Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Taste of Honey

I’m not old enough to have been a Honey West watcher back in the mid-1960s. But when the full run of that short-lived ABC-TV series was released on DVD last fall, I immediately rented it from Netflix. I wanted to better understand what all the fuss was about.

Honey West proved to be unlike most of the other American TV series that debuted in 1965 (I Dream of Jeannie, Lost in Space, F Troop, The Wild Wild West, My Mother the Car, Green Acres, etc.), if only because it was a dramatic series with a female lead (played by Anne Francis) who could handle herself even under the diciest circumstances. And of course, the show had all those marvelous high-tech spying gadgets--exploding gas earrings, microphones secreted in lipstick tubes, and my personal favorite, Honey’s garter-belt gas mask. (James Bond never had one of those, now did he!) Then there was the speedy little Shelby Cobra that Honey drove, and her pet ocelot, Bruce. Those weren’t necessarily components of the 11 novels written by Forrest E. “Skip” Fickling and his wife, Gloria, who’d created Honey West back in the late 1950s. But they helped make the Aaron Spelling-produced TV series hard to forget.

John C. Fredriksen remembers Honey West well. Better than just about anyone else you’re likely to meet in this lifetime. The 56-year-old Rhode Island historian is the author of Honey West, a new non-fiction tribute to that long-gone Friday night program. In his introduction to the book, Fredriksen writes:
Compared to the staid female role models preceding her on television, Honey West was everything that the emerging social paradigm allowed a woman to be. Hence, my reminiscences about the series are couched in a unique dichotomy. Having shed and evolved beyond the social conventions of my youth, I freely acknowledge Anne Francis for her demonstrated intelligence, varied acting talents, and the impressive longevity of her career. But in Honey West she was also an in-your-face, male-wish fantasy and I embrace my inner Neanderthal by forever cherishing those daunting blue eyes, the sexy mole, the sixties flip-do, flipped to perfection, that husky voice, and pantherine form lurking beneath a skin-tight suit. In sum, Anne was the first smokin’ hot babe I ever beheld, gloriously female in appearance, speech, and deportment. In fact, her portrayal of Honey West remains appealing simply because she never forsook her femininity, even in the rough-and-tumble world of private investigating.
Fredricksen’s volume has just about everything a Honey West enthusiast could want, including interviews with both Francis and her co-star, John Ericson, who played Honey’s hunky, overprotective partner, Sam Bolt; a profile of Irene Hervey, who filled the mostly comic-relief role of Honey’s aunt Meg; and extensive synopses of all the Honey West episodes, as well as “Who Killed the Jackpot?” the episode of Burke’s Law, starring Gene Barry, in which Anne Francis made her original TV appearance as “private eyeful” Honey West. It’s a pretty phenomenal collection of material, the work of someone obviously devoted to his subject.

I took the opportunity recently to ask the author a variety of questions, via e-mail, about how ABC’s Honey West came into being, distinctions between the TV series and the Ficklings’ novels, why the show disappeared so damn fast, and what has become of both its stars and the car Honey wheeled about in so attractively. Fredriksen’s responses carry the same playful tenor as the text of his slim (228-page) new book.

J. Kingston Pierce: What first got you interested in Honey West?

John C. Fredriksen: I was only 12--you know, that impressionable age--when I first saw Honey West and, for reasons then unknown to me, I was simply captivated by Anne Francis. I had never quite beheld as woman like her before, especially in such a forceful, commanding role. I’ve been hooked ever since!

JKP: Tell us how the character first came into being, in print.

JCF: In the mid-1950s Forrest “Skip” Fickling was an aspiring fiction writer and, to be different, he toyed with the idea of a sexy female private investigator, something that had never been done before. When several of his writer friends declined to take up the mantle due to projects of their own, Skip wrote the first novel [1957’s This Girl for Hire] himself with some input from his wife, Gloria.

JKP: I’ve read more than once that Honey was based, in part, on Gloria Fickling. Is that correct?

JCF: Gloria tells me that Skip was the brains behind Honey West, although he patterned her to a degree after this wife of his. Gloria is something of a character in her own right, so I can see why he used her as a template.

JKP: In what way is she “a character”?

JCF: Gloria is very outspoken, and when she was young she dealt with rambunctious young men at parties with a good kick or an occasional shove. In sum, short but fierce--not unlike Honey.

JKP: Do you know anything about how the Ficklings penned their novels together? Did they both develop plots and characters, or did they have separate responsibilities?

JCF: As far as I know, Skip wrote the stories, which were then proofed by Gloria, who then tendered suggestions and modifications. I consider both of them essential to the process that crystalized the Honey West “character.”

JKP: Have you read all 11 of the Honey West novels? And do you have a favorite among those?

JCF: I was too young in the 1950s to have read the novels, and if I tried bringing them home in the 1960s, my mom would have batted me over the head for reading such “racy” materials. So, no, I am aware of the novels, but have yet to leaf through one.

JKP: I’ve never seen the 1965 episode of Burke’s Law in which Honey West was introduced to TV audiences. Can you tell us something about that episode? And what about it made it so successful in selling the spin-off series?

JCF: In casting Honey West, Anne’s natural dynamism fit like a hand in a glove. The story was engaging, like all Burke’s Law episodes, but Anne and John were clearly giving their all in developing these new screen personalities. Everything just clicked.

JKP: How did the Honey West TV series differ from the Ficklings’ books starring that same character?

JCF: From what I am told, the TV series is considerably toned down. Honey is sexy but never comes close to removing her clothes--something she did repeatedly in the novels. Nor does she have an on-screen affair with Sam Bolt, which in the novels she had and apparently enjoyed several paramours. Given the mindset of 1965 America, this was about all that networks were willing to show.

JKP: I understand that the Ficklings never had much contact with star Anne Francis. But did they like her portrayal of their character?

JCF: Gloria tells me that they loved the choice of Anne as Honey West--it remains her best-remembered role outside of Altaira in Forbidden Planet [1956]. In fact, I cannot think of another actress, before or since, that could fill her high heels!

JKP: Do you think that Honey, as the Ficklings created her, could have worked on television? And if she couldn’t have been herself in the ’60s, could the “real” Honey West work on TV nowadays?

JCF: These days anything goes. I consider popular culture so debased by sex and violence that, if they left them out of a proposed new series, I do not think that the networks or cable channels would buy into it. For that reason I would actually hate to see a new series; it would probably have little or nothing in common with the old, “fun” one. That being said, I waited all 30 episodes for Sam and Honey to kiss, if only once--and they never did!

JKP: In the novels, Honey West’s love interest and occasional rescuer was actually a bounty hunter named Johnny “Doom” Dombella. In the TV series, John Ericson played her “cantankerous sidekick” and, as you note, not-quite-ever lover, Sam Bolt. [The two are shown together at left.] Why exchange one character for the other?

JCF: I believe they tried to break clean from the novels. In the novels, Johnny was actively known for cavorting with Honey. Sam, however, is square and totally professional towards her--much safer from a broadcasting perspective.

JKP: High-tech gadgets were a big thing on Honey West, just as they were in the contemporaneous James Bond films. Do you have any favorites among Honey’s gizmos?

JCF: I really dug those radio sunglasses with the little antenna on the side. Face it, how many people can be seen these days talking into their shades and not get carted away?

JKP: As was so often the case in those days, I understand the Ficklings didn’t benefit as much as they should have by selling their character to television. Correct?

JCF: Welcome to Tinseltown. The Ficklings were victimized by the Hollywood mentality and the machinations of their attorney, who I am sure got an even bigger pound of flesh by denying them theirs. Pure slime at work--but then they should have known this going into the belly of the beast.

JKP: Honey West didn’t last long--just a single season. But can it be said to have had a lasting influence on television?

JCF: Honey West enjoys the unimpeachable quality of hosting TV’s first liberated women, at least from an American standpoint. The same can be said for Cathy Gale [played by Honor Blackman] from the first season of The Avengers in the UK, but those episodes never made it over here. Honey certainly cut the template for strong female leads to follow. And Anne did it in her own sexy style.

JKP: How do you think Honey West might have developed, had it been allowed to go on to second, third, even fourth seasons?

JCF: First of all, they would have gone color and possibly adopted a one-hour format. I believe that, over time, as tastes evolved in the later ’60s, Honey may have cavorted with Sam in much the same way as the leads of Moonlighting did [in the 1980s]. I also feel that the role of Aunt Meg, a comic prop, would have been written out.

JKP: Was the half-hour format simply too short to accommodate everything the series was trying to do?

JCF: No, the series remains crisp and watchable to this day, so I do not think that 30 minutes or black and white did them it. The program failed because a bunch of suits at ABC felt they could save money without it.

JKP: So why did the network cancel Honey West?

JCF: Two reasons. The first was programming. The biggest hit on Friday nights turned out to be none other than Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.--it literally clobbered all the competition. The second was money: ABC decided that they could dress Diana Rigg up in black leather and have her beat up guys for less money than they were shelling out for Honey West.

JKP: Do you think that last fall’s release of Honey West on DVD will bring in a new generation of fans, or is the series now too dated?

JCF: The response to the DVD has been overwhelmingly positive among fossils/viewers of my generation. However, the lack of overt sex, vulgarity, and mindless violence may alienate younger viewers who are inured to it and have come to expect it.

JKP: There’s been talk of making a Honey West movie. Do you think that will ever happen? And I know you said before that no other actress could fill Anne Francis’ high heels in the part. But if a movie is made, who do you think ought to star? Surely, not Reese Witherspoon, right?

JCF: I hope not. Hollywood has lost its ability to tell a coherent story for the past two decades or so. Face it, the talent simply does not exist anymore. Today’s politically correct Honey West would probably be a lesbian or closer to a whore than a private investigator. I, for one, remain true to the original series. As far as casting goes, forget it. There is not a single actress in Hollywood today with the combination of grace, grit, looks, and class of Anne Francis. Reese Witherspoon would be terribly miscast in my opinion--which is why she’d get the role.

JKP: You interviewed Anne Francis for your new book. How hard was it to set up that interview? And was she happy to talk about Honey West after all these years?

JCF: Talking to Ann was a snap. She is very polite and considerate toward her fans, and freely gave me an hour of her time on the phone. Just a class act.

JKP: Does Francis look back fondly on Honey West?

JCF: She loved being cast as Honey West. Prior to that she was always just another “pretty face” on the screen. Anne wanted a chance to demonstrate her range of skills, and she did so quite memorably. And, coming off a second bad divorce, she was probably glad to take it out on the male of the species by knocking them about each episode.

JKP: Didn’t Francis have to do karate training and some of her own stunts for Honey West?

JCF: Anne studied Okinawa Tai under Sensei Gordon Doversola for several weeks and acquired some of the basic moves necessary to make her look proficient. Quite a change from June Cleaver!

JKP: I understand that Francis and co-star John Ericson made a pact early on to not smoke or drink on Honey West. Why was that?

JCF: Again, this is a reflection on Anne the person. She realized that Friday night scheduling has a large youthful audience and she did not want to smoke or drink in front of youngsters. John agreed in principle; they are both classy, thoughtful people.

JKP: Most of us just know Anne Francis from Honey West and a succession of guest-starring roles on everything from Columbo to Ellery Queen to Fantasy Island. But you had the opportunity to interview her. Any personal impressions?

JCF: Anne is a typical New Yorker of her generation. Classy and gutsy in the same breath. As an actress she always battled against her looks, for no studio exec in the 1950s believed that a women that beautiful could actually act! She also sought out “bad girl” roles like prostitutes and drunks just to prove that she could act convincingly.

JKP: You interviewed John Ericson as well. I didn’t even realize he was still alive, at age 82. What did you think of him, both in his role on Honey West and in talking with him for your book?

JCF: Like Anne, John considers Sam Bolt one of the highlights of his lengthy career. He and Anne had been good friends since Bad Day at Black Rock (1952), they got along well, and both appreciated the sheer physicality involved in Honey West. Both of them liked their fight scenes!

JKP: While Francis has gone into semi-retirement, I understand that Ericson is still working. What’s he been up to lately?

JCF: John is still active on stage, although he limits himself to local theater in New Mexico. He still enjoys good health, loves life, and would very much want a cameo role in any new Honey West television show or movie. I found him to be a very nice, friendly person to deal with.

JKP: Why do you think neither Francis nor Ericson ever went on to star in other American TV series?

JCF: Probably because few people can handle the 15- to 18-hour workdays needed to produce a TV series. They both knew this going into Honey West, but the roles they were offered were so intriguing from what they had done previously, they considered it a
good trade-off.

JKP: There’s a section of your book devoted to Sharon Lucas, who did some of Francis’ stunts. Most stunt people don’t get much credit. Why write about Lucas?

JCF: According to Gene LeBell, stuntman extraordinaire, Sharon Lucas was one of the most talented stunt women in the business and, in some respects, was equal to or better than most guys. She was a real Honey West, as some of those intense fight scenes demonstrate. Anne loved her as a person, they were very close on and off the set. I felt it was time that this individual, who did so much for the series, get the credit she deserved.

JKP: One of the most memorable things about the small screen’s Honey West was that little Shelby Cobra she drove. Do you have any idea whatever happened to that car?

JCF: It is in the hands of Joyce Yates of Nashville, Indiana, a private collector, who keeps it well-maintained. Cobras have quite an automotive legend to them and are quite sought-after as collectibles. A less imaginative producer might have settled for a Mustang or an XKE (as in the Burke’s Law episode) but, hey, this was the height of the British invasion and the sexy British Cobra was right on the mark!

JKP: You must have had to watch all 30 episodes of Honey West in order to write the synopses at the back of your book. Did you enjoy the experience, or were your memories of the show somewhat better than the reality? And do you have favorite episodes of Honey West?

JCF: I had a hell of as good time freeze-framing Anne Francis just to behold her, or sometimes just watch her move in that slinky fashion of hers. I am especially drawn to the pilot, “The Gray Lady,” as that had a bigger budget, extreme imaginative photography (including a vertical wipe!), and a fantastic fight scene with Sharon Lucas. The later ones got sillier in order to compete with Batman, but the first five episodes are very noir-ish and stylish.

JKP: I understand that, in 1994 when Burke’s Law was revived, Anne Francis guest-starred in a role that was obviously that of Honey West, but she was called “Honey Best.” Why the name change?

JCF: What else? To avoid being sued. Too much money involved.

JKP: Your Honey West book was published by a small press in Albany, Georgia, called BearManor Media. Why go with that house?

JKP: I chose BearManor because it is a high-quality press that specializes in media titles and sells them at very competitive prices. There are others that do likewise, but they charge so much money--even for softcover titles--there is no way a book can sell in sufficient quantity to make any profit.

JKP: Finally, is it true that Honey West was your first love interest? How did Anne Francis react when you told her that?

JCF: She hit me with a decidedly New York snicker, followed by a sympathetic, matronly “Awwwwwww!” I am sure she hears this from guys my age all the time!

READ MORE:Honey West,” by Joel Sternberg (The Museum of Broadcast Communications); “Honey West: A Fresh Look,” by Gary Warren Niebuhr (Mystery*File).

4 comments:

Frank Loose said...

Thanks for posting this wonderful interview. I was actually smiling when i got to the end of it. I remember the TV series quite fondly, having seen it when i was a young teen.

Ed Gorman said...

Another amazing interview, Jeff. Seriously, you've got to collect these in book form.

RJR said...

The Ficklings were friends with Richard Prather, and actually created "Honey West" to be a female version of "Shell Scott." They also had visions of Honey getting together with Shell, although it never happened.

RJR

bibliochef said...

great interview. i loved the series