by Mitchell Hadley
In our continuing series on obscure television oddities, we turn now to one of TV’s most exciting genres: political intrigue. In particular, the topic today is assassination. Political assassination isn’t a taboo topic anymore; shows such as 24 feature these kinds of plots all the time. But there was a time when the idea of a plot to assassinate the president of the United States was something that could be truly shocking, even controversial.
Most people probably know at least something about the tangential relationship between the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate and the assassination the following year of John F. Kennedy. In particular, it has long been thought that the movie had been withdrawn from circulation (at star Frank Sinatra’s request) following Kennedy’s death. Although this now appears to be something of an urban legend1, there can be no denying the unsettling proximity of the two events.2
The marketing campaign for the 1988 re-release referred (I believe) to the plot as being “once unthinkable.” Indeed, at the time of JFK’s assassination it had been 62 years since a successful presidential assassination had occurred in the United States. Notwithstanding the attempts against FDR’s life in 1933 and Truman’s in 1950, it did seem (as one contemporary observer put it) that the United States had “matured” beyond the point of political assassination. Sadly, subsequent events over the years would prove that assassination was hardly a thing of the past.
Despite this, in the political fiction of the 50s and 60s the idea was never all that far beneath the surface. The 1954 film Suddenly, for example, also starred Sinatra – this time not as the man thwarting the killer (as he did in The Manchurian Candidate), but as the would-be killer himself.3
However, seeing as how this is a television website, let’s take a closer look at two episodes of series television: “One Hundred Days of the Dragon,” which appeared as the second episode of ABC’s science-fiction series The Outer Limits; and “November Five,” an episode from the third season of the British spy-adventure series The Avengers.
What is extraordinary about these episodes is that they both dealt with political assassination – and they each aired on their respective television networks in their respective countries less than two months before JFK’s murder.
As the November 2, 1963 episode of The Avengers opens, we are presented with the announcement of the winner of a Parliamentary by-election.4 The election official stands ready with the figures, flanked by the opposing candidates and their handlers. As the camera angle changes, we are given a look at the scene from above and to the right of the group. A figure then appears in the foreground, and we find that we are looking over the shoulder of a man with a rifle.
The announcement of the vote totals is made, candidate Michael Dyter is declared the winner, the gunman pulls the trigger. Dyter throws his hands about his face and crumples to the ground, dead from a gunshot wound to the head, as the crowd screams. The title is superimposed on the screen: November Five.
In looking at this scene today, one cannot help but be struck by this eerie, almost unnerving scene, with its similarities to the Kennedy assassination. The appearance of the title, coupled with an image of the dead body, presents a particularly stark image for today’s viewer, giving us a date that is a mere 17 days prior to November 22. (The fact that the show was broadcast less than three weeks before Kennedy’s death is somehow less visceral, but no less remarkable.)
Although no such image appears in the Outer Limits episode “One Hundred Days of the Dragon” (broadcast September 23, 1963), the premise here is even closer to home: the assassination of an American presidential candidate. In this case, we are given William Lyons Selby, almost certain to be elected the next president of the United States, who has been targeted by an Oriental nation. (Read: China? North Korea?) Scientists from this country have developed a remarkable drug that permits human flesh to be remolded and shaped at will. By using facial and fingerprint molds, virtually anyone can be made to assume someone else’s identity.
With the use of an agent who has been thoroughly prepared to move, sound, and act like Selby, the plan is put into action: Selby is murdered, injected with the drug and altered in appearance, the double is put in his place, the dead Selby is made to look like an assassin who was shot after entering the candidate’s bedroom. (Remember that Secret Service protection was not offered to presidential candidates until after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, so the idea of a would-be assassin breaking into a candidate’s hotel room and then being shot by the candidate himself is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem today.) The imposter Selby is subsequently elected president, with the intent of following an agenda that would make the unnamed Asian nation the dominant world power.5
In this sense, “One Hundred Days of the Dragon” resembles a noir-ish Manchurian Candidate far more closely than it does “November Five,” or Suddenly, for that matter. Nonetheless, it’s a disturbing picture of a foreign country engaging in political assassination, on a television program broadcast less than two months to the day before an American president is assassinated by a former defector to the Soviet Union.6
An interesting feature to consider is that both of these episodes are from series that were either explicitly or generally considered to be fantasy or science fiction. (The Avengers, while ostensibly of the “secret agent” genre, specialized in plots so outrageous that it often falls into the “fantasy” category.) One can’t be sure that this is entirely coincidental – witness the experiences of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling.
