Spies on Television & Radio ~
Uncovering I Spy
– An Interview with Marc Cushman, Author of the First
Full-Length History of a Classic Series
By Wesley Britton
Long before the advent of the internet and the growth of
fan-based websites, those nostalgic for the classic TV spy shows
of the 1960s had many reminders of the series that brought the
James Bond phenomena into our living rooms.
During the 1980s, in particular, we got fanzines, magazine
episode guides, reunion TV movies, and many books that gave us
behind the scenes histories of the creation and development of the
hits of the Baby Boom generation. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,
The Saint, Mission: Impossible, and The
Wild Wild West each got one in-depth look into the background
of these landmark shows. Get Smart got two. The
Avengers and The Prisoner each have been
discussed in a parade of books that have analyzed and shared
insights into the production, casting, and evolution of the series that
helped shape a genre.
When I began research for my Spy Television
(Praeger Publishers, 2004), I had all these resources to draw from
for my chapters on these shows. There was one exception –
It seemed a strange omission. When Robert Culp and Bill Cosby
brought Sheldon Leonard’s creation to life on NBC in 1965,
they were part of one of the most important series in TV history. I
devoted considerable space to this breakthrough show and pointed
to the fact it was the most neglected subject in published accounts
of the 1960s. Of course, I wasn’t alone feeling this way.
In January of 2007, this neglect was corrected in I Spy:
A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking Television
Series by Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa, both insiders
in TV scriptwriting and production. For all spy buffs, this long overdue
arrival should be something special, so I decided to ask Marc
Cushman how his project came about and what readers should
Here are his answers ~
Q – What is your background in writing
TV scripts? Did this influence you in writing your I Spy
My background did influence my approach to researching and
writing this book. I know TV production. I have many more credits
than IMDb.com shows. I’ve made a good living at writing
and directing for over 15 years now, and have sold over 100 scripts,
and have directed over 100 movies or TV shows, as well, under an
assortment of different names. So I know what goes into making a
TV show, and what can go wrong, and how special it is when
something goes right.
I’ve been writing since the 1970s. I sold numerous
scripts, starting in the late ‘70s and through the late
‘80s, to cable – in the day when cable was just
getting started. I sold scripts to Star Trek: The Next
Generation,Diagnosis: Murder, Beyond
Belief: Fact or Fiction, and any other show with a colon
in the title. Did some small movies, too. Midnight
Confessions and Teresa’s Tattoo
come to mind. I co-wrote and co-directed the latest version of
The Story of O for a French company that owned
the rights (and owned the original movie from the mid 1970s),
and so on.
Q – Why did you decide to do a
book on I Spy?
I loved the show and I wanted to read a book about it –
but no one had written one. I always wondered what went into
making that show, with that crazy design Sheldon Leonard had
for shooting one-third of each episode overseas and two-thirds in
Hollywood (to allow for “big TV Guest Stars”).
How the hell did he do it? And why did the show go off the air
after only three seasons? It was a huge hit. I remember that.
There were so many unanswered questions for me. Plus I
knew it was an important show, being that it was the first series
to put a Black and a White together, and travel the world, and it
was the first instance of “the buddy genre” that
I knew of. So why no book?
Then I heard Robert Culp say the same thing in an interview.
He and Bill would often talk and wonder why no one had written
a book about I Spy. Light bulb. I decided that if no
one else was going to do it, I would. This was a tough decision,
because it meant putting my script writing and directing work
on hold for more than a year. But I was determined . . . or, maybe
“obsessed” is a better word.
Q – Back in the 1980s, nearly every
other classic spy series was covered in at least one book-length
overview. Why not I Spy?
I think the reason I Spy was passed over, and
somewhat forgotten, is there were not enough episodes for it to
have a longer life in syndication. And it was too real for many
people’s taste – meaning, despite the hit status
it had when it first appeared, it was too complex for people who
wanted to escape into their TV's and not be challenged. You
didn’t know what you were going to get from I
Spy. One episode would be funny, another terribly dark,
another pro-American, another seeming to be criticizing U.S.
I believe the average I Spy fan to be very
intelligent and worldly – and that doesn’t
necessarily describe the masses who would rather tune in a
Dukes of Hazard rerun. So the show disappeared.
And people don’t put their lives on hold to write books
about things that disappear – unless they’re
crazy like me and my partner, Linda LaRosa. But this show is
TV history – and very important history. We had to do
Q – I gather you met with a number
of participants – which were most helpful and
Robert Culp is number one on the list of who was most helpful.
He gave us twenty plus hours of interviews, stacks of pictures, and
connected us to Bill Cosby. And Robert really opened up, too. He
shared parts of himself and relived things from his life, and from the
life of I Spy, that he probably didn’t really want
to. But he felt it important to give 100%. His ethics are amazing.
Again, read the book and see what he did for I Spy
and for Bill Cosby and for you and me, because what he did, and
what he sacrificed to do, helped to change TV and the world. He
never takes the easy way out.
Ronald Jacobs, one of the series producers, was an immense
help, too. He is the one who stored all the files from the show,
containing scripts, ratings reports, censorship reports, fan letters,
Western Union cables from every hell hole on earth, and so much
Bill got us in with Calvin Brown, who was his stuntman –
and, more so, the first Black stuntman on TV. His stories were
quite eye-opening, too. The families of I Spy
producers Mort Fine and David Friedkin were of great help, as
was Sheldon Leonard’s daughter, Andrea, as were many
of the show’s directors and writers, and technicians.
People like Mark Rydell and Richard Sarafian, Ernest Frankel,
Michael Zagor, Steven Kandel, Barry Orringer, Michael Preece,
and so many others. Ruth Englehardt and Norman Brokaw of the
William Morris Agency were instrumental, as well. They were the
ones who helped us to get the rights to use all the pictures, and
we have over 200.
Q – Any thoughts on the TV reunion
movie or the Owen Wilson comedy?
Many thoughts. And Cosby and Culp have many thoughts
too. Both were sad endings to an otherwise great story,
although they make for very dramatic copy in our book. There
was supposed to be an I Spy feature film for Warner
Brothers before the TV reunion movie. Culp wrote the script. But
the deal collapsed as the budget escalated.
A few years later, Culp put together the deal for the TV movie,
and again wrote a script. It was brilliant. But it was never produced.
I’ll make you read the book to find out why. As for the Owen
Wilson “comedy,” see what the true I
Spy people have to say about that in the book. I”ll
just tell you now, it was not Culp or Cosby’s idea that it be
made the way that it was . . . or even made at all.
Q – What surprises should readers
expect in your book?
I’ve already shared a few with you. The biggest surprises
for me . . . that NBC wanted Sheldon Leonard to fire Bill Cosby, due
to pressure from the Southern affiliates; that the show almost
didn’t get on the air; the stories about the immense problems
they encountered while shooting in foreign lands; that they (Culp,
Cosby, the crew, the guest stars) almost gave their lives for this
show, and that someone did indeed die while shooting the series.
But the biggest surprise: why the series left the air. It was still
in the Top 10 of the ratings (for ages 16 through 39). We have the
reports that prove this. NBC wanted at least two more years. But
then something happened. Even Robert Culp and Bill Cosby were
stunned by what we found out, and were able to document, over
35 years after the fact.
Q – Why did you work with a collaborator
– can you describe what she brought to the project?
I had never attempted a work project like this before. My
background was in scripts, and scripts and books are apples and
oranges. But, mostly, I wanted to have fun. I wasn’t
getting paid to do this, so why not at least enjoy the process and
have a writing buddy to share the experiences with –
experiences like the fun of discovering files thought to be long
lost, and solving the mysteries that surrounded this series. It just
wouldn’t be as good if I couldn’t call my partner
and say, “I’m in a dingy storage locker
somewhere in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, and
you’ll never guess what I just found.”
So I talked to a couple different writers I knew about joining
me on this, but the fit wasn’t right. Or they were too stupid
to get how important this book could be. So I started it alone. And
then, a couple weeks later, my phone rang.
It was Linda. She is a two-time published author (both novels).
She was working at NBC, where many of the I Spy
“secret” files were stored. She is very strong when
it comes to research and interviewing. She has a great literary voice.
And she was calling to invite me to join her on a book she was
writing. I said that I couldn’t, that I had a pet project of my
own I had just broken ground on. I asked if she remembered a TV
show called I Spy. She said, “Are you kidding?
I loved that show!” And that’s all it took.
Q – How did you choose your
publisher? Of course, McFarland is known for many TV books –
do you like any of their other titles?
We had a couple offers. And McFarland didn’t bring the
best money offer to the table. But they have a reputation for doing
quality books and keeping them in print forever. Plus I have a couple
books on my shelf by McFarland, and I was very impressed by them.
They have a 600-page book on Gunsmoke, and James
Arness even did his autobiography through McFarland. Now how
can you not follow the lead of Marshall Matt Dillon?
