The FBI versus Spies

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“Espionage is a dirty business. On more than one occasion, Inspector Lewis Erskine of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was called upon to investigate — and even infiltrate — those who conspired to commit espionage upon the Government and citizens of the United States.”

Originally published in 2008. There is a new 2015 epilogue at the end.

By Bill Koenig

Marvin Miller, narrator for eight of the nine seasons of The FBI, never uttered those words precisely. But espionage-theme stories were a major part of the longest-running television series filmed by QM Productions. QM, the initials of its founder, Quinn Martin (birth name: Martin Cohn), was a major independent produce of television dramas in the 1960s and 1970s. In some instances, QM worked in conjunction with major studios, on others it worked entirely on its own.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a publicity still for The FBI
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a publicity still for The FBI

The FBI was a co-production of QM and Warner Bros. (which had secured the rights to any drama filmed in cooperation with the bureau) Indeed, producer Martin hesitated, at first, to become involved in a proposed series that would be filmed with the approval of the bureau. In the end, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover won Martin over. The end result was a series that would run from 1965 to 1974, would span about 240 episodes and be a staple of Sunday television watching in the United States.

Despite that success, The FBI is fairly forgotten today. In fact, I hadn’t seen it for many years until TVLand aired the series’ first episode in 2005 as part of a weekend saluting the 50th anniversary of Warner Bros. Television. In 2006 and early 2007, America Online showed a number of episodes on its In2TV feature, where people can view episodes for free. Apparently, AOL concluded the interest was limited and it hasn’t shown any additional episodes since March 2007.

In any case, here we’ll look at some of the spy-oriented episodes of this long-running show. Perhaps the strangest highlight was a fourth-season episode in which a Soviet spy played by Russell Johnson (most famous for playing “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island) beats the crap out of Harrison Ford.

This is only a sampling, but it gives you a flavor of how QM’s version of The FBI (which tended to operate better with higher morals than the real-life FBI) came across on television.

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“The Spy Master” (first season)
Writer: Anthony Spinner/Director: Richard Donner

Plot: Red China approaches a U.S. diplomat, opposed to U.S. policy in Vietnam, to provide key intelligence data. The diplomat informs his superiors. The FBI assigns Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), who luckily bears a strong resemblance to the diplomat, to filtrate a U.S.-based spy ring for the Chinese.

QM had relatively high production values, at least compared to other 1960s television shows. The pre-credits sequence — in which Hong Kong is reproduced on a soundstage — is pretty respectable even by early 21st Century standards.

This episode aired late in the first season. Early episodes of the show had a lot of detail about Erskine’s personal problems (he was a widower, his wife had died in a shootout “meant for me,” his 19-year-old daughter wanted to marry his FBI partner). All of that had pretty much been dispensed with by this episode.

Nevertheless, this episode is worth watching. Director Donner, who had earlier directed four episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and also directed episodes of The Wild, Wild West, keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Both Patrick O’Neill and Kevin McCarthy make for respectable villains. Still, a few signs of hectic TV production show through. Most of the story is set in New York, yet in a key scene in Act IV, a highway sign for Interstate 5 (which is in Southern California) can be seen.

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“The Defector” Parts I and II (first season)
Writer: Norman Lessing/Director: Christian Nyby

Plot: The U.S. is about to participate in a major foreign conference with an unnamed Eastern Bloc country. A key intelligence operative of that country, whose public cover includes playing chess in major matches, is on the verge of defecting. But that operative appears to be killed in a fire at a nightclub caused by a bomb in his briefcase. Erskine, heading up the Bureau’s investigation, discovers the intelligence operative is still alive, having convinced someone to take his place (while not knowing about the bomb in the briefcase).

Erskine attempts to convice the intelligence operative’s wife to convince her husband to defect. The U.S. has obtained coded transmissions of the unnamed Eastern Bloc country. The U.S. needs his ability to crack those codes before the conference begins.

This sounds contrived, but great casting makes the first two-part story of the series watchable. Paul Lukas is the cagey ambassador of the Eastern Bloc country; Dana Wynter plays the defector’s wife, who goes through quite an emotional trauma; and John Van Dreelan, who often played villains, is an oily chess player trying to play both sides. Toward the end of Part I there’s a nice scene where Zimbalist’s Erskine has outsmarted Van Dreelan’s chess player:
“I thought you said you didn’t play chess,” Van Dreelan’s character says.
“I’m terrible,” Zimbalist replies.
“I beg to disagree,” Van Dreelan shoots back.

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Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Arthur Ward, who played Erskine's superior, Assistant Director Arthur Ward
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Arthur Ward, who played Erskine’s superior, Assistant Director Arthur Ward

“The Assassin” (second season)
Teleplay: John McGreevey
Story: Anthony Spinner
Director: Ralph Senesky

Plot: In the Philippines, a policeman with knowledge of an assassin is gunned down in front of the U.S. embassy. Just before he dies, he provides U.S. officials information about an assassin who is planning a job that will have major diplotmatic repercussions for the U.S.

The episode has a nice twist in that the title character is a normal looking, middle-aged man (William Windom). His target is a cleric (Dean Jagger) who preaches peace who will conduct a major rally in Chicago. His violent death would cause major problems for U.S. officials.

Windom’s character even gets off a gibe about James Bond. When the assassin is met by a dupe of a U.S. spy ring, he is surprised that the killer looks so ordinary. The assassin comments how real spies (and killers) wouldn’t want to appear so handsome and draw attentions to themselves.

Still, the episode also shows the real-life FBI kept a close watch on the show. One of the conspirators working in cahoots with the assassin is the dean of a college.

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“List For a Firing Squad” (second season)
Writer: Mark Rodgers/Director: Jesse Hibbs

Plot: An intelligence operative for an Eastern Bloc country, operating in the U.S., has obtained a list of opposition leaders in his home country. Erskine and the FBI race to intercept the spy before he can get the list out of the country.

The plot may sound trite, but the episode has a good cast, include Suzanne Pleshette as an American woman who has fallen in love with the spy. Zimbalist’s Erskine appears genuinely concerned for the woman and not a one-dimensional character.

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“The Courier” (second season)

Teleplay: Charles Larson
Story: Robert C. Dennis
Director: Ralph Senesky

Plot: Juliet Sinclair poses as a missionary who helps Asian children get adopted. In reality, she’s part of a Communist spy ring that has just stolen plans for a “cobalt bomb” in the U.S. Sinclair is bringing a young girl, who is to be adopted by a couple living in Los Angeles (who are also part of the spy ring).

The cast includes Gene Hackman, who always is worth watching (he plays one of the conspirators). I enjoyed the episode overall, but the tone is less nuanced than other episodes of the series.

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Efrem Zimbalist Jr., William Reynolds and Philip Abbott in an FBI publicity still, circa 1968
Efrem Zimbalist Jr., William Reynolds and Philip Abbott in an FBI publicity still, circa 1968

“Caesar’s Wife” (fourth season)
Writer: Warren Duff
Director: Robert Day

Plot: A British mercenary dies trying to get to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, who is carrying a picture of a French ballet dancer. It turns out the dancer (Claudine Longet) is part of a May-December romance with an older, retired U.S. diplomat (Michael Rennie), now living in Hawaii. Erskine, pretending to be a magazine reporter, wins the confidence of the diplomat’s grown son (Harrison Ford). On top of all this, the diplot’s closest friend (Russell Johnson) is really a Soviet agent.

I understand, when watching an old show, that you ought not be prejudiced by roles that an actor would play AFTER he or she filmed what you’re watching. Nevertheless, the story (which really is decent) is overshadowed by the image of Soviet agent Johnson (the one-time “Professor” of Gilligan’s Island) beating up Harrison Ford after Ford’s character has stumbled across the truth. It’s very typical ’60s/’70s television with the exaggerated sound effects. Next time Ford goes on Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show or David Letterman’s The Late Show, the producers really should dig this up to embarrass the hell out of the (now vastly rich) actor.

2015 epilogue: AOL’s In2TV eventually went away. However, Warner Archive, a unit of Warner Bros., came out with The FBI on DVD starting in 2011.

Warner Archive’s offerings are “manufactured on demand.” That means they don’t show up in stories. They’re produced as orders come in. Warner Archive products often cost more that discs sold in stores. But if you really want the show or movie, you can get them.

As a result, Warner Archive came out with Season One in 2011 (in half-season packages), and then three seasons each in 2012 through 2014. All nine seasons can be bought through Warner Archive. Clearly, more people remembered The FBI than we thought when this article was originally published in 2008.

The series’ spy episodes peaked in Season Two and Season Three. By the seventh season, there were only three espionage stories and just one in the eighth season. There weren’t any in the final season, although one episode involved the aftermath of a espionage trial 10 years earlier. One problem was the show got in a rut, where episodes used The Spy Master as a template, having Erskine go undercover to infiltrate a spy ring.

In 2014, we began THE FBI EPISODE GUIDE. It’s still under construction, but there are reviews posted for all episodes of the first two seasons, plus some episodes of other seasons. The reviews are more detailed than the ones in this article. There are also some embedded videos that Warner Bros. posted on YouTube to promote the DVD release. The FBI episode guide is an ongoing project.

Copyright © 2008, 2015 William Koenig

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