Thursday, April 11, 2013

March 3, 1967--Part 2

The Wild, Wild West was a combination of two genres that were popular in the 1960s--Bond-style spy stories and Westerns. Though the term hadn't been coined yet, it's also an example of steampunk, with both the good guys and the bad guys using devises that were often a little too advanced to believably exist in the 1870s.

But that's okay, because the show played its premise straight, while Robert Conrad (as Secret Service agent James West) and Ross Martin (as master-of-disguise Artemis Gordon) each brought a distinctive personality to their respective roles. Also, the gadgets they used--such as West's derringer kept in a spring-loaded sleeve holster--were pretty darn awesome.

The show was bizarre from the get-go, involving anything from super-explosives of near-nuclear level to a Fountain of Youth serum to steam-powered and life-sized marionettes. But no matter how outlandish the weekly Macguffin might be, Conrad and Martin always played it straight. That, plus the cool devises and kinetic fight choreography, meant The Wild, Wild West was consistently entertaining.

The March 3, 1967 episode ("The Night of the Surreal McCoy") was certainly outlandish, but it could not help but be entertaining. Because this was one of ten appearances by 3'10" actor Michael Dunn as the mad scientist Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

Gee whiz, Loveless may be the single greatest villain ever--simply because Dunn made him so much pure fun to watch. Dunn was a very talented actor and singer, as well as extremely intelligent and (by all accounts) a class act in real life. His portrayal of Loveless was a bizarre but completely believable combination of genius, boyish charm and enthusiasm, meglomaniacal egotism and a complete disregard for human life. He was a ruthless killer who often planned to massacre thousands of people, but Dunn still made you kind of like him. It was a role tailor-made for him--an instance of exactly the right actor in exactly the right role.

This time around, he's developed a way of using sound to transport people inside paintings, where the scenes depicted in the paintings become three-dimensional reality. (Loveless explains this pretty much by using the word "metaphysics" in a sentence.) Using this technique, he's able to sneak into a museum and steal some priceless jewels. But that's just the beginning. His master plan involves using paintings to sneak an army of assassins into the residences of every single leader of every single country, killing the lot of them all at once.

To back him up, he's recruited a cattle baron and the seven fastest guns in the West as henchmen. It takes West and Gordon about half the episode to figure out what's going on. By then, West is a prisoner of Loveless, but Gordon shows up in disguise as usual and they soon get a chance to foil Loveless's plot--though they first have to win a gun battle against the seven fastest gunmen. West and Gordon soldier on, despite the fact that--unlike most episodes--there is no pretty girl handy for James West to sweep off her feet.

It would have been a good episode no matter what, but tossing Dr. Loveless into a Wild, Wild West plot always made it better.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. started out as a relatively serious spy show with a large dose of tongue-in-cheek humor. Like The Wild Wild West, it benefited from having two stars (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) who played off each other very well and who brought charm and likability to their roles.

It had a good premise also. U.N.C.L.E. was an international spy organization trying to stop the evil organization known as THRUSH from taking over the world. Every week, some innocent or average person would somehow get involved in helping top agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin complete their latest mission.

By the way, according to the novelizations of the show that were published in the 1960s, THRUSH was founded by Professor Moriarty's top assassin Sebastian Moran after Moriarty fell to his death of Reichenbach Falls. I don't think the actual TV show ever mentioned this, but it's too cool an idea not to accept at face value.

By the time we get to March 3, 1967 (well into the show's third season), the silliness and tongue-in-cheek elements had increased and The Man from U.N.C.L.E was becoming more of a comedy than an action show. This is why a lot of fans prefer the earlier seasons and I admit I fall into that camp as well. But the cast was good and the humor was done well more often than not, so the show remained entertaining throughout its run.

The March 3 episode was "The Matterhorn Affair" in which a hapless and inept used car salesman (played by comedian Bill Dana) comes into possession of a film strip that contains a valuable secret. Solo and Kuryakin spend the episode either preventing THRUSH from kidnapping him or rescuing him after he is kidnapped. (He's actually kidnapped twice before the show is over.) A lot of the humor is drawn from the fact that Dana's character doesn't actually know he has the film. When he "refuses to talk" under the threat of torture, the head THRUSH agent thinks he must be a top spy with nerves of steel.

This is probably the weakest of the shows broadcast that night, but it's still not bad. Dana was a pretty good comedian and, though a few of the gags fall flat, there's enough successful humor (along with a couple of nifty fight scenes) to make the episode work. I do think the first season was the best--where the humor was less broad and the balance between humor and drama was better maintained. But whenever you get to watch Illya Kuryakin take on four THRUSH henchmen in a fist fight and win, your time can never be considered wasted.

The Avengers was one of the first British-made TV series to air in the U.S.--something that was relatively rare in the days before cable and satellite television.

Like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, it was a show that gradually grew more outlandish and tongue-in-cheek as the series progressed. Originally, John Steed (Patrick McNee) was a spy who partnered with amateur sleuth Dr. David Keel, with Keel being the main character. When the actor who played Keel left the show, Steed become the main character and was revamped into the bowler hat-wearing old-school English gentleman we're more familiar with. Over the course of the show's run, Steed has several female partners. The most popular episodes--and the ones that found an audience in the States--co-starred Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel, an expert in martial arts and a certified genius in several areas of the arts and sciences.

It's really no wonder the Steed/Peel years of the show are the most fondly remembered. Unlike U.N.C.L.E., the additional humor and general silliness made the show better. McNee and Rigg bantered with each other to perfection--their chemistry together might just be the only case in the history of acting that nearly rivaled the chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two fought bizarre criminals with unfailing British reserve, effortlessly trading witticisms and occasional innuendos while facing assassins, thugs and the occasional killer robot. Steed was the old-school Englishman, while Mrs. Peel was the chic modern women. But there was nothing forced about their partnership--it all seemed perfectly natural. (Whether their relationship extended beyond their professional lives was always left vague. Even the actors and the head writer all had different opinions about this.)

Also, though the other ladies who starred in the show were certainly pleasant to gaze upon, Diane Rigg as Emma Peel was--well, she was Diane Rigg as Emma Peel. If you look up "Hubba Hubba" in the Oxford English Dictionary, it has Emma Peel's picture to act as the definition.

The March 3 episode was "The Living Dead." Steed and Peel are sent to investigate the sighting of a ghost in a cemetery, located near the site of a tragic mining accident a few years earlier.

Why the two best agents in England are sent to look into the sighting of a ghost by a drunken man is not explained, but it soon proves fortuitous. The agents gradually realize that something strange is going on. Mrs. Peel disappears. Steed eventually discovers a large underground complex and is taken prisoner. Mrs. Peel is already in a cell in the same complex, where the head villain conveniently explains that the place is funded by a foreign power to safely hide an army while they launch a nuclear strike.

Steed is put in front of a firing squad. Mrs. Peel breaks out of her cell. The climax is hilarious, with the firing squad going through a lengthy series of absurd rifle drills before shooting Steed, giving Mrs. Peel time to fight a guard, get a sub-machine gun and open fire on the firing squad in the nick of time. It's a silly story from start to finish, but the silliness is a strength, not a weakness.

It's interesting that The Man from Uncle lost something when it became sillier, while The Avengers gained something when it did the same thing. But then, Mrs. Peel would make any show nicer to look at.

Laredo was an entertaining show to watch mostly because of Neville Brand. Brand was one of the many skilled character actors that used to populate TV shows and movies. He was a pug-ugly guy with a distinctive gravely voice. He was great at playing villains--for instance, he was downright scary as a brutal killer in the 1950 film noir classic D.O.A.

But he could also ham up his performance a little more and turn on enough charm to be an effective combination hero and comic relief. This made him a good fit for a show like Laredo, which was almost as much a comedy as it was a Western adventure show. Brand played Reese Bennett, a slightly dense guy with a tendency to be a bit of a blowhard, but still dependable in dangerous situations.

Brand, Peter Brown and William Smith played three Texas Rangers, first appearing on an episode of The Virginian before spinning off into their own show. The three had a good rapport with one another, bringing enough humor to the pretty average scripts to make the show entertaining. Later, Robert Wolders joined the cast as Erik Hunter, though I don't think he ever fit comfortably into the group dynamic. All things considered, if Laredo never had the depth of story and characterization that made Gunsmoke or the early seasons of Bonanza true classics, it was still good for what it was.

Smith and Brown don't appear in the March 3 episode, titled "The Small Chance Ghost." It's mostly Brand's show. Reese Bennett arrives at the town of Small Chance and finds it almost deserted. All that's left is a former army sergeant, an elderly telegraph operator, the sheriff and a female saloon owner. Everyone else has fled, because the town is apparently haunted.

Soon the sheriff and then the telegraph operator are murdered. It all turns out to be a plot by the sergeant and the woman, who have discovered gold in a mine located under the town. In fact, another former soldier--a really big guy named Monte--has been pretty much living in the mine digging up the gold. With everyone else run away or dead, these three can keep the gold for themselves.

But now they have to kill Reese. And the woman also plans for them to kill or abandon Monte, so there is dissension in the ranks of the villains. Reese ends up a prisoner in the mine just as Erik Hunter shows up looking for him.

The episode is typical of the show. It's fun, though there are times when the humor falls flat. For instance, there's an almost-slapstick sequence in which the villains arrange several consecutive "accidental" deaths for Reese--traps he keeps avoiding through dumb luck. This simply doesn't generate the laughs it should.

But there are some sincerely funny moments as well, in addition to a good fight scene between Erik and the sergeant at the climax. And the episode has some depth given to it by Edward Binns and Ted Cassidy (Lurch from the Addams Family), who play the two soldiers. These two have a George-and-Lennie style relationship that the two actors handle very nicely.

(By the way, if you don't get the George and Lennie reference, you must now ask the person standing closest to you to dope-slap you. Hard.)

 And so that's it for our look at the network TV shows that aired on Friday, March 3, 1967. Thanks again to Gary Shapiro for sending me these discs. I enjoyed watching them. Though I'm a little annoyed by the experience as well. I like to whine and complain about how much TV usually stinks and how it killed dramatic radio as a viable part of our pop culture. In fact, I seriously enjoy complaining about TV. It's one of the highlights of my life.

Now I've watched seven different shows that all aired on the same night and I liked each of them. This ruins everything. -sigh-


  1. You sure did a fine job writing about the shows of March 3, 1967! I enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed watching them ole TV shows!

  2. Thank you, Gary. And thanks again for sending me the DVDs--I had a lot of fun watching these shows.


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