How A British Secret Agent Became An American TV Icon
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we discussed the circumstances behind the creation of Quinn Martin’s 007 TV series, charted the making of the series pilot "Dr. No", and reviewed 007’s first year on ABC. In this chapter we’ll recall the first season finale "The World Is Not Enough" and the controversy that episode stirred, and also look at how the series grew in popularity during its second season.
Diana Rigg seemed to have been tailor-made for the role of Tanya Onatova. The British actress radiated a cool sensuality that perfectly fit the attractive but dangerous character she would be portraying in "The World Is Not Enough", and as at least one man on Quinn Martin’s production team remarked during filming of the episode, she fit into the character’s signature dark leather bodysuits very nicely. When she arrived on the 007 set for her first day of filming, her costars were duly impressed by the athleticism she displayed while shooting a stunt sequence in which her character bumped off a NATO security guard.
As amazing as her stuntwork was, however, it would be a bedroom scene involving Rigg and Sean Connery that was the most talked-about segment in the episode. By the standards of today’s hyper-sexualized pop culture the fuss over Connery and Rigg’s love scene seems highly quaint, but in the more conservative social atmosphere that prevailed in America in 1960 that sequence was the focal point of a nationwide scandal. The scene barely lasted twenty seconds-- the blink of an eye even by television standards --but during those twenty seconds enough of Rigg’s bare back was visible to the camera to stoke fears among ABC executives that they were courting the wrath of every bluenose in the viewing audience.
Sure enough, within minutes after "The World Is Not Enough" finished its debut airing, the switchboards at ABC corporate HQ in New York were swamped with complaints from irate conservative viewers. Mixed in with those complaints, however, were a surprisingly large amount of calls commending the network for taking a risk and showing more adult content than the average TV series of that day cared to broadcast. As the days passed, the ratio of calls in favor of the controversial sequence to calls against it drew even, then began to total 2 to 1 in favor of the slightly risqué Rigg-Connery scene. The network, and the country, had both turned a historic cultural corner.
"World" marked another important milestone for 007; it was the first episode of the series written specifically for television, while all previous installments of the show had been based on Ian Fleming’s novels and short stories. It was one of the highest-rated episodes of the show’s debut season, and its success gave the show’s writing staff great confidence in their ability to write original material. In later seasons, the ratio of original episodes to adaptations of Ian Fleming stories would slowly increase until, by the time 007 ended its run in 1970, the series was relying almost entirely on original scripts.
As one might expect, the most emphatic protests over the racy content of "The World Is Not Enough" after its initial US broadcast happened in the Bible Belt, which has traditionally been a stronghold of conservative values. One Alabama station manager was so incensed by the episode’s content that he unilaterally terminated the station’s affiliation agreement with ABC-- only to reinstate it two days later when the network threatened to sue him for breach of contract. Other Southern affiliates, while not quite taking such drastic measures, did make their own protest gestures in response to the episode; the week after "World" was first aired, ABC’s Atlanta affiliate replaced the 007 rerun which viewers would normally have seen on the station’s Wednesday summer lineup with a live hour-long sermon by a prominent evangelical Christian minister.
In more liberal quarters like San Francisco, "World" was applauded as a cultural milestone, a step towards freeing television from the sexual taboos that had shackled the medium from its earliest days. One of the great cultural ironies of the ‘60s, in fact, was that the counterculture movement which would reject most other aspects of mainstream TV embraced 007 wholeheartedly. No less a figure than Abbie Hoffman, a spiritual father of the notorious "Yippie" youth movement, was a devoted regular viewer of the series.
Interestingly enough one of the issues that would eventually set him apart from mainstream American society figured prominently in the main storyline of the 007 second season premiere, "Papaya, Steel, and Cyanide". That episode-- the first two-parter in the history of the series --featured Bond infiltrating North Vietnam to rescue an MI6 comrade who’d been betrayed by his Vietmanese contact. Although the US military presence in Southeast Asia was a modest one at the time the first part originally aired, the show’s producers knew a hot current events topic when they saw one; they had seen enough TV and newspaper coverage of the Viet Cong struggle to topple Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime in Saigon to understand that Vietnam would become one of the critical US foreign policy questions of the next decade. So the show’s writers revised their script, originally set in Malaya, and expanded Robert Wagner’s part in the episode to accommodate a romantic subplot which had Felix Leiter succumbing to the charms of a receptionist at the US embassy in Saigon.
The biggest challenge in filming "Papaya", aside from securing visas for the cast and crew to enter Canada for their location shoots in the Vancouver area, was coping with the weather. British Columbia happens to be located in one of the wettest sections of North America, and at least three times during filming of the exterior scenes for the two-part episode production had to be halted due to rain. Quinn Martin joked at one point that maybe he should have issued his cast and crew with diving suits before they left Hollywood.
The ratings the episode drew in prime time, however, were no laughing matter. "Papaya" handily won its time slot in its original broadcast; in reruns it would prove one of the most popular episodes of the show’s entire run. When 007 went into syndication in the mid- 1970s, "Papaya" would be one of the most popular episodes presented in the syndication package. It was also, incidentally, the episode which would persuade programming executives in Ian Fleming’s native Britain to purchase the series for the BBC...
The debut of 007 in the United Kingdom was greeted with the kind of breathless anticipation and euphoria normally reserved for the crowning of a new king or the start of the FA Cup. Years before Martin’s TV spy drama had even been a gleam in the producer’s eye, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels had consistent bestsellers in Great Britain; British TV viewers were anxious to see how Fleming’s words had been translated for the small screen.
They were duly impressed with what they saw. The BBC broadcast debut of "Dr. No" was the second-highest rated drama series premiere of 1961, and to this day it still enjoys the distinction of being one of the ten highest-rated dramatic episodes in British TV history. Out of all the regular drama series aired on BBC-TV between 1961 and 1976, only Coronation Street enjoyed a wider following among viewers-- and even Coronation Street couldn’t boast of quite as many exotic locales for its adventures as 007 did.
Back in the States, Quinn Martin was basking in the glow of being the driving force behind ABC’s most successful Wednesday prime- time series and making plans to expand his profile in the television industry on both sides of the Atlantic. Inspired by the notorious Sam Shepard murder case, Martin had started writing a script for the pilot of a drama series about a surgeon trying to clear his name after his wife’s untimely death; titled "Fugitive", it attracted the attention of programming executives not only at ABC but also at rival networks NBC and CBS-- the same two networks that had turned down his pitch for 007 back in 1959.
Almost simultaneously, Martin was mounting a one-man publicity blitzkrieg to encourage TV networks in other European countries to add 007 to their programming lineups. His PR campaign found its greatest success in West Germany, where a passion for American pop culture had been steadily taking root since the end of World War II, and in Italy, where James Bond’s amorous exploits touched a responsive chord within the souls of romantically inclined Italian TV viewers. He even managed to find an audience for the series in Communist Yugoslavia, no doubt in part because of the anti-Soviet slant of most of 007’s storylines. By July of 1961 007 was being aired in thirteen European countries and Quinn Martin Productions was negotiating syndication agreements with two others, Portugal and Luxembourg.
With his foothold in Europe fully established, Martin next set his sights on Japan. 007 was developing a small but loyal cult following in that country; Japanese civilian employees at American military and diplomatic outposts in that country had been able to see the show on the Armed Forces Network since late 1960, and now there was a movement afoot to bring the series to a wider audience by having it air directly to the Japanese public on NHK-TV.
In early August of 1961, just after shooting wrapped on the
007 third season premiere, Martin flew to Tokyo to pitch the
series to NHK programming executives. At first the execs showed little interest,
but Martin gradually won them over and the meeting ended with Martin and NHK-TV
agreeing to a three-year syndication deal; a month later, a Japanese
language-dubbed version of "Dr. No" aired in prime time and attracted millions
of new viewers to the Bond phenomenon. Like the
Next to 007 himself, the most popular character on 007 was Felix Leiter-- a fact not lost on ABC programming execs, who even as Martin was selling his show to NHK were giving serious consideration to the idea of a 007 spinoff series built around Leiter. The premise of the new series would focus on showing what the CIA hero did in between his team-ups with James Bond. The key to making the spinoff work, Martin told the execs after he returned from Japan, would be putting together the right supporting cast to work alongside Robert Wagner. One of his former movie co-stars, Hope Lange, was the first person after Wagner himself to be recruited for the cast of the series, originally titled Felix Leiter, CIA and later re-dubbed simply Felix Leiter.
