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.
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
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.