Although individual series have enjoyed enormous popularity and cult followings, the spy genre overall has never been as successful nor as ubiquitous in American television as westerns, medical dramas, and detective programs. Nevertheless, espionage-themed programs can boast a number of firsts, most notably the first African-American lead character in a regular dramatic series (I Spy); the first female action lead character in an hour-long American dramatic series (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.), and the first Russian lead character in an American dramatic series (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), the latter appearing less than three years after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Except during the so-called "spy craze" period of the mid-1960s when it seemed that every action/adventure show borrowed elements from James Bond, spies as television action heroes have been far outnumbered by the more traditional figures of policemen and private investigators. Even when they do appear, television spies (or "secret agents") are often presented as international crime fighters rather than as true undercover operators, with the emphasis on justice and law enforcement rather than on clandestine activities. As a result, there are few "pure" spy programs and most of the long-running ones can be classed in other genre categories, including westerns (The Wild, Wild, West), situation comedy (Get Smart), and science fiction (The Avengers and The Prisoner).

The boundaries between the spy and other television genres is extremely fluid, and the elements of the typical spy program are variable and not easily defined. On television, spies and detectives have a great deal in common. Both are tough, sometimes world-weary individuals who live and work on the edges of normal society. Their antagonists are rich, powerful, clever, and often apparently "respectable." In both genres, because of the wealth and resources of the villain, the heroes must use extra-legal means in order to triumph. Before they do, they must progress through various narrative situations including the assignment of the case/mission, investigation of the crime, abduction by the villain, interrogation and/or torture, at least one long, complicated chase and a final shoot-out or brawl.

The average secret agent tends to be more cerebral and sophisticated than the average detective and if not wealthy himself, at least comfortable with the trappings of wealth. Money is not an important incentive, however. The secret agent's motives are personal and philosophical, a dedication to certain moral or political ideals, or simply a taste for the game of espionage itself. In its focus on the "game"--the hero's intellectual ability to decipher clues, solve complex mysteries, and outmaneuver the bad guys--the television spy plot may resemble the classical detective story. Indeed, the chess metaphor appears often in each.

Nevertheless, there are several subtle differences that distinguish the television secret agent from the detective and these can be seen in the transformation of Amos Burke, the title character of the popular series Burke's Law. For the first two years of the series' run, Burke (played by Gene Barry) was a Los Angeles chief of detectives who also happened to be a millionaire. In solving his homicide cases, Burke was chauffeured around in a silver Rolls Royce. His cases were typical whodunits involving the rich and glamorous portrayed by large casts of guest stars.

Then in 1965, in order to cash in on the spy craze, Captain Amos Burke, detective, became Amos Burke--Secret Agent. Since he was already suave, sophisticated, witty, and charming, no character tinkering was needed. However, several important changes were made. Burke left the L.A.P.D. to work for a U.S. government intelligence agency, with his only contact, a mysterious character called simply, "The Man" (played by Carl Benton Reid). Burke's operating milieu subsequently expanded from the confines of the Los Angeles area to include the entire world. No longer a local millionaire sleuth, Burke became a continent-hopping agent and his quarry changed from small time murderers to international criminals whose schemes and machinations had global consequences.

These changes, then, define the essential elements of the television spy series: (1) The active presence of a government or quasi-government agency in the life of the protagonist. The agency is shown to be involved in clandestine and/or espionage activities. (2) Villains who are often foreign, usually eccentric, and whose crimes have larger political consequences. Most commonly, these villains desire either to take over the world or to destroy it. (3) An expansion of the plot setting beyond local and even national boundaries to include a variety of countries and exotic locales.

Since James Bond appeared on the literary and later, cinematic scene, spy stories have also incorporated a number of stylistic motifs of his creator, Ian Fleming. These include ironic humor; the use martial arts techniques for self-defense; a preoccupation with expensive clothes, cars, food, accommodations and leisure pursuits; the presence of beautiful women either as agents, antagonists, or innocent bystanders caught up in the plot, and a fascination with weaponry and high technology.

The importance of these motifs should not be underestimated. For example, Honey West was essentially a series about a female detective similar to the later Remington Steel. Yet, critics have always categorized it as a spy program simply because of its stylistic trappings, most notably, Honey West's pet ocelot and the one-piece black jumpsuit worn by the star, Anne Francis, so reminiscent of the wardrobe of The Avengers' Emma Peel (Diana Rigg). On the other hand, series like Tightrope and the later , which both feature lead characters working undercover, are not considered spy programs because the international reach of the enemy crime syndicates is not emphasized, and because the heroes appear and function as police officers.

The primary reason why spy shows are so few and far between on television is that the genre does not adapt well to the production and aesthetic needs of medium. In their book, The Spy Story (1987), John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg delineate two subcategories of spy fiction, both of which can be applied to spy stories on television.

