Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Deadly Sweethearts Of Disaster

A MAN CALLED SLOANE was created by writer Cliff Gould (THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO) as a light spy adventure like the James Bond movies. The original pilot, titled T.R. SLOANE, starred Robert Logan (77 SUNSET STRIP) as Thomas Remington Sloane, an agent of UNIT battling a megalomaniac who plans to cause havoc with a massive death ray. The villain’s henchman was Torque (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a 6’5” man with a mechanical hand who was clearly modeled after Richard Kiel’s Jaws character in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME.

NBC liked the idea and the Torque character, but not Logan, sending Gould and executive producer Philip Saltzman on a hunt for a new leading man. NBC exec Fred Silverman Silverman suggested Robert Conrad, one of television’s all-time most popular stars, who had hit it big in the 1950s on HAWAIIAN EYE and in the ‘60s on THE WILD WILD WEST. Conrad was ubiquitous during the 1970s, starring in several shortlived adventure series like THE D.A., ASSIGNMENT: VIENNA, and BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP, as well as a ton of TV-movies and pilots. Saltzman reportedly argued that Conrad couldn’t possibly do A MAN CALLED SLOANE, because he was already starring as an ex-boxer in the NBC series THE DUKE. “No problem,” replied Silverman, “I’ll just cancel THE DUKE.” He did, and Conrad became Thomas Remington Sloane.

A MAN CALLED SLOANE was the first television series produced by Quinn Martin Productions after Martin sold his company to Taft Broadcasting. Martin was one of television’s great producers, shepherding successful shows like THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE FUGITIVE, THE F.B.I., BARNABY JONES, and THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO. Part of Martin’s deal with Taft, however, was that he had to relinquish hands-on involvement with QM shows, and SLOANE likely suffered as a result of his absence.

Thomas Sloane worked for a government agency called UNIT, which was based out of the back room of a Los Angeles toy store. There he and Torque, now a UNIT agent and Sloane’s sidekick, took orders from The Director (Dan O’Herlihy, held over from the unaired pilot movie) and used gadgetry designed by cute lab assistant Kelly (Karen Purcill). They also received constant field information and advice from “Effie”, a talking computer with the voice of Michele Carey (Elvis’ leading lady in LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE).

Like Conrad’s previous series, THE WILD WILD WEST, Sloane tackled a wide range of kinky baddies, including Roddy McDowall as a terrorist with a robot army, Robert Culp as a cosmetics entrepreneur plotting to take over the world by sending out gorgeous models to murder prominent men with their “kisses of death”, Richard Lynch as a master of disguise, and Dennis Cole as a 100-year-old Nazi meddling with cloning. Nearly every episode featured at least one prominent guest star--Eric Braeden, Edie Adams, Monte Markham, Clive Revill (the villain in T.R. SLOANE), Michael Pataki--as well as several sexy women for Conrad to canoodle with. Jo Ann Harris, the striking star of the Quinn Martin series MOST WANTED, appeared in the final episode, “The Shangri-La Syndrome,” which was directed by Conrad and is probably SLOANE’s weakest hour.

It was all pretty silly, of course, but definitely watchable. Conrad’s physicality led to plenty of nifty stunts, chases and fights, and QM spared few expenses in whittling together colorful if cliched plots, sets, guest stars and location shootings. The camera loved Cumbuka, who purportedly didn’t get along with Conrad, but was certainly a striking figure blessed with the neat gimmick of a steel hand that could wield various tools and weapons like a radio transmitter, laser, saw, drill or screwdriver. Some felt Conrad, a rugged man of action, was miscast as a suave secret agent, but I think he’s just fine and has pretty good rapport with Cumbuka.

A MAN CALLED SLOANE began the 1979 fall season with decent ratings, knocking CBS’ PARIS, a Steven Bochco cop show starring James Earl Jones, off the air and spurring ABC to shift HART TO HART to another night. But when ABC shifted FANTASY ISLAND from Friday to anchor its hit Saturday lineup, which included THE LOVE BOAT, SLOANE’s number was up. NBC cancelled the series after just twelve episodes. Conrad continued to star regularly in TV-movies throughout the 1980s, although he may be as quickly remembered today for his notorious temper tantrum on the first BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS, which led to him getting smoked in a 100-yard dash by none other than Gabriel Kaplan!

By the way, NBC eventually dusted off that T.R. SLOANE pilot and aired it in 1981, more than a year after A MAN CALLED SLOANE’s cancellation, as DEATH RAY 2000. This young 13-year-old couldn’t have been the only viewer that night who was confused to see Robert Logan in Conrad’s old role opposite Dan O’Herlihy…and Torque as the heavy!


Christopher Mills said...

Great post. I did an episode-by-episode retrospective of Sloane on my old Spy-Fi blog:

Will said...

To this day I swear that the only reason Robert Conrad kept getting shows was that NBC needed him as team captain for The Battle of The Network Stars

hobbyfan said...

Man, I wish this was out on DVD. I watched a few eps, and a little stunned seeing a fancy logo for QM debuting with Sloane, a clear signal of the Taft takeover (Taft also owned Hanna-Barbera at the same time).

Anonymous said...


You can get the whole show on DVD-R - quality is OK but it's probably the best you'll ever get as this is probably never getting a commercial release, sadly.

Zokko said...

Great post. Thanks.

I live in Britain and here we got the pilot ahead of the series, meaning we were equally confused by the change in leading man and the fact that Torque was now a hero!

Grant said...

I saw the pilot you mention a while back on YouTube, and as far as I know it's still there (I'm not sure about the series).
Robert Logan is a likeable actor, but it made sense that they went with Robert Conrad and his "physicality." As for "suave," he can manage that too. If you've ever seen his COLUMBO episode, he's very believable as someone who can "seduce" a lot of people, not just in the usual sense but as a businessman.

Benzadmiral said...

What I, as a big fan of "Man from U.N.C.L.E.," found annoying about "Sloane" was that he and his partner continually outmaneuvered and ran rings around their boss. Clearly they had no respect for him at all -- so why should we? In contrast, Leo G. Carroll's Mr. Waverly on MfU was The Boss; what he said *went,* and his men respected him and would risk anything for him.

Grant said...

As if to add to the confusion you mention about "DEATH RAY 2000," there's a pilot from around ' 79 that at least SEEMS to be part of this same idea, called BILLION DOLLAR THREAT, with yet another actor.

I wish I could see that episode about the villain and his army of female assassins. Thanks to tongue-in-cheek stories like SOME GIRLS DO, and all-out comedies like DR. GOLDFOOT, I have a real attachment to those.