Sheldon Leonard on I SPY
(in four parts)
Excerpts from And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures
(New York: Limelight, 1994)
Part IV: Hopscotching the Globe
Too many pints of ale in an English pub.....The case of Maurice Evans' missing shoes.....In Greece, caught in the middle of a political coup d'etat.....Trying to get into China and the USSR.....Why I Spy was cancelled.
Dining was important to me when I was on location. It made a great difference when the day's work was done. When we started making I Spy, I went on the locations without my wife. Each day, when we wrapped up our scheduled work, I'd go back to the hotel, shower and change, order a Martini from room service, and decide how I was going to spend the hours until bedtime. Should I join the guys, who were organizing a poker game? Should I sit at a sidewalk table on the Via Veneto and watch the people passing by, while I ate pasta and drank cappucino? Or should I just say "The hell with it," and call room service for a club sandwich and a bottle of beer?
Starting with the Mexican locations, I persuaded my wife to come with me. It made a difference in my after-work habits....It made the day complete.
Because having my wife with me made long location days more tolerable, and because I wanted the members of my cast and crew to share the same privilege, I encouraged them to bring their spouses along. We increased the per diem allowance for those who were joined by their spouses. We made hotel and travel arrangements accordingly. Instead of being mere nutrition, dinner became an anticipated occasion.
Three or four couples would go to dinner together. Frequently the highlight of the evening was watching Cosby eat. Oh, boy! He is a fabulous athlete with a knife and fork. He enjoys food. The extraordinary thing about it was that he could put on ten or more pounds, then, almost magically, shed them whenever he so decided....
To this day, when I drop into Piccolo Mondo or Taverna Flavia or other fine Roman restaurants, they ask me when Cosby is coming back. He paid off their mortgages.
In the course of filming I Spy, we worked in fourteen countries. We would spend a month, more or less, in each country, filming the exterior scenes for a package of five or six scripts. Each country left me with memories.
I remember it was in Spain that Bill Cosby was able to indulge his taste for fine, hand-rolled Cuban cigars, unavailable in the States and the other countries that boycott Cuban products. They are considered to be the finest cigars in the world, partly because of the quality of the leaf, but mostly because of the skill of the cigar makers, to whom the tradition of cigar-making is passed from generation to generation. The cigars were available in Madrid, but they weren't cheap.
In Spain, I also remember attempting to shoot a scene on a ranch that bred fighting bulls for the arena. Back in Hollywood, it had seemed like a good idea. Culp and Cosby would be pursued across the pastures of the ranch, eluding the charges of the fierce, bellowing, fighting bulls, as well as their pursuers.
What do you do when you discover that when they are in the herd fighting bulls are as placid as cows? They won't bellow and snort, and they won't charge. They're too busy grazing, and doing the things that bulls do to cows. So what do you do?
You rewrite, that's what you do.
When you've finished the rewrite, instead of being chased across the bull ranch pasture, the boys are being chased across the high-arched aqueduct in Segovia.
....In England, I remember when we were shooting in the garden of a rural pub. We had hired a well-known British actor who in the course of the scene was required to down a pint of ale. We couldn't fake it with cold tea, because the foaming head of the brew was very visible to the camera.
The cameras rolled. The actor swilled down his pint of ale. As the last drops trickled down his throat, the camera operator yelled, "Cut! It's no good. A cloud came over the sun, and the light changed. We need another take."
Well, these things happen. Roll 'em for Take Two. Another pint, and another cloud. Take Three and Pint Three, followed by Pints Four, Five, Six, and Seven, punctuated by trips to the W.C. We got the shot on the seventh take, and the actor staggered off the set to a hearty round of applause. He went home, popped into bed, and didn't move a muscle for twenty-four hours.
....In Morocco, I remember the tradition of fine cuisine, left over from the years of French occupation. The heritage of French culinary artistry, combined with the rich variety of Moroccan produce, makes many Moroccan cities a gourmet's delight.
Cosby dined well in Morocco. So did we all. But I remember some less pleasant things about Morocco....The thieves would take anything that wasn't nailed down. So help me, they even stole reflectors which are five-foot-by-five-foot squares, painted with glistening silver paint to reflect sunlight to the areas the cameraman wants to brighten. Although they are of no possible use to anyone but a cameraman, three of them were stolen.
