Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Best TV Crime Drama Openers, #23

Series Title: Matt Helm | Years: 1975-1976, ABC | Starring: Tony Franciosa, Laraine Stephens | Theme Music: Morton Stevens

If readers have trouble nowadays trying to put their finger on exactly who Matt Helm was, it’s not without good reason. After all, the character has gone through three significant and contradictory incarnations, including a television resurrection that tried to meld his original and movie-modified personalities. Were Helm still alive and active, he might be no less confused than the rest of us.

When he was introduced in the 1960 paperback original Death of a Citizen, by Swedish-born novelist Donald Hamilton, Helm was “a former World War II agent who had retired to a life of outdoor writing and photography as well as a wife and children,” explained novelist William L. DeAndrea in the Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). “The ‘citizen’ in Helm dies when his children are kidnapped, and he must call on all his dormant spy skills. He retrieves the children, but his wife is so disgusted at the methods of persuasion he used to find them that the marriage dissolves, and Helm is free to go back to work for the nameless agency [for which he’d previously labored]. He resumes his code name (Eric) and returns to work for his wartime boss, Mac, whose name is later revealed to be Arthur McGilvray [Borden]. Later adventures take Helm throughout the United States and into South America, the Caribbean, Canada, and Northern Europe, including a couple of trips to the homes of his Swedish forebears.”

Hamilton once explained that the source of his protagonist’s appeal lay in the conflict of his character: “A: He’s actually a pretty nice guy. B: He kills.” Over the next three decades, until his last adventure in The Damagers (1993), the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Matt Helm proved to be both a prodigious and mostly remorseless hired gun. As Bruce Grossman described him in Bookgasm, he was “everyone’s favorite cold-blooded thug of a spy--the man who could make James Bond wet his pants.” “Everyone” apparently included President John F. Kennedy, who gave his blessing to the Helm series (as he had to Ian Fleming’s Bond books), and critic Anthony Boucher, who once remarked: “Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told.”

“A series about a professional killer might present problems for some readers,” Chris Mills observed in The Thrilling Detective Web Site,
but Hamilton’s a sharp guy, and manages to keep the audience squarely in Helm’s corner by making sure that the expert marksman stays firmly on the side of the angels.

Rarely is Helm used as a political assassin; instead, he’s designated as a “counter-assassination agent,” assigned primarily to execute other professionals in his own field. In the Cold War Sixties and Seventies, these are usually Communist killers, whose targets are often American scientists; but come the Eighties and Nineties, his opponents tend to be in the employ of fictional terrorist organizations from around the world.

Fans of tough-guy protagonists won’t find a harder hardcase than Helm; cold, efficient, and professional (with a professional’s disdain for amateurs), but endowed with a wide variety of interesting ­and consistent ­character traits and quirks that keep him from being just an emotionless killing machine. Among the more notable: a strong affection for dogs, especially the hunting breeds; an aesthetic dislike of women who wear pants (although he softened his views on this as the series hit its third decade); little patience for idealistic young women (and men) who can’t stand violence (and who usually end up betraying him before the book is done); and a remarkable, nearly superhuman, ability to withstand tremendous physical abuse.
Hamilton was forced to fudge Helm’s age as the series progressed, in order that his protagonist not become too ancient to reasonably withstand the poundings he endured--or attract the sexy young ladies often found in his company (though Helm, for his part, seems to have been most drawn to females who were also enemies of one sort or another). But he resisted, at least in the early Helm stories, the lure of making his tales too black and white or his characters overly simplistic. As John Fraser opined in Mystery*File a few years back: “What has really bothered some people about the books, I suspect, is not that Helm himself doesn’t wear horns (though there’s a nice bit of by-play in one of them about his ‘humorously Satanic’ look), but that neither do most of the enemy agents whom he kills in the line of duty, sometimes after quite cordial exchanges. If he’d simply been ridding the world of strutting fascists and wicked multimillionaires, there wouldn’t be a problem.”

Hollywood wasn’t nearly so restrained or interested in storytelling nuances when it sought to exploit Hamilton’s creation. During the mid- to late-’60s, middle-aged crooner and Rat Packer Dean Martin was cast as Matt Helm in a succession of four films, beginning with The Silencers (1966). Those spy spoofs “attempted to jump on the wild-and-crazy bandwagon created by the James Bond films ...,” DeAndrea explained, but “seemed determined to overturn the bandwagon altogether because they were little more than excuses to show scantily clad women and outlandish gadgets. Dean Martin played Helm as a laid back, unflappable agent whose cover was that of a centerfold photographer. No trace of Hamilton’s quietly competent outdoorsman Helm was anywhere in evidence.” With each new picture, groused Richard Meyers in the book TV Detectives, “the farcical elements got worse and worse until Dean Martin was sleeping through the part--playing Dean Martin renamed Matt Helm.” According to Wikipedia, “A fifth film in the series was planned, based upon the novel The Ravagers, but Martin declined the opportunity to play the role once more, even though the title of the film was announced at the end of [The] Wrecking Crew.” (A DVD collection of all four Martin/Helm features, Matt Helm Lounge, was released to some fanfare in 2005.)

