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 three 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; and followed the search for a successor to Sean Connery as James Bond when Connery left the 007 cast at the end of the 1963-64 TV season. In this chapter we’ll look back at Roger Moore’s inaugural season on 007 and see how Martin’s success in the TV business inspired a profusion of imitators and parodies of his shows.
"Solace for the Executioner" was one of the trickier episodes of 007 Quinn Martin had ever produced-- not only was he introducing a new leading man for his series, but he was also attempting some of the most complex special effects shots ever tried for a weekly television series. The main storyline for "Executioner" was set on board a space station secretly being operated by SPECTRE as an orbital weapons base; Bond’s mission was to infiltrate the space station’s crew and render its weapons useless.
Ironically, what Martin had expected to be the toughest part of his job in making the episode-- persuading TV viewers to accept Moore as the new 007 --would turn out to be the easy part of making "Solace". Pulling off the FX photography necessary to convincingly tell the episode’s main story was a considerably tougher nut to crack. Martin and his production team didn’t have the advantages of a feature film budget or CGI technology when filming the space station sequences of "Solace for the Executioner"; it would take some highly spectacular sleight-of-hand to conceal the wires used to hold up the spaceship models featured in the episode’s exterior shots. There were also major problems with the episode’s stunt sequences-- at least twice during principal photography on "Solace" shooting had to be delayed because of malfunctions with the safety harnesses used by the stuntmen.
But in spite of all the technical problems, Martin and his production staff got "Solace" wrapped up in time for 007’s 1964-65 season premiere. The episode would finish second in its time slot, and the following week ABC’s programming offices in New York received thousands of letters singing the praises of Roger Moore as the new James Bond.
On the heels of "Solace for the Executioner", NBC finally dipped its toe in the water of spy drama. Hoping to steal some of ABC’s thunder-- and ratings --NBC opted to emphasize psychological struggle over physical action in its new series, titled The Inmate. Set in a Kafkaesque prison complex called simply "the Town", The Inmate told the story of an ex-secret agent(played by Roy Thinnes) who’d resigned his job under mysterious circumstances only to be shanghaied by his former employers and detained in the Town in an effort to coerce him into disclosing the reasons why he quit. The ex-spy, who was labeled "Mr. Five" by his jailers and whose true identity would not be revealed until the series finale three years later, resolutely refused to break despite the best efforts of those who had incarcerated him.
CBS also debuted a new spy series but chose to go the comedy route; comic actor Don Adams was cast as the title character in the show Avery Powers, CIA Troubleshooter. Adams’ slapstick humor soon made the series a top 10 hit for the network, and Powers spawned two catchphrases-- "Would you believe..." and "Missed it by this much" -- that have since become ingrained in American pop culture. The success of Powers produced at least a dozen other sitcoms with spy themes, but most of those shows faded from the airwaves within a year or less; one of them even managed to earn the dubious distinction of becoming the first series in American TV history to be cancelled while the pilot episode was still on the air.1
But it was still 007 and Felix Leiter that were the gold standard for the spy genre on television, and in January of 1965 Quinn Martin Productions unveiled another 007 spinoff; Jeffrey Hunter, who had unsuccessfully auditioned for a major role on the pilot of Star Trek, was cast in the title role on Matt Helm, NSA, a series created in response to the passionate pleas of Leiter fans who wanted to see the Helm character make a return to TV. John McGiver resumed his old role as Victor Branch, and filling the shoes of the long-gone Chad Palmer was decoding expert Annie Dumont, played by Stefanie Powers.