We had cast Maurice Evans, one of England's finest actors, as a Moroccan nobleman, garbed in caftan, djellaba and red shoes with turned-up toes. Because Maurice had foot trouble, he had to wear specially-made orthopedic shoes. Between takes, when he relaxed, he took off the fancy red shoes and put on his comfortable orthopedics. He would change back when he was called for the scene. He changed back and forth twice. He couldn't change a third time, because by then his orthopedic shoes were stolen. The poor man limped through the balance of the day in his red shoes.
Fortunately, he had a reserve pair of his special shoes that he brought to the set on the second day. They lasted until just before the lunch break.
He had one more pair. He brought them to the set on the third day, and I paid a local urchin a few coins to stand guard over them. The kid stole them. During the rest of his stay with us, Maurice Evans, distinguished actor, sophisticated gentleman, wore a pair of sneakers with his dinner clothes.
It was difficult to enlist satisfactory "atmosphere people" from among the locals. They were slow to understand instructions, which had to be relayed to them through interpreters. In many cases, superstitions made them reluctant to appear in front of the camera. It was easier to press a couple of our wives into service.
I cherish the memory of Cosby on a camel that was led by two unlikely-looking Arabs, one of whom bore a striking resemblance to my blonde wife, while the other looked very much like Mrs. Cosby.
The Moroccan police were brutal toward their own people, and obsequious toward us. I remember putting a wide-eyed, ten-year-old boy into a shot on the spur of the moment. I had seen him washing his feet in a public fountain, and I thought that would make a nice piece of business in the foreground. Through our interpreter, he was told what he was to do when the cameras rolled. He performed flawlessly. I gave him a few Moroccan francs and told him he could share our lunch. The kid could hardly contain himself. If you had never before seen a boy walking on a cloud, here was your chance.
When we went back to work after lunch, he considered himself a member of the company. When one of the policemen who accompanied us ordered the spectators back behind a restraining rope, the boy didn't think the order applied to him. The policeman thought differently. With his baton, he walloped the kid across his back, knocking him to his knees.
I saw the whole thing, and it made me very mad. The policeman couldn't understand my anger. He had just been doing his job. What was all the fuss about nearly killing a mere native boy?
When we finished up in Morocco, I had mixed feelings. I was glad to get away from the oppressive atmosphere of an absolute monarchy, but I knew that I would always remember the excitement of the medina in Fez, the drama of the Square of the Dead in Marrakesh, the sophistication of Casablanca, the majesty of the Atlas Mountains, the Blue Men down from the hills, the Berbers with their ancient rifles, the muezzins calling the faithful to worship, the clamor of the camel market, the stink of the tanning pits, and the ever-present dope peddlers offering the very best hashish, effendi, very cheap.
Morocco was an exciting, stimulating experience, but I was in no hurry to go back. Greece, on the other hand, was our next planned location, and I was in a hurry to get there.
We left Casablanca on a chartered plane, bound for Athens. We were in midair, halfway to our destination, when the co-pilot came hustling out of the cockpit. He was obviously agitated, a condition not calculated to reassure his passengers.
"We have just received a r adio message," he told us. "We cannot land in Athens. The airport is closed. The borders are closed. There has been a coup d'etat. The military has taken over the government. Nobody can enter or leave the country.
This was devastating news. To me, it could mean more than mere delay. It could mean bankruptcy.
In anticipation of our Greek location, we had prepared scripts for the islands of Mykonos, Delos, Hydra, Crete, Santorini, and Rhodes. I had chartered an eighteen-ton inter-island vessel, the Lina B., to serve as our hotel, our restaurant, and our transport, as we hopped from island to island. Fifty-six people would be on board. I had paid for the charter in advance and had provisioned the ship for a thirty-day itinerary. If I were to be denied the use of the ship, I would be in very large trouble. It would mean the loss of the large sum I had already paid for the charter and, even worse, it would mean that I wouldn't be able to meet my commitment to the network.
No play, no pay.
