Thursday, October 6, 2011

Boris, Bob and Bill Take a Road Trip

I only occasionally write about television on this blog, since I'm perpetually annoyed that television is responsible for bringing the Golden Age of Radio to an end. I'm equally annoyed with the existence of reality television and any game show that allows contestants to scream when they win something.

But during the now over 60 years that TV has been an important part of our culture, there have been (by my count) a total of 27 television series that were worthwhile in terms of good storytelling and cool characters, each of them scoring over a 7.0 or higher on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness scale. There's actually another 18 series that score between a 6.0 and a 7.0 and thus also deserve an occasional mention.

That makes for a pretty small percentage considering the hundreds of television series that have come and gone since the late 1940s, so perhaps that means we should value the good stuff all the more. And in the four years or so I've kept this blog, I have written about the original Star Trek, Combat, The Untouchables, Bat Masterson, Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and even The Time Tunnel (though the overall quality of that latter show can be legitimately argued.)

So this week I'll add one more TV series to that list: I Spy, starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as spies who posed as a professional tennis player and his trainer.  It really was a great show, with solid scripts, great location work, a lot of humor and excellent rapport between Culp and Cosby.

The show as a whole has a Bogart/Karloff Coolness rating of 8.7, but the one particular episode I want to talk about gets a nearly-unobtainable 9.9. This, in large part, is because it guest-starred one of the two actors that the Bogart/Karloff scale is actually named after.

Boris Karloff, one of the finest actors ever and by all accounts a true gentleman in real life, made everything he appeared in that much more classy. (Heck, he even gave bad movies and TV shows a degree of class.) In the I Spy episode "Mainly on the Plain," he plays an eccentric Spanish professor who has developed a method of building an effective anti-missile system. But he is disdainful of politics, refusing to give his secret to either the West or the East.

So Kelly Robinson (Culp) and Alexander Scott (Cosby) are assigned to befriend him and convince him to share his secret with the right side. They discover that Don Ernesto Silverando (Karloff makes no attempt to affect a Spanish accent, but it doesn't matter at all) is a fan of the novel Don Quixote. He is, in fact, obsessed with Don Quixote, considering Cervantes' would-be knight as an ideal of bravery and chivalry.

Poor Don Ernesto is kind of missing the point of the novel, which Cervantes meant to be a pretty vicious parody of such romantic views of medieval feudalism. But, be that as it may, he soon drags Kelly and Scotty on a cross-country drive to Madrid. Because his car is filled with multiple editions of Don Quixote, the two spies have to follow him in a separate vehicle. Just like Sancho Panza followed along behind Don Quixote.

Before long, Don Ernesto is forcing them to act out scenes from the book, attacking a windmill (which results in Kelly getting a butt-full of buckshot from an enraged mill worker) and leading them in an attack on an "army" of sheep. But when Don Ernesto "rescues" a paddy wagon full of crooks from the local cops, the good guys really start to get worried. Not that the Communist assassin on their trail didn't already have them worried.

What's really cool about Karloff's performance is that neither he nor the script plays Don Ernesto purely for laughs. As the episode progresses, it becomes apparent that the valuable secret the don holds is really weighing him down--that his escapes into Quixote-inspired fantasy are his way of dealing with the potentially destructive knowledge only he has. People might die because of something he created and that's a reality he just doesn't want to face.

Karloff brings a palpable sense of pathos to the role, giving the otherwise almost purely comedic episode a real heart. He takes a character that might have been nothing more than a clown and endows him with sincere humanity.

And, when the trio is captured by the assassin and some henchmen, it's the brave actions of Don Ernesto that turns the tide against the villains.

Read even a little bit about Boris Karloff and you discover that he was a gentleman and a generous man with a heart for children in need. I think that these real-life traits were an important part of his success as an actor. I think the reason he brought such class into the parts he played in movies, radio and television was that he was overflowing with class in reality. I think that's why he was the best actor ever.

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