How did you get involved in writing for "I SPY" in the first place? And when you were writing, did they give you any guidelines and directions or were you free to go with what you wanted?
The popular notion that to succeed in show business, you have to have luck and timing and contacts and chutzpah is at least nominally true. Of course, it helps to have at least a modicum of talent as well.
When I did my first script for "I Spy," all those elements were in place. Sheldon Leonard, the Executive Producer, was watching dailies one day when he mentioned to an assistant that he was concerned because he needed a script to shoot in Athens in eight days; and he didn't have one. A friend of mine overheard the remark. He told Sheldon he knew a guy who wrote fast. (Not "good," mind you. "Fast.") Sheldon learned that I was with his agency, and called William Morris.
The agency caught me at CBS where I was working on a project, and asked me to get over to the "I Spy" offices within the hour. Luck, timing, contacts and chutzpah (attempting a hurry-up script with an impossible deadline on a show I'd seen only once!)
On the drive to the studio, I came up with a story idea. When I walked into the office, I ran into Marion Hargrove, an old high school friend I hadn't seen in many years. Marion filled me in on the personalities involved. And I was then called to The Great Man's office.
I pitched my idea. "Can you write it in three days?" Sheldon asked. I'm going to have to send it by courier." (A fax in those days took four minutes a page to send!)
"If I do it on time," I said, "I'll expect five additional assignments." "If you do it on time, and if we shoot it without rewrite, you've got what you want," Sheldon promised.
I turned in "Philotimo" in two days. It was the beginning of great fun and a great relationship. Again: Luck, timing, contacts and chutzpah.
What were your duties as a producer on "I SPY"? ... I didn't realize that you were involved in the show other than your three wonderful scripts.
Without preamble, with no indication that he had any interest in doing so, with no contact with my agent, Sheldon called me one day and asked me (and the friend who told him I could write fast) to co-produce the next season of "I Spy."
I reminded him that I had no producing experience, and that I had only been in television for less than two years "Don't worry about it," he said. "Common sense, drive and creative ability."Tha's all you'll need. I'm betting you have it."
We prepared a half dozen scripts for the coming season. Good scripts, I believe. Interesting characters and locales. I wrote several of them. However, before we started shooting, NBC cancelled the show because Bill Cosby had other ambitions, and wanted a show of his own.
Sheldon immediately assigned me to a new project to produce. And that show, "My Friend Tony," starring Jim Whitmore and Enzo Cherusico, did go on the air. Sheldon was there for me when his voice could quiet some network complaint. He was there for me when I needed some extra muscle. He never ordered me to take any action, never interfered in casting or writing assignments or budgets or directors. Working for him was a happy, productive experience. If there was a Camelot in Hollywood, it was working with Sheldon Leonard.
Before embarking on an attempt to discuss Bob Culp's comments on scripts, I want to get the other questions out of the way.
Where were the locations planned for the 4th season? And were your scripts written "location-specific" - or "story-specific," and then adapted for a location?
1. Scripts were written for a country, or even a city that Sheldon, David and Mort had previously selected. However, as with most location shooting, circumstances often made it best to alter the specific location the writer may have envisioned. It might be a startling and unexpected sunset that will enhance a scene, or perhaps an unexpected parade is nearby, or someone spots a public building's spectacular staircase that would be better for a chase scene than the written location of a flea market. Serving the story is always the first concern. Interesting, exciting, beautiful or historic locations were used to enrich the show.
"I Spy" was breaking comparatively new ground, making up the rules as they went. After "I Spy," all the "road shows" took advantage of the lessons learned about flexibility, about practical, lightweight equipment, about transportation and utilization of local support. I produced a series for NBC called, "Movin' On," with two independent truckers (Claude Akins and Frank Converse) driving across the country, having adventures in a different city every week. I applied many of the lessons learned from "I Spy," including having a musical director (Earle Hagen) who was willing to fly to various locations to solve recording problems and prepare actors.