Six years passed between the final appearance of Martin’s “swinger agent” and the resurgence of Matt Helm on the screen--this time the small screen. In May 1975, ABC-TV broadcast the pilot film Matt Helm, featuring Tony Franciosa in the title role. It wasn’t a landmark teleflick by any measure, but it won respectable enough ratings that the network launched a series from it in late September of the same year.

Movie idol-handsome Franciosa (born Anthony George Papaleo Jr.; Franciosa was his mother’s maiden name) had done a fair bit of stage work before turning to movies and television, and had even been nominated for an Academy Award for his part in the 1957 motion picture A Hatful of Rain. After accepting guest shots on programs such as Naked City and Arrest and Trial (a precursor to today’s Law & Order), Franciosa starred in a 1964 sitcom called Valentine’s Day, playing a Manhattan publishing executive who’s bedeviled by his misadventure-prone pals and girlfriends. Although it’s said to have been an above-average series, Valentine’s Day bit the dust at the end of its first season. The upside was that it brought Franciosa more Hollywood attention, and two years later he was tapped to star as investigative reporter Jeff Dillon in an NBC-TV movie, Fame Is the Name of the Game, which also featured Susan Saint James and Jack Klugman. When the network green-lighted a 90-minute series spinoff, The Name of the Game, set in the world of big-money magazines, Franciosa was signed as one of three rotating protagonists (Gene Barry and Robert Stack being the other two). Unfortunately, the earnest Dillon was axed from the Name of the Game rotation in the series’ third season, reportedly because “Franciosa’s mercurial temper was causing too many problems on the set.” The actor made a comeback, though, two years later in a similarly formatted NBC series, Search, in which he played one of three highly technologized, troubleshooting agents in the employ of the shadowy World Securities Corporation. (Hugh O’Brian and Doug McClure led the show on alternating weeks.) But again, Search barely lasted a whole year.

By the time the Matt Helm gig came his way, Franciosa was 46 years old. However, producers expected him to have the stamina--both in fight scenes and the bedroom--of a man half his age. Helm’s latest incarnation bore only a passing resemblance to Dean Martin’s man, but was still not the character Donald Hamilton had created. For the series, he was supposed to be a former spy who’d worked for a top-secret U.S. intelligence entity known as “The Machine,” but was now a high-living, top-dollar, globe-trotting Los Angeles private eye. As TV Guide explained in its 1975 Fall Preview edition: “Dangerous assignments and beautiful women make up the larger-than-life world of one of the screen’s most flamboyant and exciting detectives.” Shoot-outs, car chases, and confrontations with unsavory characters were standard fare for the show. So were appearances by former Bracken’s World cast member Laraine Stephens (who’d also guested in one episode of The Name of the Game), playing Helm’s lawyer-lover, Claire Kronski; the ever-gruff Gene Evans as his chief police contact, Sergeant Hanrahan; and Jeff Donnell, who played Helm’s answering-service operator, “Ethel.”

One of the highlights of that series was certainly its main title sequence, which showcased Helm’s lust for adventure, women, and flashy cars (a classic Thunderbird in the opener, but a Porsche in the pilot film, as I recall). The brassy, catchy, and eminently hum-able theme music was composed by Morton Stephens, who also gave us the themes to Hawaii Five-O and Police Woman. In the video at the top of this post, you will see preview clips from a December 1975 episode titled “Think Murder” (which also featured Carl Betz, a familiar face from the 1967-1969 legal drama, Judd for the Defense).

1975 wasn’t a good year to introduce crime and detective shows. Most of those that debuted that fall failed quickly, including Jack Palance’s Bronk, Tony Curtis’ McCoy, and the campy but charming Jim Hutton/David Wayne program, Ellery Queen. (Only the goofy Starsky and Hutch and the tongue-in-cheek Robert Wagner/Eddie Albert detective series, Switch, were renewed.) Matt Helm was canceled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

Tony Franciosa continued to work in films and television, but starred in only one more series: Finder of Lost Loves (1984-1985), an Aaron Spelling production that had him playing a private eye who specialized in locating ... well, people’s long-lost loves. He died of a massive stroke in 2006 at age 77. Ten months later, author Donald Hamilton perished, too. There’s been talk in recent years of creating new Matt Helm movies for DreamWorks, but as of my last check, the Internet Movie Database showed no current project related to that talk. Equally discouraging: There’s no discussion of releasing the TV series Matt Helm on studio-authorized DVDs.

Too bad. I’d rather see Matt Helm on DVD than, say, Swamp Thing.

READ MORE: Matt Helm: The Unofficial Homepage; “Travis McGee and Matt Helm,” by Doug Bassett (Mystery*File); “Mr. Helm Goes to Hollywood,” by Matthew R. Bradley (CinemaRetro); “All Roads Led to Bed,” by Phil Patton (The New York Times).


steve said...

Thank goodness for the internet - it enabled me to track down all the books and read 'em!

Paul Bishop said...

Great retrospective. Thanks!

Fred Blosser said...

The old '50s noir guys (Aldrich, Karlson, Siegel) could have made a bang-up Helm movie with the right script. Melville in France too. I doubt that a Helm movie out of 2008 Hollywood would be anything more than another bloated mishmash of explosions and miscasting.

Lee Goldberg said...

The BRONK theme by Lalo Schifrin was also terrific. I keep waiting for someone to post the main title sequence on YouTube.