The series debut itself generally got high marks from critics and viewers, as did its supporting cast. Its leading man? Not so much. "Jeffrey Hunter plays his part with all the energy of a narcoleptic on anesthesia." grumbled the Chicago Sun-Times in response to Hunter’s performance in the Helm pilot. The San Francisco Examiner wasn’t much kinder: "If what we see in Matt Helm is indicative of how Hunter acts on the small screen, it’s no wonder NBC passed him over when they were casting Star Trek." Perhaps the harshest review of all came from the Miami Herald; it described Hunter’s portrayal of the title character in Helm as "so lackadaisical it would embarrass the cast of a third-grade school play".2
And things didn’t get much better for Hunter from there; in fact, within just three months after Helm debuted there would be a movement both among TV viewers and at the ABC offices in New York to get Hunter replaced. One disgruntled viewer in Oklahoma went so far as to promise to boycott television altogether if Hunter wasn’t removed as the show’s lead. But Quinn Martin, convinced Hunter would sooner or later catch on with the audience if they just gave him half a chance, decided to stick by his star. It was a decision that would nearly cost Martin his contract with ABC-- the head of the network’s programming division threatened to cancel every one of Martin’s shows after an April 1965 Boston Globe interview in which Martin staunchly defended Hunter and implied that certain factions in ABC’s prime time programs department were intentionally sabotaging Helm’s efforts to earn itself a wider audience.
In the end, Martin’s support of Hunter would be vindicated. After the Helm episode "Tucker Punch", in which Helm went undercover to get the goods on a renegade NSA operative, viewers began to warm up to Hunter just as Martin had predicted they would; the romantic scenes between Hunter and guest star Nancy Kovack might have helped on that score. By the time Helm’s season finale aired in early June, any talk of replacing Jeffrey Hunter as the series lead had largely died down, although there would still be occasional grousing in some circles about Hunter being too "wooden"3 for his role.
Shortly after the clamor to replace Jeffrey Hunter in the lead role on Matt Helm, NSA fell silent, the 007 team lost a member whom it could never replace.
On August 13th, 1965, as they were wrapping up principal shooting on their 1965-66 season premiere, 007’s cast and production crew got word that James Bond creator Ian Fleming had died the previous day. It was, as Quinn Martin himself later told a Los Angeles Times columnist, "a punch to the guts" that knocked everyone associated with the series for a loop and put the future of the series itself in doubt. For a few weeks after Fleming’s funeral, there was some talk of terminating 007 altogether-- a prospect which did not please the series’ fans or the people who made the series.
After considerable internal debate at the ABC programming department and among the executors of Ian Fleming’s estate, it was decided to continue the series for at least one more season using scripts Fleming had completed just before his death along with new material then being prepared by the show’s writing staff. Although it was going to be difficult soldiering on without Fleming on board, the 007 production team couldn’t bear the thought that his creation might die with him.
It was during the 1965-66 season that 007 began to rely on original scripts as it never had before. In fact, the show’s seventh season marked the final time during its run when its episode lineup wasn’t composed entirely of original material; the last of the Ian Fleming-written episodes, "Goldeneye", was broadcast in late March of 1966.
That same month Quinn Martin began to give serious thought to an idea that had been germinating his mind since the show’s third season-- the making of a 007 movie. There was considerable clamor among the show’s fans for James Bond to take his adventures to the silver screen, and the late Ian Fleming had hinted on a number of occasions that he would be interested in participating in a cinematic adaptation of the 007 series. However, Martin would have to wait a few years before he could make his dream of a James Bond film a reality...
To Be Continued
 The series in question, Agent 69, was drenched in double entendres and innuendoes that were beyond the pale even by the famously permissive cultural and social standards of the 1960s. But what truly sealed the show’s fate was the discovery that the script for the pilot had largely been plagiarized from a similar script which had been rejected a year before the pilot was broadcast. Network suits cancelled 69 in an attempt to avert a costly legal battle with the author of the rejected script.
 For some readers, the tempest over Jeffrey Hunter’s debut on Matt Helm might recall the brouhaha that ensued when the BBC, in what can be considered at the very least a serious overestimation of one man’s talent and underestimation of another’s, made the questionable decision to cast Australian actor George Lazenby instead of Roger Moore in the title role in its television adaptation of Leslie Charteris’ The Saint; unlike Hunter, though, Lazenby was never able to dispel the hostility he faced from viewers and critics-- which may have been a factor in Saint ‘s consistently poor ratings during its run on BBC-TV and the show’s eventual cancellation just eighteen months after its premiere. Indeed, were it not for the invention of VHS and the subsequent DVD revolution in home video, it’s questionable whether anyone would even remember the series ever existed.
 To borrow a word from a TV critic for the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribute.