I SPY, which premiered 50 years ago this week on September 15th, 1965, ran for 83 episodes and if you think it was easy compiling a Top Ten list, you’d be mistaken. Most of those 83 could probably be easily shoved into this list. My handicap in trying to come up with a list on my own is the fact that I have not seen all of season three. So I put the question out to other fans on Facebook and over at the I SPY FORUM to try to come up with The List of the 10 best I SPY episodes. These would be the ones that just stick in your mind, the ones that if you were introducing someone new to the show you would have them watch, the ones that had the best story lines, the best performances, the best use of exotic scenery, the best score by Earle Hagen – and more often than not, all of these elements would be in the same episode!
So here we go, in order of season/air date…
So Long, Patrick Henry (Season 1, Episode 1)
I SPY’s original pilot episode, “Affair in T’Sien Cha,” was already in the can, promo photos were being used by the press but NBC wasn’t happy with it. They decided not to go with “Affair” and instead, selecting from other episodes completed, they picked this one to set the tone for the series. And they couldn’t have picked a better episode. Written by series star Robert Culp, the episode features Ivan Dixon (Hogan’s Heroes) as a disgruntled US Olympic athlete who defected to China after the ’64 Olympics. Appearing to not be happy with his decision after a year, the US government is prepared to offer him a chance to come back and Scotty and Kelly are sent to deliver the message. The episode has a great mix of drama and comedy and overwhelmingly succeeded in starting the series off on the right foot.
Tatia (Season 1, Episode 10)
Kelly falls for a freelance photographer, Tatia Loring, who Scotty suspects is an enemy agent. Nearly everyone Tatia has ever photographed has ended up dead. Kelly’s feelings are strong and he doesn’t believe his partner – to the point they have a knock down drag out fight over it. Set in Japan, the episode showcases the Japanese scenery and backdrops beautifully and has an excellent mix of romance and angst.
The Tiger (Season 1, Episode 15)
Prior to taking the role of Kelly Robinson in I SPY, Robert Culp had written a script for a pilot for a potential spy series called “Danny Doyle.” That script was reworked and became this episode. Kelly is sent on a dangerous mission to Vietnam to locate a philanthropist doctor who has gone into hiding. The doctor’s daughter, Sam Than McLean, a US government agent herself, is captured by the enemy in order to lure the doctor out. Scotty waits in the wings to assist in picking Kelly, Sam and her father up but they are under a desperate time table – the US Airforce is set to bomb the area whether Kelly and all make it out or not.
Bet Me a Dollar (Season 1, Episode 20)
The most dangerous thing Kelly can do is get bored. And he does in this episode which prompts him to challenge Scotty to “find” him. The game would be fun, except it takes on a serious turn when Scotty finds out that the knife wound Kelly suffered prior to the challenge has exposed him to anthrax. Meanwhile, Kelly befriends a young Mexican boy who accompanies him through the “game.” Kelly, however, gets sicker as the challenge goes on but refuses to let Scotty find him and it’s up to the young boy to be Kelly’s salvation.
Vendetta (Season 2, Episode 4)
What did I say about Kelly getting bored? This time he’s hanging out by the pool of the hotel he and Scotty are staying at when he spots an attractive Italian girl. She turns out to be bait for a set up and Kelly is held against his will by the family of a man who was killed during the Korean War under Kelly’s command. Kelly is accused of having shot the man in the back and is placed on trial by the family. If convicted, his sentence is death.
Bridge of Spies (Season 2, Episode 9)
Sheesh, you’d think Kelly would be more careful of beautiful women by now but…nope! This time it’s an Italian tourist guide (Barbara Steele) who sets him up so she and an accomplice can retrieve information on other agents and take them out of circulation. Scotty and Kelly’s set ups for contact with other agents are super secretive and the loss of the agents starts to make Scotty and Kelly suspicious of each other.