The Fourth Season "I Spy" scripts were written for initial locations in England. I don't recall the many assigned scripts, but from my musty files, I retrieved one I wrote. It has Kelly and Scott in London, with locations all over the city. There's even a battle in a museum with Kelly and Scott using medieval weapons as they take on "The Heavies." I've reread the script; and I think it's great fun. Of course, there's no telling how much better it might have been if Culp and Cosby had been able to utilize their extraordinary ability to change dung into strawberry shortcake!
2. On the question of "I Spy's" cancellation: Speculation at the time was that the network had weighed the third season ratings of "I Spy," and the competition it would face on the other networks, and had decided that they would do better to cancel the show.
Obviously, Sheldon Leonard was taken by surprise when it happened. On NBC's initial direction to proceed for the fourth season, he hired me and my friend to co-produce the fourth season. We had expended a considerable amount of money and time hiring writers and supervising their work. We had decided on the initial overseas locale. We had put together a staff. When we were instructed to shut it all down, we first learned that the network, aware of the phenomenal popularity of Bill Cosby, had decided to give him a show of his own. I don't question Cosby's loyalty to "I Spy" or his colleagues. To my knowledge, he always behaved admirably to cast and crew. However, networks behave in mysterious ways. Cosby's new show did not bring the spectacular ratings NBC anticipated.
It's interesting to consider how "in three years" NBC had a change of heart, and maybe an injection of courage when they learned that the no one rose up in protest to having a black co-star on the air. Although neither Bob Culp or Bill Cosby had the grace to mention it on the recent NBC Seventy-Fifth Anniversary when they gave great credit to others for breaking the color line, it is an incontestable fact that it was Sheldon Leonard who single-handedly, and with great courage, tore down that barrier. NBC was prepared to buy "I Spy" from Sheldon, but feared the loss of southern stations if they put Bill Cosby opposite Bob Culp in a starring role. Earle Hagen and Bob Culp were in Sheldon's office at the time the phone call came in from NBC. The network insisted that they would not go forward unless the part of Scott was recast with a white co-star. Sheldon, who had peerless integrity, refused to make the show without Cosby, and hung up. Minutes later, with Earle and Bob Culp still present, NBC called back, and agreed to do the show. Sheldon also protected "I Spy" by refusing to accept NBC's idea of turning it into a half-hour sitcom.
3. Aunty Alta's question about contrasting and comparing my writing experiences on "I Spy" versus some of my other tv writing assignments: The only basic difference with "I Spy" was that the writer was told the general locale, and then had to research or call on memory to utilize the most photogenic sites that would serve the story. But "I Spy" was easier to write than most of the shows on the air at that time. It had two attractive, bright, witty characters driving the action. It had interesting locales. It had an exceptional Executive Producer who, when others saw "problems," saw only "challenges." It was fun to write for "I Spy," and a learning experience to work for Mort, David and Sheldon.
All shows have their particular "rules" that have come about during development or production. I was Executive Story Consultant and wrote many Perry Mason scripts. So, I'm particularly familiar with that show's "rules." There where certain inviolable conventions: like the alliterative titles, the frequent use of preliminary hearings (no jury present), the introduction of three or four people, any one of whom might be the guilty party, the obligatory discovery of the "real" killer in the courtroom, the "tag" where Perry, Della, Paul and possibly Perry's joyful client, gathered to celebrate the victory. The real challenge was trying to maintain interest and action and suspense and surprise when approximately one third of each episode took place in the static environment of a courtroom.
A special footnote for Aunty Alta: Returning from a brief tour of duty in Viet Nam in 1969, I stopped off in Okinawa to visit an old friend, the Island Commander. In time, he took me to a charming Japanese shop so I could buy gifts for my family. When the General told the merchant that I had written for the Perry Mason Show, he lavished attention on me, and then drew me aside. He said, "Here on the Ryukus Network, Perry Mason is very much popular. After first commercial, my friends make conference call. Each choose one suspect, and bet twenty dollars. The one who is guessing the correct killer gets all the money. Now, is it possible, you could tell me who are the killers?" I shared that story with Erle Stanley Gardner, who sent a note volunteering to return to Okinawa with me so "we can make our fortunes!"
