The Cold War may have been tense, but it gave me some great movies and television - so I guess all those billions and billions of dollars spent was worth it.
When I was a kid secret agents ruled supreme, and my favorites were James Bond (the granddaddy of them all), the saintly Simon Templar, John "Secret Agent" Drake, Avengers John Steed and Emma Peel (what precisely were they avenging?), Honey West and the Men from U.N.C.L.E. I knew about, but for some reason never became interested, in others: Harry Palmer, Matt Helm, the "I Spy" duo and Derek Flint. Maybe it was market saturation.
There was also prisoner Number Six - but more of him later.
I was nine in 1965, and the secret agent craze was going full tilt. We got Dad the heavily-advertised "007" cologne and after-shave gift set that Christmas to replace his usual Hai Karate. To my disappointment, splashing this stuff on didn't turn him into Sean Connery any more than the Hai Karate attracted hordes of admiring young women who had to be fought off using martial arts (as depicted in the commercials). Dad was still Dad, old and tired from work.
Being younger, I was another story. I had no difficulty in seeing myself as Bond, Steed, Solo or even Captain America, Batman or Captain James T. Kirk for that matter. Even better, I didn't need toiletries - just guns and spy gear. And Honey West or Emma Peel.
My friend Doug Minges and I found a place in some eucalyptus trees in the neighbor's yard that was hidden away; we turned this into our Secret Agent Club. ("S.A.C."; you don't want to be too obvious about these things...) It was our counterpart for U.N.C.L.E. I got an old radio chassis that I adapted into our shortwave receiver which kept us in touch with the Boss, a shadowy, "M"-like character. (We never found any other kid in the neighborhood with sufficient gravity to play the part, so we were like "Charlie's Angels," taking orders that imperiled life and limb from a complete stranger.)
From our S.A.C. facility we would go out and, with the aid of special spy cameras and surveillance equipment made of Lego blocks, kept watch on the local girls and whomever else interested us. Needless to say we were armed to the teeth, thanks to an obliging toy industry and the almost complete absence of gun fear from the general public. (The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were a few years off.)
James Bond: "Thunderball" was released at the very end of 1965, and I think Doug and I must have seen it seven or eight times. It certainly fueled a lot of our swimming pool play during the summer, when we'd happily take our guns and equipment underwater to fight off the hired minions of SPECTRE. (A major interruption was in having to come up for air. Bond could afford scuba gear but we couldn't.) James Bond was the major spy during the craze years, and presented a generation of American boys with a substantial problem: how to be like him in an environment where this was clearly impossible (school).
My friends and I were always perplexed about how we were supposed to reenact James Bond's relationships with all those beautiful women. First of all, we weren't entirely certain what he was doing with them, and secondly, none of the ten year-old girls at school looked remotely like Bond Girls. Instinctively, however, I reasoned that when they did, we would figure out what to do with them. I also suspected that Bond's habit of slapping girls on their behinds was a poor way to make introductions, and probably wouldn't work for me personally.
Friday nights represented the welcome end of another weary week with Miss Johnson and school, and the freedom of the weekend. As I recall, it was also a dynamite night of television: the Man from U.N.C.L.E., Honey West and the Avengers were broadcast on Fridays.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: For some reason I associated myself with Napoleon Solo more than Illia Kuryakin, despite the fact that Kuryakin seemed to be more popular. (I also admired Captain Kirk more than the more popular Mr. Spock.) But while the Man from U.N.C.L.E. was campy, fun and occasionally interesting, it didn't capture my imagination the way James Bond did; the difference in production budgets, I guess.
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.: I couldn't be less interested.
The Avengers: I loved the Avengers and had a major crush on Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). That flip! That leather! That cool, unruffled demeanor! That.. that... je ne sais quoi. When the show's producers introduced the character they came up with the name Emma Peel from "m-appeal" (male appeal) - their prediction couldn't have been more right. I suspect many men my age still harbor a secret affection for this character. Certainly this spy show was classy and different, from that unforgettable and catchy theme music and opening sequence to the wit and light-heartedness of the writing - not to mention the utter Britishness of it all. When I watch the videos nowadays, it has worn well with time. Especially the episode with "the Hellfire Club," when Mrs. Peel dressed herself up as "the Queen of Sin."
Is it getting warm in here?