Room with a Rack (Season 2, Episode 21)
Quite possibly the most disturbing opening for television at the time, we see Kelly chained to a medieval rack, stretched. Subsequent images follow, making it clear that Kelly has been tortured. We then see him in a hospital, recovering – and that’s all before the opening title sequence. He’s given a 30 day vacation but at the same time the Department thinks he’s damaged beyond repair. While on break, Kelly is happy to meet an old friend but the enemy agents who tortured him have found him too. Culp’s performance is fantastic as the nearly broken Kelly, who flinches and cowers much too easily after his ordeal and falls to his knees in tears when he’s brought back to the torture chamber for the second time.
Mainly on the Plains (Season 2, Episode 22)
Kelly befriends Don Silvando, a scientist (Boris Karloff), in Spain and with Scotty must convince him to work for the US. (The Communists are attempting the same but when their agent fails to befriend the scientist they just try to go with force). When Kelly and Scotty offer to drive with the Don to Madrid they discover that his car is full of books – hundreds of copies of all the same book, Don Quixote, in multiple languages. The Don loves the story so much, and has been under quite a bit of strain as of late, along the way to Madrid he has moments of hallucination and thinks he is Don Quixote. The Don saves a damsel in distress, battles the windmills and inadvertently releases a truck load of prisoners.
Magic Mirror (Season 2, Episode 25)
Sam McLean (seen previously in The Tiger) whom Kelly has fallen for is shown to be having an affair with a vicious dictator currently in exile. The dictator plans to return to power with help from the Soviets in exchange for allowing missiles to be based in his country. Kelly and Scotty must find out what he’s up to, stop him and if need be, destroy Sam for her traitorous ways. But is she really a traitor?
Home to Judgment (Season 3, Episode 14)
Consistently a top choice among fans as a favorite, I think I can safely assume that if any I SPY fan were to be stuck on a desert island and could only take one episode with them, this would be it. Kelly and Scotty blow an assignment and escape from the criminals they had been in pursuit of who are now in pursuit of them. The boys seek refuge on an old farm that turns out to be Kelly’s aunt and uncle, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Not wanting to bring heat down on his family, Kelly and Scotty figure to move on as quickly as possible but are caught by Kelly’s Uncle Harry as the bad guys are closing in.
It’s All Done with Mirrors (Season 1, Episode 27)
Kelly is abducted by a Russian scientist (Carroll O’Connor, totally NOT Archie Bunker here) and brainwashed into believing that Scotty is a traitor and must be killed. Kelly is controlled by light reflecting off a mirror and when he fails to kill on the first attempt, the department writes him off and wants him destroyed. Scotty doesn’t believe his partner has deliberately gone rogue and manages to finagle 48 hours to bring Kelly in or otherwise dispatch him himself.
Blackout (Season 2, Episode 24)
Kelly woos a Russian ballerina in order to try to find out who in the ballet company is passing information. He wakes up in a seedy hotel in Spain, the ballerina dead and he unable to recall what’s happened. Colonel Benkovski of the KGB gives Kelly and Scotty approximately 12 hours to figure out what happened and who killed the ballerina before taking the matter to the Spanish authorities.
Laya (Season 3, Episode 3)
A Central African country, recently independent thanks to the Communists, has been receiving arms shipments from the same. Scotty is assigned to befriend an embassy clerk who has access to the information but the assignment becomes complicated when he develops genuine feelings for the woman.
The Lotus Eater (Season 3, Episode 12)
Scotty loses contact with Kelly for 10 days eventually finding him on a Greek isle, literally enjoying wine, women and song. Kelly claims he’s quit the service, has taken up light housekeeping with a pretty Greek girl and dances at the local tavern smashing plates over his head. Scotty suspects something’s up and when he’s jumped by two thugs who work for Sorgi (Sheldon Leonard, previously seen in “Three Hours on a Sunday Night”) he has no doubt. Kelly’s dependence on Ouzo isn’t by accident.
Think there’s an episode that should have been on this list? Let me know in the comments below!