I Spy (1965-68)

In 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson bravely intoned, “We shall overcome” and enacted legislation finally enfranchising black American voters, knowing full-well that he was handing the South to the Republicans for decades to come. Within a month the Watts riots broke out and I Spy began it’s three-year run on NBC, going on to win several Emmys and, in its own small way, helping to change forever the face of American Television.

Please note that this post is only about the vintage TV show from the sixties espionage boom, most definitely not the woebegone 2002 movie remake starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. Glad we got that out of the way.

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film / TV series meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“Wonderfulness …”

Although significant from a production standpoint for its remarkable level of location shooting overseas and in terms of its content and its essentially progressive subtext, I Spy remains best known for helping to turn stand-up comic Bill Cosby into a television superstar. Playing cool and complex secret agent (and Rhodes Scholar) Alexander Scott would earn him three consecutive Emmy awards, largely at the expense of his also nominated and equally excellent co-star Robert Culp, who was already long-established on film and TV and here played the ostensible lead, Kelly Robinson, an experience secret agent who travel the world undercover as a tennis player, with Scott as his trainer.

“I extend my hand to a man by the name of Robert Culp who, well, the guy took … he took a comedian who couldn’t do anything as far as acting is concerned, and he lost this because he helped me. That’s the greatest thing a human being can ever do.” – From Bill Cosby’s Emmy acceptance speech in 1966.

The super cool agents’ banter in each show (Cosby and Culp ad-libbed relentlessly, infuriating the writers and producers) is a joy and the closeness of their friendship, onscreen and off, helped create a genuine milestone in the history of US television that put Cosby’s name above the title and made them full and equal partners. This was more than generous on the part of the late Robert Culp, who not only hand a hand in creating the show (albeit without on-screen credit, though he did own a percentage of the series) but also wrote many of its best episodes (and directed one too).

Produced with great ambition by ex-actor and tyro TV producer Sheldon Leonard on locations all round the world, this could easily have been a much more straightforward espionage thriller were it not for the intelligence with which it was put together and the strength of its performances. Combining humour and drama, this is a Cold War show that while not eschewing many of the conventions of the time (the Russkies and especially the Red Chinese are rarely seen in a positive light), also is clearly going for something much more socially relevant. this aspect of the show is frequently at its best in the episodes written by Culp, where issues of inequality and racial intolerance are handled with genuine sophistication. This is most notable in ‘The Loser’, in which Eartha Kitt guest stars as a jazz singer bonded into slavery to a succession of white masters by her drug addiction; and ‘So Long Patrick Henry’, in which Culp expresses his partner’s contempt for a black athlete who has defected to China only for the sake of a fat pay cheque. This in fact became the season opener for the show after general agreement that the pilot episode was especially poor (and was, as a result, buried in the middle of the season instead – it co-stars Vera Miles and is pretty terrible apart from the wonderful Hong Kong location work). Equally good is ‘Magic Mirror’, shot in Spain where co-stars Ricardo Montalban and France Nuyen (shortly to become the next Mrs Culp) enact a complex love triangle that will leave egg on Kelly’s face. The most daring, and today the most odd, is ‘The War Lord’, a Fine story of miscegenation and political cross-contamination in which Culp under heavy makeup plays a Chinese freedom fighter who kidnaps a young English woman (Jean Marsh), who is actually his lover. The main writers and showrunners were the experienced team of Mort Fine and David Friedkin and they were responsible for the bulk of the episodes either as authors or as executive producers. Among the best of these is Tatia, directed by Friedkin, which has Kelly fall madly in love with a woman who may be a spy – the climactic scene in which he and Scottie fight over her is wonderfully put together – but don’t just take my word for it, watch the extract below.

The plot of having one of our two heroes fall for a woman and then get disappointed was overworked over the three seasons, it has to be said, but other repeated scenarios really paid off, most especially one of the show’s signatures moments, the incarceration of our two heroes in a locked room and their eventual release. This happens over a dozen times but is always handled with wit and originality. Also, the references to Scott’s mom back in Philly eventually pays off in a great episode in which we finally get to meet the great lady. In another fine story, Trial by Treehouse , Cosby goes undercover as a blue-collar machine worker opposite Cicely Tyson in a story scripted by Michael Zagor and directed by Richard C. Sarafian, easily two of the show’s most successful contributors. The best episodes probably though remain the ones written by Culp – they are:

  • So Long, Patrick Henry (1965)
  • The Loser (1965)
  • The Tiger (1966)
  • Court of the Lion (1966) (Culp also directed)
  • The War Lord (1967) – in which Culp plays a dual role
  • Magic Mirror (1967)
  • Home to Judgment (1968)

With its breezy theme tune by the late Earle Hagen and its pair of resolute, wise cracking but diffident leads, it quickly rose above the plethora of similar series screened during the 1960s spy craze.

Despite its basic adherence to the genre’s conventions (a three-act structure, with an opening teaser and a concluding tag scene), this show seems far more realistic and easily bests such near contemporaries as Danger Man and The Man from UNCLE by filming part of each episode on genuine international locations. In season one the show travels from Hong Kong to Japan and concludes in Mexico. For the second season the show would begin in Italy, move to Spain and then head back to Palm Springs and Mexico. Marrakesh and Greece were the main overseas locations for the third and final season. Each season was shot in three blocks, each of nine episodes, with all the location work down for those stories, then would head back to Hollywood for the studio scenes before heading off to another location for the next nine and so on, requiring enormous planning and efficiency. The location unit headed by Fouad Said broke new ground in its ability to shoot on location with lightweight equipment and with the minimum of fuss.

It is forty years since this show ended but as stateside voters face the prospect of re-electing a black president in the most divisive election since the last one, in an era where ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws that in essence have brought back Jim Crow and racial and social inequality is at an all-time high, I Spy seems more pertinent and potent than ever. Anyone interested in reading up on the show could do no better than checking out the I Spy website at www.l23.org/index.htm and also getting hold of the excellent book by Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa which provides plenty of interviews with the stars and crew as well as a detailed episode guide – here are the details:

I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television Series
(McFarland Press, 2007)
Foreword by Robert Culp
ISBN: 978-0-7864-2750-5
118 photos, 452 pages

DVD Availability: All three seasons are available on DVD in low-cost editions that appear to be completely uncut. Colour fidelity and sharpness are often remarkably good given that as many as six episodes are crammed on to each disc. The only substantive extra is an impressive one though – Robert Culp, working from detailed written notes, delivers highly informative commentaries on the seven episodes he scripted.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to I Spy (1965-68)

  1. Sergio – What a great TV series that was! And I’m honestly not much of a one for TV. As you say, this one featured such remarkably good dialogue and team-work. Thanks too for mentioning the breakthrough technological details that made the series work.

    • Thanks very much Margot – it is a show very much of its time of course but I think it holds up remarkably well thanks to the two leads, whose work together has an honesty and intimacy that I think will still impress most viewers.

  2. Colin says:

    Very nicely done Sergio. We’ve mentioned this show before and it’s certainly a very attractive one, both visually and thematically. I’m not sure if it’s better than Danger Man, although the location work is a big plus. It’s certainly a more consistently enjoyable show than The Man from UNCLE though.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love Danger Man, especially in its hour-long incarnation (almost as much as The Prisoner in fact), I really was referring to the use of locations in that particular comment! If you get the DVDs let me know as I’d love to know what you make of them.

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Well, part of the reason for the location work was to make Cosby that much more obviously American, by contrasting him with the “alienness” of East Asia and some other spots around the world. That this also gave a lot of Asian-American actors work was a bonus, even if their characters were too often a bit, shall we put it, underwritten. (That, however, is the major advantage of I SPY over DANGER MAN, where ridiculous imposture of Asians by British Cauc actors was the rule.) Also, some of the improvised dialog was rather flat, and Culp (as well as Kelly) had some fairly reactionary crotchets (as might befit a US spy, his assessment of Marx can charitably be labeled jingoistic, and I’m no Marxist). But it was often a good series, and I do remember the Culp episodes being pretty good on balance…and, hey, France Nuyen had a recurring role, along with at least one one-shot earlier. U.N.C.L.E. was meant to be less realistic, and DANGER MAN/SECRET AGENT was often sharper, but I certainly enjoyed I SPY even when a small child…as an infant, I mistook a skycap for Cosby once, much to everyone’s amusement around me, apparently.