Serling, who through the 50s had become increasingly frustrated by interference from sponsors and network officials, saw things come to a head while writing “The Arena,” an episode of Studio One (available, incidentally, on the current Studio One DVD release) dealing with political intrigue in the United States Senate. Although there were no on-screen assassinations in “The Arena,” that’s not to say there wasn’t bloodshed – with most of the shed blood being Serling’s. “I was not permitted to have my Senators discuss any current or pressing problem,” Serling said. “To talk of tariff was to align oneself with the Republicans; to talk of labor was to suggest control by the Democrats. To say a single thing germane to the current political scene was absolutely prohibited.”7
Serling’s answer was to turn to science fiction, where serious issues could be discussed in a setting abstract enough to forestall objection from his perennial nemeses. Whereas Suddenly avoided any overt ideological connotations for its hired assassins (other than an apparent belief in capitalism), and The Manchurian Candidate could be appreciated as a sly satire of the McCarthy era, television – much more of a mass medium, requiring the financial support of sponsors, was much more skittish about tackling The Big Issues.8 Is it a surprise, therefore, that these two programs, dealing with political assassinations, both fall into the broad category of sci-fi and fantasy?
But if you had any remaining doubts, consider that both shows conclude with relatively happy endings. In “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” the evil doppelganger is finally defeated thanks to the president’s daughter, who has noticed subtle but substantial differences in her father, and Vice President Pearson, who thwarts a plan to replace him with a similar double and thereby reveals the whole plot.9 The Avengers allows for an even more satisfactory conclusion, as Steed and Mrs. Gale uncover and then disarm an attempt to blow up Parliament, in the process discovering that Dyter’s death was actually a ruse.10
Now, this piece isn’t intended to be the be-all and end-all on this topic. It’s not a scholarly piece, despite the footnotes. (They are impressive though, aren’t they?) And there are probably well-informed readers out there who could come up with many more examples of TV shows that touched on assassination, at least indirectly.
The significance of these two episodes is, of course, retrospective. At the time they were simply representative installments of their respective series, becoming truly interesting primarily in hindsight. Indeed, the “November Five” episode of The Avengers wouldn’t appear in this country for years, as the episodes featured on ABC would be those starring Diana Rigg, rather than the earlier shows with Honor Blackman (of which “November Five” was one.)
What makes them worth considering is the proximity of their airing to the actual event. Nobody watching these shows could possibly have realized how different they might look within a few weeks. And it’s unlikely that anyone who lived through the darkness of November 1963 would be in a mood to see either of them again anytime soon.
EPILOG (As Quinn Martin Would Say)
We can’t really bid this topic farewell without noting that five years later, in June of 1968, people would once again be taking a very hard look at what they’d seen on television, and for a similar reason: the death of a Kennedy.
The wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, coming as it did barely two months following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was the occasion for a great deal of gut-wrenching soul searching throughout America. And, as was to be expected, television would become a focal point of that examination.
For example, let’s take a look at the June 22-28, 1968 issue of TV Guide. (RFK had been shot in the early morning of June 5, dying the next day.) The programming section of the Guide features the following bordered note:
The nation had had time to absorb the shock of the second major assassination in two months, and the letters section reflected a substantial way of thinking of many Americans:
“And during the same year, and in preceding years, many of the most popular shows on TV have been based on firearms and violence. Were the slayers of President Kennedy, Senator Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King influenced by the violence glorified on TV? TV should search its own soul for what it may be contributing to the increase of violence.” - Casey Willis, Tucson, AZ
“In view of the recent assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert Kennedy, will you please take the violence off the screen. I can censor my own children’s programs, but what of the children whose parents don’t know or care what is pounded into their impressionable little heads? Your coverage of these tragic events is to be commended. Now do something to prevent them. – Mary G. Hendrickson, Hudson, NY
“In my opinion, TV is one of the words offenders in this crime. Shows of violence like Mission: Impossible and movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” are warping our youngsters.”
In the following issue of TV Guide (June 29-July 5) we see that the networks had responded, in a fashion which some might consider typically over-the-top. Writer Richard Doan reported that “Every show that could be deemed too violent or in ‘bad taste’ in view of the national mood has been yanked,” including an episode of the Big Valley dealing with the assassination of a congressman. The list was interesting, to say the least: reruns of The Avengers (alas, not “November Five”; that would have been more than eerie), The FBI, The Guns of Will Sonnett, Bonanza, I Spy, The Champions, High Chaparral, Gunsmoke and The Wild Wild West.11 CBS ordered the writers of the soap Love is a Many Splendored Thing to postpone a storyline involving a youthful candidate for president. Even comedies were not immune; content in sitcoms such as The Flying Nun and The Second Hundred Years were considered “inappropriate.” Even “Prescription: Murder,” the pilot for Columbo, was pushed to another date.12 With all the schedule shifting causing the pre-empted episodes to be pushed into August (when, the networks probably hoped, things would have calmed down13), one network insider predicted that month would probably be “the bloodiest in TV history.” He was probably right.