I had a quick huddle with Leon Chooluck, our location manager. First things first -- let's get the damned plane on the ground. Leon got on the radio. Istanbul wouldn't take us because we had no Turkish visas. Ditto Lisbon. Biarritz turned us away because their parking space for aircraft was fully booked. Tangier likewise. It looked as though our plane was condemned to be the Flying Dutchman of the air.
The pilot consoled us. He said that if we circled until we were dangerously low on fuel, one of the airports would have to take us, lest we crash. Somehow I didn't find that alternative attractive. At the last minute, Lisbon relented and allowed us to land.
The next step was to get fifty-six people into a hotel. No hotel in Lisbon could take us. Leon kept trying, until we finally got lucky with a hotel is Estoril, a resort community a short distance out of Lisbon.
So far, so good. At least, we had a roof over our heads. The next order of business was to wrestle with the newly-established Greek revolutionary government to get our ship back. Meanwhile, we were hemorrhaging money.
After hours on the telephone, with the help of the American Embassy in Athens, I got through to one of the officials of the new government. He transferred my call to someone else, and he to a third official. I was passed from one bureaucrat to another like the ball in a soccer game. By the end of the day I had reached the two-star general level.
I made an impassioned plea. I told him that the pictures I planned to make would be excellent public relations for Greece. They would show how beautiful the country was and how friendly the people were. All this would multiply the tourist trade, and since tourism was a major factor in the nation's economy, I had a potent argument.
The general told me to call back the next day. When I did, he told me the matter had been referred to his senior, a three-star general. "Call back tomorrow," he said.
What with hotel and per diem charges, crew salaries, equipment rental, a chartered plane sitting on the runway, and a host of etceteras, Leon figured that every day we were hung up in Portugal was costing me thirty thousand dollars. The cast and crew were far from unhappy. They were having a lovely time at my expense. They played baccarat in the casino. They found quaint restaurants that served seafood freshly taken from the sea. They fished off the pier. They wandered around the countryside snapping pictures of colorfully-garbed natives and medieval castles. They fiddled while I burned.
When I finally got the three-star general on the phone, he promised to bring the matter up in a staff meeting and told me to call back tomorrow.
I said that I couldn't call back tomorrow, because I would be on the transatlantic phone all day, explaining to the American media how an American television company was being given the runaround by Greek army officers who had turned their lovely country into a prison. While I knew that this would have an unfortunate effect on the tourist trade, which was so important to the national economy, and I was sorry, I had an obligation to my countrymen. I had to tell it like it was.
The general asked me to hold the phone. I held the phone, twelve hundred escudos worth. When he came back on the line, he said that maybe something could be arranged, and that I should please call back tomorrow. Understandably, this sent chills down my spine. I told him I didn't think I could wait because the American media were hungry for my story. He promised that he would have definite news for me the next day, which could save me the expense of all those phone calls.
Okay. Put another thirty thousand dollars on my bill.
When I called back, I was instructed to fly my company to the island of Rhodes. The general would see that we were cleared to land there. We were to check into a designated hotel on the waterfront. Arrangements would have been made for our accommodation. We were to wait there for the Lina B. It would be delivered to us within forty-eight hours. Whoopee!
The hotel in Rhodes had a huge window looking out on the sunlit Aegean Sea on which nothing was afloat. Hour after hour, our marooned company stared out at an unbroken vista of sparkling sea, with only a carpet of azure water between us and the horizon.
....I dozed through the night in a big leather armchair facing the window. The others rejoined me at sunrise and we resumed our vigil.
That morning, the harbor of Rhodes came alive with traffic, but none of it was ours. Three inter-island ships dropped anchor, and tenders plied the waters between them and the shore. They were unloading people. We later learned that the military junta that had engineered the coup d'etat was sending prisoners to hastily-constructed prison camps on Crete and Rhodes.
Shortly after noon, we broke away from the window for lunch. Because I like to eat them separately, I was picking the black olives out of my Greek salad when the bell captain burst into the dining room and announced that there was something on the horizon. We rushed out. The something was a smudge of smoke, and as we watched, it grew into the superstructure of a ship. Then the hull came into view, and there she was, our Lina B. She was to be our home for the next month.
