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TV Spies of the Cold War Era

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USA and USSR FlagDuring the 1980s with no end of the Cold War in sight, the CIA became alarmed at the number of Soviet spies working for the U.S. who were being arrested and executed. The U.S. network of informants within the USSR was rapidly being dismantled, severely damaging American intelligence gathering capabilities. It became apparent that the CIA had a mole who was compromising their efforts.

Based on the book Circle of Treason by former CIA agent Sandy Grimes, the ABC series The Assets dramatizes the events and investigation leading to the arrest of traitor Aldrich Ames. The show is a grim reminder that the dangers of espionage during the Cold War were very real despite the glamorous, exciting and humorous depiction of spies found in TV series of the era.

The Invisible Man (1958-1959) and (1975-1976)


There are actually two different series inspired by the H.G. Wells story, but both shows focus on a scientist unlocking the key to invisibility and entering the world of espionage. The Invisible Man of the 1958 U.K. series seems to have no issues with dutifully working for the British government.

However, the 1975 U.S. series is a product of the Vietnam era when mistrust of the military was a common theme, so the American Invisible Man tries to avoid the U.S. government for fear that the Army will learn the secret and put it to nefarious use. He opts instead to work for an unnamed secret organization.

Danger Man/Secret Agent (1960-1962, 1964-1966)


Patrick McGoohan is John Drake, a dashing but tough agent working on special assignments for NATO to save democracy from the Red Menace. The initial series had a brief run on British TV at the outset of the sixties but went back into production a few years later to capitalize on the success of the James Bond films. In addition to being retitled Secret Agent for U.S. broadcast, one of the greatest theme songs in the history of TV was added to the opening and closing credits – the rollicking top ten hit “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers. McGoohan would go on to star as The Prisoner.

The Avengers (1961-1969)


A stylish and witty show that epitomizes Swinging London of the sixties, The Avengers is also a pioneer of “girl power” by portraying a female action character as an equal to a male counterpart. Nattily attired with a bowler and umbrella, Patrick Macnee’s sophisticated John Steed is paired with several female partners over the course of the series (perhaps most famously with the leather catsuited Diana Rigg as Emma Peel) as they are sent on assignments by “The Ministry.” The series initially follows relatively conventional plotlines, but later episodes become quite outlandish and involve stories that seem better suited for the X-Files. Nevertheless, the repartee between The Avengers always remains razor sharp.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-1968)


Perhaps more that any other spy themed show of the era, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. symbolizes the real world struggle of the Cold War. The men of U.N.C.L.E. (there are actually two of them in most episodes – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin) are constantly trying to outwit their adversaries at THRUSH, but neither side is ever able to claim anything but minor victories. Just like the decades long tug of war between the superpowers, there is constant pulling without either side being able to gain superior footing. The popularity of the show spawned The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., but where the original series relies on compelling plots and smart banter, the spinoff resorts to campiness that makes it cartoonish.

Thunderbirds (1964-1966), Joe 90 (1968-1969), The Secret Service (1969-1969)


Producer/director Gerry Anderson created several shows in the sixties in which the characters work for secret international organizations, of which Thunderbirds is the most enduring. These series often contain elaborate sets, an extensive cast and an impressive array of vehicles. What is unique about these productions is that they feature lifelike puppets using a technique developed by Anderson known as supermarionation. With each subsequent series, the appearance and motions of the puppets become more realistic – making them much creepier and more likely to cause nightmares. Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park fame pay homage to Anderson’s supermarionation in the 2004 film Team America: World Police.

Get Smart (1965-1970)


From the opening credits that parody the Man from U.N.C.L.E., the Mel Brooks comedy Get Smart sets out to spoof all clichés of the spy genre. Instead of a suave agent who uses ingenious gadgets to foil adversaries, Don Adams stars as inept spy Maxwell Smart who uses items such as the clumsy “shoe phone” to bumble through missions only to find success through blind luck or the help of a more competent ally. The show is also notable for spawning a number of catch phrases such as “Would you believe…?” “Missed it by that much!” and “Sorry about that, Chief!”

The Saint (1963-1969)


The character of Simon Templer, a.k.a. the Saint, was created by author Leslie Charteris in 1928 and had appeared in books, radio shows, comics and films before Roger Moore came to portray him on television. Handsome and debonair, the Saint is a rakish rogue for hire who if often secretly employed by authorities who need help with a bit of international intrigue. Each episode begins with a cold open action scene at which point Templer is introduced and a halo forms above his head, followed by a credit sequence with his trademark saintly stick-figure. According to Bond lore, Ian Fleming had to settle for Sean Connery to bring 007 to the big screen when his first choice of Moore was unavailable due to his commitment to The Saint. Moore would of course takeover the role of Bond ten years later.

I Spy (1965-1968)


I Spy was a groundbreaking show featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as spies posing as a tennis pro and coach. When the show debuted in 1965, African-American actors were largely limited to appearances on variety and comedy shows. Producers took a chance by making Cosby, then already a popular stand-up comedian, the first African-American lead in an action series. Culp and Cosby tried to revive the clever tongue-in-cheek show in 1994, but were unable to recapture public interest. A 2002 big screen version starring Owen Wilson and Eddie Murphy opened to reviews that dismissed it as an “unnecessary and ill-conceived TV-to-movie spin-off.”

The Wild Wild West (1965-1969)


After being served a steady diet of Westerns such as Gunsmoke, Wagon Train and Have Gun – Will Travel since the fifties, U.S. television audience were increasingly developing a taste for something new, particularly the spy thrillers that were coming into vogue after the release of Dr. No in 1962. The Wild Wild West helped wean the public off the usual fare by placing Fleming-esque secret gadgets, femme fatales, and pithy one-liners in an 1870s setting. Jim West and Artemus Gordon find plenty of adventure as two agents tasked with sparing the U.S. and President Grant from scheming but undeniably colorful villains. Although panned by critics, a big budget 1999 movie version starring Will Smith that highlighted the “steampunk” aspects of the show was successful.

The Prisoner (1967-1968)


Patrick McGoohan is a secret agent who resigns from service but is then drugged and whisked away to “The Village.” There he is assigned the name Number Six and constantly interrogated as to why he quit. “The Village” seems to be a quaint seaside town, but is an inescapable prison patrolled by balloon-like drones that can track and absorb anyone who tries to leave. Throughout the run of the series, Number Six alternates between trying to escape, foiling the mind games of his captors and discovering the identity of Number One. The climatic final episode reveals… well, no one really knows for sure. The meaning of the bizarre conclusion is still a hotly debated topic among fans of the show. Along with The Avengers, The Prisoner provides a lot to the source material parodied by Mike Meyers in the Austin Powers films.

It Takes a Thief (1968-1970)


Robert Wagner is Alexander Mundy, a professional burglar with exquisite tastes and a yen for luxury. Sentenced to jail for his illicit activities, he receives a break when a covert U.S. spy agency recognizes that he has some useful skills. The agency will allow him get him out of prison if he works for them by stealing as needed. The agency then sponsors Mundy as he jets about the world and enjoys the life of an international playboy while completing his missions. His father (played by Fred Astaire) is also an accomplished thief, so they occasionally team up to negotiate better deals from the agency for their assignments.

Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (1970-1971)


Lancelot Link is a live action series exclusively featuring a cast of chimpanzees. Borrowing a technique from Mr. Ed, human actors dub voices over the mouth movements of chimps that are dressed in stereotypical cloak and dagger costumes. Link works for Agency to Prevent Evil (A.P.E.) to battle the henchmen of the Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld’s Master Plan (C.H.U.M.P.) and the evil mastermind Baron von Butcher. When not busy saving the world, Link dons his hippie outfit and plays guitar in The Evolution Revolution – a band that is well overdue for a reunion tour.

Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)


Although they may not realize it, people who have never seen the TV show are still familiar with the iconic opening sequence because of the countless tributes. Peter Graves as Jim Phelps receives instructions via a recorded message stating “your mission, should you choose to accept it” before the playback machine self-destructs. The show’s driving theme music then kicks in and we are off on another daring adventure. The TV show has always enjoyed a global audience, though the plots at times have been perceived by some international viewers as typifying U.S. foreign policy due to the number of missions that involve interfering in domestic affairs of other nations. The 1996 movie version and three sequels solidified Tom Cruise’s box office status.

The Sandbaggers (1978-1980)


Blazing shootouts. Thrilling car chases. Furious fistfights. Passionate love affairs. You will see none of these scenes in The Sandbaggers. The series takes a real world approach to the profession of espionage, meaning that the agents of the Secret Intelligence Service spend most episodes discussing cases and trying to work around bureaucracy. These agents cannot hide their disdain (or perhaps envy) for the high octane lives of their fictional counterparts. Spying is not the safest line of work so there are occasional casualties, but most incidents happen off screen. With the emphasis on dialogue over action, The Sandbaggers is considered “a thinking man’s” spy show.

Scarecrow and Mrs. King (1983-1987)


Former original Charlie’s Angel Kate Jackson plays a suburban divorced mother who gets caught up in a spy caper when agent “Scarecrow” randomly ditches a package with her during her daily commute. The thrill of the incident prompts her to begin a second career in espionage and she becomes Scarecrow’s professional partner. Following the standard formula, the two are obviously attracted to each other but can’t/won’t admit it and try to keep a wall between them until they finally begin a romantic relationship. The show devolves into routine spy missions that usually involve oddly yuppie enemy spies with questionable Russian accents.

  • TomD

    Pretty good synopsis.

    “During the 1980s with no end of the Cold War in site” should be “in sight”.
    Robert Wagner starred in It Takes a Thief, not Robert Conrad. Conrad starred in The Wild Wild West.

    • John Fedup

      Good catch.

  • waltermitty2012

    The Sandbaggers is an excellent choice and a highly under appreciated show. I liked how the lead Sandbagger eschewed guns and avoided violence when possible.

    But, if you’re going to include The Thunderbirds and Joe 90, I suggest adding UFO, also by Gerry Anderson. A sci-fi classic! But, it had a serious side, often dealing with mature themes, like adultery, drug abuse, and suicide.

    No list would be complete without MI:5 (Spooks in England). Set in the present, the show ran from 2002 to 2011. A brilliant cast that included Peter Firth, Nicola Walker, and Richard Armitage. The leads tended to die spectacularly (i.e., bombings, hanging, etc.) and show did take on a slight anti-American bent toward the end if its run. But, a great show nonetheless.