The editors of TV Guide were not about to go against the flow, speaking out harshly against programs such as The Virginian and Run For Your Life that resorted to what they saw as gratuitous gunfights designed to heighten dramatic tension. Their conclusion: “We appeal to the networks, which are chiefly responsible, to exercise restraint – even if it does hurt their ratings. We ask them to reduce, or eliminate, unnecessary violence in entertainment shows.”
Looking back on all this, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It seems an awfully naïve time, doesn’t it? Shows such as Columbo and Mission: Impossible, now considered some of the most clever shows of the 60s and 70s, decried as being too violent?14 For that matter, in an era when The Sopranos is considered one of the finest television shows of all time, the very notion of “gratuitous violence” seems almost absurd. But such was the mood in the convulsive spring of 1968, and there is something bittersweet about the whole thing.
Maybe it was foolish to be shocked by such relatively tame violence, but sometimes it’s a good thing that we can still retain the capacity to be shocked. The aftermath of 9/11, when the memory of bodies falling from the upper floors of the World Trade Center caused songs such as “Free Falling” to be temporarily removed from radio station playlists, is a reminder that our entertainment media – television, movies and music – is always a barometer of the cultural mood. To look at what is said about television is to get a snapshot of the times in which we live, and likely this will always be the case.
FOOTNOTES, FACTOIDS AND COMPLETELY UNRELATED (IF SOMEWHAT INTERESTING) OBSERVATIONS:
1 According to Michael Schlesinger, who was responsible for the film's 1988 reissue, its apparent “withdrawal” from circulation was unrelated to the Kennedy assassination. He remarked that the film was "simply played out" by 1963, and that MGM did not re-release it theatrically until 1988 due to disagreements with Sinatra's attorneys over the terms of the film's licensing. Sources: Wikipedia, Snopes
2 In November-December 1962, Lee Harvey Oswald’s path frequently took him past a downtown Dallas movie theater where The Manchurian Candidate played for four straight weeks. His widow Marina spoke several times of Oswald’s proclivity to go out evenings by himself to the movies. Source: John Loken, Oswald's Trigger Films, pp. 8–9).
3 In Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel Libra, the author hypothesizes that Oswald had seen the movie on television in the days leading up to November 22, thus fueling his murderous imagination. There is no actual evidence that Oswald ever saw Suddenly.
4 The by-election takes place in East Anglia, whose bishop would later be made famous by Monty Python.
5 The actor Sidney Blackman, playing both Selby and his doppelganger, does a particularly nice job in this episode. When playing the Selby double, for instance, he occasionally lets his eyes narrow into very Asian-appearing slits (enhanced by excellent lighting and cinematography), a touch that subtly underlies his inherent evil.
6 For those of you subscribing to various assassination conspiracy theories, consider this sentence to be simply a case of literary license.
7 From Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.
8 When they were discussed, it was usually done via period pieces; Julius Caesar, for example – after all, the assassination of Caesar happened a long time ago. And besides, Shakespeare wrote it; how controversial could that be?
9 Want more evidence this is a fantasy? The new president, Pearson, declines to launch a retaliatory attack on the Oriental power because, in these nightmare Cold War days, “there is no war as we knew it, only annihilation.” Although, come to think of it, this was precisely LBJ’s main fear in the wake of JFK’s death: that a foreign power was behind it, and the American people would demand retaliation.
10 Mrs. Gale (Honor Blackman) proposes to run for the vacant East Anglia seat, with Steed (Patrick Macnee) as her manager. Once the sinister plot is smashed and Dyter’s role in the whole affair exposed, she drops out of the race and everyone lives happily ever after, or at least until the next episode. As one writer points out though, everyone seems to forget that the East Anglia seat is still vacant.
11 Notice how many of these shows were Westerns? Another reporter notes that Have Gun Will Travel, which was still seen in syndication in some markets, was one of the most violent programs on television. By the late 60s the TV oater was considered a dying form; I wonder if this might have played a role?
12 This came too late for a rerun of the “Walking Target” episode of the cop show N.Y.P.D. that aired on the very night of the California primary, June 4, in which the lead characters “go after the sniper who tried to assassinate a visiting VIP.”
13 Considering the Democratic convention in Chicago, those hopes would appear to have been unfounded. However, the demonstrations at the convention did provide some flowing blood in living color.
14 Even Bonnie and Clyde, which at the time was considered one of the most graphically violent movies ever made, might have a hard time today competing with Scorsese and Tarantino.
© 2009, Mitchell Hadley
Mitchell Hadley is Managing Editor and “Cultural Archaeologist” of “Our Word and Welcome to It,” at hadleyblog.blogspot.com. His most recent article for TVparty! was on the Christmas television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Article © 2008 Mitchell Hadley
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