How A British Secret Agent Became An American TV Icon
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the previous four installments of this series we recalled the creation of Quinn Martin’s 007 TV series and its growth into a worldwide pop culture phenomenon; saw how life intersected with art for the cast of 007 and its spinoff Felix Leiter during the Cuban missile crisis; recalled the introduction of Roger Moore as Sean Connery’s successor as James Bond; and remembered some of the parodies and imitators 007 inspired. In this segment we’ll recall the more somber mood the series took on after Ian Fleming’s death and the determined if ultimately fruitless effort to save Felix Leiter after a substantial drop in that show’s ratings prompted ABC to cancel it.
The 007 set was a noticeably more solemn place in the first few months after Ian Fleming’s passing; his dry humor had been one of the engines that drove the series since its creation, and with that engine gone 007’s cast and crew were in flux as they sought ways to keep the show from dying with him. This solemn atmosphere was also reflected in the first set of episodes that aired on ABC in 007’s seventh season; a great deal of the banter that had been a mainstay of the series during its previous six seasons vanished, and many viewers-- not to mention a few TV critics --wondered if it would ever come back. One New York Daily News reviewer’s column was headlined with the plaintive question "WILL BOND’S LICENSE EXPIRE WITH HIS CREATOR?"
Distracted by their grief over Fleming’s loss, Quinn Martin and his production staff were slow to notice that ratings for Felix Leiter were taking a steady nose dive. ABC executives, on the other hand, saw it all too soon and began to give serious consideration to canceling the series. For Leiter fans already upset by the dismissals of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and John McGiver from its cast, the prospect of the show itself being taken off the air was a mortal insult-- and they let ABC know as much in no uncertain terms. Within days after the first rumors of Leiter’s demise began to circulate, a massive letter-writing campaign was underway to keep the series on the air; station managers at ABC affiliates across the United States were swamped with phone calls pleading with them not to let the show die.
When Martin finally saw what had happened to the once-glittering ratings for Felix Leiter, he waged a passionate personal campaign to convince ABC to give the series more time to right itself; he was sure that the show’s Nielsen troubles were just a blip on the radar screen. But neither Martin’s pleas nor the letter-writing campaign had much of an effect on ABC’s programming department, and in January of 1966 the network officially terminated Leiter’s run effective as of the first week of March. Leiter fans were upset by the news, but their reactions were mild compared to Quinn Martin’s ire over the cancellation; Martin personally confronted a senior ABC executive over the decision and the two men got into a shouting match in full view of the ABC secretarial pool.
ABC considered terminating its relations with Quinn Martin Productions altogether as a result of this incident; Martin himself threatened to take his services to CBS. It took delicate negotiations by the network’s PR division to save Martin’s contract with ABC, and even after that there were still some lingering tensions between him and the network.
All was forgiven when 007, Matt Helm, and The Fugitive went on a ratings surge during the February 1966 sweeps. Deciding that his best course of action was to make lemons into lemonade, Martin put more work than ever into his three remaining series, and his efforts resulted in some of the best prime-time ratings ABC-TV had enjoyed in the network’s history; furthermore, Martin was inspired to script a series finale for Felix Leiter that would, in the immortal words of ‘50s TV comedy icon Milton Berle, leave the audience wanting more.
For the final original episode of Felix Leiter, Martin and his scriptwriters decided to bring the series full circle by having Leiter return to Berlin for a last showdown with the East German spymasters he’d tangled with in the series opener. To add spice to the stew, as it were, there was a riveting subplot in which Leiter found himself being stalked by the brother of the woman who’d been mistakenly shot by Laurence Harvey’s character in Leiter’s maiden episode. The climactic scene, in which the brother fought Leiter to the death atop the Empire State Building, was one of the trickiest stunt sequences ever filmed for a Quinn Martin show-- or any TV series for that matter.
The Leiter series finale, ironically titled "New Beginning", was shot over five days at the ABC studios in Hollywood and at a number of location sets in New York, West Berlin, and San Francisco. The episode featured a short but breathtaking cameo by Clint Eastwood, then starting the transition from Rawhide to a movie career, as a CIA cryptoanalyst. The vengeful brother seeking Leiter’s demise was played by Stuart Damon, later to star opposite Lesley Ann Warren in the live- action TV musical adaptation of Cinderella and portray surgeon Alan Quartermain for over three decades on the soap opera General Hospital. There was even a brief cameo by John McGiver reprising his former role as Victor Branch.
On March 2nd, 1966 it seemed like just about every TV set in the United States was tuned in to ABC to watch Felix Leiter carry out his last mission. Quinn Martin and a number of his senior production staff met at Martin’s home to view the results of their handiwork; Robert Wagner hosted a farewell bash for the series’ cast in Manhattan just a few blocks from the Empire State Building. The Leiter series finale handily won its time slot, beating out its nearest competitor in the Nielsen ratings by at least twenty-five points. Within a few days, the wheels were starting to turn in the minds of executives at Hollywood’s major movie studios-- here, they thought, was a potential cornerstone for a blockbuster movie franchise.
While the notion of franchising a movie character was still a relatively new concept at the time Felix Leiter ended its run on ABC, the cinematic adaptation of the series would see Hollywood take one of its first tentative steps toward the modern era of multi-film sagas built around a pop culture hero. Indeed, within barely six months of the broadcast of Leiter’s series finale on TV, a senior executive at 20th Century Fox confirmed that the studio had expressed considerable interest in bringing Leiter to the silver screen.