The next question from Aunty Alta asked how much input a writer has when production on his script begins. The answer is, "usually very little." From time to time, a director or producer might ask the writer to work over some dialogue, or change a scene to conform to a newly-found location, or take advantage of some casting that might have changed some elements in the original script. However, that's rare. The only time a writer can control what's done with his material is when the writer is also the producer. Happily, I had that opportunity many times.
And the final question: "Was it harder to write for actors who were known for "modifying scripts" etc.etc. I'm prepared to discuss that at some length, because it was certainly a factor with "I Spy."
For now, excuse me while I try to remember my southern upbringing, take a break to bring down my blood pressure, and save this very cogent question for another session.
My thoughts on Mr. Culp's statements
An actor and a writer were traveling to a location when they ran out of gas in the desert. Fifty miles from the next town, they decided to strike out across the vast and isolated area. For six hours, they plodded through the sand, then, falling to their knees, mouths dry, tongues swollen, weak with thirst, exhausted, they collapsed. Suddenly, they heard the sound of an airplane, and looked up to see a small Cessna. Weakly, they waved. The pilot spotted them, circled, dropped a canister, dipped his wings, and flew on. The writer and the actor struggled to their knees, and painfully, a yard at a time, moved toward the canister they saw sparkling in the sun. The actor, weak and hardly able to move, finally held onto the writer's leg; and the writer dragged him that final thirty yards to the canister. Using the last ounce of his dwindling strength, the writer struggled to open the canister top, succeeded, and looked down at orange juice with ice cubes floating in it. Then he lifted the canister to quench his thirst."Wait a damn minute!" the actor croaked."First, let me pee in it and make it better!"
"That's my general evaluation of Bob Culp's narcissistic diatribe. I propose to take one point at a time. I would quote Mr. Culp word-for-word, but that would require me to correct all of his errors in punctuation, grammar, spelling, and syntax.
Mr. Culp refers to the"remarkable project" that he and Sheldon Leonard "dreamed up" in their separate, but distinctly different visions.
Reply: Sheldon Leonard had the vision for "I Spy" long before Bob Culp was even considered for his role. Mr. Culp is a competent actor; and certainly his interpretation of the role Sheldon gave him was refined by the actor's training, experience and instinct. However, make no mistake about it, the character was essentially the tennis pro envisioned in Sheldon's first presentation to NBC. The trainer, played by Bill Cosby, was also basically the bright, personable, intellectual man Sheldon presented to the network. Again, the character was enriched by the unique talent and personality Mr. Cosby brought to the role.
Mr. Culp claims that his scripts set the standards for quality of story, and established the tone of dialogue between Kelly and Scott. He believed his work would define the series, and that other writers would rise to his example of excellence. However, he frets, he was wrong on both counts. He denigrates those who wrote for "I Spy."
Reply: These are a few of the writers who Mr. Culp believes did not measure up to his standards: Gary Marshall, David Friedkin, Mort Fine, Howard Gast, David Karp, Ollie Crawford, Jackson Gillis, Rick Mittleman, Marion Hargrove, Barry Oringer, Steven Kandel, Harvey Bullock and Jerry Ludwig. Many others deserve to be on the list. I name these writers because they come quickly to mind, and because their writing careers (unlike Mr. Culp's) sailed on successfully long after "I Spy" was off the air. If Mr. Culp's writing talents are as great as he believes them to be, I decry the fact that, upon the demise of "I Spy," he wasn't begged by a delegation of producers to write scripts for them.
Mr. Culp tells us that he and Mr. Cosby had to "rewrite or improvise dialogue on a daily basis over the entire life of the series." He believes the writers "cordially despised" the two actors for doing so, despite the fact that the hired writers wrote dialogue that was "mediocre at best," and were unable to capture the kind of "hip" he and Mr. Cosby were desperately trying to bring to the show. He believed that the two actors were defining "I Spy," and the essence of character that was intended to make it unique. "The thing that Bill and I could do together that nobody else could do, simply wasn't there," he writes. "So we put it there." Then, he goes blithely on, disparaging his betters by pointing out that, unlike Bob Hope and Bing Crosby who used ad-libs and one-liners, he and Mr. Cosby used "honest to God improvisation," restructuring the text. They were very proud, he tells us, of how fast they could do it.
Reply: How puerile! How inanely egocentric! Mr. Culp would have us believe that he and Mr. Cosby could, in a few golden, inspired minutes, write better dialogue than the assigned writers and the writer producers overseeing them could manage after weeks of effort. (Imagine Gary Marshall, for instance, floundering, unable, despite his unlimited time, to come up with something as clever as these two creative giants could easily knock off in minutes!)
Mr. Culp: "Sheldon hated improvising on principle. Oh, I think he understood what we were doing by the time the series became so banal and repetitious that it was cancelled."
Reply: Sheldon did understand. It was not improvisation he didn't like. It was the banality and repetitious nature of his stars' banter, the predictability of their reaction to jeopardy, the "wonderfulness" of their repetitive exchanges, the appalling switch with Mr. Culp sounding more like Mr. Cosby every week, the elimination of plot points that left the viewer scratching his head with confusion, the inability of his stars to understand that both drama and comedy have to be set-up with transitional scenes containing some clear exposition, so the primary scenes following will have impact.
Mr. Culp: (Sheldon) could "tell good writing from bad, but not how it got that way. He thought, that the difference between good and lousy writing was a fluke, an accident."
Reply: Here we see the colossal effrontery of someone who simply doesn't know what the hell he's talking about! Sheldon Leonard graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in English Literature. He was Chief Reader for The Shuberts before Mr. Culp got out of knickers. Actor, writer, creator, director, producer, Sheldon had six top ten shows on the air at one time. Yet, Mr. Culp has the temerity to question Sheldon's credentials as a creative person! Mr. Culp believes he knew more about writing, about drama, about comedy than Sheldon did!
Mr. Culp: "He (Sheldon) didn't really trust good writers or directors with their attitudes and airs and superior ideas, and these prima donna writers were more expensive. He wouldn't pay 'em."
Reply: Mr. Culp who wrote two "I Spy' scripts that I think were excellent, should "as a member of the Writers Guild of America" know that episodic television writers are paid according to the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement. The price of an "I Spy" script was dictated by that agreement. A very good writer was rewarded with multiple script assignments. When a particularly-outstanding writer was moved up to Story Consultant or Producer, the salary was negotiable. Anyone who worked for Sheldon will tell you he was extremely generous with salary and bonuses. The idea that he pinched pennies, that he wouldn't pay talent, that he didn't appreciate and honor top creative people, is simply ridiculous.
Mr. Culp tells us that when a new script was delivered, he and Mr. Cosby would "lock arms and march up the stairs to Mort and David, the two writer-producers, and complain bitterly."
Reply: Mort Fine and David Friedkin were consummate professionals. Somehow, they managed to write "The Pawnbroker," a critically acclaimed film, without instruction from Mr. Culp and Mr. Cosby. Somehow, they managed to accumulate a vast number of credits without any input from their actors. They were so fed up with the behavior of their two stars that they resigned at the end of the third season, although at the time, Sheldon expected to be picked up for another year.
Mr. Culp: "The only scripts we always did exactly as written were the ones I wrote. Those we didn't have to change, not a word. Everything the show needed to make it work and be surprising and special was there for all to see." Mr. Culp goes on to take particular pride in his dialogue. Then, he says "The show certainly would have lived longer, at least into a fourth year, if we had better stories, better writers."
Reply: The answer to that claim was voiced by Carl Reiner at a "Man of The Year Dinner" for Sheldon. Earle Hagen and I were among those who attended. At that dinner, Mr. Culp, with typical humility and judgment and tact, told the assembled guests, "We used to do a lot of adlibbing, which drove Sheldon nuts. But, somehow, the way we did it always worked out right." Carl replied, "Did you ever stop to think that If you would have spoken the dialogue the way it was written, you might have lasted five years instead of three?"
So much for Mr. Culp's comments. I've replied, not because I wish to disparage Mr. Culp, but because I do not wish to have him disparage people who were my friends, and who "for the most part" can no longer speak for themselves.
Mort Fine was garrulous, funny, hard-working, colorful, and talented, David Friedkin was gentle,thoughtful, intellectual, sensitive, and gifted. The "I Spy" writers they chose reflected Mort and David's values and expectations and standards.
