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Sheldon Leonard on I SPY
(in four parts)
Excerpts from And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures
(New York: Limelight, 1994)

Part III: South of the Border
Hanging out at Las Brisas....The case of the consumed sailfish.....Earle Hagen authenticates the background music.....Shooting in the catacombs with mummy.....The "problem" of the ad-libs.

Sheldon Leonard and Leon Chooluck, scouting locations, 1966.

Our Mexican location was a ball, largely due to the hospitality of Frank Brandstetter, managing director of the Las Brisas Hotel in Acapulco. Nicknamed Brandy, he is a good-looking man, athletically built, of medium height, and slightly balding. He is one of the world's best hoteliers. The hotel chain with which he was associated had sent him to Mexico to take over the reorganization and operation of Las Brisas....Competing hotels constantly grabbed his waiters, bellmen and doormen, and upped them to managerial positions. He made me and my company feel welcome and pampered.
For the benefit of those unfortunates who have never been there, Las Brisas is a collection of casitas, nestled in the side of a mountain, overlooking the bay of Acapulco. Each casita has a private swimming pool, and a little pink jeep with which to negotiate the winding hill road that gives access to the casitas. Every morning, when you rub the sleep out of your eyes and open the door of your casita to the glorious panorama that lies before you, on your doorstep you will find a basket of crisp, freshly-baked rolls, a bowl of fresh fruit, and a thermos of coffee.
....The hotel guests lunched, sunned, and bathed in the swimming cove called La Concha. Few swimmers ventured outside the cove, because of the surging water that would carry a swimmer halfway into the cove and then sweep him out again....The beauty of Las Brisas and Brandstetter's warm hospitality made Acapulco one of our most enjoyable locations.
In this case, his hospitality was repaid. For weeks we shot film in and around Las Brisas. When the resulting episodes were broadcast, millions of people all over America saw out heroes dashing about a tropical paradise in their saucy pink jeeps, prominently labeled with the Las Brisas logo, or splashing around in their secluded, private swimming pool. It didn't do Las Brisas a bit of harm.
Mexicans have a carefree attitude toward reservations. Not once but several times our location manager approached the reservation desk of a hotel or airline to check the company in, only to find that the clerk had never heard of us and had no record of our arrangements. He would remain blandly unconvinced in the face of letters of confirmation and deposit receipts, but after a discreet exchange of pesos, he was likely to find our reservations tucked away in an overlooked file.
Mexican cuisine covers the culinary spectrum from delicious to deadly. Soups are a Mexican specialty, and the seafood, particularly fresh-caught crab and shrimp, is wonderful. Their hot foods are really, really hot! Jalapeno peppers can turn your mouth into a disaster area for hours. The beer is excellent, but the water is generally undrinkable. Since the dishes are washed in it, and the ice for drinks is made with it, La turista, or "Montezuma's revenge" is unavoidable. There are all sorts of medications available for it but none of them do much good -- the damn thing must run its five- or six-day course. There is an oft-told story about the Mexican tourist visiting up North, who complained that American drinking water gave him constipation!
Characteristically, the Mexican people are anxious to please. If you ask a question, a Mexican is likely to give you the answer he thinks you want to hear -- which is not necessarily the hundred-per-cent-true answer.
For instance: "Is it very far to Taxco?"
"No, senor. Is not far."
"That's too bad. I wanted to make an all-day trip, but if it's so close..."
"Oh no, senor. Is not too close. Is pretty far."
This otherwise engaging trait can cause trouble. I needed a freshly caught sailfish for a scene we were shooting in Acapulco. Getting one wasn't a problem. The fleet of sport-fishing boats came in every afternoon, loaded with triumphant tourists, eager to string up their finny victims and have their pictures taken. For a few pesos, after it had been well-photographed with its conqueror, the conqueror's wife, his nephew Albert, and all three of them together, we bought a nice hundred-and-forty pound sailfish.
The light was getting yellow. I said to Tony Morales, our Mexican first assistant, "If we can't get a shot before the sun goes down, the fish will have to keep until morning. Will that be all right?"
"Oh, sure. We'll keep it tied up in the water. It'll be fine. Don't worry."
That's the national motto, "Don't worry."
The next morning, we hauled our moored fish out of the water. The crabs had gotten to it overnight. Our hundred-and-forty pound sailfish had become forty pounds of bone and gristle. We blew a whole day's work while we waited for the boats to come in with another fish.
But rest assured that when it comes to working or vacationing in Mexico, the pluses far outnumber the minuses.
Earle Hagen, the brilliant conductor-composer who did the scoring for all of my films, had heard of a unique kind of music, played by bands that called themselves Chiles Fritos. They could only be heard in remote villages buried in the hills of the State of Guerrero. Acapulco is in Guerrero, but incredible as it may seem, just a few miles from that glamorous, sophisticated city is a primitive, untamed country into which even the Rurales dare not venture singly.
