TV Programs: Spy Shows of the ‘60s

Fifty-three Christmas Eves ago, I first saw an episode of an exciting new show that hadn’t yet caught on with viewers, despite great reviews in TV Guide and elsewhere. Mission: Impossible was the final entry in what had been a mid-Sixties spy craze on TV and in the movies, all of them of course due to the huge success of James Bond. Spies had never been big box office before Bond, but for a few years they were as common as Star Wars rip-offs would be fifteen years later. Mission: Impossible was unusual for the new genre; no sex, very little violence, jumpy editing that was too fast for most casual TV viewers a half century ago, with complicated, half-explained plots that you had to follow closely to figure out. Above all, its main characters were quite deliberately left blank: you didn’t really know who they were, all you ever knew about them is what they did. Yet Mission: Impossible became by far the most successful and long lasting of all the TV spy shows of the ‘60s. Variety raved, “It looks like CBS finally found its U.N.C.L.E.”, referring to NBC’s hit spy show, then in its third year.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., debuting in 1964, was the first of the TV spy bunch, boldly announced as “Ian Fleming for television!”, a claim that NBC and its producers, MGM, were forced to hastily retract after Bond’s producers and Fleming’s estate threatened to sue. That claim was a lie, or more forgivably, an awkward exaggeration, and like Mission, U.N.C.L.E. was slow to find an audience. But once it did, it was a huge, if short-lived pop culture phenomenon. Its stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, were mobbed everywhere they traveled. They got bushels of fan mail every week. MGM even happily publicized hundreds of fan letters addressed simply to “The Gun”, U.N.C.L.E.’s custom-crafted handgun, accessorized with a custom stock, barrel extender, silencer, even an infrared sniper scope. Millions of plastic replicas were among the most popular ‘60s Christmas toys for American boys. Could you imagine the reaction to that today?

The third member of the top hit parade was NBC’s other spy drama, I Spy. (NBC was also the broadcast home of Get Smart, whose competing spy agencies, corporate-looking headquarters, gadgets, and auto-opening doors were far more of a parody of U.N.C.L.E. than of Bond, much to MGM’s irritation. But it’s a comedy, so I’m skipping it.)

Like U.N.C.L.E., I Spy was popular for its two leading men, their breezy banter and their friendship. The difference was visible, literally on the face of it: Bill Cosby was the first Black leading man of television, a sensation that he and the network coolly underplayed with the brusque, patriotic note that in modern America, equality and an interracial friendship was no big deal. There’s an urban legend of sorts that race never came up, was never mentioned in I Spy. That’s not quite true; the very first episode, “Goodbye, Patrick Henry”, is about a boastful, rhyming Muhammad Ali-modeled character who defects to Communist China in a worldwide wave of publicity, only to seek a rescue later. Race did come up as an issue from time to time in the series, but it was rare. Cosby, and America at the time, liked it better that way. His character, Alexander Scott, was a Rhodes scholar, an intellectual giant who became one of Black America’s most admired role models. His espionage cover was being the trainer for tennis star Kelly Robinson, played by Robert Culp, who amiably shrugged off being overshadowed by his co-star.

Kelly and Scotty may have talked jivey, like jazz club or comedy club buddies, but I Spy was the most realistic of TV’s spy shows—no whizbang gadgets, no high tech, no mythical antagonists. It was us versus the Communists, just like real life. Their few on-screen briefings took place at the Pentagon; they learned their jobs at what sure looks like the defense language institute in Monterey, California. Like the other spy shows (and like James Bond himself), in a literal sense they were rarely spies. Kelly and Scotty were secret agents, mostly couriers and sometimes fixers. That was also realistic: actual spies were often people with professions (sports, culture, academia) that allowed them to enter foreign countries, even Iron Curtain ones, without attracting suspicion.

