Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Obit: Robert Culp, R.I.P

Well, shit. Just ten days after the passing of Mission: Impossible's Peter Graves, we have the loss of another great Sixties spy-fi star, Robert Culp, who played American agent Kelly Robinson on I Spy (1965-68). Not only did he co-star with Bill Cosby on the show, but he was instrumental in its creation, and wrote seven of its finest episodes. He also directed one. Perhaps most memorably, in the episode "The War Lord," which he wrote, he played dual roles: Robinson and a ruthless but philosophical Asian criminal. It's a fantastic performance, and the script is phenomenal.

I first actually encountered Mr. Culp when I was a teenager watching the Stephen Cannell series, The Greatest American Hero (1981-86). Culp played FBI agent Bill Maxwell, a gloriously gung-ho Conservative forced to work with a goofball, Liberal schoolteacher with a super-suit. Not only was he incredibly funny, he gave the potentially cartoonish character great dignity and strength of character. I was a fan from the first episode. Later, I discovered reruns of I Spy on cable, and was immediately enamored of the superior writing, chemistry between the leads, and global scope of the series.

Culp made many other excursions into the spy-fi genre. Aside from reprising the Robinson role in a 1994 TV reunion movie, he played a great (and surprisingly sympathetic) villain in a first season Man from U.N.C.LE. episode, had a hilarious cameo in the Get Smart parody of I Spy, appeared on A Man Called Sloane and the short-lived 90s series Spy Game, and hosted the Comedy Central special Spyography (parodying Peter Graves!) to promote the second Austin Powers film.

The IMDb lists over 160 acting credits for the man, who was a prolific guest star on series television from the 50s through the 90s, as well as an in-demand character actor in features. He was justly praised for his starring role in the classic Outer Limits episode, "Demon With A Glass Hand," written by Harlan Ellison. One of my favorite, virtually forgotten, Culp roles was as the lead in Gene Roddenberry's unsold TV pilot, Spectre (1977), where he played a Holmesian occult investigator. I also loved him in Hickey & Boggs (1972), the feature film he wrote and directed for himself and Cosby. It's another nearly-forgotten film, and that's a shame, because it's a great crime flick.

Rest well, Mister Culp. And thanks.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: SCARECROW & MRS. KING S1 DVD

Back in the Eighties, I never watched Scarecrow And Mrs. King (1983-1987). Even though I dug spies and adventure stories, and had enjoyed star Bruce Boxleitner in TRON and his short-lived Bring 'Em Back Alive series (which aired the season before Scarecrow premiered), as a teenager/young adult, I simply had no interest in watching some "old" housewife with kids as the female lead in such a show. In fact, I'd always thought of actress Kate Jackson as the somewhat plain Charlie's Angel that was just on the show to emphasize how beautiful Jacquelyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd were in contrast.

But you know, I wasn't really the audience for this series.

For nearly half the decade, Scarecrow And Mrs. King chronicled the adventures of American secret agent Lee Stetson (great 80s name!), codename "Scarecrow," ('natch) and his untrained - but gutsy and spunky - divorcee partner, Amanda King, as they worked to preserve national security from KGB Commies and other nefarious organizations and individuals.

Back in the Sixties, the early episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. almost always had a pretty civilian woman - usually a housewife - caught up in the espionage caper of the week, and she had to help the heroic secret agent heroes complete that particular mission. The idea behind this was that the women watching at home would identify with these "innocent" characters, and enjoy fantasizing about what they'd do if they were swept off their feet by a handsome stranger and into a glamorous world of danger and adventure for a while. What the producers of Scarecrow did was simply take that formula and build the entire show on it, and instead of bringing in a new woman every week, they'd actually make that "identification character" the star.

And it must have worked, because the show ran four seasons, and was extremely popular among female viewers. Understandable, I guess, because, at least in the first season episodes just released by Warner Brothers on DVD, suburban single mom Mrs. King seems to be a lot smarter and more capable than Boxlietner's so-called professional spy. Scarecrow has a suspicious tendency to keep getting captured by bad guys and thus need rescuing by his civilian partner. He also seems to keep missing huge, sometimes obvious clues that Mrs. King always catches pretty easily.

