Sheldon Leonard on I SPY
(in four parts)
Excerpts from And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures
(New York: Limelight, 1994)
Part I: I Spying
Selling a new concept for television.....The casting of Bill Cosby.....A typhoon and the Tiger Balm Garden.....A vicuna coat and a customs inspector.....Fuad Said and the creation of the Cinemobile.
I Spy was not merely a TV series. It was an adventure. It started at a luncheon table, in a restaurant high up in the NBC Building at Rockefeller Center. Mort Werner and Herb Schlosser, joint heads of programming for the network, had invited me to lunch, to see if we could get together on a series project.
For some time, I had been harboring a rather chancy notion, which I decided to try out on them. Television programming in the sixties had not evolved very far from the primitive, closeup-to-closeup techniques of its early days, when television screens were seldom larger than thirteen inches across, measured diagonally. The camera had to stay close, in order for the subject to be identifiable on the tiny screen. Although technological progress had been rapid and much larger screens were available, directors still clung to their outmoded, claustrophobic techniques.
Also, almost all television programs were limited to interior sets, because the cameras were bulky and relatively immobile. It didn't have to be that way. More compact, transportable equipment was available, but the filmmakers were slow to take advantage of the new technology. They had warehouses full of antiquated, but still usable, camera, sound and lighting equipment. Why spend money for new stuff, when they could continue to take a depreciation credit on what they had?
I believed that we had been trapped on the sound stages by inertia. With the advent of sound, those huge structures had been built to shield the filming process from extraneous noise. They were still being used, long after the reasons for their use had disappeared.
I wanted to get out in the open. On the small screen, I wanted to put exotic locations that had seldom been seen, even on the big screen.
I told Schlosser and Werner that if they would give me a commitment for a full season, I would undertake to deliver a series such as television had not yet seen, except in travelogues, with exteriors filmed on locations all over the world. "Done!" they said, "subject to agreement on casting and premise."
The premise part was easy. The spy genre would yield opportunities for action and adventure and would give us the mobility I wanted. It could take us to obscure, picturesque corners of the world.
My protagonists would be a pair of attractive, athletic young men whose sense of humor would lighten the grim situations inherent in melodrama.
I knew just the writers who could handle that sort of stuff. Dave Friedkin and Mort Fine had written light-hearted adventure material for radio, and they had recently brought their typewriters over to the television studios. I pitched the idea to them, and they loved it. They signed on enthusiastically. We called the project I Spy.
NBC accepted the premise and gave us a commitment to go on the air, but in order to see how it worked on the screen, they specified that -- in lieu of a pilot -- a prototype episode be delivered for evaluation a month before the start of principal production. They also wanted the right to approve the casting of my two leads. Since this was okay with me, we had a deal.
The next priority was casting. We couldn't write for the leads until I knew who they were going to be. For one of the pair, I settled almost at once on Robert Culp, a talented actor-writer. Bob had come into my office some months earlier with a script, into which he had written a part for himself, very much like what we wanted for I Spy.
Bob is an attractive young man, who had been a college athlete. This was an important qualification for the part he was to play in I Spy. He would be doing a lot of climbing, running, fighting, jumping, and falling before the series had run its course.
It wasn't easy to find the other half of the spy team. We pored endlessly through casting directories. We needed someone who contrasted physically with Culp. We didn't want them looking like the Gold Dust Twins....Our choice would have to have the same qualities of attractiveness, athleticism, and humor. We didn't find him in the casting directories, but one night I saw him on the television screen.
He was doing a stand-up comedy routine on a Jack Parr special.
He was handsome and animated, with a wonderfully mobile face. He was doing a comedy routine about karate; and he moved like an athlete. He was just what we needed for I Spy, except for one thing. He was black.
The day after I saw Bill Cosby on television, he walked in to visit with us at a [Dick] Van Dyke [Show] reading....That same day Bill was flying back to San Francisco, where he was playing an engagement at the Hungry i night club. I told Friedkin and Fine about him. Shortly thereafter, we flew to San Francisco to visit him. While he played his night club engagement, Cosby and his wife, Camille, were living on a houseboat anchored dockside in Sausalito.