By 1965, NBC was billing itself as “The full color network”, and I Spy took full advantage of it. No other show of the period, and few since, went on international locations like they did, visually making the most of the real Hong Kong, Mexico or Europe. The show’s cinematographer, Egyptian-born Fouad Said, was an outspoken advocate of getting movies and TV off the sound stages and into reality. A company he started, Cinemobile, devised and marketed trucks that were fully equipped camera and lighting departments, setting the pattern for the entire industry to this day.

If you haven’t seen I Spy, look it up on YouTube. It’s a treat, well written and acted. You’ll see why white and black America alike fell in love with Bill Cosby, and what a damn shame it is that he ended up the way he has. It was on the air for three years. Not every episode is a classic, but by and large it was consistently good, beginning to end.

Regrettably for its fans, the same can’t be said about The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which started strong but went off course by its third year and was ignominiously cancelled midway through its fourth season. Its first year was in black and white, which surprisingly helped the show’s suspension of disbelief. Unlike other spy agencies, U.N.C.L.E. was politically neutral, with the winking implication that it was part of the United Nations, right outside their window. (The UN didn’t like that, so MGM explained the acronym as “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement”.) Dashing agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) even had a Russian partner, Illya Kuryakin, played by Scots-born actor David McCallum. This was the height of rock and roll’s British Invasion, Beatlemania ruled the land, and the Brit, McCallum, became a heartthrob for young girls.

U.N.C.L.E.’s Manhattan headquarters looked like a modern corporate office, equipped with computers and closed-circuit TV. The men were in suits and ties. U.N.C.L.E.’s main opponent was also corporate looking, with secret branch offices all over the world, and their own custom designed weaponry, distinct from the heroes’. Agents of the two sides often knew each other, like staffers of competing ad agencies. When a comely enemy spy coyly declines to say who she works for, Napoleon Solo helpfully reminds her. “Thrush. You know, that organization of renegades, spies and traitors…the place you pick up your paycheck each week”. In keeping with the Thrush theme, enemies often had the names of birds—Dr. Egret, G. Emory Partridge. This gimmick got old quickly.

So did one of the show’s regular features, bringing ordinary citizens into the center of the action, usually by chance. They were usually (condescendingly silly) young women from what we’d now call Flyover Country, impatient with their allegedly humdrum lives and the dull guy they were engaged to. For an hour of television, they had international adventures, risking death in glamorous surroundings, protected by handsome men. Then they’d invariably realize that their dopey boyfriend and dishwater-plain hometown weren’t so bad after all, and return home happier and wiser for the experience.

In the first two years of the show, plots were imaginative with a touch of science fiction. From the second year on, episodes were in color. Strangely, it seemed to take something away; making it look more like real life made the cardboard aspects more obvious. Then a totally unexpected thing would change the course of U.N.C.L.E., not for the better: ABC’s mid-season surprise hit, Batman. For a while, silly, joked-up superheroes were a pop culture phenomenon, called “high camp” for no discernable reason. If you look the term up, it’s called things like “Artificial, affected, effeminate”. The spirit of Batman filled other shows with envy, and by U.N.C.L.E.’s third season the show became a lame joke, with Illya riding a stink bomb, Strangelove-style, over Las Vegas and Solo dancing the Watusi with a gorilla. NBC also made the unwise move of airing a one-year spinoff, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Stephanie Powers was actually quite good as agent April Dancer, but there was just too much U.N.C.L.E. on TV, devaluing the original show’s appeal. The producers knew they’d screwed up. Season four was a more sober, back-to-spy-basics show, but it was too late for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to pull out of its dive. Its time slot was given to a new, brief lived sensation, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

In the meantime, Mission: Impossible just kept chugging along, protected by creator Bruce Geller’s iron insistence on avoiding “high camp”, inside jokes, or in fact just about any jokes at all. It started as a product of Lucille Ball’s Desilu Studios, as did its 1966 stablemate, Star Trek. Martin Landau, in fact, turned down the role of Spock. Years later, he admitted that financially speaking, this wasn’t a lucky move. “But who knew? Mission: Impossible was a top ten show. Star Trek could barely stay on the air”. True.

The very second episode I’d see—and the first most Americans would see—was on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1966. The show became a hit overnight. “Operation Rogosh” was so good that for years, the producers screened it as an example for new writers. An “unbreakable” enemy agent has to be tricked into revealing where germ warfare bombs are placed. Like the movie 36 Hours, they construct an elaborate ruse, convincing their subject that years have elapsed. This kind of fake location plot would later drive The Sting, and in fact they were both based on the same inspiration, a 1940 book called “The Big Con”. This confidence man trick was called “the big store”, and Mission: Impossible would return to it again and again. They’d fool a foreign traitor into thinking his plot to kill his pro-Western boss had succeeded, and while he was in the middle of gloating out loud, the Impossible Missions Forces would roll back the fake wall, and the angry prime minister, who’d heard all, would promptly place the hapless villain under arrest. The IMF were con men in a good cause.

Unlike I Spy’s Alexander Scott, who knew everything about everything, Greg Morris’s Barney Collier was strictly a technical whizkid who could rewire or reprogram anything that came his way. He was yet another role model for Black America. In real life, whenever Morris’s TV was on the blink, television repairmen were astonished that he needed their help.

Mission: Impossible was an expensive show, a tough challenge for little Desilu’s tiny back lot. It required various Iron Curtain police and military uniforms, foreign cars and signage, and credible looking Los Angeles substitutes for overseas locations. Lucille Ball sold the studio to its vastly bigger neighbor, Paramount Pictures, and turmoil erupted that couldn’t entirely be kept behind the scenes. First, IMF leader Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) was replaced with Peter Graves when Hill started getting increasingly obstreperous about keeping the Friday sabbath. Industry veterans shook their heads. “Can you imagine getting fired from Paramount for being too Jewish?”, they laughed.

Two years later, married leads Martin Landau and Barbara Bain refused to report to work until they got massive raises, which the producers would be contractually required to extend to Graves as well. Hard-as-nails Paramount turned them down and they were gone. Landau would be replaced for two now-forgotten years by Leonard Nimoy, but it would take years of female guest stars until Linda Day George became a reasonably good choice. Show creator and co-owner Bruce Geller had one fight too many with Paramount, who banned him from the lot. He still had his ownership rights, he still got his producer fees…but he was gone.

To give the devils their due, Paramount had to do something. By the turn of the ‘70s, the spy craze was over. The studio wanted more shows in sunlit penthouses and fewer of them in frozen East European dungeons. Crime shows were in, so IMF’s complex schemes were now usually aimed at amorphous crime lords called “the syndicate”. Formerly straight-arrow Greg Morris now had a mild Afro, and often infiltrated criminal rings with a cliched, “Yeah, maaan” delivery. The show would suffer creatively for all these losses and less-than-sure creative choices, though it continued to be fairly good, professionally done and consistent right through the end, season 7. Mission: Impossible was revived for two years in the late ‘80s, with Peter Graves still leader of the IMF team, and was rebooted as a film series by Tom Cruise in 1996. Today, it’s the only remaining part of the ‘60s spy craze that people are still familiar with.

When Mission ended in the spring of 1973, we were far removed from the era it was created in. Anyone who thinks wokeness is strictly a modern phenomenon surely wasn’t around to see women burn their bras for eager news cameras outside of the Miss America pageant, or doesn’t remember when even the head of the AFL-CIO criticized own party as the home of “acid, amnesty and abortion”. Images of Black Americans on the big screen had gone from helping the nuns in “Lilies of the Field” to “Superfly”. It was a different world. Yet whenever TV reruns brought us back to those exciting musical themes and jazzy opening graphics, we fondly remembered a not-too-distant time of miniskirts, flirtation, Cold War gunplay, and tall, handsome men in immaculate tailoring. Because saving the world never really goes out of style.