Making the I Spy CDs
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
One of the earliest FSM albums that I remember putting special attention into was the first CD we did from I Spy, the groundbreaking 1960s action–espionage show.
Most of the CDs we had done to that point (2002) had been licensed from Fox, MGM or Turner Entertainment (soon to be absorbed into Warner Bros.). So they came with a certain template for licensing and production.
I Spy was independently owned, however, so I had to invent that process from scratch. And TV series are always hard, because of the number of episodes to sort through. It was a somewhat complicated endeavor, and I was proud of the results.
Earle Hagen’s I Spy music is jazzy, tuneful and fun—it’s really terrific. Each episode notably had an original score (unlike the norm for 1960s television). The producer, Sheldon Leonard, felt that tracking shows from a music library was like “wearing somebody else’s underwear.”
There were two I Spy LPs released at the time of the series (1965–68), both arranged and conducted by Earle himself. Unlike a lot of “soundtrack albums” from the era, which consisted of lounge-ified versions of the TV themes (like The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Earle recorded his two soundtracks LPs from his television orchestrations—albeit in longer, fleshed-out arrangements. So they really did sound like the TV show.
Earle was a great guy. He had published his memoirs around this time, which is still available. He was in his eighties but sharp as a tack and, above all, reasonable. Some people are just reasonable, and others are...not. God bless the reasonable ones! And when you get the chance to work with them—do it.
I dimly recall at the time that Earle’s wife of many decades was ill, and he was putting all his attention into caring for her. She sadly died that year (2002), and he remarried a few years later. His new wife, Laura, was super nice, and after Earle passed (at 88 in 2008) I dealt directly with her on some royalty administration matters.
Earle recommended releasing the two LPs—but while he could license Vol. 1 to us (he produced it himself, and released it through Warner Bros. Records, but retained the rights), Vol. 2 was owned in perpetuity by Capitol Records. At the time, it was not possible to do business with Capitol in the small scale we needed. (They wanted royalties based on 5,000 units or something unworkable.)
So I turned my attention to the original TV recordings. There was an outfit named Peter Rodgers Organization who distributed the series, and they seemed eager to take our money. But Earle was like, “No no no. You must contact Ruth Engelhardt at the William Morris Agency”—who administered the music rights we needed.
So I called Ruth. She was in her eighties and worked only on Tuesdays (I think) at William Morris. Apparently she was a legend! I had no idea. Earle said, “Tell her I sent you”—I did, she was receptive, and she did a deal for us for the soundtrack CD.
Next were the master tapes. I was put in touch with a producer from the series itself, Ronnie Jacobs, who knew were the film assets were and had administrative authority over them—at one of the tape vaults in Burbank.
I went to the tape vault company (maybe Film Bond?) and they let me look over the shelves of reel-to-reel tapes—where I was overjoyed to find ½'' three-track stereo masters for, approximately, the first 25 episodes.
These tapes sounded so good! Imagine if we had Star Trek music in that fidelity? (We actually do, but only for “The City on the Edge of Forever.”)
The rest of season one and season two were in ¼'' mono. And for some reason, season three was missing. All they had for those were the dialogue-music-effects tapes, which are not suitable for soundtrack albums because they’re edited, and the volume level goes up and down.
This was a problem because one of Earle’s best scores was to the third-season episode, “Home to Judgment,” and it was so uniquely orchestrated he didn’t include it on either of the soundtrack LPs.
Earle also had a personal collection of reel-to-reel tapes (in mono) that he had taken home, and he knew that he had “Home to Judgment” in there. But he had donated all his materials to UCLA.
So I went to UCLA to look through his tapes—and also his physical scores, to find out who actually wrote what. (Between Earle, series composer Hugo Friedhofer, and a couple of arranger/orchestrators who helped out with deadlines, each episode could be a hodgepodge of different composers’ work, regardless of the screen credits.)
There was a tape box at UCLA labeled “Home to Judgment”—but it had the wrong tape inside! Earle thought he had the physical tape at home (he knew he definitely had it, somewhere) but again—this was not a good time for him and his family.
So I figured I would release extended suites from five of Earle’s best scores: “So Long, Patrick Henry” (so good!), “The Time of the Knife” (the first episode in Japan), “Turkish Delight” (the first episode in Mexico)—those three in gorgeous stereo—and from season two, in mono, “The Warlord” (so good!) and “Mainly on the Plains” (lovely!).
I’m proud of the CD and think it came out really well.
“So Long, Patrick Henry” had been aired as the series pilot (although it wasn’t produced first) and was a crackerjack episode, with a terrific score (with themes not represented on either soundtrack LP). But on one track (“Keep Running”), I was perplexed by the absence of a Chinese mouth organ on the master tape of the orchestra—I could hear it in the episode, but not on the music master, what the heck?
It turns out, Earle traveled the world with the production crew and would buy local albums, to get a sense of indigenous music. That mouth organ literally came from some random Hong Kong LP that Earle bought and transferred to reel-to-reel tape, and overdubbed into his score, and the show. (I had the sense that it was never licensed, because in the 1960s, who cared about copyrights from Hong Kong?)
I had to literally audition tape after tape, track after track until presto! I found it. We transferred it and recreated the edit. (At the time, UCLA was loosey-goosey with their tape holdings. Nowadays, it would take forever and cost a fortune to go through their formal transfer process.)
A few words about I Spy, the show itself:
This was a groundbreaking production, not only because of the casting of white and black leads (as equals and friends), but because of the gorgeous international location photography. Unlike U.N.C.L.E. or Mission: Impossible, all shot on backlots, Sheldon Leonard resolved to travel the world to capture actual location photography. In the 1960s, places like Mexico, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain and Greece were not commonly seen or visited by Americans, certainly not to the degree they are today. (That’s one of the reasons why James Bond films were so renowned for their glamour.) I Spy did it every week, combining the exterior location photography with interiors shot in Hollywood.
Unfortunately…well, two things.
One is that the horrifying latter-day revelations about Bill Cosby have left this show as damaged goods. The best thing about the series is the interplay between Cosby and Robert Culp, their jazz-like riffing and buddy relationship, and knowing that Cosby has committed such appalling crimes…well, it’s just sickening. You always try to separate the art from the artist, but here, it’s hard.
The other thing is…no, not that the 2002 big-screen version with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson sucked (though it did). The show—and this is obviously just my opinion—wasn’t as well written as it could have been, certainly by today’s standards.
As enjoyable as Culp and Cosby are (they improvised much of their dialogue), and as novel and vibrant as the location photography is, many episodes revolve around little more than stock television espionage plots.
That is, except for certain episodes that don’t. And seven of the best were written by Culp personally—including two that we put on the CD, “So Long, Patrick Henry” and “The War Lord.”
That’s right, Culp was also a writer—and unlike the usual macho blockhead actor posing as a screenwriter (Seagal?), Culp was the real deal. He and Sam Peckinpah were friends and apparently it rubbed off.
The series was out on DVD at the time, and Culp recorded commentaries for his episodes. I watched them and was blown away, both by the quality of his shows, and by his commentaries—his passion and care as he reminisced about the scripts and shoots.
Culp’s episodes are full of tension, humor, philosophy and, above all, drama. They have that “tumbling out of control” feeling that you get from real screenwriters—like, we’re dead, gotta get the bad guy, save the world, but HOW??? High stakes, high emotion. As Culp explained, the show wasn’t real, it was “hyperreal.” But it needed some semblance of reality to maintain its structure—and especially, its humanity.
His episodes were so good, it made it hard for me to go back to the other episodes with their dopey, hack–TV scenarios.
I really wanted to meet Culp, or at least get him involved in the CD. I called his agent (a showbiz legend named Hilly Elkins), Hilly connected us, and Culp was excited and cooperative on the phone. He seemed...reasonable!
He happily dictated a foreword for the liner notes, which I typed up and faxed to him. He made corrections and faxed it back. Here it is!
I remember on the phone, I asked something along the lines of what should I call him? “Mr. Culp” sounded a little weird, and not my style. He said, with all the charm from his decades on television, “Well, my pals call my Bob, and you’re a pal—so you can call me Bob.” I was like, awwww! This is great!
During this time, however, whenever I mentioned “my new pal Bob” to Earle or Ronnie Jacobs…their reaction was a bit guarded.
It turns out that Bob had a reputation for being difficult: he had been envious of Cosby’s improvisational talent, and tried to emulate him. The result were two actors going off-script, driving everybody else crazy. (When actors improvise, the shows get too long, important plot information can be lost, and a host of other problems can occur.)
I’m sure there was other history. I didn’t ask, and Earle didn’t elaborate. Maybe it’s just how the Star Trek cast grumble about Shatner: “Oh, that guy.” You know, the good-looking lead who’s charming, but a little full of himself—and after decades, it wears thin.
In any case, I did get to experience the flipside of Culp myself—and it was chilly! Brrrr!
In August 2003, there was some kind of spy–show convention aboard the Queen Mary. Culp was going to be there, and I eagerly attended. I think I set up a table to sell some CDs—including of The Poseidon Adventure, which was shot onboard.
Side anecdote! This is the event where Mrs. Irwin Allen, Sheila Matthews Allen, walked past my table, saw our Posideon Adventure CDs and stopped in her tracks. She was immediately dubious and nosy: “What is that?” She seemed almost pissed off. I explained it was the first-ever soundtrack release, it was licensed from Fox—so not to worry, it wasn’t some bootleg or anything like that. She backed off, “Oh, okay. I get money from that.” Exact quote! Such a classy lady. Here she is:
Back to Culp! He was at a table signing autographs. I was so excited to finally meet him. Of course, we were pals! PALS! We had, to a limited extent, “worked together.”
And to this day, I don’t know if the experience of being out among fans was making him nervous and aloof. Or if he simply didn’t remember me—because I explained who I was, and he seemed to acknowledge it...but it was like nobody was home.
For whatever reason, that man was ice-cold to me. It was really disappointing.
I mean, my life has gone on—but it seemed to be a case of a celebrity being unnecessarily rude to a fan. Like he had a bug up his ass about something else, and decided to take it out on me. It was weird.
(And honestly, folks, I know there are many times I’ve been rude and annoying. This was not one of those times!)
I remember, for some reason, asking about the TV movie he did for Gene Roddenberry, a busted pilot called Spectre, from 1977. He glared at me like I was an utter moron and said, “The blood doesn’t show on the screen.” Ouch!
Now, to be true, Spectre was a problematic shoot, and I guess he hated talking about it. But it was 25 years ago, who cares?
Here are the only pictures I have from this event (low-res)—Earle was also there, and he was super sweet and, as always, reasonable. I think I said something to him along the lines of, “I see what you mean about Bob Culp.” And he was like...“Yup.”
L-R: Me, Culp, Earle.
But I still love the episodes Culp wrote. With him, I am totally able to separate the art from the artist.
It is now almost 20 years later. We did, in fact, release a second CD of I Spy, containing the two LP recordings (Capitol gave us a lower royalty guarantee some years thereafter)—and it’s still available. I hope people buy it, it’s terrific!
Alas, Culp is gone. Earle is gone. Ruth Engelhardt is gone. Cosby, like some kind of post-apocalyptic nuclear raping cockroach, is still alive.
We never did release “Home to Judgment”—let alone find it—but if any other label wants to pick up the torch with I Spy music, I’ll tell you everything I know. Email me!