Normally for “Weird old title sequences” I like to confine myself to one show at a time. Had I remembered the show I was going to do this week, I’d be doing that right now. But I can’t and I forgot to write it down, even though I’m always forgetting things, so instead, I’m going to do a brief whistlestop tour through a whole host of title sequences for 60s spy shows which are gone, but thankfully not forgotten.
Here’s a tribute video for the shows I’m going to feature – The Wild Wild West, The Man From UNCLE, I, Spy, and Get Smart – but there are tributes to shows I’ve already covered, including The Avengers, The Champions, Honey West and Mission: Impossible as well, which should show you just how popular spy shows were in the 60s (and that’s barely scratching the surface).
The Wild Wild West
Although now better known to “young people” as a movie with Will Smith, The Wild Wild West was one of TV’s only forays into “steampunk”, a slightly neglected genre that features particularly in comics and science fiction novels, in which the past mysteriously gets upgraded with anachronistic technology. Running from 1965-1969, the show was a mix of western and James Bond, in which secret agent James T West (Robert Conrad) performed secret missions for president Ulysses S Grant. Assisting him was Artemus Gordon, a brilliant inventor and master of disguise, and his arch nemesis was the brilliant megalomaniac dwarf Dr Miguelito Quixote Loveless.
As well as the heroes’ gadgets, which included the likes of battery-powered electric drills and a grappling hook, the show featured any number of science-fiction devices deployed by the villains, including an earthquake-making machine, a brainwashing device, a cyborg, steam-driven puppets and, magnificently, a sonic device that could turn paintings into portals to other dimensions.
What distinguished The Wild Wild West in an age of anti-violence pressure groups – something that led to its eventual cancellation – was the tone. Although it grew gradually campier over its four seasons, it still featured gunfights and on average two fight sequences per episode.
As well as that Will Smith movie, there were two reunion movies featuring the original leads, comics and novels, which shows you just how well loved the show was.
And, in case you didn’t know, it had just a fantastic title sequence
The Man From UNCLE
Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin: a womanising American spy created by Ian Fleming and a cool, calculating Russian spy respectively. What made these two spies extraordinary was that at a time when Cold War tension ruled the airwaves, these two spies were the best of friends, working together for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement to defeat dastardly villains around the world.
After a spectacular and quite nasty pilot in which Solo (with minor help from Kuryakin) fought the menace known as WASP under orders from a Mr Allison, come series proper the double act came into its own under the instructions of Mr Waverly. Here, they fought THRUSH in various ‘Affairs’ as the episodes were known, the everyday revealing the extraordinary that was close at hand. Initially suspenseful with a light touch, the show gradually became more sci-fi and once the original producer left, it became a spoof of the genre, featuring slapstick and self-parody (yes, there was even an episode called The My Friend The Gorilla Affair). An attempt to become serious again during the fifth season didn’t manage to save the show.
During its time however, it launched many spin-off movies based on amalgamated episodes, sometimes with extra footage, which got shown in cinemas and on BBC2 at teatime during the 80s. A spin-off show, The Girl From UNCLE, got made after a backdoor pilot in the main show. There was also a reunion movie, The Return of the Man from UNCLE, which featured George Lazenby as you know who. But most notably, it catapulted both its leads, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, into international stardom.
It also had an outstanding theme tune and title sequence.
The Man from UNCLE might have been pioneering in having a Russian hero, but I, Spy was pioneering in a whole other way: it was the first US TV drama with a black leading man. Bill Cosby – for it was he – may have been a stand-up comic at the time, but when the show’s creator, Sheldon Leonard, saw him on stage he decided to take a chance and hire him.
The show saw Cosby paired with Robert Culp, with Cosby the coach to Culp’s international tennis player. However, both were really spies, Cosby the Rhodes-scholar intellectual and Culp the athletic playboy. As well as the exotic international locations used to emulate the James Bond movies, part of the show’s appeal was the camaraderie of the two leads, who not only were close friends off-screen – a chemistry that shone through in the show itself – but who coined their own catchphrases that soon became catchphrases in the real world. They also rewrote quite a lot of the dialogue, Culp even writing and directing several episodes himself.
As well as the inevitable reunion movie in 1994, there was a remake/travesty with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. But did it have the cool opening titles of the original? No.
Sometimes it can seem like there were more spy spoofs than there were actual spy shows in the 60s. Get Smart, however, was the most obvious, deliberate spoof, as well as the most memorable, partly because it came from the then-fertile mind of Mel Brooks. The show starred Don Adams as Maxwell Smart (agent 86) and Barbara Feldon (agent 99), as well as Edward Platt as their boss, “Chief”, and is best described as James Bond meets Inspector Clouseau.
Smart is an incompetent, clueless secret agent who works for CONTROL, fighting the forces of KAOS with the assistance of the far more competent 99. As well as foiling evil usually by accident, each episode would usually feature one of Smart’s many useless gadgets, such as a shoe phone that he had to remove to use, the plastic Cone of Silence which was supposed to make it impossible for anyone else to hear a conversation but instead did the opposite and a finger gun: a gun that fitted over a finger and thumb and that was designed to look like a finger and thumb.
The show lasted five seasons, amazingly switching from NBC to CBS for its final season, and during that time Smart and 99 got married and had twins. A reunion movie, The Return of Maxwell Smart, bombed at the box office in 1980, and a made-for-TV movie Get Smart, Again! aired on ABC in 1989. To complete the quartet of networks, the first TV show ever to do so, Fox made a short-lived sequel in 1995 with Smart and 99 returning with their grown-up son Zach. And in 2008, there was a remake with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway.
But the original will always be the best, as will its title sequence.