How A British Secret Agent Became An American TV Icon
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
There could hardly have been a more unlikely combination for success in prime-time TV than James Bond, the ultra-suave British intelligence agent created by Ian Fleming, and Quinn Martin, the American television producer who made his mark in the entertainment world by creating gritty, rough-and-tumble crime dramas. Yet this duo would turn out to be a match made in pop culture heaven. Martin took Fleming’s superspy and made him a household name first in America and then around the world; in turn, the success of the 007 TV series made Martin one of the richest and most recognized producers in television. By the time the series finally went off the air after a run lasting more than a decade, at least eight of the top twenty TV shows in the US in any given week were Martin productions.
And it wasn’t just American TV on which Martin’s Bond series made a serious lasting impact; the show also developed a substantial following in Fleming’s native Britain, where its success spawned a host of similarly themed adventure dramas, and in Japan, where the highly individualistic Bond offered Japanese viewers a welcome dose of relief from the stresses of their conformist society. Even in the Soviet Union there was a kind of grudging admiration for the fictional MI-6 operative, and the state-controlled national TV service tried to woo Russian viewers away from illicit viewings of the decadent Bond show with their own superspy program.1
The seeds for the Bond TV phenomenon were planted in July of 1958 with a chance meeting between Martin and Fleming at an airport terminal in New York City. Fleming was returning to his beachfront house in Jamaica after an unsuccessful bid to pitch the movie rights to his spy novels to Hollywood executives; Martin was en route to Boston to scout potential exterior shooting locations for a new crime series he was hoping to sell to the networks. At one point in their conversation, Martin casually asked Fleming if he might be interested in having the Bond books adapted into a weekly TV series; Fleming was sufficiently interested in this notion to invite Martin to visit him in Jamaica that August to discuss the idea further.
By January of 1959 Martin had completed the rough draft of a script for the pilot of his proposed James Bond TV series. He first pitched it to NBC, which turned him down flat, then to CBS, who begged off due to budgetary considerations. ABC, however, saw a potential TV ratings bonanza in Martin’s script; in March they bought a revised draft of the pilot script from Martin and began casting for the roles of Bond, his superior M, the MI-6 technical genius Q, and Bond’s closest friend CIA field agent Felix Leiter.
The role of Leiter proved the easiest one to fill; Robert Wagner, who’d broken into show business in the early 1950s, aced his audition for the part. As a welcome bonus he persuaded one of his former movie costars, Hope Lange, to come on board as M’s secretary Ms. Moneypenny. M himself, meanwhile, would be portrayed by veteran British stage and film actor Trevor Howard. Canadian-born James Doohan, then a relative newcomer to the acting profession, beat out dozens of more established performers to win the role of Q.
For the part of Bond, Quinn Martin tapped Edinburgh, Scotland native Sean Connery. Connery, then best known to American TV audiences for portraying the title character in the Walt Disney comedic fantasy film Darby O’Gill & The Little People, was a tough sell to American TV critics who had never seen him in a straight dramatic part, but Martin was convinced that Connery had the perfect blend of urbane sophistication and primal ruthlessness to fill the shoes of Fleming’s superspy and worked to the tenth degree to bring the critics around. Fleming agreed with Martin on this point and lobbied ABC executives for weeks to give Connery the role. Martin and Fleming’s efforts paid off in early May when the network officially signed Connery to play James Bond for the initial 13-episode tryout of Martin’s new series, now titled 007.2
Shooting for the 007 series pilot, "Dr. No", began in mid-June of 1959. Playing the titular villain, an archetypal mad scientist who operates out of a Caribbean laboratory, was character actor Keenan Wynn, who five years later would earn a place in movie satire history as the gung-ho Col. Batguano in Dr. Strangelove. Because TV directors don’t have the privilege of working with the kind of massive budgets their movie brethren are accustomed to enjoying, the 007 production crew substituted the Florida coast for the Caribbean. Not that it made much difference to the crew or cast; the Sunshine State had plenty of breathtaking scenery and entertaining diversions in its own right.
Not the least of these was the famed Hialeah racetrack; more than once during the three weeks it took to film the series pilot, the men of 007 could be seen making bets on the races at Hialeah and either celebrating their winnings or grumbling about their losses. Connery never made any bets at Hialeah, but did enjoy watching the races just the same.