As far as other books to recommend – there really
isn’t anything out there on I Spy. You have a
chapter about it in your book, which I enjoyed very much. I have
a copy (so I guess you’ll have to buy a copy of our book,
as pay back).
[Editor’s Note – Marc is referring to
my Spy Television, as noted above.]
Sheldon Leonard’s autobiography, which is now out
of print, had a couple chapters devoted to I Spy.
Earle Hagen talks about it in his book. But the show deserved more
than that. Now there’ll be more.
Q – I can’t resist –
what did you write for Star Trek NG?
I did a couple things. I wrote the first draft of a third season
episode called “Sarek.” It was really the turning
point of the series, or so I’m told. It was the first episode
to tie the new series with the original. I had to apologize to D.C.
Fontana later for stealing her character (Sarek is Spock’s
father and was introduced into the original series in an episode
written by Dorothy).
But I was frustrated that, during the first year of ST:
NG, they were steering away from connecting the two
series. I had the ear of Gene Roddenberry, so I gave it a pitch.
Roddenberry liked the idea, so he had me write a script. But then
he said my script read too much like the first Star Trek
and not his new and “improved” Star
So my idea, and script, sat around for a couple of years until
Season Three, and then Peter Beagle rewrote it. His approach was
very different than mine – but the idea was still there
– that Sarek is struggling with senility, and, in the case of
a Vulcan, this can be a very serious problem for any non-Vulcan
who happens to be nearby. The only other thing I did: there was
a story element (and a character) they bought from me to plug
into a script they were having trouble with. It didn’t turn
out too well, so I don’t talk about it.
Q – Were you interested in I
Spy only or are you a fan of other espionage TV shows or
As a kid I watched them all . . . U.N.C.L.E.,
Mission: Impossible, Get Smart,
The Avengers, The Wild West,
Secret Agent. They were all great. It’s hard
to pick a favorite. What a fabulous period for television. Juvenile,
perhaps. But great fun. I had a crush on Emma Peel. Didn’t
Here’s what the publisher has to say
about I Spy – A History and Episode Guide to the
Groundbreaking Television Series.
Description – One of the most popular
and award-winning television series of the Sixties, I Spy
was the first weekly broadcast to star both a white and a black actor.
In 1964, producer Sheldon Leonard had, with heavy risk, financed the
show himself, and his idea for a racially incorporated cast had earned
his show the moniker “Sheldon’s Folly.”
Pairing established white actor Robert Culp with Bill Cosby, a black
comedian with barely an acting credit to his name, certainly turned
some heads at NBC, and many wondered whether affiliates in the
South would ever air the show. Only two years later, Cosby accepted
the Emmy for leading actor – and I Spy cemented
its role in history.
This is a complete history of I Spy and the profound
change it evoked in broadcasting, social ideals and racial equality.
Rich with interviews and photographs, it discusses I Spy’s
unique approach to race, co-starring interracial actors as equals. It
also describes how the show became the template for popular
“buddy genre” shows and films that followed,
covers the show’s significance as the first series to shoot
episodes around the world, and puts I Spy in context
with other works within the spy genre at a time when spy books,
shows and films exploded in popularity. A complete episode guide
includes writers, directors, cast, crew, plot synopsis and commentary.
About the Authors – Marc Cushman
is a Los Angeles-based writer of television and films with TV credits
including Diagnosis Murder, Beyond Belief,
Fact or Fiction and Star Trek: The Next
Generation. Linda J. LaRosa divides her time between New
York and California. She is the author of Winter of the
Heart, which was filmed as an award-winning mini-series in
Italy and France.
An excerpt from the book,
“The I Spy
Movie That Never Was”, can be found on this website
in the Spies on Television &
Radio section of this website.
Another discussion of the book is posted on the
I Spy Forum.
For an annotated bibliography of TV spy books, see “The
TV Spies Bookshelf”, posted at this website in the
Television & Radio section.
You may have noticed Marc wrote for Diagnosis: Murder.
For another DM and I Spy connection,
see “Behind the Scenes of
‘Discards’ – How Diagnosis: Murder
Brought Back U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers,
I Spy, and Mission: Impossible”,
also posted in the Spies on Television
& Radio section.
For another interview with a McFarland author, see
“‘The Saint’ in
Fact and Fiction – An Interview with Historian and Novelist
Burl Bayer”, posted in the
Spies in History & Literature
section of this website.
I Spy: A History and Episode Guide to the Groundbreaking
Television Series, by Marc Cushman and Linda J. LaRosa, is
available in bookstores everywhere, as well as these on-line
McFarland & Company, Inc.