The Saint: The other spy I enjoyed was Simon Templar. The Saint was another show with classy overtones: the Volvo P1800, the stick figure (which I used to draw endlessly), the halo gimmick that led into the opening theme and credits. (When "That Girl" came on about the same time I was incensed that the opening of her show, where Marlo Thomas is recognized by somebody, was a direct rip-off of the Saint.) In a fit of creativity I devised an organization that was sort of like U.N.C.L.E. that Simon Templar could operate from: "S.A.I.N.T.": Secret Agents In NATO Terrorism. The fact that it was an acronym within an acronym or that it sounded like an organization for the bad guys, didn't concern me. I was satisfied in coming up with something clever for the letters s, a, i, n and t. S.A.I.N.T.'s headquarters could be found under the wooden deck of our above-ground pool. (Click here for a photo.) I drew up an impressive logo with Marks-a-Lot markers that one could see upon entering; S.A.I.N.T.'s primary activity was spying on people in the pool using a Sooper Snooper periscope while trying to keep one's legs from stiffening up from crouching.
Anyway, back to the Saint. When Roger Moore became James Bond in 1973, all I could associate with him was spying on swimmers. No way. For me, there is only one James Bond: Sean Connery.
The Wild, Wild West: A clever show; a mix of Western, spies and film noir genres. There were always darkened streets, shadows and mystery in addition to the spy gadgetry. For some reason I didn't watch a lot of it as a kid, however. I got to really appreciate it in reruns as a teenager.
Mission Impossible: I watched it occasionally but didn't really like it. The formula in this one was too obvious for me, I guess. After awhile it was always obvious that the missions would succeed after a red herring glitch of some sort that was always overcome. Another thing that didn't help was my father pointing out the laughably bogus Eastern European or Balkan trappings of the foreign nations being operated against. (The soldiers - usually named "Miklos" - always wore khaki uniforms with red trim, and "gas" was invariably spelled "gaz" on warning signs. Sheesh.)
Get Smart: I didn't like this series because I didn't appreciate adults making fun of my interests. (I was also disappointed with the campiness of the Batman series.) And I thought Barbara Feldon - a poor man's Diana Rigg - deserved no credibility for always thowing herself at an obvious zero like Maxwell Smart. In the schoolyard, however, we spies adopted numbers of our own in imitation of the "86" and "99" lead characters in this show. I forget what my number was.
The Prisoner: The spy that has aged the best thoughout the years was one who did very little spying at all. In fact, the entire motivation for the televised series was that he resigned from the secret agent field! I am, of course, talking about Number Six, "the Prisoner," which starred Patrick McGoohan. When I was a kid I found it eerie, offbeat and a bit frightening - and a welcome variation on the spy theme. I recognized it then as a thinking man's James Bond; a series that made statements about personal liberty and the clash between the individual and the community. Watching the episodes nowadays I am struck by how far ahead of its time it was and how thoroughly moral the fellow was. (This was intentional. As a father of daughters, Patrick McGoohan wanted to portray a character entirely unlike James Bond.)
There was also real mystery to the character of Number Six, unlike with James Bond who, after all, gave his real name to anyone who asked in a most un-spylike fashion. Why did Number Six resign? We never found out. Was he really Number One? Was the Prisoner a continuation of McGoohan's portrayal of John Drake in his prior series Secret Agent? We still don't know - and that's as it should be. The Prisoner is still a favorite with me; I have all the episodes on videotape.
By the time 1967 and the Prisoner rolled along, however, I was pretty much disenchanted with spies and became interested instead in super heroes, who had a huge supporting comic book infrastructure. Besides, after spies, super heroes - especially Batman - was America's next big craze.
After all, for a boy there were impossible limitations in the adult world of secret agents. All those women. The sex. All that cold-bloodedness and ruthless killing (at least as depicted in the Bond films)... it didn't entirely make sense and presented even more mysteries about the world of adults.
It's probably a good thing that I couldn't look ahead into my contact with real covert operatives, or I would have been even more disenchanted. After graduating from college (and perhaps subconsciously motivated from my youth), I took an electrical engineering position with the (then) supersecret National Security Agency (N.S.A.), where I had contact with real operatives and agents. In fact, I worked in something like Bond's "Q" branch! Most operatives were as unlike James Bond as could be imagined. They were usually bearded introverts, with easily-forgotten facial features who dressed in sweat shirts and pants to blend in with the crowd. Some of them were computer nerds, and some had ignominious nicknames like "Biff the Wonder Frog." Did these people carry pistols emblazoned with the Man from U.N.C.L.E. or 007 logo, play high stakes baccarat, or sweep women off their feet with a roguish gaze? Certainly not.
It is ironic that, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I had only to look at home for what I was searching for, a real contact with the world of spies. Dad worked at the Skunk Works at Lockheed in Burbank, where the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird spy planes were built. (True, he was only a maintenance painter, but he did work there.) After his death I found his security clearance paperwork; as a child I never suspected this from the man who had such disappointing results with the 007 cologne and after-shave.
Now that the Cold War is over and my covert services are no longer needed, my extensive secret agent weapon armory can be safely disclosed.