We had a delightful visit on his houseboat. He showed us how to pierce the end of a cigar instead of cutting it. He told us about his undergraduate days at Temple. He reminisced about playing stick ball on the streets of Philadelphia. He charmed the pants off us.
That night we saw him work at the Hungry i, and after the show we got together with Roy Silver, Cosby's manager. I told him I wanted Cosby for I Spy. Because of the prevailing apprehension about the use of black actors, there might be some obstacles to overcome with the network, but if we could work that out, what kind of a deal could we make for Cosby's services? Silver said we could have him for twelve hundred and fifty dollars a show. You read me right. Bill Cosby for twelve-fifty a shot!
I said I'd let him know.
I flew to New York. In my carry-on luggage I had a computer readout analyzing the mail we had gotten over the Van Dyke episode in which Greg Morris had made a schmuck of Dick. It indicated that out of nineteen hundred and sixty pieces of mail, seventeen hundred and eighty two had applauded our presentation of the black man, two hundred and one were hostile, and the balance were indeterminate. I was prepared to claim that this showed the attitude of the viewing public was much more enlightened than it had been in the Amanda Randolph days.
The network brass would nevertheless be concerned that stations south of the Mason-Dixon line might defect. After all, a considerable part of the NBC network was south of Baltimore.
I had a ten a.m. appointment with Robert Kintner, president of NBC, who had the contractual power of cast approval....A few minutes later, in Kintner's office, we went through the standard amenities. "How do you want your coffee?"
"Black will be fine."
"How are things on the coast?"
Then, finally, "How's the casting coming along?"
"You know about Bob Culp. You okayed him."
"Yes. He'll be fine. How about the other part?"
"I haven't set anyone yet, but I've got my eye on someone."
"Oh? Do I know him?"
"No. He hasn't been around much, but I've seen his work, and he's just what I want."
"Then why don't you make a deal for him?"
"Because he's black."
"What difference does that make?"
I drew a long breath. "As of this moment, Mr. Kintner, it makes no difference whatsoever!"
Friedkin and Fine came up with an intriguing plot for our prototype episode. Bob Culp would play Kelly Robinson and Bill Cosby would be Alexander Scott. Kelly and Scott, ostensibly a professional tennis player and his trainer-manager, are actually agents of an unspecified department of the U.S. government, engaged in espionage. While playing in a tournament in Hong Kong, they are instructed to find a missing train that disappeared somewhere between the Chinese border and Kowloon.
There was nothing of great monetary value on board, just building materials, bricks, mortar and lumber. There was, however, an item of great strategic value -- a shipment of weapons-grade plutonium.
Their search leads them to follow a newly-built spur of the railroad line into a Hakka village. The villagers are diligently constructing a school to replace the one that had recently burned down. They are using bricks, mortar and lumber. An ancient lady nearby is watering her flowers with a long, snouted can, very much like the kind that engineers use to lubricate hard-to-reach parts of a locomotive. The workers are hoisting a school bell to the roof of their building. It strongly resembles the kind of bell one sees on the front of a locomotive.
After the required number of chases, bumps and bruises, Kelly and Scott unravel the mystery. The villagers had built the spur from the railroad's main line and, with the cooperation of the crew, had hijacked the train, appropriated the building materials, and buried the train in a deep ditch they had dug. It now rests underground, with its cargo of deadly plutonium still on board. R.I.P.
In the spring of 1964 I took Culp, Cosby and a basic crew to Hong Kong to shoot the initial episode of I Spy. I didn't take picture-making equipment because it would have been prohibitively expensive to ship it from L.A. to Hong Kong. I figured to rent what I needed from Run Run Shaw, the emperor of picture-making for the teeming oriental market.
