Once Upon a Spy is a strange result. I mean, it’s a TV movie (pilot) for a spy series, complete with a kind of great James Bond-lite seventies music from John Cacavas, Christopher Lee in a electronic wheelchair with a rocket launcher, spy mistress Eleanor Parker working out of a secret headquarters in the Magic Mountain amusement park… oh, and leads Ted Danson and Mary Louise Weller bicker adorably. And Welsh writer Jimmy Sangster makes American Parker say “bloody” a lot because he doesn’t care what Americans sound like.
I’m getting ahead of myself because there are two things to examine and the rest of it all makes sense.
First, Sangster’s script. It’s boring–I can’t imagine not changing the channel from Once Upon a Spy on a relatively temperate Monday night in February 1980. There’s no chemistry between the characters. Sangster can’t even try to figure out how to force it into the script. There’s some attempt to address sexism–though Danson’s dorky computer guy (who all the ladies love–literally, two attempt to grope him) doesn’t know anything, he ignores everything Weller’s super spy tells him. Because, as it turns out, Danson’s the one evil mastermind Lee is really after. Danson beat him for the “Einstein Award for Smart People” once and Lee has never forgotten it.
But if there were chemistry–if Lee and Danson facing off actually did anything, if Danson had an iota of charm outside the strange experience of seeing him so completely without the thing his career’s based on, if Weller’s finale outfit didn’t go through three changes (from cleavage to no cleavage but leather cords wrapped around her legs to a version where it’s no longer a jumpsuit), if Nagy actually had any concept of how to pull of a spy movie based on charm–well, if any of those things, Once Upon a Spy might be somewhat successful.
Instead, Danson comes off like a wooden plank. Despite a little bit of a belly, he’s clearly a physical guy. He’d need to be to have the endurance for all the women falling over him. He doesn’t play computer nerd well, he doesn’t banter with Weller well, he doesn’t banter with Lee well, he doesn’t banter with Parker well. Maybe there are three big problems with Spy–Sangster, Nagy, and Danson. Maybe it’s not just Nagy’s lack of direction to his actors or Sangster’s lame writing, maybe it’s Danson himself. But with the direction and writing being so problematic, it’s impossible to know.
It’s concerning ABC let this one get made with such a dearth of chemistry between its leads. Even if it was in 1979… because there’s nothing there and it wastes Weller’s time. And she’s pretty good, all things considered. Once Sangster’s got her established as overcoming polite sexism to become a super spy, he’s got nothing else for her to do except babysit Danson. Her relationship with Parker is cold because Sangster writes Parker’s character so badly. Maybe if the character were exaggeratedly British, but instead it’s just Parker in a conference room all to herself with nothing to chew on. Nagy’s got no idea what to do with actors.
After Weller, the best performance is probably Lee. If only because he’s a mad scientist who has created a shrinking ray and has to pretend Ted Danson is a worthy intellectual nemesis. Then Parker, who has nothing to do, but does it with professionalism and dignity and as much style as she can get away with given the lame script and direction.
Once Upon a Spy is disappointing. It just needed to be cute and fun. Still, it’s competent as far as most television movies go and Weller’s likable. And that music’s all right.
Directed by Ivan Nagy; teleplay by Jimmy Sangster, based on a story by Lemuel Pitkin and Sangster; director of photography, Dennis Dalzell; edited by Bob Fish and William Neel; music by John Cacavas; production designer, Duane Alt; produced by Jay Daniel; aired by the American Broadcasting Network.
Starring Ted Danson (Jack Chenault), Mary Louise Weller (Tannehill), Eleanor Parker (The Lady), Leonard Stone (Dr. Webster), and Christopher Lee (Marcus Valorium).