Sheldon was an intellect, a gentleman, a raconteur, a leader, a dream boss, a complete professional, a man of uncommon courage and integrity. He was without guile. He had uncanny casting and staffing intuition, discovering and nurturing talent like Bill Cosby and Bob Culp and Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith, and Mary Tyler Moore and Jim Nabors and Ron Howard and Jim Brooks and Earle Hagen and dozens more. He was honored time and again by his peers, and enriched by a vast number of friends.
I wish Mr. Culp well. And while I'm wishing, I wish that "as an able actor" he might try acting like a mensch!
Here's some more answers to questions from Mr. Frankel ....
From Aunty Alta
Please compare and contrast the individual episodes that you wrote for I Spy. What was your favorite and why ? Mine had to be Turnabout For Traitors, but the other two were equally well written and well thought out . What was your least favorite and why? Any particular difficulties with any of these scripts ? Were you given production sheets by Mr Leonard that showed x number of shows were to be based in so and so and x number in wherever... and you wrote your scripts based on the premise that they'd be filmed... say, for instance, in Mexico? Or did you write your scripts first, then have Mr. Leonard say that the script was accepted and ask for you to do filler work based on where it would be filmed ?
Mr. Frankel wrote:
In answer to "Aunty Alta," I like different scripts I wrote for different reasons. I like "Philotimo" because it was my first script for "I Spy." I like "Apollo" because I had worked on the space program at North American Aviation as Manager of Management Communications, and was intimately involved in arranging for "I Spy" to shoot at the facilities in Downey and Santa Susana. I like "Turnabout for Traitors" because it tested Scott and Kelly's relationship.
I don't know how other writers worked on "I Spy." However, before I came in to "pitch" a story idea to Sheldon, Mort and David, I found out where the company would be shooting. I then did some very basic research on the city or the country involved, and I came up with a basic concept, giving the nature of Scott and Kelly's mission, the central problem they would be facing, and a capsulated beginning-middle-end. The producers might have made some suggestions for an opportunity to use a specific location, or they might have suggested a way to heighten a proposed plot twist. If they liked the idea, they would tell me to go ahead. I would usually take a week or ten days to research the location in more detail, and write a first draft. I'd let it sit for a few days, then reread it, and perhaps polish some dialogue or tighten a scene. When i turned in the script, I might get a call suggesting a minor change in a scene to accomodate a casting problem, or to heighten the tension, or to eliminate a production problem (availabilty of a freight car, shooting at night, etc.) I don't recall ever doing more rewriting than that. When I got the shooting script, there would be some polishing by the producers, usually adding touches of humor, or improving some Scott-Kelly exchanges. I never thought those changes diminished my work. I thought they invariable enhanced it. Of course, when the show went on the air, I "like most writers" wasn't happy with some of the improvised dialogue that lost the storyline. But writers learn to do their best, then shut up and trust the producers and editors to deal with The Egos.
Several queries have come to me in reference to the aborted "Fourth Season." First of all, Art Seid and I, as the new producers, discussed many things with Sheldon Leonard, including a decision on where the show would travel. He gave us no "orders" in terms of casting or directors or crew or budget control. That was all left to us. Although no basic changes were contemplated, we suggested, and Sheldon agreed, that we would try to get the first thirteen scripts out before production began, so that we would have time to work more closely with Bill Cosby and Bob Culp on their exchanges, and therefore minimize the adlibbing that often cut out story points. The same production techniques were to be employed. The same number of shows were to be shot on foreign locations. The Network never offered any suggestions or guidance.
More great answers ..
.... Another question for Mr. Frankel ---- How did you regard Earl Bellamy as a director? (Mr. Bellamy directed all of Mr. Frankel's I Spy episodes.) Did you have any input in selecting Mr. Bellamy? Were you pleased with how Mr. Bellamy interpreted your stories? Did you know Mr. Bellamy well ... (back in the Perry Mason days)? .... And if you want to go here ... How did the "directors" feel about Culp's and Cosby's ad-libbing?