Mattel's Agent Zero M Radio Rifle (1965). I don't care how many of these things Mattel sold to other kids, it can now be revealed that I, Wesley H. Clark, Jr., was in fact the legendary Agent Zero M. (And Napoleon Solo, and James Bond, etc.) What invariably blew my cover, however, was that hokey Agent Zero M logo on the dial. And the fact that the radio didn't play.
Mattel's Agent Zero M Camera Pistol (1965). I had this, too.
Mattel's Agent Zero M Pocket Knife Pistol (1965). And this. (One couldn't be too heavily armed in the spy trade.)
Mattel's Agent Zero M Sonic Blaster (1966). As I recall, this was basically a thick cardboard tubular affair that produced a sort of a loud "Whump!" Consumer Reports assessed it thus: "The Mattel Agent Zero M Sonic Blaster 5530 fires compressed air with a deafening blast. Our measurements top out at 157 dB - above a level that can do permanent damage to the hearing of an adult. We rate the toy Not Acceptable." (Spoil sports.) In truth, I wasn't real excited with it, either, but it had nothing to do with the fact that it could rupture an eardrum.
Topper's Multi-Pistol 09 Set (1965). The complexity, miniaturization and flexibility of this toy ensured constant service during my spy activities on the block. I could do without the clear plastic briefcase, however. (Geez, didn't these manufacturers have a clue about covert operations?) And I would have liked a heftier spring for that armor-piercing rocket.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. pistol by Ideal (1965). The cap pistol had a sleek, modern look to it I admired, and I thought the holster was especially attractive as well. The pistol could be turned into a rifle, with scope. Ideal thoughtfully included a membership card - countersigned by Solo and Kuryakin - with the pistol, in case there were any questions from federal authorities about one's need to bear this impressive weapon. What I liked the best, however, was the yellow triangular U.N.C.L.E. badge. One day a bunch of us fourth-graders decided to wear ours to school.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. THRUSH gun by Ideal (1965). What was cool about this was the fact that you could dial up targets that appeared in that huge telescopic sight. As I recall, they were in red, indicating an infrared sight. Anyway, there was a tank, a person (!) and various other objects. Could you imagine such a thing nowadays?
Lone Star's James Bond Cap Pistol with Silencer (1964). I had as much of the plastic Bond gear as I could get my parents to bankroll. (And seeing as how I was an only child, that was a lot.)
Multiple Products' James Bond 007 Attaché Case (1965). The ultimate James Bond toy, short of actually owning an Aston-Martin. Here's another image.
007 Snorkel-Blaster and Pistol Grip by Voit (1965). The 007 snorkel-blaster - which doubled as a squirt gun - was an invaluable aid in defeating SPECTRE agents in the backyard pool. (It wasn't very effective underwater, however.) I also built up my steely grip by flexing the pistol grip; but it was much more effective when thrown at somebody. I considered buying the James Bond Body Builder, but figured my pecs were appropriately-sized for a ten year old.
Secret Sam Attaché Case (c. 1965). As I recall, when the gun was fit into the case it fired a round out the side by pressing a button in the handle. Execution, clean and easy, and a distinct advantage over the James Bond attache case. The only problem is, why would a kid walk around with an attache case? It's not like the transportation of files are necessary in distributing newspapers, or picking up bottles from a vacant lot for deposit money.
Multiple Products' James Bond 007 Codebook (1965). I remember in class one day one kid handed another kid the Bond Codebook, which fired a Greenie Stick-um if the slide wasn't moved into "disable" position. When the cap went off, every boy in the class quickly identified the one dorky male who wasn't aware of the feature. I had one problem with this toy: How accurately could one portray a secret agent with something like "Secret Agent 007" written on the codebook?
The Multiple Products James Bond 007 Luger (1965). Did he carry a Luger in the movies? Of course not. He used a Walther PPK, or a Baretta. But I dearly treasured this pistol. It fit snugly into the attaché case. Here it is assembled.
The Multiple Products James Bond gun (c. 1965). I barely recall this one, and am sure I didn't own it. (I wouldn't want it!)
Topper's Sixfinger (1965). "Sixfinger!/Sixfinger!/Man alive!/How did I ever get along with five?" How indeed? Actually, while I had one of these and recognized it was intended as spy gear, I must have decided that I didn't want to be a mutant, six-fingered secret agent because I don't recall getting a lot of play value out of this. Of course, the kids on my block who owned these didn't wear them as modeled by the kid on the package, but wore them as an extended (but cap-firing) middle digit. (And it could be that an entire generation of proctologists got their start with Sixfinger.)
Sooper Snooper by Marx (c. 1965). A favorite toy and part of my spy gear. I used to go under the deck next to our above-ground pool and make this thing emerge to spy on swimmers. It was also handy to use looking down alleys without exposing oneself. The little lever on the bottom made it possible to look to the sides, but it was the periscope functionality I liked the best.
More great Sixties toys can be found here.