He rented a full line of equipment to me, at what seemed like a fair price. It turned out to be not so fair when everything we rented from him started to break down. He had given us the obsolete, ill-maintained stuff out of his studio warehouse, and we spent more time repairing it than using it. I vowed that, regardless of cost, I would never again depend on rented equipment.
We planned a seven-day shooting schedule, but we hadn't taken nature into consideration in our planning. On the second day we were working on the Hong Kong side of the harbor, separated from our hotel on the Kowloon side, when the radio began issuing typhoon warnings. A typhoon in those latitudes is a serious matter, with winds exceeding a hundred and thirty miles per hour. The weather bureau makes sure that everyone receives plenty of warning when one is on the way....
We were shooting in the Tiger Balm Gardens, a fantastic setting filled with plastic statues of gods and demons. It had been built by the enormously wealthy manufacturer of Tiger Balm, an extraordinary ointment reputed to cure everything from bunions to impotence....
I was directing. Racing against the oncoming typhoon, with one eye on the flags over the weather station, I squeezed every last shot I could get out of the Tiger Balm Garden location. Rain started to come down in sheets, but that was all right with me. It gave the scenes a unique, eerie quality. We got our last shot just as the third flag went up. We caught the last Star Ferry to cross the harbor. There wasn't to be another craft on the water for the next five days.
I had a lovely suite on the top of the Peninsula Hotel, the Marco Polo Suite. It came complete with a kitchen, a dining room, and a butler named Benny. Benny kept a guest book. I signed my name under that of the Maharajah of Jaipur and two signatures down from Richard Nixon's.
The big windows overlooking the harbor had been boarded up to withstand the typhoon winds. Benny had a well-stocked refrigerator, and a talent for cooking. Unable to venture out of the hotel, Culp and Cosby joined me every morning for eggs benedict, or scrambled eggs with caviar. It was tough going but we kept stiff upper lips.
We spent most of the five-day confinement staring out of the window at the turbulence below, and talking. In five days you can do a lot of talking....
While we were immobilized by the typhoon, Bill's wife gave birth to their first child. I held Bill captive seven thousand miles away. I don't think Camille ever forgave me.
The typhoon finally cleared out. We finished the picture and packed up. I had a minor problem. I had to figure out a way to cheat United States Customs.
The only exercise we could get during the typhoon had been walking through the many corridors of the Peninsula Hotel. One of them was a very seductive arcade, with windows displaying stunning merchandise at bargain prices. For four days I walked past a window with a super-luxurious vicuna topcoat on display. On the fifth day I bought it. Flesh and blood can only stand so much.
Vicuna is an expensive item. The Customs Department would want a big cut. How could I cheat them?
On our return flight we were scheduled to clear customs in Honolulu. I figured I could sneak my coat through customs by wearing it. They examine baggage, I thought, but they don't pay any attention to the clothes on your back.
The plane made its stop in Honolulu and we lined up for customs. I was wearing my lovely, warm vicuna topcoat. The outside temperature was ninety-two degrees, with ninety percent humidity.
Sweat ran down my cheeks. Two paces behind me in the line, Bill bellowed, "Hey, Shel. You look warm. Why don't you take your coat off?"
The custom inspector's ears perked up.
"Yeah, Shel. You're sweating. Take off your coat."
I'll kill him! I thought. With my bare hands! I'll strangle him, and get Greg Morris to play the part!
By now I was facing the customs inspector. I had no alternative under the circumstances.
"I didn't list this coat," I told him. "Sorry, I just forgot to put it on my declaration. I bought it in Hong Kong."
"Yeah," he responded, "I was going to ask you about it, even before your friend started advertising. The first thing we look at is what people are wearing. You know, jewelry, vicuna coats....They think they can get away with it, and they wind up in jail."
I paid the customs man. Cosby, the son of a b****, had saved me from jail.
When we had edited, scored and titled the Hong Kong episode, we showed it to the NBC brass. They loved it, with one reservation. They didn't like Cosby. They wanted me to replace him.
It wasn't just that he was black, which was risky enough to start with, but his acting was amateurish. Unfortunately, that was true. His inexperience showed up on the screen.
"Don't worry," I told them. "He'll get better. He's a natural. This was his first shot at acting in front of a camera. Naturally he was uptight, and I didn't have much time to help him. As soon as he relaxes he'll light up the screen."
"We still think you should replace him. There must be some guy out there who can do better. He doesn't have to be black."
"If you replace him you better figure on replacing me, too."
"Oh. Well, if you feel that strongly...."
An enormous amount of preparation was required before we could start full-scale production on I Spy. Leon Chooluck, our location manager, along with Friedkin, Fine and me, selected the cities we wanted to visit.
I prefer shooting in cities. The countryside and mountains of one country look much like the countryside and mountains of any other country. It was Louis B. Mayer who said, when approached by a director who wanted to shoot in the Bernese Alps, "A rock is a rock. Shoot it in Griffith Park."
Cities have character. Not all cities, but many. Paris has character. Take a shot on any Parisian street and any armchair traveler will place it immediately. The same is true for Venice, of course, and for London, Hong Kong, New York, Leningrad, Rio de Janeiro, Marrakesh, Istanbul, and a few others. It is not true for Berlin, Geneva, Belgrade, Tel Aviv, and many other cities, all of which look like Pittsburgh.
Once we had selected our location cities, we plotted six or more episodes for each location, in order to amortize the cost of the move. We still hadn't solved the equipment problem. I was determined not to depend on rented equipment, but transporting our own was hideously expensive. That's when Fuad Said came into the picture.
Fuad is an Egyptian. He is dapper, soft-spoken, and only a few inches more than five feet tall. When he came to me he was just out of a course in cinematography at the University of Southern California. He had heard that I was going to make pictures in foreign countries and he set out to convince me that I couldn't do it without him. He said that he would supply the equipment, personnel, location lunches, the whole package. I told him I couldn't take a chance on a guy with no experience. The next day he was back, with sixteen-millimeter film and a projector. He showed me pictures he had taken sky diving, with the camera built into his helmet, and pictures of sharks in a feeding frenzy, taken in twenty fathoms of Caribbean water. I chased him away but day after day he bounced back.
I told him that I couldn't talk with him about equipment and personnel because I didn't know how I was going to handle that dilemma. He said he could solve it. He could build a vehicle, and load it with the smaller, lighter, more efficient equipment that was available: quartz lamps instead of bulky Sun Arcs; Arriflex cameras with nylon hears instead of the heavier Mitchell cameras; small, efficient sound recorders; and airplane-style generators. He claimed that he could put all the equipment needed to make pictures under the most difficult conditions, night or day, into one modified Ford Econoline panel truck, small enough to be wheeled into the belly of a cargo plane and delivered the next day, anywhere in the world.
Fuad wore me down. Eventually I advanced him the money to build the prototype vehicle of what would be known as the "Cinemobile".
The Cinemobile soon became indispensable for urban filming. Before the Cinemobile, when a company moved from one location spot to another, like from the Place Vendome to Montparnasse, you had to move a whole fleet of trucks: the generator truck, the camera truck, the electrical truck, the prop truck, the sound truck, and a whole mess of etceteras. What with loading and unloading, fighting traffic, and struggling for parking spaces, a company could rarely make more than two moves a day. With the Cinemobile we could make seven or eight moves. More importantly, we could use our own well-maintained equipment.
The Cinemobile was a lifesaver. Let me correct that. Little, persistent, indomitable Fuad Said was a lifesaver.
I drected most of the location sequences for I Spy, and the Cinemobile made the work relatively easy. The mobility it gave enabled me to hop around from spot to spot, squeezing the juices out of the rich, foreign locations.
Because the pressure of office work relating to my other enterprises left me less time for directing, I enjoyed the rewards of directing on location even more. I always got more pleasure from directing than from any other activity connected with putting a show together, but increasing managerial responsibilities meant few directorial opportunities. Like the man said -- there's no gain without pain.
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