Our scheduled work on the island of Rhodes went smoothly. It was a lovely place to work. The south shore of the island is fringed with beaches carpeted with snow white sand, soft as powder. There is an acropolis, topped by the ruins of a two-thousand-year-old temple.
We got a lot of good stuff on the island of Rhodes. The historic ruins, silhouetted against cloudless skies, made good pictures. The capital city is a treasure chest of memories of the Crusaders. They paved streets and built fortresses that are still intact.
When it came time for us to move on, the Lina B. was ready. Life on board the ship was pleasant. . . .There were only fifty-six of us spread out in a ship that could accommodate eighty-six. The cast and crew were housed in spacious quarters.
Cosby had a large cabin near the stern, to which he would repair for a nap right after lunch. One afternoon, Mort Fine watched the chef sorting a mess of freshly-caught fish. Still alive, they were flapping vigorously on the deck. Struck by an evil thought, Mort borrowed several of the fish and took them to the door of the cabin in which Cosby was napping. He tossed them over the transom, yelling, "The ship is sinking! Everybody on deck!" Cosby came awake, saw live fish flap-flap-flapping on his cabin floor, and came our of there like a . . . rabbit.
. . . .The ship took us to fascinating places. Nowadays, everybody knows about Mykonos, but when we were there it was a beautiful, sleepy, undiscovered island. The town was, as it is now, a gleaming white gem. A friendly pelican paraded up and down along the waterfront, cadging scraps from the diners in the sidewalk cafes. Fishermen pounded octopi to tenderness on the boards of the quay. Sponge divers dried their harvest in the sun. . . . We caught a lot of wonderful local color on film. It was why I had been eager to get out of the studios.
. . . . Photographing the Greek islands proved to be a frustrating experience. No two islands are alike and each has its own character. There was so much to capture on film and so little time in which to do it.
. . . . In Greece, we captured ghosts of the past on film every day. As we got deeper into the schedule, I was intrigued by a minor mystery, which resolved itself one night on top of Mount Attavynos, in a restaurant overlooking the capital city.
At that time, many Greek restaurants had an intriguing custom, which has since been curtailed by unimaginative lefislation. Those restaurants featured bouzouki music, and when the mandolin-like instruments really got to twanging, men rose up from their tables and mde their way to the dance floor to go into the stately, measured cadences of Greek dancing. Never women. Always men.
If the diners liked what they saw, they threw table plates into the air, to shatter on the dance floor. A charge for the plates would appear on their bills.
Frankie and I were having dinner in the restaurant on Mount Attavynos when I spotted Dimi lurking at the bar. Dimi, or Demetrios, a burly ex-wrestler, had a shiny bald head and an unpronouncable last name, full of 's and u's.
Leon had signed him on to push or haul heavy things as needed, but Dimi aspired to more than that.
Soon after Leon hired him, Dimi came to me, and said, "You put me in picture. Yes?"
I told him I couldn't think of any way we could use him in front of the camera.
"In plenty ways," he told me. "I do plenty things."
I dismissed him with a vague promise to think about it. In the following days, I sensed his presence near me much of the time. Now, he was here watching my wife and me as we had dinner. It was disconcerting. Why was he shadowing me? What did he plan? I soon saw.
As the music heated up, Dimi got up from his stool by the bar and made his way to the dance floor. Raising his arms, he picked up the tempo of the music and moved into the rhythms of the dance. With his bulk and shining, bald head he made an arresting spectacle as he performed the traditional movements with surprising grace.
An appreciative diner hurled a plate. Like a lizard's tongue snatching a fly in mid-flight, Dimi's hand flashed out, picked the plate out of the air, and with every movement timed to the rhythm of the dance, smashed the plate on his shiny, bald head!
Well, that started it!
Soon, the air was filled with flying plates, and Dimi's skull was rattling like a bongo drum.
It was something to behold!
The next day Dimi got his wish. We rewrote a street scene to play in a restaurant, and Dimi was its centerpiece.
Greece was a fine location. No previous film company had done the islands as completely as we had. Our accomplishments in Greece whetted my appetite for more locations to conquer.
How about China?
Or the Soviet Union?