    • Thanks very much Todd. Nuyen was Culp’s mistress at the time and played the same character, Sam-Than, first in The Tiger, another of the Culp scripted show (which was unusual for discussing the Vietnam war) and then again in Magic Mirror. Culp and Cos are definitely alpha males in the show and frequently behave that way and get away with it but the episodes which tend to undermine their invincibility, or ingrained macho or nationalistic beliefs, are what, to me, make the show really stand out.

      • Todd Mason says:

        I hadn’t actually looked into it before, but the dates of Culp’s previous marriage and his marriage with Nuyen do tend to suggest some premarital dating on the side on her part, cheating on his. Ah, well…looks like he was never alone too long in his adult life. She became a psychological counselor, specializing in helping abused women…she did seem to have some rather self-abnegating tendencies, to judge by early press (when she was in THE WORLD OF SUSIE WONG on Broadway, as Wong, she would regularly give co-star William Shatner massages and such, since he Needed them…or so it was put in the LIFE magazine piece about the production and her).

        • Todd Mason says:

          France Nuyen on I Spy (TV series):
          as Sam / Mei Lin / Sada
          – An American Empress (1967) … Mei Lin
          – Magic Mirror (1967) … Sam
          – Always Say Goodbye (1966) … Sada
          – The Tiger (1966) … Sam

          • Cicely Tyson also appears a couple of times, as do many other performers, though Culp’s fooling around off set (though it was a genuine love affair so I guess that makes it more excusable in terms of conventional morality) was one of the (many) reasons why Sheldon Leonard and Culp didn’t get along at all, while Cosby, the good family man, remained his favourite son. I am a huge fan of Culp and think he was a splendid writer too (he wrote and directed the best Greatest American Hero episode by my reckoning, and is in fact very I Spy). One of the all time great Columbo villains of course.

        • Well I’m not going to blame the Shat – who could refuse? Appears to hav been a fascinating person, but I think you are probably quie right in your assessment. Apparently Shatner was very good in that – people forget what a strong reputation he had as actor when he first got started, before the corseting, the hairpieces/transplants and the very-very declamatory speech took over – loved him in Boston Legal though

  4. TracyK says:

    This reminds me that I want to try this series (again?) sometime. I honestly don’t know if I every watched it, when it was on originally or in reruns. The years 1965-1968 were ones when I probably wasn’t watching much television of any kind. Very enjoyable overview… again. Thanks.

    • Thanks TracyK – I caught reruns of it in Italy in the 80s and got hooked then – holds up wonderfully well. And as its a very inexpensive purchase on DVD it is well worth taking a risk and buying it blind if you like spy shows from that era.

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    It’s hard to explain today how charming this show was and what a milestone. But I never missed it.

    • Thanks Patti – I find it very addictive and find it hard to just watch one episode at a time. There is at heart in most episodes (not all, some are complete comedies) a seriousness of intent and a soulful attitude that I still find very beguiling. And Culp’s scripts, as well as some by Zagor and Fine & Friendkin, have an often unexpected darkness to them that is also very refreshing (and bracing).

  6. Todd Mason says:

    The “first interracial kisses” on US television, or at least the earliest I’m aware of, occur on this series, between Nuyen and Culp…something that is often cited as happening between Nichelle Nichols and Shatner on STAR TREK (that was more a face-rubbing. Hell, I think, though easily could be mistaken, that Nuyen and Shatner kiss in her episode of ST). Sad how much a milestone that is. (Oh, and I was just noting the Nuyen appearances since we both forgot a character she played on I SPY…I shall have to check to see if Tyson or anyone else guested as often.)(Tyson another groundbreaker, not least as co-lead, essentially, in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, and another self-abnegator, at least for a while, in even choosing to marry the physically and otherwise abusive Miles Davis).

    • Sad reflection of the times, isn’t it? Never seen East Side, West Side though I’ve always read good things about it. Several actors appeared more than once – I think Kenneth Tobey was the only one that played the same character more than once other than Nuyen (and to be honest, she seems to be playing different people samed Sam in those two stories).

  7. Todd Mason says:

    Some of the production guys were also involved with KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER in the seasons just prior to I SPY, which I’ve been finally catching up on, due to its regular run on the small broadcast network Antenna TV. It’s a remarkable collection of not-quite first-rate drama, and gave Anthony Boucher one of his last good-paying gigs as script consultant. (Antenna promos the episodes under the Kraft-less SUSPENSE THEATER title, while the episodes themselves bear the NBC repeats title CRISIS.)

    • Sounds fascinating – there are probably Kraft / Crisis episode knocking around the webosphere but with a few notable exceptions like Thriller, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, very few 60s anthologies seem to have made it to home video in decent editions, which is really sad.

      • Todd Mason says:

        And it took forever to get THRILLER thus. As I’m sure you’re aware, 87th PRECINCT, from the same production team as THRILLER, has finally been formally collected for the US market as well. Of course, by the ’60s, those and HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: damned near defined the durable anthologies, though a greater representation of the syndicated THE PLAY OF THE WEEK and the early productions of PBS-predecessor National Educational Television would be welcome…

        • I have yet to read a review of the 87th Precinct series that gives an indication of what the picture quality is like – I’d love to get it if it’s decent. The criterion release of 12 Angry Men includes the original TV broadcast and another Reginald Rose TV play, this time directed by Lumet – and the Criterion Golden Age of Television release is also pretty impressive. I’d love to get Thriller if it came down in price a bit (importing it into the UK adds 20% in taxes plus huge handling fees that really makes it prohibitive).

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yes…These are 1950s items, though, for the most part…12 AM was a STUDIO ONE episode, a series which wrapped in ’58…though CBS’s other major prestige drama antho, PLAYHOUSE 90, managed to hold on till 1961.

            Good luck finding a bargain on THRILLER and 87TH…used copies might do the trick…

          • All such good stuff – the work of Serliing, Chayevsky, Rose, JP MIller has been championed continuously and rightly but there is such a lot more to unearth out there – thanks for the info (an the good wishes).

  8. Bill Selnes says:

    Sergio: Thanks of reminding me of a good T.V. series. What I remember most of that era in watching T.V. is that in rural Saskatchewan we had but 2 channels and did not get alot of American series. I did see I Spy.

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Bill. I tend to get a but hyperbolic as I only write about the things I love usually, but it was mostly a really classy show and I think still has a lot to say. I really don’t think there was another one quite like it.

  9. Tatia Loring says:

    Hi Cavershamragu,
    I enjoyed your review very much, and I’m delighted to see a “current” review of I SPY.
    Just wanted you to know that there are others out there who love the series as much as you do.
    The I SPY FORUM has been going strong for over 10 years, with posts and updates every day.
    http://www.network54.com/Forum/172251/
    And happily, I SPY is once more available for free on HULU.com
    http://www.hulu.com/i-spy
    And for all those lovers of all things “Robert Culp,” check out
    THE CONSUMMATE CULP website, too.
    http://theconsummateculp.com/

  10. Fascinating stuff, Sergio! I have heard a lot about this TV series though I don’t recall it being ever telecast on Indian television. I’ll probably go for the DVD pack. I do remember once having an I SPY comic-book in my collection even as I’m still hanging on to a couple of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. comics.

    • Never read one of the comic books Prashant – didn’t even know there was one (there were several novels based on the show, nearly all of them written by Walter Wager under the house name ‘John Tiger’. Hope you get the DVDs – I don;t think you’ll be disappointed!

  11. Jeff Flugel says:

    Great job covering the many highpoints of this terrific series, Sergio! I’m glad you gave plenty of props to Culp, who was a very talented and interesting man, infidelities aside. I SPY and ROUTE 66 are twoTV series that really stand out to me for their location work, very unusual in those days (and even today). The Cushman/LaRosa book you mentioned in your post is really fabulous, one of the best, most detailed and authoritative books of its type I’ve yet come across, indispensable for fans of the series. I agree as well that the eps written by Culp are among the series’ best. I especially admire “So Long Patrick Henry” and “Home to Judgement” (Will Geer being especially memorable in this). That said, most of the other eps succeed as well-crafted entertainments, with lots of fun banter between the two leads, good action and plots that come across as more adult in tone than was often the case in the TV climate of that era. Certainly one of my favorite series from the 60s…thanks for the nice write-up!

    • Thanks very much Jeff, very kind. I should have said more about the brilliant Home to Judgement, you’re right there. Looks like and and I are pretty much of one mind on this one (which make a nice change for me as I always seem to come down on the wrong side of an argument these days)>

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  14. Wayne Brooks says:

    For my money “Child Out of Time” belong in the I SPY TOP FIVE! Scotty and Leno’s friendship is nothing short of beautiful. And Kelly’s incredibly apt comment “That’s my man” spoke volumes of their friendship.

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