Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spying, Anyone?

I am a huge I SPY fan, so I came into the Popular Library series of tie-in paperbacks with some reservations. I have owned several of the seven published I SPY novels for many years, but I don't think I ever read them all, and I didn't remember anything about the books I did read. The first novel, simply titled I SPY, is, of course, based on the popular television series that starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as free-wheeling U.S. secret agents Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, respectively.

Groundbreaking in its use of foreign location shooting, heavily improvised dialogue, and a black leading man—Cosby was the first Negro to share top billing on a network television drama—I SPY debuted in 1965 on NBC. Partially inspired by the James Bond movies and the many, many films and television shows it influenced, I SPY was anti-Bond in many ways. No fantastic gadgetry, no madmen plotting to rule the world from their palatial underground bunkers, no camp of any kind.

There was humor, of course, which is mainly why the show is remembered so fondly today. The bond that quickly developed between Cosby and Culp remains unsurpassed among television actors, in that they not only became very close personal friends, but also soulmates of a sort that became able to complete each other's sentences. Cosby's sense of humor rubbed off on Culp, and the more experienced actor's dedication to his craft definitely influenced Cos, who picked up three consecutive Emmys as Scott. Writers were often infuriated that the two men would change their dialogue and hopelessly ad-lib inside jokes between gun battles, but it's hard to deny that Culp's and Cosby's heavy influence on the show's writing improved the episodes immensely.

One thing that author John Tiger gets right about the show in his I SPY novel is the dialogue. No, it isn't as funny or as quick as the stuff Culp and Cosby were coming up with on the set, but the tone of the dialogue and the relationship between Scotty and Kelly feels right. When the novel was published in 1965, the series had just barely been on the air, so Tiger may not have been very familiar with the series at that point. He certainly takes a few liberties with the TV show's premise, though I wouldn't say they're dramatically costly.

Tiger states expressly that Scott and Robinson work for the CIA and specifically for a man known to them as Mars. This was not acknowledged in the series, nor did they have a codename: Domino. The plot is more epic than any episode, pitting the two spies against an international cartel called Force One, which plots to start World War III by planting nerve gas inside all of the Pentagon's fire extinguishers! After detonation, the U.S. government will blame the Soviets, leading to both sides wiping the other out, and the men of Force One stepping up to rule the new world.

Briskly paced at 142 pages, I SPY should be a good read for fans of '60s espionage, if not the TV show. Tiger also works in a few non-offensive jokes about Scott's skin color in his and Robinson's dialogue, which is a switch from the episodes, in which Bill Cosby's race was barely ever mentioned. Wisely, it was decided to just let Scotty be Scotty—not a black man, but a man who was just as tough, just as smart, just as clever—if not more so—than his white best friend and co-star.

I haven't mentioned it yet, but John Tiger was the pen name of noted author Walter Wager, who wrote, among other things, the novel TELEFON and an episode of ROSETTI AND RYAN.

1 comment:

Bill Crider said...

One of Wager's novels was the basis for the second Die Hard movie, I believe.