Spies Like Us: The Jews’ Answer to Bond

Film

By Eddy Friedfeld

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
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Mounted on the dashboard of my black convertible there are two plastic switches, “Grenade Launcher” and “Ejector Seat.” They amuse friends and concern wary parking lot attendants. I own high-tech gadgets ranging from a big-screen television that can do virtually everything except hover, to an IBM laptop with a Celeron processor, to the George Foreman Grill, which can broil a steak in eight minutes. But I have never disarmed a thermonuclear device with seven seconds left to detonation and I have never killed or otherwise disabled a dozen enemy agents while skiing backward down the Swiss Alps. I have never devised a creative escape from a windowless room as two spike-laden walls closed in on me, and I have never enjoyed even one archenemy with plans for world conquest.

And yet — not unlike many men, regardless of race, religion or age — I cannot look at myself in a mirror, dressed in a tuxedo, without smiling wryly and thinking: “Bond, James Bond.”

With the theatrical release of the new “Casino Royale” and a slew of DVD releases that includes “Get Smart” and all the Bond and Flint films (“In Like Flint,” Our Man Flint,” etc.), the world once again will be Bond crazy.

But the spoofs of these films, many of which were written by and starred Jews, created independent and enduring characters of their own.

The original James Bond represents the part of us that wants to be better, that never wrinkles, that is never at a loss for the right thing to say; The Bond who is never conflicted by crisis of conscience, whose duty is clear and noble, and whose mission is always single-minded. In his world there are no complicated decisions, or murky choices, no mortgage payments, or unavailable baby sitters. Megalomaniacs are not the people you work for — they are people who get sucked out of airplanes at 30,000 feet, or get tossed off their own space platforms. Someone who cuts you off on the highway can be dispatched with a wing machine gun or a laser beam activated from a control panel concealed beneath the armrest; and bad dates get killed by hulking silent adversaries with no necks, or get dropped into tanks filled with piranha.

For decades, spy spoofs have entertained, enlightened and often generated controversy:

In 1946, the Marx Brothers offered “A Night in Casablanca.” Put outjust a few years after the original “Casablanca,” it incurred the wrath of Warner Bros., which had threatened the Marx Brothers with copyright infringement. In response, Groucho dashed off a letter to studio head Jack Warner: “I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers… I am sure the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo…. You claim you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about ‘Warner Brothers’? Do you own that name too? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.”

In TV’s first “Saturday Night Live,” “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” movie satires were commonplace and spy movies were not safe. “Continental Express” cast Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howie Morris as spies on a European train, and was co-written by a young Mel Brooks. In the sketch, each time the lights would go out and come back on, Caesar’s spy character would find something else missing — including, at one point, his pants.

In another spy spoof co-written by Larry Gelbart, Reiner’s character gives instructions to Caesar’s character:

Reiner: “A beautiful, blond woman, dressed in a tight-fitting satin dress, with a gorgeous body, wearing two long earrings will come up to you, and she will say, “Give me the diamond!” You will give it to her. That woman will be me.”

Caesar: “You’ll be in disguise?” Caesar asks.

Reiner: “No. I’m in disguise now.”

Myron Cohen told a joke many years ago about a courier dispatched from Tel Aviv to New York to deliver a coded message to Agent Goldstein. When the courier arrived at the apartment building on Delancey Street, he observed two Goldsteins in the directory, one on the fifth floor and one on the second. Pressing the intercom button for the fifth, he says the code words: “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west,” to which the voice on the intercom responds: “You want Goldstein the spy. He’s on the second floor!” And many more followed: Dean Martin mugged his way through four films as Matt Helm; James Coburn was genius superagent Derek Flint (“Our Man Flint” and “In Like Flint”), blessed with incredible skills (like the ability to stop and restart his own heart), and gadgets (including a custom-made lighter with 82 different functions…“83, if you count lighting a cigar”). And who could forget Napoleon Solo in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”? Solo talked into his pen and worked out of a secret facility located across the street from the United Nations that had a secret entrance through the fitting room of Del Floria’s Tailor Shop on 44th Street.

And still more: “The Avengers” (1961) had super-agent John Steed and “talented amateurs” Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman, future Bond girl “Pussy Galore”), cat-suited Emma Peel (Diana Rigg, then a former Bond Girl), and Tara King (Linda Thorson) in a sleek, tongue-in-cheek British adventure. In 1962, Jethro Beaudine of “The Beverly Hillbillies” declared himself a “double naught spy,” and equipped himself with gadgets, including a hat that he would forget was solid steel and thus knock himself unconscious when he would put on. “The Wild Wild West” (1965) had agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) battling villains in the late 1800s out of their own private train.

But the most famous spoof has to be “Casino Royale” in 1967, which featured an army of Bonds, including David Niven, Peter Sellers and a young Woody Allen as nephew Jimmy Bond. When Jimmy winds up in front of a firing squad in a Latin American country, he tells the squad commander, “You realize this means an angry letter to the Times!”

Gilbert Gottfried told Jay Leno that he was 008 and only had a ‘license to slap.”

Even after this long, illustrious list, the most enduring Bond satire is still the television series “Get Smart,” the comedic brainchild of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Its heart was the hapless Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), who was nothing if not over-gadgeted: a trusty shoe phone, an apartment with a net, a Plexiglas field and a cone of silence — none of which actually ever worked to his advantage. Adams, a comedian who real name was Donald Yarmy, a Sephardic Jew, originally created a dim witted detective character that was based on Williams Powell’s character in “The Thin Man” series, Nick Charles, which he performed on “The Bill Dana Show”: “Inspector, this is your murderer,” went one line. “He’s a liar a cheat, a thief, and a homicidal maniac. But he’s my brother, and I love him!”

Indeed, of all the spoofs, the installments of “Get Smart” probably contained the most overt Jewish references, including one show in which Maxwell partners with an Israeli agent in “The Man From YENTA” (“Your Espionage Network, Tel Aviv”). In a great commentary to the newly released DVD series set, Brooks (who said he named all his major characters Max) claimed that the success of “Get Smart” allowed him the financial freedom to work on his next project, “The Producers.” And he recalled the pilot episode’s opening scene, in which Max’s shoe phone goes off while he is at the symphony. “That was the first time a cell phone went off in an audience — we were prescient!”

Eddy Friedfeld, co-author with Sid Caesar of ‘Caesar’s Hours,’ did audio commentary for the Ultimate Flint Collection DVDs and teaches the history of comedy at New York University.






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