In the meantime, 007’s ratings in its second season on American TV were further validating its status as a pop culture hit. The show was consistently creaming its competitors in the Wednesday night prime time ratings (with the exception of Twilight Zone, which continued to be a formidable rival to 007 for the hearts, minds, and eyes of TV viewers) and consistently delivered eye-catching guest star turns each week. Donald Pleasance made his debut as mad scientist Hugo Drax in the episode "Moonraker" that season; veteran character actor Whit Bissell gave a chilling performance as a warmongering newspaper mogul in the original story "Tomorrow Never Dies"; Julie Newmar, later to heat up TV screens at Catwoman in the Batman series, turned up as the gorgeous-but-lethal contract assassin May Day in "A View To A Kill". There was even a short cameo by Quinn Martin himself as a White House aide in the second season finale "License Renewed".
But what may have been the most memorable guest appearances of 007’s second season came in back-to-back weeks in April of 1962. In the first, rising African-American TV and film star Greg Morris made his debut as Felix Leiter’s NSA counterpart John Shaft in the tensely paced political thriller "Fox Hunt", which pitted Shaft, Leiter, and Bond against a neo-Nazi bomber trying to disrupt a state visit by the Israeli prime minister to Britain; in the second, gifted character actor William Conrad took over the role of Ernst Stavros Blofeld in the episode "On Her Majesty’s Secret Service", a tale of vengeance where Bond disregarded orders from his MI6 superiors and went to track down and kill the man responsible for his fiancée’s death years earlier.
"Service" helped set up the storyline for "License Renewed"; a crucial plot twist in "Service"’s main story had Bond resigning MI6 when his superiors refused to sanction his plans to terminate the SPECTRE agent who’d gunned down his fiancée. With people wondering if 007 might have gone rogue, anticipation for "License" naturally built to a fever pitch in the weeks leading up to the episode’s broadcast. The anticipation proved to be justified: "License" spun a nail-biting story of Bond racing against time to foil a plan by the Soviet black ops agency SMERSH to unleash nerve gas on San Francisco; as a bonus, it included a return appearance by Diana Rigg as Tanya Onatova.
With Bond having rejoined the MI6 fold at the end of "License", attention now turned to the Felix Leiter series pilot, ‘Wake in Berlin’. Quinn Martin and Ian Fleming, who co-wrote the pilot script, had decided the new series should start with a bang, and accordingly the pilot’s plot had Leiter venturing into Berlin(hence the title) to stop a CIA turncoat from defecting to the Soviet Union and giving the KGB vital nuclear secrets. It was the most controversial television work Martin had done since the "You Only Live Twice" episode of 007, partly because of a gunfight sequence in which Leiter’s partner on the mission(played by special guest star and Manchurian Candidate leading man Laurence Harvey) accidentally shot a civilian woman in a moment of panic thinking she was a Stasi operative.
As had been the case with "You Only Live Twice", however, the controversy over the Leiter pilot only served to help Martin’s cause; "Wake" easily won its time slot and was picked up for a full season, being slotted to air right after 007 on Wednesday nights1. Wagner and Harvey both got positive marks for their performances, as did Hope Lange and guest star John McGiver, who would have a recurring role for Leiter’s first two seasons on ABC as CIA director Victor Branch.
Last but not least, the Leiter series premiere would feature short cameos by two actors who would become an integral part of one of the other great popular phenomenons in TV history. Canadian-born William Shatner, who would become part of Leiter’s regular cast later in the show’s first season, appeared as CIA cryptologist Matt Helm; Boston native Leonard Nimoy, who’d had a bit part in the Twilight Zone World War II-centered episode "A Quality of Mercy", turned up in the Leiter series debut as Branch’s aide Chad Palmer.
As for the 007 series itself, that show opened its third season with an original two-part episode titled "Wolf at the Door"; "Wolf", marking James Bond’s first mission following his reinstatement at MI6, featured a guest shot by Edward Judd as Australian counterintelligence agent Horatio Nelson Crane and a plot which centered on Bond, Crane, and Felix Leiter trying to uncover the truth about rumors of a secret Soviet nuclear missile base in the Caribbean. The subplot, inspired by the Francis Gary Powers incident of 1960, involved a U-2 pilot (played by Roddy McDowall) who had been shot down while trying to photograph the base and now needed 007’s help to escape. Little did any of the 007 cast or crew realize when they were filming the two- parter in early August or when it aired on ABC on September 12th, 1962 that life was about to chillingly imitate art...
To Be Continued
1And it undoubtedly also helped that the Felix Leiter pilot episode was broadcast in mid-July during the traditional summer hiatus when most U.S. TV programming, network or otherwise, is usually in reruns.