For some time I had been carrying on correspondence with the cultural attaches of the Russian and Chinese embassies. I drooled over the idea of shooting in China. There is no more glamorous and exciting setting for picture making than the Forbidden City in Beijing, as director Bernardo Bertolucci demonstrated when he made the Academy-Award-winner, The Last Emperor.
The Great Wall, the only man-made structure on earth that can be seen from the moon, had been seen only in travelogues, never on entertainment TV. What a coup if I could get permission to shoot there!
As it turned out, getting permission wasn't difficult. The Chinese officials were eager to open their country to tourism and, consequently, my proposal interested them.
I asked if I could shoot on the Great Wall.
Certainly, they said.
The Forbidden City?
The Stone Forest, the excavations at Xiang, the Kweilin Valley?
Yes, yes, and yes.
There was one non-negotiable stipulation. I could shoot as much film as I wished in China, but I couldn't ship it back to America until after the Chinese officials had screened it. This meant that it would have to be processed in China.
I researched the Chinese film processing facilities. As I had feared, they were primitive. The product they turned out was grainy and lacking in contrast. The colors were muddy. Film processed in China would not have met the network's broadcast quality standards.
I suggested to the Chinese officials that they could have a designated representatives in the United States view the film, after I had it processed in our laboratories.
They said "No Dice," or the Chinese equivalent. They had to see it before I shipped it. Since that was an unacceptable condition, I said goodbye to the Forbidden City, which was not to delight American audiences until a more enlightened administration modified its rules, fifteen years later.
The Soviets were a different story. They had fine laboratories, in some respects more advanced than ours. Their motion picture studios were also more advanced than most of ours, because they had been built later and weren't burdened with obsolete equipment....
Frankie and I took ourselves off to Moscow, armed with letters of introduction. The Soviet Film Agency and related departments knew all about me. They knew about I Spy. Since the series was based on espionage, and since the natural opponents for our guys in the spy business were guys from the other side of the Iron Curtain -- from Russia or its satellites -- I Spy had been thoroughly scouted by the various Soviet information services. They didn't like it. I didn't blame them. Their guys were always the losers.
I proposed that the Soviet filmmakers join me in developing stories that emphasized the benefits of cooperation between the great powers, and soft-pedaled the rivalries. After all, we shared a common goal -- survival -- and our survival, the survival of the whole human race, depended on peace.
....They applauded my proposal, and promised that I could expect full cooperation. Naturally, there would be certain conditions. They would have to have collaborative rights in plot development. I considered that a reasonable condition. They wanted to appoint two writers to work with my writers, but they agreed that the right of final approval of the script and its contents would rest with me. They stipulated that we were to use Russian labor in all categories except cast, director, producer, and department heads -- head cameraman, head electrician, etc. I foresaw difficulty there. My department heads would want to work with their own people. I was sure some compromise could be worked out. The stipulation didn't seem to be a deal-breaker, but I wanted a little time to think about it.
....One night, in the privacy of our suite, Frankie and I were discussing the possibility of visiting the town of Bershad, in the Ukraine. I had been told that my grandparents on my father's side had emigrated from that village....We decided that we would enquire about the possibility of visiting it.
The next morning, when we met [our guide] Sonya, she greeted us saying, "I asked about visiting the village in the Ukraine, and the officials tell me that it will take three weeks to arrange the permits. You are scheduled to leave before that, so I'm afraid your visit there will have to wait until the next time you come to Russia."
We hadn't mentioned our desire to visit the village to her. We hadn't mentioned it to anyone. The only place it had been mentioned was in our suite....
From then on, we were very careful about what we talked about in our suite.
As days passed, we became increasingly aware of a characteristic of the communist system. Working people below the level of officialdom were, on the whole, unmotivated. Nobody worked very hard. Why knock yourself out? You weren't going anywhere, and nobody was going to fire you.
Service in the hotels and restaurants was lousy. It took from two to three hours to get dinner served. I could imagine Leon Chooluck's nerves while his company had two- or three-hour lunches. An unwelcome question entered my thinking, and demanded an answer.
