Spies Like Us: The Jews’ Answer to Bond

Film

By Eddy Friedfeld

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.