The seeds were also being planted for an adaptation of James Bond’s saga for the movies. From the beginning of 007’s second season on ABC, there’d been a subtle push to see Sean Connery bring his TV alter ego to the big screen; when Connery left the series, the push shifted its focus to Roger Moore. Interestingly enough, some of the same Fox executives working to make a movie version of Felix Leiter were also involved in the Bond film project; there were even rumors that the two concepts might be merged into a single script.
In the end, Fox studio execs decided that the Bond and Leiter pictures should be made and released as closely together as shooting scheduled would permit-- the logic being that if the Bond movie did well enough at the box office in its initial theatrical run, it would help boost advance ticket sales for the Leiter film. As it turned out, neither Bond nor his comrade-in-arms would make it to the big screen until the early ‘70s; just the same, however, the foundations had been laid for what would prove to be one of the most lucrative and popular franchises in cinematic history.
007 opened its eighth season with a two-part storyline which reflected the racial tensions simmering in American society in the aftermath of the Watts riots. Titled "Shades of Dishonor", it featured James Bond risking his career-- and at one point his life --to clear a fellow agent(special guest star William Marshall) of false charges of treason. "Dishonor" would generate controversy to a degree surpassing even that of "You Only Live Twice" for its unflinching depiction of racist undercurrents in American life. And it wasn’t just white racism that the episode confronted; one of the story’s leading villains was partly modeled after Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, who had once predicted in his book Message to the Blackman in America that so- called "White America" would be destroyed and Muslims in the United States would join with their brethren in other nations to establish a new world order based on Islam.
Not surprisingly, "Dishonor" triggered a flood of protest mail from Muhammad’s supporters; there were even brief threats by the NOI of legal action against Quinn Martin Productions. However, most of the letters written about the episode to Martin and to ABC were to praise the episode for going where few other TV series of that era had even dared consider going until then. Eventually, the NOI backed off its legal threats and things went back to normal on the 007 soundstages.
Two weeks after "Dishonor" was broadcast, 007 fans were treated to an epic rematch between James Bond and Auric Goldfinger in "Fool’s Gold", a nail-biter of a story in which the criminal genius plotted to cause a global economic meltdown by destroying the entire world’s gold supply. "Fool’s Gold" also marked the departure of Trevor Howard from the series. During the summer, Howard had told the 007 production team that he wanted to have more time for performing in stage and film back in his native Britain; much of the preseason buzz at the Quinn Martin Martin Productions offices had centered on who would succeed Howard in the role of M.
The best man for the job in this case turned out to be....a woman. Janet Munro, Edward Judd’s co-star in the 1962 apocalyptic film saga The Day The Earth Caught Fire, was introduced as 007’s new M in the two-part episode "Slings and Arrows". Her debut as Bond’s superior touched off almost as much controversy as "Dishonor" had, although for different reasons-- more than a few male viewers objected to the idea of 007 having to take orders from a female boss. It would take months for Munro to overcome the protests her addition to the 007 cast had inspired. Those protests would see conservative groups lash out at the series and its producers to a degree reminiscent of the outcry they’d raised over Diana Rigg’s love scene in "The World Is Not Enough".
There were rallies, held mostly in the Bible Belt, calling for the show’s sexual content to be drastically toned down and Munro to be removed from the cast; a number of hard-line Protestant evangelists accused 007’s producers of promoting what one Alabama minister called "unnatural" ideas about women. One particularly stiff-necked member of the Missisippi delegation to the U.S. Congress even sought to have the FCC impose fines and sanctions on Quinn Martin Productions and ABC for allegedly violating federal broadcast decency standards. A resolution to this effect was introduced in the House of Representatives and came within a cat’s whisker of passing before President Johnson flexed his political muscle to get his allies on Capitol Hill to have the measure squelched.
Munro would have the last laugh on the stuffed shirts, staying with 007’s cast long after the protest rallies had petered out and the resolution to sanction Quinn Martin Productions had become a minor but embarrassing footnote in Congressional history. In fact, when 007’s series finale aired in 1970, Munro would be featured quite prominently in that episode’s main storyline.
Eventually, the brouhaha over Munro’s addition to the 007 roster would give way to avid speculation over how Quinn Martin was going to wrap up one of his other hit series, The Fugitive. During the Christmas holidays, Martin made the difficult decision to finally ring down the curtain on his celebrated crime drama; he and series leading man David Janssen had both come to agree that Fugitive was beginning to run out of steam and he wanted to see the show conclude on a high note while it still could. Therefore, Martin felt the series finale’s storyline should center on Janssen’s character finally coming face-to-face with the one-armed man who had framed him for murder. Titled "The Day The Running Stopped", the finale was scheduled to be shot in late February and early March of 1967 and broadcast at the end of May.
Not surprisingly, "Running" involved some of the most intricate stunt sequences of Fugitive’s entire broadcast run-- none of them more challenging than the climactic showdown between Richard Kimble and his one-armed nemesis, Fred Johnson(played by guest star Bill Raisch), on top of a fairground ride. To say that the sequence was risky would be an understatement; during the third take David Janssen’s stunt double fell off the ride and broke at least a dozen bones, and Bill Raisch’s stunt double had to be cut loose after a safety harness malfunction on the seventh take.
But the finished product, when it finally aired on America’s TV screens, would be a thing of beauty-- not to mention a ratings bonanza for ABC...
To Be Continued
 Not to mention, as we’ll see in later chapters, laying the groundwork for a highly successful movie franchise.
 Harvey was unable to appear in the episode himself due to a prior movie commitment; he did, however, pre-record some voiceovers which were used in the episode’s flashback sequences.
 This wasn’t the only example of Elijah Muhammad’s animosity toward whites; in a 1965 newspaper article he said that “we have seen the white race (devils) in heaven, among the righteous, causing trouble (making mischief and causing bloodshed)”.