one of the Ivy League universities. That is if he couldn’t make five times as much money as an actor.”

One of Benton’s many credits was being producer of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. It was he who came up with the idea of offering Karloff the role of Mother Muffin, the elderly woman leader of a band of assassins. The writer of The Mother Muffin Affair had described the character as “Boris Karloff in drag.”

“I looked at the damn thing and said well, why don’t we get Boris?” Benton said. “I knew him and I knew he’d be amused by this.” The answer Benton received from the actor: “When and where?”

A blog that examines William Shatner’s toupee

There’s a blog that keeps track of toupees worn by William Shatner. The most recent entry looks at the hairpiece Shatner wore in a first-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The author of the blog has some fun with it, carefully choosing stills from the episode (the ninth of the series, titled The Project Strigas Affair and making some amusing comments. For example, the entry includes stills of Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) removing a wig and including Shatner’s reaction.

If you’re interested, you can compare the blog entry against the episode itself, which starts like this: