If you ask100 people to name the most famous 1960s spy, I’d bet at least 99 of them would say James Bond.
But while Bond may’ve been the spy, he wasn’t the only one — not by a long shot.
During the ’60s, thanks to the Cold War and its runaway nationalism and paranoia, spies were in our face 24-7. There were books, movies, games and toys galore, but their most popular and prevalent arena was TV.
The programs ran the gamut from the silly to the suspenseful, and without a doubt the silliest was Get Smart, starring Don Adams as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart.
Everything about the show was ridiculous, starting with the irony of Agent 86’s name, Smart. He was a nonstop bungler, of course, and his most famous prop was as ridiculous as he was. It was a shoe telephone. And, no, it wasn’t a telephone shaped like a shoe – one of his shoes was a telephone. So the ongoing gag was him making or taking calls on his shoe, which he had to take off, remove the sole, and hold next to his ear and have yet another moronic conversation. The show was an parody on the James Bond ilk and was obviously a comedy. Or maybe more precisely, it was an obvious comedy. Either way, I never got past its absurdity long enough to find it funny.
Then were was The Avengers. It was a British program, one part dry humor, one part hokey action, one part spy story – in descending order. The protagonists were a man named Steed and his partner, a beautiful woman named Mrs. Peel. Steed was always clad in a suit, with bowler hat and umbrella to complete the image, and looking more like an out-of-shape investment banker than a spy of any sort. Mrs. Peel, dressed in various form-fitting outfits, was the enforcer, whompin’ the bejammers out of the bad guys with a putative martial art that was a lot more artistic than martial. Because it was all so stagey, it had an odd, semi-surreal quality about it. It wasn’t suspenseful, but it was fun to watch.
My top two
One of my two favorite spy shows was The Wild Wild West with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. They were Secret Service agents in the 1870s, Conrad being the macho James Bond type, Martin being a master of disguise and maker of futuristic technologies. The action was great, with Conrad doing most of his own stunts, and Martin’s inventions gave the show an aura of Steampunk Spy. The interplay between the two was entertaining, as well it should’ve been, what with Martin having been previously partnered with that paragon of urbanity, Mr. Lucky.
My other spy rave-fave was Secret Agent. It starred Patrick McGoohan, who had two qualities that made him radically different from the other media spies. First, he was no Lothario: While he clearly noticed and acknowledged beautiful women, he never got involved. Second, he didn’t carry a gun. To quote Drake’s world-class understatement: “They’re noisy and they hurt people. Besides, I manage well without.”
Drake was pretty much McGoohan’s creation — he wanted the show to be family-friendly, so he downplayed the womanizing and violence. Beyond that, also due to McGoohan, the show had complexities other shows didn’t. The good guys didn’t always win; the missions were at times morally dubious; Drake himself was no mono-dimensional stereotype of what a spy is supposed to be.
Perhaps best remembered now is the show’s theme song, Secret Agent Man, performed by Johnny Rivers, with its unforgettable line: “They’ve given you a number and taken away your name.” And when it comes to a number but no name, the most memorable spy show was McGoohan’s next — “The Prisoner.”
My weird one
The Prisoner had an intriguing premise. McGoohan was a spy who tried to resign from the service, for whatever reasons (which we never found out) but the service won’t let him, for their own reasons (which we also never found out). Instead, he was drugged, kidnapped and exiled to an idyllic little seaside village where everyone else is either a recalcitrant spy or a sadistic spy master.
Everybody’s known by a number (McGoohan is Number Six; he gets interrogated and hassled by Number Two, and we never have a clue who Number One is).
To round out the incomprehensible weirdness, the village is patrolled by “roamers,” which look exactly like weather balloons, because they are. They bounce over and around the grounds, always managing to thwart any escape attempts.
Predictably, in each episode Number Six tries either to escape or learn who Number One is. And just as predictably, he fails. All the while, Number Two is trying his level (and nefarious) best to break Number Six’s will and spirit and get him to rescind his resignation, become a happy cog in the service’s wheel, get back in the fold, or something like that. And the whole time that’s going on, Number Six resists for all he’s worth.
A sample Number Six statement on the subject: “I will not make deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”
Whew! Heady stuff indeed.
The program was acclaimed by the critics for its “statement” and its stand against Orwellian totalitarianism. It was also lauded as surreal and avant garde. And while that may all have been true, I had one insurmountable problem with the series: It made no sense to me.
And catch this: Even critics and fans who liked it said they didn’t understand it. But while it made no sense to me then, I now think I’ve figured its appeal out.
The show was a product of its times – the sixties. Back then, people loved the incomprehensible, while at the same time, contrarily, they failed to understand the obvious.
Rod McKuen was considered a poet. Walter Keane was considered an artist. Andy Warhol filmed someone sleeping for five hours. It was titled, “Sleep,” and it was acclaimed as an “anti-film.”
Nixon was not a crook, we were winning the war, and the boys’d be home by Christmas.
Compulsive liars were believed; pathological maniacs were lauded as heroes and role models.
And so on and so forth.
In many ways it was an upside-down time — a full-scale, living, Alice in Wonderland with most of us cast as Alice — whether we wanted to or not.
And — minus great rock n roll, bell bottoms and the draft – it’s a whole lot like today.