The show itself is pretty standard Eighties escapist fare, with non-taxing plots, likable leads, familiar guest stars, lots of amusing fashion and hairstyling disasters, and a light, amiable tone. I do find the theme music to be insidiously annoying, though. Boxleitner is solid in his role, and Jackson is both more attractive and less irritating than I remembered. TV and B-movie veteran Beverly Garland (It Conquered The World, Not Of This Earth), co-stars as Mrs. King's mom, Dotty.

Warner Brothers has brought the first season of Scarecrow And Mrs. King to DVD in a perfectly satisfactory, if bare-bones, 5-disc, 21 episode set. The full-frame, 1.33:1 transfers are rock solid and in good shape for a nearly 30 year-old show. Audio is a clear, crisp Dolby Digital mono. There are no extra features.

If you are - or someone you know is - a fan of the show, Warners' DVD set is fine, reasonably-priced, and would make a worthy addition to your spy-fi video library.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Japanese Spy-Fi Poster Week, Day Five

The Japanese one-sheet for 1965's Thunderball. Again, I find the composition of the montage and the graphic design very appealing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Japanese Spy-Fi Poster Week, Day Four

The Japanese one-sheet for the second James Coburn Derek Flint film, In Like Flint, uses a variation on the original U.S. art (although apparently re-painted) , but adds into the montage some new artwork for a nicely appealing design. These posters are so cool.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Japanese Spy-Fi Poster Week, Day 3

Today we've got the Japanese poster for 1967's Fathom, starring Raquel Welch. Pretty much every poster for this film is awesome, but how could they not be, with a bikini-clad Raquel as the central image on all of 'em?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Japanese Spy-Fi Poster Week: Day 2

I think this may be my absolute favorite poster for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The photo montage is nicely balanced, and the central image of Lazenby with the gun is a bit different from the usual 007 portrait. Of course, they were probably trying to hide his face so the audience wouldn't know a different actor was playing James Bond - Connery was friggin' huge in Japan - but I like it anyhow.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Obit: Peter Graves, R.I.P.

Peter Graves, who joined the cast of Mission: Impossible in its second year as mastermind Jim Phelps, passed away today at his home in California, just a few days shy of his 84th birthday.

As Phelps, the actor became a television (and spy-fi) icon, his rugged good looks, shocking white hair, earnest demeanor and resonant, amiable voice instantly identifiable to millions. He reprised the role from 1988 to 1990 in an updated revival of the series and parodied the character in the Hong Kong spy spoof Mad Mission III: Our Man From Bond Street.

The brother of Gunsmoke's James Arness, Graves had a long career in motion pictures and television, working for directors as varied as Billy Wilder and Bert I. Gordon. He made guest appearances on many television shows, and was the host of A&E's Biography from 1994 to 2006. Just yesterday, I was visiting my parents for few minutes, and saw him in a rerun of the police procedural Cold Case that happened to be playing on TV.

As I've said before, I first became exposed to Mission: Impossible with its 80's revival, but ever since then, I've been a great admirer of Mr. Graves. Now that I have all of the original seasons of M:I on DVD, I appreciate even more what he brought to the show and spy-fi genre.

Good evening, Mister Phelps. Rest well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Japanese Spy-Fi Poster Week, Day 1

While you patiently wait for me to get my act together and start posting here regularly again, I hope you enjoy looking at the lovely Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise.

Man, the Japanese posters for 60s spy-fi films are so cool. In fact, I think I'll scrounge up and post a few more....

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Intel: IF LOOKS COULD KILL Available on DVD from Warners Archive

The 1991 spy-fi spoof, If Looks Could Kill (a/k/a Teen Agent) starring Richard Grieco, Burn Notices's Gabrielle Anwar and Linda Hunt, is finally available on DVD, albeit from Warner Archive, Warner Brothers' "manufacture-on-demand" service.

According to their website, this high quality DVD-R is presented in full-frame (same as the old VHS) release, and has no extra features.

It's a fun spoof of the 007 series, with a number of cool action set-pieces of its own. I don't much care for Grieco, but the rest of the cast is quite good, and the villain's plot is pretty cool.

I transferred my own VHS copy to DVD-R a while back, but I have to assume that this Warner Archive transfer is probably a lot sharper. To bad it's not in widescreen, though I'm not absolutely certain what the correct theatrical aspect ratio should be. I'm tempted to order it, but there are a lot of other titles in the WA collection I'd want to get first (like the Lex Barker and Gordon Scott Tarzans).

The retail price is $19.95 and it is only available through the Warner online store.