1970s: Tough times for spy TV

Robert Conrad in a publicity still for A Man Sloane

By Bill Koenig

In the 1960s, spies were all over U.S. television. Some shows — The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, I Spy, Get Smart and Mission: Impossible — resonated with audiences.

By 1973, with the final episode of M:I, that era was over. In real life, there were scandals involving the FBI and CIA. As a result, the decade was a tough time for enthusiasts of spy entertainment on television.

Still, there were attempts. Here is a look at some of the relatively few highlights.

Matt Helm, 1975: Donald Hamilton’s counter-assassin Matt Helm had been turned into a series of comedies with Dean Martin in the 1960s. Helm got a (brief) new life in 1975 when Helm was a former spy who became a private detective.

A TV movie pilot starring Tony Franciosa aired on ABC in the spring. It was written by Sam Rolfe, with Irving Allen, who produced the Helm movies with Dino, as executive producer.

Helm was picked up as a series for the fall, with Allen stepping aside and taking a consultant title. (Allen’s Meadway production company was referenced in the end tites.) Franciosa’s Helm didn’t catch on with audiences and the show only lasted a half-season. Fans of Hamilton’s novels still await a faithful adaptation of Matt Helm.

Here’s an example of the main and end titles.

Our Man Flint: Dead on Target, 1976: James Coburn starred as the dashing Derek Flint in two popular 1960s movies. The character showed up in a forgettable TV movie in 1976. Like the 1970s Matt Helm, the 1970s Flint was now a private eye. This time, Ray Danton was Flint.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. unmade TV project, circa 1974-1976: The original 1964-68 series was made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when the studio’s famed back lot was still in tact. A globe-trotting series was filmed either at MGM’s studio facilities or within 30 miles of Culver City, California.

In the 1970s, a lot of MGM’s lot had been sold off. But studio executives were interested in reviving the show.

In an early attempt, Richard Maibaum, who’d go on to work on 13 James Bond films, was retained to come up with a new story. Some of Maibaum’s efforts are housed with his papers at the University of Iowa. But Maibaum bailed out without getting very far.

In the mid-1970s, veteran writer-producers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts arrived at MGM. Early in their careers, they wrote the classic James Cagney film White Heat. (“Top of the world, Ma! Top of the world!”_

The studio assigned Goff and Roberts various projects. One of them, a TV version of Logan’s Run, would be shown on CBS.

Another project given to Goff and Roberts was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Goff and Roberts had never worked on U.N.C.L.E. Their television work included creating the series The Rogues as well as producing the last seven seasons of the private eye drama Mannix.

Goff and Roberts responded by hiring Sam Rolfe, who wrote the original U.N.C.L.E. pilot and was producer for the show’s first season, generally considered the best for the series.

Rolfe wrote a script for a two-hour TV movie called The Malthusian Affair. Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were still present. But there was a new U.N.C.L.E. headquarters and new agents as well as some science fiction elements, including a high-tech (by the standards of the day) exo-skeleton.

The project never got beyond that point. The script would have been expensive to make and that likely was a factor.

Enigma, unsold pilot, 1977: Sam Rolfe, in the meantime, had other projects. One of them was Enigma, an unsold pilot made at 20th Century Fox in 1977.

Enigma, essentially, was an updated U.N.C.L.E. Scott Hylands played dashing Andrew Icarus. The organization was mysterious and had a secret headquarters on a Carribbean island.

The pilot included two veterans of the James Bond film series, Soon-Tek Oh (as Icarus’ sidekick) and Guy Doleman (as the organization’s chief).

Enigma, like U.N.C.L.E., also had a thing for triangles. U.NC.L.E.’s security badges were triangle shaped. Enigma’s headquarters made triangles a major part of the interior design.

The pilot was shown on CBS but no series order came.

Code Name: Diamond Head, unsold pilot, 1977: Veteran television producer Quinn Martin decided to explore the spy genre with a two-hour TV movie/unsold pilot Code Name: Diamond Head.

The story takes place in Hawaii. Roy Thinnes is a U.S. operative who has a cover of being someone often on the wrong side of the law.

The project has a heavy Hawaii Five-O vibe. Zulu, who had been in that show’s first four seasons, is one of the sidekicks. Another is played by Don Knight, who appeared in several Five-O episodes.

Finally, Morton Stevens, composer of the classic Five-O theme, was retained to score Code Name: Diamond Head. His music is one of the best things about the TV movie.

Hunter, 1976-77 (CBS): CBS decided to give spies another try. The network bought a contemporary spy show called Hunter, starring James Franciscus.

The series creator was William Blinn, who had adapted Alex Haley’s book Roots as an enormously successful TV mini-series. Franciscus’ James Hunter was a former spy brought back into the fold. He’s helped by Linda Evans as another operative.

James Hunter reported to a superior in Washington often shown in shadow. He was played by Ralph Bellamy, who is recognizable despite the shadows and tight shots intended to obscure his face.

The pilot aired in 1976 and it went to series in early 1977. The series didn’t work out. It ran only 13 episodes, according to its IMDB.COM ENTRY.

Below is a video showing a teaser, main titles, start of the episode, concluding scene and end titles of an episode. There are also some commercials and CBS promos, including one for the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Escapade, unsold pilot (1978): By 1978, Quinn Martin had sold off QM Productions to Taft Broadcasting. Philip Saltzman, a long-time producer at QM, took over executive producer duties.

QM decided to attempt to develop an American version of The Avengers. The company hired writer-producer Brian Clemens, a veteran of the British series, to oversee the effort.

The move didn’t last long. The unsold pilot was broadcast by CBS.

A Man Called Sloane, 1979 (NBC): QM had one more spy-related project to attempt.

A Man Called Sloane detailed the struggle between UNIT (the good guys) and KARTEL (the bad guys). UNIT operated behind a seemingly ordinary toy store. Its ace agent was T.R. Sloane.

The pilot was a TV movie called Death Ray 2000. While NBC ordered a series, major changes took place before it went to series.

The original Sloane, Robert Logan, was replaced by Robert Conrad, who had starred in The Wild Wild West (1965-69). Torque (Ji-Tu Cumbaka), a henchman in the pilot, who sported a steel hand, became Sloane’s sidekick in the series.

One of the story editors for the series was Peter Allan Fields, who had been one of the main writers on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Despite all the retooling, the series only lasted a half-season. A Man Called Sloane would be the final series developed by QM Productions.