Television Spy Shows of the 1960ís
by Guy Belleranti
As the number of westerns on television began to drop in the 1960ís spy programs moved in to fill the void.
Without a doubt the success of James Bond movies starring Sean Connery played a part in this. The first, Dr. No, appeared in 1962 and was soon followed by From Russia with Love (1963).
When Goldfinger (1964) came out in 1964, the television spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was right behind. Running from 1964 to 1968, the series focused on 2 top agents for the United Network Command of Law Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) and their battles against THRUSH and other enemies of peace.
Robert Vaughn played the suave agent Napoleon Solo, and David McCallum played his partner, the more reserved and enigmatic Illya Kuryakin. Both reported to their pipe-smoking supervisor Mr. Alexander Waverly, played by Leo G. Carroll.
The program used wit, charm, ingenuity and gadgets, and became a pop culture phenomenon. Its action and hip, cool style appealed to the younger crowd, and adults liked its tongue-in-cheek humor. It was so successful that a number of feature length films were made from two-part episodes. It also spawned a spin-off series titled The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The spin-off didnít have the same success, however, and only lasted for a year.
1965 brought two more popular spy series, I Spy and Get Smart. The former starred Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson and Bill Cosby as his partner Alexander ďScottyĒ Scott. The chemistry between the two was wonderful and provided a great buddy drama. Cold war spies, Robinson and Scott took on a variety of foes in exotic locals. Indeed, a good portion of I Spy was shot in foreign locations, and this along with the programís dry humor made it memorable. Both Cosby and Culp were nominated for Best Actor Emmyís in each of the programís three seasons, with Cosby winning every time.
Get Smart also employed humor, but in a much more far out way. Created by Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles) and Buck Henry it was a comedy program all the way, spoofing the spy genre with originality and wit. Don Adams played Maxwell Smart, a bumbling American spy working for CONTROL. Playing his ďChiefĒ with aplomb was Edward Platt. Smartís female partner Agent 99 (played by Barbara Feldon) often had to bail Max out of dangerous situations in their battle against their main enemy, KAOS. One of the unique things about the program was Maxís shoe phone. Indeed, he was way ahead of the cell phone technology.
1966 brought another great spy show, Mission Impossible. The program followed an elite covert unit as they carried out missions subject to official denial should they fail. Each program would begin with the lead agent getting a tape recording of instructions that self-destructed immediately after being played. The programs were excellently crafted, and were ahead of their time in their use of special effects.
A few of my favorite characters on Mission Impossible were James Phelps (played by Peter Graves), Rollin Hand (played by Martin Landau) and Barney Collier (played by Greg Morris). Other actors who starred on Mission Impossible at various stages of its run included Leonard Nimoy and Barbara Bain (who received 3 consecutive Emmyís for her character Cinnamon Carter).
Mission Impossible returned to TV for 2 years in 1988 with Peter Graves reprising his Jim Phelps role. And, of course, Tom Cruise has starred in several recent and successful big screen versions.
No discussion of televisionís 1960 spy programs would be complete without mention of the cult classic The Avengers, which ran from 1961 to 1969. A British program, this fine quirky series eventually made its way to the U.S. and drew a great following. Patrick Macnee played the dapper and cunning super spy John Steed, who through the series run was paired with different female co-stars. Perhaps the most memorable were Honor Blackman as Dr. Catherine (Cathy) Gale (1962-1964), and Diana Rigg (1965-1967) as the beautiful, cool and capable Emma Peel.
There were other television programs incorporating elements of the spy/espionage genre in the 1960ís, but these are the ones that made the biggest impression on me. And while almost all have been brought to the big screen in recent years I still prefer the television originals.
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