Mr. Frankel wrote:
Another question I received was in regard to Earl Bellamy. The answer: No writer had any input on selection of directors. Earl was a gentleman, thoughtful, industrious, inventive, dependable and efficient. I only knew him casually when I was writing for "I Spy." However, when I was producing other shows, I used Earl regularly; and we became friends. I found that he always made a creative contribution, sometimes elevating the material. He worked well with the crew on all the shows where he directed for me. He was faithful about being involved in post-production. I was fond of him as a director and as a man. I have no personal knowledge of his reaction to the script shenanigans of Bill Cosby and Bob Culp.
..... We loved the character of Zarkas and thought that Harold Stone did a superb job with him in the 3 episodes he was in. We especially liked the way he was portrayed in "Philotimo," warm, intelligent, ever conniving. Were you given instructions to write a story around him or to just include the character? Were you given specific character elements to incorporate or did you develop them yourself?
...... We thought that what they did to Zarkas' character in "Seventh Captain" was almost criminal - totally out of character for the noble man he was - all of a sudden, he becomes a fanatic and killer - for revenge?? Were you aware of the script for the "Seventh Captain," and what were your feelings and views about Zarkas' character?
Mr. Frankel wrote:
Someone asked questions about Zarkas, the character I wrote for "Philotimo." When I "pitched" the story, I didn't go into the personality of the character. I was given no instructions or suggestions by the producers. As any writer would, I tried to give him dimension: color, humor, intelligence, warmth, and a talent for manipulating events. Harold Stone gave an excellent portrayal. He came across so well, in fact, that the producers called to see if I had any objection to using the character for other episodes. (The Writers Guild has some clause in its contract concerning continuing characters). I had no objection. I had no input. I had no time available to do any other scripts at the time.
I do have an opinion on how Zarkas was used in the one show I saw where they used him again: "Seventh Captain." I thought the character I had written simply didn't "fit" the function he had in that script. Zarkas was called on to do things that were out of character. He had the same name, but he was no longer the same man.
About the Fourth Season scripts:
I dug out one of my scripts intended for the aborted Fourth Season: "The Day They Gave The Bride Away." Here is a brief look:
The episode was set in England in Oxford and Stratford. Scenes at St. Mary's Church, Tom Tower, a brewery , the surrounding countryside, an English cottage, the Falstaff Statue at the Shakespeare Memorial, the Mitre Hotel, an armory featuring antique weapons, Magdalen Quadrangle and Bridge, the River Cherwell , the Botanical Gardens and Radcliffe Camera. There's a production note: (This has been set at Radcliffe Camera since the Christopher Wren building is surrounded by an exceptional view of the spires of Oxford. The exterior balcony and the winding staircase offer a unique setting for the fight action. However, if we find it necessary, we can switch the location to play at Carfax in the busy hub of the town.)
An interesting and entertaining character introduced in this script is a Russian spy, Max Jedenoff, who has dueled with Scott and Kelly in the past. At sixty, Max is on the brink of retirement. A courtly man of intellect, Max is anxious to finish this one last assignment before he leaves the service. He's fed up with the loss of romance in the spy game, the introduction of computers, the questioning of expense accounts, the petty bureaucrats. This time, on his final assignment, he initially joins forces with Scott and Kelly.
There's a revealing scene where the young woman in jeopardy, on the telephone with her kidnappers, surreptitiously reveals her whereabouts to Scott, Kelly and Jedenoff. She does it by contriving to use Shakespearean quotations conversationally so they'll realize she's being held at Stratford on Avon. Jedenoff, a scholar and anglophile, understands immediately.
Later, in the tag, Jedenoff attempts to foil Scott and Kelly one last time; and our guys "using a miniature pistol" turn the tables on him:
Please! Not my simulated pistol ruse"!
You've got it right, Max "an old trick I learned from an old spy!
Kelly shows his empty ankle holster. Jedenoff reacts, drops his weapon.
This - this is preposterous!
That it is! As the Bard says, "If this were played upon a stage, I would condemn it as an improbable fiction!" Act Three, Scene Four, Twelfth Night!
And so, I fade out. I've enjoyed the reminiscences. Now, on to the new wars! Good to know that, after all these years, there are fans who remember and still enjoy "I Spy."
Thank YOU, Thank YOU, Mr. F so very much ... for everything!!!