I took a typical I Spy script to the studio production office, and asked the department head to break it down for me and schedule it. Two days later, I got his answer. He had scheduled it for nineteen days. In Greece, we had filmed such a script in eight.
Well, it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
Regretfully, I said goodbye to Russia.
Making pictures on foreign locations is difficult, but the result, what you can finally put on the screen, supports my belief that the end justifies the means.
The first two years of I Spy had been a triumph. The Cosby-Culp team had immediate acceptance. Cosby had been a show business phenomenon, winning Emmy awards three years in a row. The series had won all sorts of awards, Emmies, the Golden Globes, and Critics' Awards. It had consistently won its time spot -- ten o' clock on Wednesday night -- over the competing networks. It was so strong that NBC decided to use it, in its upcoming third season to bolster their weak Monday night lineup.
They proposed to have it follow a new Thomas-Spelling anthology series, and opposite a nondescript show on ABC and a girl comic on CBS. I fought the move. We were comfortable where we were. If it's not broke, don't fix it. I was overruled. They assured me we would do very well in the new spot -- the Thomas-Spelling show would be a strong lead-in, and we'd murder the girl comic. The Thomas-Spelling anthology bombed, leaving us with no lead-in; the girl comic turned out to be Carol Burnett.
I Spy slid from near the top of the ratings list to a place in the bottom half.
As its third year came to a close, Mort Werner and Herb Schlosser asked for a meeting with me to discuss the future of I Spy. They had a problem, which they dumped in my lap.
NBC was contractually obligated to put a new one-hour show on the air for me. I had submitted several ideas, and they had selected an hour-mystery series, starring a young Italian actor, Enzo Cerusico, whom I had used with great success when I was shooting in Rome. He was sort of an Italian version of Maurice Chevalier. I proposed to pair him with James Whitmore, as a crime-solving team. Whitmore was to be the brains of the combination, Cerusico was to be the legs.
....My Friend Tony, the show the network was committed to air, was a pleasant combination of Cerusico's Italian charm and Whitmore's Yankee stability, with a dash of danger, a soupcon of mystery, and a pinch of humor. Everybody liked the idea, but the network claimed that there was no room for it in the schedule. They said there was only a single unassigned time spot for the upcoming season. If I insisted that they honor their contractual commitment to Tony, I Spy would have to be dropped. They said it was up to me.
It was a difficult decision to make. Tony was far from a sure thing. It was aimed at the young audience, with whom Cerusico's impish charm was most likely to score, and unless it got an appropriate time spot it wasn't going to last long. On the other hand, I Spy was a pretty sure bet to continue for at least a couple of seasons, if I accepted its renewal in place of Tony. However, in my opinion, it would limp through those seasons, losing much of its syndication value.
The unique economics of television was a dominant consideration in the decision I was being asked to make. Although licensing fees had risen astronomically since we were paid thirty thousand an episode for The Danny Thomas Show, a TV packager seldom made a profit on the network run of his show. Even today, very few shows turn a profit in their first run, because production costs have a miraculous ability to keep pace with, or a little ahead of, increased income.
If the show's owner is to make anything more than his per-episode production fee, it will come from reruns and syndication -- that is, if the show has had healthy ratings. A low-rated show has little rerun value. I was getting two hundred thousand per episode for I Spy, but it wasn't enough. I Spy had been lavishlyproduced. It had been running a deficit with each episode, and I was deeply in the red. I figured to recoup with syndication sales, but since it had been knocked down in the ratings, its rerun value had been seriously impaired. If it was kept in its present time spot, ratings could only get worse, and so would my chances of getting even.
....When Warner couldn't promise to return I Spy to its Wednesday time period, I opted to let it go, in favor of My Friend Tony.
It was the end of a marvelous adventure.
....When the decision to cancel I Spy was announced in the press, Bill Cosby called me, hoping I'd say it wasn't true. He wanted it to keep going, even though it meant major financial sacrifices for him. His career was booming, and night clubs were paying him many times the meager salary he was getting from me for I Spy. If he continued to do the show, he would have to pass up many lucrative engagements. It didn't make good business sense for him, but Cosby is afflicted with a serious case of loyalty, and he wanted to continue working with the people to whom he had become attached.
We've remained friends through the years.