Hassling with gendarmes on alien shores, tussling with actresses in exotic climes, higgling with extras, haggling with crews. Hit by strikes, kidnappings, natural calamities, cross-cultural complexities. And strewing in their wake a trail of good humor and greenbacks that, end-to-end, stretches from Hong Kong to the canals of Venice, Italy. That would be the I Spy guys, ranging over Planet Earth two seasons now, trying everywhere to dig and make themselves dug.
The guys are a pair of foot-loose undercover agents played by Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, plus a production crew commanded by Sheldon Leonard, the NBC series' executive producer. Leonard insists that I Spy stay out of Hollywood studios as much as possible and use the real world for its settings. That's what has led to all the hassling, tussling, higgling and haggling.
In Hong Kong the problem was insatiably curious people fouling up the simplest procedures. Even in a back alley at night in the pouring rain, there would always be a crowd just watching the idle equipment. Finding hiding places for the camera became an obsession. Once cameraman Fouad Said built a big box with a small hole in front for the camera lens. Worked fine except for one thing. It attracted thousands of onlookers, all trying to see what was in the hole.
They even tried paying householders for the use of a second-story window from which to film. The crew below didn't dare look up at the window or all the gawkers would follow suit.
Extraneous yahoos on the sound track were a constant headache, and no people were quite as raucous as the Italians. Sheldon Leonard was directing a scene at a sidewalk cafe, with extras wolfing down veal scaloppine and vino -- all at the expense of his company, of course. Surrounding the cafe were apartment houses from whence a shrill voice kept shrieking in Italian: "Pietro, come home! Your lunch is ready!" necessitating retake after retake. Finally Leonard growled, "If I ever find that Pietro --" Prompting his Italian first-assistant to remark: "Pietro? That's him, that extra eating there."
Extraneous Swedish yahoos were something else. At an Italian restaurant during an intimate love scene between Robert Culp and guest star Anna Karina, 90 boisterous Scandinavian tourists charged in. I Spy's director happened to be Alf Kjellin, a Swede. The tourists were so dumfounded at being told to shut up in their own language that they meekly complied.
Laryngitis silenced the guest star in Acapulco. Stacy Harris slept with the air liner's cold-air vent blasting in his face, and arrived without a voice. He was driven straight to the shooting location, where two Mexican doctors took turns administering sprays, medications and 10 or 12 shots of tequila "to clear his throat." The actor passed out only once in a full day's shooting.
Ptomaine in Spain came mainly on the plane. En route, Culp and guest star France Nuyen ate a deadly club sandwich. Next day, in the most agonizing pain and looking like ghosts, they managed to play what Culp remembers as "a delicious, mad, impetuous love scene."
The company's Japanese production manager was kidnapped. This came about when they hired a restaurant for exterior shooting and the rival restaurant across the street objected to the crowds and the confusion. The competition abducted I Spy's liaison man. It was useless to go to the police because that section of the country was controlled by a kind of Japanese Mafia. Thousands of yen in ransom were paid to get the man back.
In Mexico there was a piscatorial calamity. The Mexican prop man brought a sailfish needed for a scene the next day. He kept it overnight on a line in the harbor while he stood guard on the wharf. When they hoisted up the sailfish in the morning, it was nothing but skin and bones. Other fish had been feasting on it all night long.
Twice they were hit by strikes. Roughly half the I Spy crew was recruited locally overseas. The Italian contingent struck in sympathy with an industry-wide strike of Italian motion-picture workers. American production manager Leon Chooluck had to double as a grip, and everybody else took a try at wardrobe, hairdressing, makeup and props. Old stuff for the I Spy guys.
The national image was at issue in Italy. When the company arrived at a Rome housing development to shoot a scene on the handsome spiral staircase there, an ad hoc committee of irate tenants demanded to read the script, which depicted an Italian housewife chasing her husband around brandishing a corset. They didn't relish having American TV audiences laughing at them. The location had to be changed. It cost them half a day.
The I Spyers weren't always too hip in matters of Japanese protocol. Formalities like "We respectfully request permission to park our miserable truck in front of your enchanting structure" baffled them. Once, having engaged dancers for a scene, the gaffer hit the light switch and nothing happened. Seems he had unwittingly offended the extremely polite janitor's helper. The helper padlocked the switch.
Then there's the dialog that had to be dubbed in, back in Hollywood, because the Chinese can't pronounce the word "iceberg"; for inscrutable Oriental reasons it always comes out "raspberry." Co-producer David Friedkin was directing a scene on the Hong Kong ferry in which Culp was to walk into the wheelhouse and playfully yank the whistle cord several times. The Chinese actor playing the captain was supposed to say: "Oh, that's very funny. You've just signaled: 'Four icebergs in Hong Kong Harbor.'" On the 10th take he was still saying: "Ho, that berry funny. You sinna for raspberry in Hong Kong Harbor." On the 11th take they gave up.
Actresses have a way of acting actressy, be it Hollywood or Florence, Italy. The company had three minutes to evacuate their chartered railroad car in Florence before an express train was due on the same track. Everybody, from director Bob Butler on down, was frantically shoving luggage and equipment out windows and doors. Where was guest-star Joey Heatherton, who had 15 pieces of luggage, a guitar and a portable record player which even at that moment was still playing? In the ladies' room with the door locked. They just barely got her out in time.
Guest star Leslie Uggams' clothes were far too chic for her role as a pastry cook on location in the Italian town of Frascati. The wardrobe man took to the streets, looking for a woman the same size as the actress. He bought the clothes right off the lady's back.
In Venice a singing gondolier was hired well in advance of the day of shooting, but when his scene came up he was too embarrassed to sing. The other gondoliers had started calling him "Beeng Crosby."
Don't talk to co-star Bill Cosby about Chinese superstition. In Hong Kong the script called for him to be shot down, suddenly revive and shoot the pursuing "heavy" dead. Unhappily Cosby had to fall with his face next to a big pig sty. Which made him doubly anxious to do the scene in one take. But the Chinese heavy wouldn't die a convincing death. On the first take he died with one leg sticking up in the air; on the second he kept whirling around and wouldn't fall dead; on the third he "died" in a sitting position. It took five takes for them to realize he thought cameras capture the soul. He was not about to simulate real death for fear it would come true.
Beset with the labyrinthine vicissitudes of international misadventure, the I Spy guys sailed through it all. And never more ingeniously than during the perplexing pickle they found themselves in when their Japanese crew rebelled against the 14-hour shooting days. Executive producer Sheldon Leonard offered more money -- no dice. Free living quarters -- no dice. Every other day off -- no dice. What finally put down the mutiny was his inspired offer of free baths with masseuses at the end of each day's work.
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