During the mid-1960s, the spy craze of movies and television was taking off. This was primarily thanks to the James Bond franchise exploding on the scene. Films such as the spoof franchises Matt Helm, featuring Dean Martin, and the Flint series, starring James Coburn, were doing solid business at the box office. However, it was on television that the spy genre was at its peak in Hollywood. This is the story of the shows that captured the imagination of audiences around the globe.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E
Premiere Air Date: September 22, 1964
Finale Air Date: January 15, 1968
Emmy Award Nominations/Wins: 8/0
Norman Felton was already an Emmy Award-winning television producer (Robert Montgomery Presents) when he decided to approach Ian Fleming about creating a spy television series in a similar vein to the films featuring the novelist’s 007 characters.
Fleming was very responsive to Felton’s ideas. As a result, he initially decided to join the project, which was to be named “Solo” after the lead character Napoleon Solo. However, contractual obligations for the James Bond book series got in the way. Subsequently, Fleming was forced to depart from the project. Ian Fleming would pass away six weeks before the series would hit the airwaves.
When Fleming left the project, Felton turned to Have Gun – Will Travel creator and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (The Naked Spur) Sam Rolfe. He was working on NBC medical drama The Eleventh Hour at the time.
Rolfe came up with the U.N.C.L.E. acronym, which he wanted to leave undefined. However, the legal brass at MGM didn’t like it because they thought they could have legal troubles with the U.N. Rolfe then came up with the acronym’s definition: United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
For the role of American spy Napoleon Solo, producers settled on The Magnificent Seven (1960) actor Robert Vaughn. Vaughn was co-starring in the NBC series The Lieutenantand was dissatisfied with his screen time. Knowing this, Rolfe and Felton reached out to Vaughn to play the lead in their new spy series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Solo’s partner, Russian-born agent Illya Kuryakin was played by Scottish actor David McCallum. The character was originally intended to play second fiddle to Solo. However, he was hugely popular with audiences and McCallum was soon elevated to being a true co-star in the series. McCallum received more fan mail than any other actor in MGM’s history while appearing on the show.
Rolfe stayed with the series for the first season. He was a believer in using subtle tongue-in-cheek humor for the series as well as making the show’s unbelievable elements believable. After Rolfe left the series, it drifted away from his vision and became a campier show.
“I’ve always felt U.N.C.L.E. was a show that needed a particular kind of a mind to direct it. You needed somebody that could do drama and then also lay humor into it but could sense when the humor had to be stopped and when you had to make the drama take over. And you could talk forever about it, but unless you walk in with that instinct, you’re not going to get it. And I think that some of the people that followed me didn’t have an instinct for it. So they got silly with it… They never sat down, they didn’t really grasp the drama – that you had to have the dramatic spine.”
– Sam Rolfe
In its second season, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. switched to color from black and white. However, the tone of the show continued to change as five different showrunners took the reigns over the next three seasons.
The tone of the third season attempted to emulate the campy and successful Batman series, starring Adam West. However, this caused the ratings on the series to plummet and nearly end the series. An additional attempt was made to keep The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on the air with a fourth more serious season.
The fourth season saw a new character Lisa Rogers (Barbara Moore) join the cast. In the end, it didn’t matter. The ratings for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.never recovered and the series was canceled midway through its fourth season.
Premiere Air Date: September 15, 1965
Finale Air Date: April 15, 1968
Emmy Award Nominations/Wins: 12/5
I Spy was the brainchild of producers David Friedkin and Morton Fine. The pair had previously collaborated on radio shows such as Crime Classics and Broadway is in My Heart. In the mid-sixties, after working as writers on Maverickand The Rifleman, the duo decided to try their hands at the spy genre. They teamed with actor/producer Sheldon Leonard and devised a premise about two American spies that use traveling the world playing tennis as their cover.
Robert Culp pitched an idea for a similar series to his buddy Carl Reiner. Reiner introduced Culp to Leonard, and he was ultimately cast. A reworked pilot script Culp wrote was eventually reworked and used for the episode “The Tiger.” Culp would go on to write seven more episodes of the series, directing one.
After casting Culp in the lead as Kelly Robinson, the producers sought an older, white actor as Alexander Scott, Robinson’s partner. That changed when Leonard saw Bill Cosby performing stand-up comedy on a talk show.
Cosby broke new ground by being the first African American actor to star in a network television show. Because of this, Culp and Cosby spoke with the producers about never bringing up Scott’s race on the show, to which they agreed.
I Spy had very high production values. The production spent money in areas that other shows it competed against didn’t. In addition to being shot on film, I Spy was shot on location in cities around the world. Not on a studio backlot. Some of the locations used included: Hong Kong, Athens, Rome, Florence, Madrid, Venice, Tokyo, Mexico City, Acapulco, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Morocco.
Another area where the show didn’t scrimp was on theme music. Instead of reusing the same music in every episode composer Earle Hagen was instructed to come up with new music to fit the locale in which the characters were visiting in that particular episode.
Premiere Air Date: September 17, 1965
Finale Air Date: April 8, 1966
Emmy Award Nominations/Wins: 0/0
Honey West also broke new ground on network television. It was the first network series to feature a woman in a lead role with her name as the title. Although West was technically a private investigator, the series has since been lumped into the spy genre conversation practically since it first aired.
West began to appear in a series of novels beginning in 1957 with This Girl For Hire. The original series of novels ended with a ninth book, Bombshell in 1964. The novels were written by the husband and wife writing team Gloria and Forest Fickling, under the pseudonym “G.G. Fickling,” who created the character.
ABC was inspired to create a series with a female action lead. This was because Aaron Spelling, the eventual show’s executive producer, caught an episode of the British series The Avengers, featuring Honor Blackman. When the property was picked up series, Spelling approached Blackman to star as Honey West. However, she promptly turned the offer down. Eventually, they settled on Anne Francis for the role of the titular character.
The show was developed by Burke’s Law writers Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov. The character of Honey West was introduced in that series, as was her partner, Sam Bolt, played by John Ericson. However, West’s pet ocelot, Bruce, was not introduced until the regular series.
The most memorable elements of Honey West were all style-heavy or Bond-inspired. Examples of the latter included gadgets such as tear gas earrings and an exploding compact. As for the former, West wore flashy animal print clothing and drove a 1964 AC Shelby Cobra. This drew parallels to Emma Peel’s Lotus Elan on The Avengers.
Premiere Air Date: September 18, 1965
Finale Air Date: May 15, 1970
Emmy Award Nominations/Wins: 21/7
Although the comedy series The Beverly Hillbillies did a handful of episodes where the character Jethro Bodine decides to become “a double-naught spy,” nobody had thought to do a comedy spy series until 1965. It is possible, however, that these misadventures of Jethro inspired the Talent Associates production company with the idea. Daniel Melnick, a partner in the company, reached out to comedy writers Buck Henry and Mel Brooks to come up with a series around this premise. It was pitched as a cross between “James Bond and The Pink Panther.”
“I was sick of looking at all those nice, sensible situation comedies. They were such distortions of life. If a maid ever took over my house like Hazel, I’d set her hair on fire. I wanted to do a crazy, unreal, comic-strip kind of thing about something besides a family. No one had ever done a show about an idiot before. I decided to be the first.”
– Mel Brooks
Get Smart was first pitched to ABC with actor Tom Poston intended as the lead. However, ABC hated it, calling it “un-American.” NBC felt different, however, and ordered the series for its Fall 1965 lineup. It stayed on the network for its first four seasons before moving to CBS for its final year. Brooks had next to no involvement after the pilot, but Henry stayed on board until 1967.
The show was about a bumbling secret agent, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), and his female partner Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon). Feldon was no stranger to spy TV, having appeared in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode “The Never-Never Affair” in early 1965. Adams was handpicked by NBC because he was available and under contract to the network, thus replacing Poston in the role. Adams would go on to produce thirteen episodes during the show’s run.
One of the primary humorous elements in the series was the use of gadget telephones, which were disguised as everyday items. Over fifty items were used throughout the series including neckties, watches, and most often shoes. Other non-phone gadgets also appeared on the show including a camera in a bowl of “Cream of Technicolor” Soup and a laser beam hidden in the button of a blazer jacket.
Smart drives a variety of cars throughout the life of the series. However, the most prominent and best remembered was a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger used for the first two seasons. When Get Smart moved onto a 1967 Karmann Ghia in the third season (when Volkswagen became a sponsor), the Sunbeam was gifted to Adams who kept it for well over a decade.
Other cars used in the series included a 1969 Opel GT (when Buick became a sponsor for the fifth season), as well as a 1968 Citroen 2CV, and a 1968 Ford Shelby Mustang. Both were only used in a few episodes of the fourth season. In the pilot episode, Smart drove a 1961 Ferrari 250 GT PF Spider Cabriolet.
During production, the cast and crew often contributed jokes and gag ideas that would be incorporated into the script. However, the dialogue was never ad-libbed with one notable exception, the third season episode “The Little Black Book.” This featured comedy legend Don Rickles in a guest appearance. Rickles encouraged Adams to ad-lib with him and the results were so funny that the episode had to be expanded into a two-parter to use all of the material.
“A lot of women said 99 was a role model for them because she was smart and always got the right answer.”
– Barbara Feldon
The Girl From U.N.C.L.E
Premiere Air Date: September 16, 1966
Finale Air Date: April 11, 1967
Emmy Award Nominations/Wins: 0/0
The Girl From U.N.C.L.E was a spin-off of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which used the episode “The Moonglow Affair” as a backdoor pilot for the series, created by Norman Felton. The name for the lead character April Dancer was dreamt up by Ian Fleming during his work on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the development phase.
The lead characters of April Dancer and Mark Slate were played by Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell in the parent series. However, when the spinoff went into production they were replaced by Stephanie Powers and Noel Harrison, who were more youthful. This was an effort to appeal to a younger audience.
The series wasn’t very successful, lasting only one season. This was due to several poor choices made by Felton and others. The two biggest issues were that although the show centered around a woman, unlike Honey West or Emma Peel, April Dancer typically relied on her male partner to get her out of a crisis. This made her seem weak. Another issue was the tone of the show, which, like The Man FromU.N.C.L.E., at the time had a camp tone similar to Batman. Even things like having Napoleon Solo show up on the series couldn’t save the show from complete failure.
Premiere Air Date: September 17, 1966
Finale Air Date: March 30, 1973
Emmy Award Nominations/Wins: 24/9
In 1964, Rawhide producer Bruce Gellar was inspired by the caper movie Topkapiabout a team of international burglars involved in an elaborate heist. Changing the crew from a team of thieves to a group of secret agents but keeping the other elements including minimal dialogue, a strong musical score, and the suspense of working with clockwork precision against a tight deadline, Mission Impossible was born.
Gellar fought hard to keep the plot of the caper at the forefront, eschewing efforts by others to show details of the private lives of the team. This was done in order to make the characters seem more believable as secret agents to the audience. As a result, their characters were as close to a blank slate as possible.
The series’ original lead actor Steven Hill, who played Dan Briggs, was difficult to work with. The most difficult aspect of these problems was his strict religious beliefs as an Orthodox Jew. Because of these beliefs, he would leave the set on Fridays at 4:00 p.m. to be home before sundown. He was also not available to work until after dark the following day. This threw the production schedule in disarray, and he was given fewer and fewer scenes as the first season progressed.
Another issue with Hill was he refused to do anything he deemed to be slightly dangerous. During the filming of the episode “Action,” Hill refused to perform a stunt involving him climbing a twenty-foot staircase to the rafters of the soundstage and locked himself in his dressing room. They ended up reshooting the scenes he appeared in and giving his lines and actions to other actors, primarily Martin Landau. Because of all of these delays in production, Hill was replaced by Peter Graves in the second season, playing the role of Jim Phelps.
Landau, who was a guest star in season one, officially joined the cast in season two. The actor and his wife Barbara Bain were with the show from the beginning and left together in 1969. Leonard Nimoy was brought in as the character “Paris” after their departure.
The most lasting element of Mission Impossible was the music, specifically the main theme, which was composed by Argentine composer, pianist, and conductor Lalo Schifrin. The composer used Morse code for inspiration and thought it worked well with the time signature he sought for the music. Additional music for the series was composed by Jerry Fielding, Walter Scharf, Gerald Fried, Richard Markowitz, Benny Golson, Robert Drasnin, and Hugo Montenegro. Fried, who also worked on Star Trekwould use music for that series on Mission Impossible and vice versa.
The series was filmed at the Paramount Lot with some location shooting around Los Angeles. After the fourth season, producer Bruce Lansbury took over and in a cost-saving measure, phased out the international mission, which required more elaborate sets to be built. Costs were the primary reason the show was canceled after the seventh season as it was deemed that more money could be made by syndicating the show than by producing new episodes.
The spy shows of the 1960s left a long-lasting impact on pop culture decades after they ended. Countless movies and television reboots have been created due to the longevity of the characters and concepts from this era.
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