Brandstetter volunteered to send a messenger into the hills to collect a musical group from one of the buried villages, so that Earle could record their sound for background music. The messenger brought back eight musicians. Their instruments had been confiscated from the Emperor Maximilian's military bands, as fruits of the nineteenth-century revolution which freed Mexico from foreign domination and led to Maximilian's execution.
Clad in loose-fitting, clean, white, pajama-like garments, some of them bare-footed and some wearing sandals, they were ushered into Brandy's living room. They were quiet, shy, simple men, ranging in age from thirty to forty. Bewildered by their surroundings, their eyes darted from side to side, taking in everything. When Earle explained that he wanted to record them, they were eager to cooperate.
They had never been recorded and, in fact, had probably never heard a recording. The instruments they carried -- percussion, brass, and woodwinds -- were genuine antiques which had been passed from generation to generation. Untaught, the musicians had experimented with their instruments, until they could produce the sounds they wanted. They were farmers who would work their farms during the day and when the sun set would wash up, put on clean clothes, and get together for a practice session. They were called upon when there was a wedding, a christening, a funeral, or any occasion that could be brightened by music. They were not paid with cash but were plied with food and drink, and they enjoyed great prestige in their village.
They played for us. None of them had ever seen a sheet of music, and the sounds they produced were like nothing we had ever heard before. When we played the recording back for them they were hypnotized. They liked it. They exchanged congratulatory glances. At the end of the session, Earle offered to pay them. They were indignant. One does not accept money for doing what one does for the love of doing it. The whole incident was so very Mexican.
Earle also used his recorder to good effect with the ubiquitous mariachis. The term "mariachi" is a corruption of the word "marriage." Every evening the itinerant bands play in designated areas of the principal cities. Those who want to hire musicians to play at a wedding or any festive occasion come to the square to make a selection from among the dozen or so competing bands.
Due to Earle's diligence with his recorder, the background music for I Spy was always authentically ethnic.
We were shooting in Guadalajara when the Seven Day War broke out in Israel. On the morning of the day after Israel trashed the Egyptian army, destroying their ground and air forces, Fuad Said approached Friedkin, Fine and me, his three Jewish bosses, as we were standing in the huge Central Market planning camera setups.
"Today all the shots will be out of focus," he said, and stalked away.
Guanajuato is a marvelously interesting city, deep in the heart of colonial Mexico. When Spain ruled Mexico, Guanajuato was the most important silver-mining area in the world. To this day its hills are honeycombed with abandoned mining tunnels. The city is beautiful. Quaint and unspoiled, it is likely to remain that way until, discovered by tourists, it acquires a McDonald's franchise. As of now, there are no souvenir shops and the people are gentle and courteous....
In Guanajuato, we spent several days shooting in what is probably the most unusual setting for filmmaking to be found anywhere in the world. The ancient mining tunnels under the city have been turned into catacombs lined with mummies!
Level ground is at a premium in the hills which shelter Guanajuato, and the level ground needed for a cemetery is restricted to a sparse acre and a half cut into a hillside. In colonial days, burial plots were not sold but were rented for a negotiated period of years, after which the occupant was disinterred to make room for a waiting customer....When the bodies were disinterred from the mineral-rich soil of Guanajuato, they were found to be perfectly preserved, even after many years of burial. The unprecedented mummification was due to the chemistry of the soil.
What to do? Once you took the tenant out of his grave, where did you put him? He had not conveniently turned into dust and ashes, which could be disposed of without a second thought. There he was, looking pretty much the way he had on the day he was buried.
The city fathers solved the problem by installing the dear departed in niches cut into the walls of the city's many abandoned mining tunnels. There they stand to this day, in the dim light of the catacombs, in the garb and posture in which they had been buried.
There is a lady who died in childbirth, with her stillborn babe cradled in her arms. There is the man killed in a mining accident, with his decapitated head balanced on his shoulders. There is one tenant of the catacombs whose posture suggests a grim conclusion: she was buried with her hands sedately folded on her bosom, but when they dug her up, her arms were flung wildly over her head.
Since the city officials did not object to our using the mortuary chambers as a set, we shot great sequences there. The fact is that the Mexicans take a realistic, unsentimental attitude toward death. Their cemeteries are not grim forests of granite memorials. Their headstones are painted in pastel colors, and ornamented with plaster cherub. Each year, on the Day of the Dead, families come to the cemeteries to picnic on the graves of departed relatives. As they eat and drink, they feel the presence of the dead, and they welcome it. It is not a sad occasion.....There is laughter and singing.....It is possible that the impoverished, overworked, ordinary people of Mexico consider death a happy release.
Culp and Cosby had been injecting a lot of ad-libs into their work lately. Most of it was good, very good in fact. No less could be expected of Bob Culp, who had a talent with words, and Bill Cosby, who was a world-class champion at that kind of stuff. However, ad-libs can be dangerous. It's easy to be amused by a witty ad lib and overlook the damage it's doing to the structure of the tale you're telling.
The ad-lib problem with Culp and Cosby had been developing for some time. It had started innocently enough. Bill's natural speech pattern was studded with interjections. A line of dialogue such as "I can't do a thing like that!" coming from him would naturally and gracefully become, "Hey, that ain't the kind of thing I can do, man!"
So far, so good. Allowing Bill the liberty of adjusting his dialogue eased his transition from being a stand-up comic to being an actor.
Bob Culp was a big help in that regard. He undertook to tutor Bill in the fundamentals of acting for the camera. Bob, an intelligent, articulate man, is a fine craftsman in several creative areas, and he was an important factor in Bill's early development. Ironically, early in the second year of I Spy's run, his success in helping Bill began to backfire.
As soon as I Spy went on the air, Bill Cosby gained sensational acceptance. He became the darling of the critics. Fan mail poured in. His fee as a nightclub performer skyrocketed. After his first year on the air, he won an Emmy as the best actor in a TV series. As he gained self-assurance in front of the camera, his natural charm came through irresistibly.
But while the warm sun of public approval was shining on Bill, Bob was lingering in the shadows. He had been the teacher and Bill had been his pupil. But then an ironic role reversal began. Bob started interpolating "Hey, man," "real cool," and "groovy" into his dialogue.
The carefully designed characterizations of the two leads, contrasting but complementing each other, became homogenized. What had started as harmless interjections became increasingly intrusive ad-libs, often inconsistent with the storyline.
Eventually it reached the point where they were totally unacceptable. An episode was shot in Guanajuato in which Gene Hackman, as a recently released criminal, has set a diabolical trap to destroy Jim Backus, the FBI agent who had sent him to prison. Culp and Cosby chase the Hackman character into the surrounding hills and wound him fatally in a gun battle. The dying criminal gloatingly tells them that they are too late. He has already loaded the pinata hanging in Backus's living room with nitroglycerine. It is Christmas morning, and when the sun rises, Backus's children will be blindfolded and given clubs that they will swing wildly, trying to break the pinata. When a club strikes it, it will burst, but instead of showering down gifts and candy, it will shower down death.
"It's too late to stop it," the dying culprit boasts. "Sunrise is less than an hour away, and you're eighty miles from town."
What follows is the standard Race Against Death. Halfway to the goal, the car they're driving sputters to a stop, out of gas. Culp turns to Cosby and, in his best Oliver Hardy manner, snarls, "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into, Stanley."
Our two heroes are barreling down the mountainside to save innocent children from destruction, the suspense building with every turn of the wheels. Backus and his three kids are about to be blown to bits and they're making jokes!
....I wasn't on the location when the bit in question was shot, but I saw it two days later in the projection room. I sent a second unit back to Mexico to re-shoot it with doubles, a correction that cost the show twenty thousand dollars.
The most serious problem arising from our Mexican location -- aside from brushes with corrupt officials, swarming insects, grasping reservation clerks, and unsafe drinking water -- developed after we had wrapped principal photography.
It was our custom to hire many of the actors we needed for supporting parts in the location country. This saved transportation and per diem costs, and gave us authentic characterizations. Frequently, an actor we had hired abroad had to be brought to Hollywood to finish his part in studio interiors. When we sought to bring our Mexican actors to Hollywood, we ran into a real roadblock. U.S. Immigration wouldn't let them into the country.
There is an unacknowledged collaboration between the Screen Actor's Guild and the Immigration Service. When a foreign actor seeks to enter the U.S., Immigration officers call the Guild to get their opinion as to whether the actor's services are indispensable and irreplaceable. In our case, the Guild's response was that with plenty of Latino actors here who could use the work, keep the wetbacks out. We couldn't finish our Mexican episodes without the actors who had already begun their roles. An expensive, time-consuming battle ensued before we were able to cajole, threaten, and entreat effectively enough to get the actors we needed into the country.
I am fond of Mexico. It is a country with many faces. There are the bustling, sleazy border towns, like Tijuana and Juarez. There are dazzling resorts on the Pacific coast and the Yucatan Peninsula, quiet country towns, prosperous modern cities with stunning architecture, the Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan....and villages deep in the hills, untouched by the twentieth century. There are the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco, and fishing villages where the fishermen stand waist deep in the surf to cast baited hooks to the swarming sharks. A company could shoot pictures there for years and not begin to make use of all Mexico has to offer....
coming soon...
Part IV: Hopscotching the Globe