The biggest attraction on the set of "Dr. No" other than the picturesque beaches was Connery’s leading lady for the episode, Barbara Eden. Eden, playing NSA operative Honey Ryder, hadn’t yet achieved the TV stardom she would later gain with I Dream of Jeannie but was making considerable strides in that direction; her appearance in the 007 series pilot would mark a quantum leap forward in her TV career. It would also inspire movie director Irwin Allen, later to hit box office gold with the disaster epics Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, to cast her as a Navy medic in his 1961 sci-fi submarine drama Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea.3
Principal shooting for "Dr. No" was completed on July 12th, 1959 at the ABC studios in Hollywood; while that episode was being edited for its scheduled October 2nd premiere, the 007 cast and crew moved on to filming their second episode, "Goldfinger", and promoting their new series in a massive TV and print publicity blitz. In early August, both the finished cut of "Dr. No" and a rough cut of "Goldfinger" were screened for critics at a convention of West Coast television writers in San Francisco. The critics were silent throughout both screenings, leading Martin and ABC executives to fear they had a turkey on their hands; just as Martin was starting to walk out of the screening room, though, he heard a faint clattering noise from behind him that quickly became so loud he couldn’t hear himself think. Turning to see where it was coming from, he saw that the critics were on their feet giving the first two episodes of the new series a huge round of applause. Buoyed by this unexpected approbation, Martin threw himself into the task of completing production of "Goldfinger" and starting work on the third episode of the series, "Casino Royale".
By mid-September of 1959 seven of the thirteen episodes planned for the series’ initial run had been completed and two others were in post-production. Around that same time Rod Serling, author of the critically acclaimed dramatic teleplay Requiem For A Heavyweight, was sweating out last-minute details concerning the debut of his own new series, a science fiction anthology show called Twilight Zone; he knew that Quinn Martin’s spy series would pose a formidable obstacle for Zone’s efforts to win an audience. The fact that both programs would be making their debut on the same night(October 2nd) in the same time slot(9:00 PM) didn’t help Serling’s nerves any.
Not that Martin was exactly cool as a cucumber himself in the final days before "Dr. No"’s broadcast; an unexpected technical glitch had developed with the soundtrack for one of the two episodes in post- production and he had to work overtime to get that glitch corrected. Even the slightest foulup, he understood, could hurt if not kill 007’s chances to get picked up for a full season.
On the night of 007’s series premiere, Martin and several of his cast and crew gathered at his home to watch the broadcast. It was the first time that most of them had gotten the chance to see the finished cut of "Dr. No", and they were eager to check out the results of their labor. While much of the sexual content and violence from the original book version of "Dr. No" had needed to be toned down to satisfy ABC’s censors, the episode still made for a highly diverting hour of TV. A few minutes before the end of the broadcast, Martin got a phone call from a senior ABC executive at the network’s headquarters in New York City; sure enough, pending final review of the numbers, 007 had tied Twilight Zone for third place for the Nielsen ratings in the 9:00 PM- 10:00 PM time slot.
That was music to Martin’s ears: what truly convinced him the show was a hit, however, were the thousands of fan letters that ABC forwarded to him the following week after the broadcast of the second episode of the series, "Goldfinger". 007’s sophomore outing got high marks all around, especially for the inspired casting of legendary British actor Walter Pidgeon as the episode’s title villain, criminal mastermind and would-be gold baron Auric Goldfinger; in fact, when Ian Fleming saw Pidgeon’s audition for the role he was so taken with the Mrs. Miniver star’s talent that in order to leave the door open for a return appearance, Fleming-- who co-wrote the script --substantially revised its ending from that of his original book, in which Goldfinger met a (to say the least)grim demise.
In the TV version of "Goldfinger", Bond captures the criminal genius during an attempt to rob Fort Knox and subsequently turns him over to the FBI. One of the most famous lines of dialogue from that episode, and the entire series for that matter, comes near the end as Bond is handcuffing Goldfinger to Fort Knox’s gates. "Just what do you think you can gain by sending me to prison?" taunts the fallen crime boss. "Do you expect me to talk, Mr. Bond?" Bond, without missing a beat, casually replies: "No, Mr. Goldfinger, I expect you to rot." The camera then zooms in on a frustrated Goldfinger vainly trying to get out of the cuffs while the British agent strolls off to arrange for his vanquished foe to be taken into custody.
For the next five TV seasons 007 and Twilight Zone would remain fierce rivals for the 9-10PM Wednesday night time slot; this mirrored the larger competition between ABC and CBS over who would hold the No. 2 spot among the big three broadcast networks of the day and thus make the main challenge to the prime-time dominance of then No. 1 network NBC. With rare exceptions ABC usually won this tug of war, yet Zone’s appeal could not be denied and Rod Serling’s brainchild would keep on battling Quinn Martin’s spy drama for Wednesday night supremacy until budgetary troubles, combined with creative disputes between Serling and CBS execs, led to Zone’s cancellation in 1964.
In early December of 1959 the ABC brass gave 007’s cast and fans an early Christmas present-- the series had been picked up for the rest of the season and would in fact be returning for a second season in the fall of 1960. With that vote of confidence bestowed on his series, Quinn Martin threw him into the work of shooting his next run of episodes with an extra dash of enthusiasm and vigor.
The character who would become the best-known and most notorious villain of the 007 rogues’ gallery was introduced in the series’ sixth episode, "Thunderball", in which the criminal organization SPECTRE4 hijacks two American intercontinental nuclear missiles and threatens to launch them against New York and London. Guest-starring in that episode as SPECTRE leader Ernst Stavros Blofeld was character actor Telly Savalas; Savalas took what could have been a stock gangster part and turned it into a worthy foil for James Bond. Like Goldfinger, the ruthless Blofeld would return in later episodes to threaten the peace of the world-- and to trade dry witticisms with Bond. The episode is also notable for earning the series its first Emmy nominations; it was nominated in the Best Photography and Best Script categories.
In February of 1960 007 introduced its first female villain, East German spymistress Rosa Klebb, in the episode "You Only Live Twice". Memorably portrayed by special guest star Jean Simmons as the schoolmistress from hell, Klebb was one of the most devious foes Bond had ever faced or ever would face. However, unlike Goldfinger or Blofled-- or for that matter Tanya Onatova, the sultry but lethal GRU sniper played by Diana Rigg in the first season finale "The World Is Not Enough" --Klebb wouldn’t be making any return appearances, since she was shot through the heart by Bond after she tried to kill Felix Leiter. While a certain degree of violence is inevitable in any TV series or film depicting the hazardous world of espionage, the manner in which Bond dispatched Klebb was particularly violent, drawing a number of protest letters from viewers who objected to such a scene. It wasn’t the first time the series courted controversy, and it would certainly not be the last one either.
Despite brouhahas like these, the series continued to draw fans. Some might even say the uproar over the brutal climax to "You Only Live Twice" worked to the show’s advantage; the same week that the first batch of protest letters arrived at ABC’s offices, a new compilation album of music from the series, For Your Ears Only, made its debut on the Billboard record charts in the number four slot and would reach number one within three weeks.
The same week that For Your Ears Only hit number one on the Billboard charts, Parker Bros. introduced a 007 board game and Pocket Books started publishing a monthly comic book based on the series; in April of 1960 came out with a line of action figures of the show’s major characters. Despite objections from parents’ groups about 007’s violence and sexual content(tame by today’s standards but deemed quite indecent when the series first came on the air), the action figures were a hot ticket item during the 1960 Christmas holiday season-- as were the playsets and accessories made to go along with those figures. As the show’s first season ended and Quinn Martin’s production team got started on filming the second season, other 007 tie-ins began to hit the market: T-shirts, glasses, coffee mugs, magazines, playing cards, dinner trays, pens, towels, and so on. One Manhattan bar even served its own version of Bond’s favorite drink, the vodka martini, to capitalize on the hoopla surrounding the show.
As pop culture phenomena often do, 007 inevitably attracted a following among the VIP set. Dwight Eisenhower, who was in the last leg of his second term as President of the United States when the series began its run on ABC, was a huge fan of the show; so were his vice-president Richard Nixon and his successor John F. Kennedy. During a day off from competition, 1960 Olympic track gold medalist Wilma Rudolph took advantage of the downtime to visit a 007 location shoot in the suburbs of Rome. Singer Elvis Presley never missed an episode of the series even when he was on tour. Baseball slugger Mickey Mantle was a charter member of the 007 fan club in his hometown of Commerce, Oklahama. Even Boston Catholic archdiocese leader Richard Cardinal Cushing, while objecting to much of the show’s content, conceded that it held some valuable lessons about making decisions under pressure. Kennedy’s vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, liked the series so much he invited the entire cast to visit his ranch back in Texas when they completed filming for the 1961-62 TV season.
Mystery writer Mickey Spillane, a pop culture icon in his own right as the inventor of archetypal private eye Mike Hammer, was more than just a fan of 007-- he was also an unofficial creative consultant to its writing staff, brainstorming ideas with them that would become the basis for many of the best episodes of the series’ 1960-61 and 1961-62 TV seasons. In fact he was partly responsible for the first version of the story concept that eventually provided the basis for "The World Is Not Enough".
As envisioned by Spillane and the 007 writing staff, Tanya Onatova was the classic ‘40s femme fatale reincarnated as a Communist Mata Hari. Onatova’s sexuality was just as lethal a weapon as her sniper’s rifle-- and if Quinn Martin thought there’d been a ruckus over the end of "You Only Live Twice", it would seem like a tempest in a teacup compared to the firestorm which would erupt over the sexually charged content of "World".
To Be Continued
1Like most other things manufactured under Communist rule, it was shoddy and quite unpopular with the masses; since the collapse of the USSR in 1991 finding videotapes of any episodes of the Soviet Bond clone has been exceedingly difficult-- indeed, the tape of the final broadcast of that series is thought to have been destroyed by embarrassed state media officials.
2A reference to Bond’s classification in the original Ian Fleming novels as the seventh MI-6 agent to be assigned the "00"(license to kill) classification.
3And, incidentally, start a fashion trend; the swimsuit Eden wore in her first scenes on "Dr. No" was one of the hottest beachwear items of the summer of 1960.
4Special Executive Committee for Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.