The first, originating with James Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) and other "clubmen" writers and re-invented by Ian Fleming, consists of colorful, imaginative adventures with roving, honorable heroes, dastardly villains and exotic settings. By comparison, the second subcategory, identified with Eric Ambler, Grahame Green and more recently, John Le Carre, contains tales of espionage more realistically presented. Concerned with corruption, betrayal and conspiracy, these stories feature a grayer mood, more circumscribed settings and ordinary protagonists who seem, at first glance, not much different than the people they oppose. The plotting is complicated and subtle, and the endings are often downbeat, leaving the agent sadly disillusioned or dead. The chief difference between the two subcategories is the moral base of the narrative. In the first group, good and evil is rendered in stark black and white. In the second, the morality is ambiguous.

As with their literary equivalents, television spy stories may be similarly divided into the romantic and the realistic, although as one might expect, there is considerable overlap. Both types present problems in adapting to the television medium.

The romantic spy adventure, while meeting the aesthetic needs of the medium for simplicity in storytelling, escapist interest and fast paced excitement, requires foreign locations, numerous props, expensive wardrobes, and other production details that can severely strain a limited television budget. On the other hand, although the realistic espionage story is likely to be less expensive to produce, the difficult themes, depressive mood, and often unattractive characters do not lend themselves to the medium, particularly to the demands of a weekly network series.

As a result, to be produced for television, both types of spy stories must be "domesticated", both literally and figuratively. For the romantic spy program, elements of the so-called Bond formula of "sex, snobbery, and sadism" must be toned down to small screen standards. The intensity of torture sequences may be tempered by the use of outlandishly humorous devices and Perils-of Pauline style narrow escapes. Weapons may fire sleep inducing darts (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) or the hero may not carry a gun at all (as in the quasi-espionage series, MacGyver). Location shoots must also be kept to a minimum. Both The Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. filmed on the MGM backlot used an ingenious swish-pan technique to get from one location to another. I Spy traveled overseas but filmed a number of episodes in each country it visited. The Prisoner was shot at an actual resort village at the Hotel Portmeiron in North Wales. Adderly was fortunate enough to find Canadian locations that could mimic the landscape of the Soviet Union and other European countries. More recently, series like The Scarecrow and Mrs. King confine themselves to U.S. settings, saving stories set in foreign locales for season finales and sweeps weeks.



The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Several realistic, even dyspeptic, espionage series like Danger Man, Callan, and Sandbaggers, enjoyed healthy runs in the United Kingdom but only one of these, Danger Man, ever crossed the Atlantic to be seen in the States. To make the plotlines and characters of realistic spy programs more appealing to American audiences, television producers have employed a number of different strategies. For example, Danger Man was retitled Secret Agent and a snazzy Johnny Rivers song was added to the opening and closing credits. Both I Led Three Lives in the 1950s and The Equalizer in the 1980s exploited anxieties that were close to home for the audience, mining Red Scare paranoia in the case of the earlier show and fears of urban crime in the later.

Another strategy used by creators of realistic spy programs is to make the central character morally certain. Although he was often surrounded by double-crossing colleagues and double agents in Secret Agent, John Drake's (Patrick McGoohan) own loyalty was never in question. In The Equalizer, Edward Woodward, who earlier played a lonely, cold-blooded assassin in Callan, returned as Robert McCall, a retired CIA operative. McCall clearly had a past career similar to Callan's, but now deeply regretted it. To expiate his past sins, McCall became the self-styled Equalizer of the title, dedicating his life and skills to protecting the weak and innocent free of charge. McCall was also given a family--an estranged son, a dead wife and a daughter whose existence he discovered during the run of the series.

Surrounding the usually isolated secret agent with family, colleagues, and friends is yet another television strategy for domesticating both strains of the genre. Humor and a fraternity boy camaraderie between Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) leavened I Spy's sometimes bleak Cold War ideology, while the developing romance between the two lead characters (Bruce Boxleitner and Kate Jackson) kept interest high between chases in The Scarecrow and Mrs. King. In Under Cover, an intensely realistic series which featured plotlines drawn directly from recent world events, the husband and wife agents (Anthony John Denison and Linda Purl) were forced to juggle the dangerous demands of their profession with the everyday problems of home and family life. Finally, those spy stories that, for whatever reason, could not be domesticated, such as adaptations of bestselling spy thrillers, generally ended up on cable or PBS, or on network television as TV movies and miniseries.

The history of the spy on television reflects this continuing tension between the genre and the medium, and between romantic and realistic tendencies. Whenever public interest in foreign affairs is on the rise, spy programs of both types proliferate, with fictional villains reflecting the country's current political enemies.

The first regular spy series appeared on U.S. television in the early 1950s. A handful, including an early series also called I Spy (hosted by Raymond Massey) and Behind Closed Doors (hosted by Bruce Gordon) were anthologies. Others, like Biff Baker (Alan Hale Jr.) and Hunter (the first of four series called Hunter, this one starring Barry Nelson) featured gentlemen amateurs caught up in foreign intrigue through chance or patriotism. The rest, which usually had the word "danger" in their titles (Doorway to Danger, Dangerous Assignment, Passport to Danger) were undistinguished half-hour series about professional agents battling Communists. These series lasted, with only three exceptions, a year or less.

Those exceptions were I Led Three Lives, Foreign Intrigue and Five Fingers. I Led Three Lives was an enormously popular hit series based on the real-life story of FBI undercover agent Herbert Philbrick who infiltrated the American Communist Party. A favorite of J. Edgar Hoover (who considered it a public service), the show reportedly was taken so seriously by some viewers that they wrote the producers to report suspected Communists in their neighborhood. Foreign Intrigue, a syndicated series boasted colorful European locations but replaceable stars (five in four years played four various wire service correspondents and a hotel owner) who stumble across international criminals. Only the last, Five Fingers, starring David Hedison as double agent Victor Sebastian, even hinted at the cool, hip style that was to be the hallmark of spy shows in the sixties.

An interesting oddity during this period was an adaptation of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale for the anthology series, Climax, in which the British James Bond is transformed into an American agent, "Jimmy" Bond (Barry Nelson) confronting a French Communist villain named Le Sheef (originally Le Chiffre). After a tense game of baccarat, Le Sheef (played by a sleepwalking Peter Lorre) captures Bond, confines him in a hotel bathtub, and rather bizarrely tortures him by twisting his bare toes with pliers.

There is no doubt that the mid-1960s was the high water mark for the spy genre. Spies were everywhere--in books, on records, on the big screen and the little screen, and their images were emblazoned on countless mass produced articles from toys to toiletries. Most were hour-long color shows which featured pairs or teams of professional agents of various races, genders and cultural backgrounds. The pace was fast, the style, cool, with lots of outrageous villains, sexual innuendo, technical gadgetry, and tongue-in-cheek humor. A third subcategory of the genre, the spy "spoof", developed during this time (Get Smart, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry,is the quintessential example) but there was so much humor in the "serious" shows that it was often difficult to distinguish spoofs from the real thing.

By 1968, the high spirits had soured and the spy craze came to a fitting end with the unsettlingly paranoiac series, The Prisoner, created and produced by its star, ex-Secret Agent Patrick McGoohan. Still, many of the shows of this period, including The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, I Spy, The Wild, Wild West, Mission Impossible and even The Prisoner have enjoyed continued life in periodic film and television revivals and in cult fan followings throughout the world.

The decade of the 1970s saw a few sporadic attempts to breathe new life into a moribund genre. All the spy series introduced during this period featured gimmicky characters who worked for organizations identified by acronyms. Among the gimmicks were an agent with a photographic memory (The Delphi Bureau), agents fitted with electronic devices connected to a computer (Search), an agent accompanied by a giant assistant with a steel hand filled with gadgets (A Man Called Sloane) and a superhuman cyborg (The Six Million Dollar Man). With the exception of the last, which appealed primarily to children, all were quickly cancelled. The beginning of the next decade saw several "return" movies of 1960s favorites like Get Smart, The Wild, Wild West, and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. as well as quality television adaptations of John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People by the BBC (shown on PBS in the U.S.) This eventually led to a mini-revival in spy programs in the mid-eighties, which included serious, gritty series like The Equalizer and adaptions of bestselling spy novels including Le Carre 's A Perfect Spy, Len Deighton's Game Set Match, Ken Follett's Key to Rebecca and Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity. As with Amos Burke in the sixties, action series like The A-Team began to boost their ratings by injecting espionage elements into their formulas.

However, unlike their predecessors of twenty years previous, the spies of the 1980s were less fantastic and more pragmatic, with believable technology and a post-modern sensibility. Even romantic adventure series like Airwolf and Scarecrow and Mrs. King were given a realistic edge. Indeed, this trend toward intense realism reached its culmination in Under Cover, a series so realistic that it was cancelled by a nervous ABC network after less than a month on the air. In January 1991, a two-part episode of Under Cover, in which Iraq planned to fire a virus-carrying missile at Israel, was pulled from the schedule when the war in Kuwait broke out.

For the 1994-95 season, the fledgling Fox network offered two spy series, Fortune Hunter, a James Bond clone, and a revival of Get Smart starring an aging Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Both series were cancelled after extremely abbreviated runs.

-Cynthia W. Walker


Cawleti, John G. and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Harper, Ralph. The World of the Thriller. Cleveland, Ohio: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1969.

McCormick, Donald and Katy Fletcher. Spy Fiction: A Connoisseur's Guide. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, California: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1981.

Snelling, O.F. 007 James Bond: A Report. New York: New American Library, 1964.


See also Avengers; Get Smart; I Spy; Man from U.N.C.L.E./The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.; Mission: Impossible; The Prisoner; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy