Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Honey West" Kicked Open the Door for Female Action Stars on American TV

Cathy Gale (Honor Blackman) of The Avengers created a sensation on British television in the early 1960s with her fighting skills and stylish sense of fashion. Thus, it was inevitable that a U.S. television network would follow suit and launch its own action series with a strong heroine.

To test the concept, private eye Honey West (played by Anne Francis) was introduced in a 1965 episode of the Gene Barry detective series Burke's Law. The character had first appeared in the Honey West novels written by Gloria and Forest Fickling under the pseudonym "G.G. Fickling." There were eleven Honey West books, starting with 1957's This Girl for Hire.

Honey gets a massage from Sam
as she ponders a case.
Hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, ABC introduced the half-hour Honey West series on Friday nights in the fall of 1965. Francis headlined as Honey, who owned a private detective agency and shared a home with her Aunt Meg (Irene Hervey) and a pet ocelot named Bruce. John Ericson played her partner (and pseudo-boyfriend) Sam, whose overprotective nature is put to the test with Honey's confidence and independence.

Anne Francis was working mostly in television when she signed on to do Honey West. Still, she was big enough a star on the silver screen that she could snare an occasional lead role (The Satan Bug) or a juicy supporting part (Funny Girl). She had the charisma, spunk, and likability factor to make Honey West a success. It didn't hurt either that she looked great in her all-black sleuthing outfit.

Ericson's good looks and easy-going manner keep him steadily employed in television throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He guest-starred in everything from Shirley Temple Theatre to The Fugitive to the Love Boat. He and Anne Francis had appeared together earlier, as brother and sister, in the 1955 Spencer Tracy classic Bad Day at Black Rock.

Unfortunately, the Honey West series lacked the clever plots and witty banter that made The Avengers a fan favorite. At times, Sam seems almost condescending in his treatment of Honey, which is odd considering that she's technically his boss and she's capable of pummeling the bad guys on her own. Meanwhile, Aunt Meg and Bruce rarely get involved in the plots, their roles relegated mostly to making amusing remarks and purring, respectively. Still, the series improved as the season progressed, with some of the best episodes being written by William Link and Richrad Levinson, the team later responsible for Columbo and Murder, She Wrote.

Bruce had a rare meaty part in
the episode "A Stitch in Crime."
It's unfair, of course, to compare Honey West  to The Avengers. Taken on its own terms, Honey West is a diverting half-hour detective show. The gadgets are fun (e.g., Honey and Sam frequently communicate with tiny transmitters) and the use of homonyms during scene transitions is borderline brilliant. And when the plots start to sag, there's always Ms. Francis to keep the action percolating.

Although Honey West was cancelled after just one season, its impact was almost immediate. In 1966, ABC began broadcasting the Diana Rigg episodes of The Avengers and NBC spun off The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. with Stefanie Powers. The female action star was here to stay and future series such as Get Christie Love, The Bionic Woman, and even Alias owe some of their success to Honey West.

9 comments:

  1. Rick,

    I remember watching this as a young teenager. The James Bond films also had an effect on this series. With the gadgets it was halfway betweem James Bond and Peter Gunn.

    Can't say I remember much about the episodes themselves. I do remember reading two of the books in the series that were reissued at the time. I think you can see a lineage between Anne Francis' Honey West and the strong action hero type women (A. Jolie) we have today.

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  2. Rick, I liked reading about this short-lived series. It was a few years before my time, but I was a small child during the 70s and remember watching The Bionic Woman and Charlie's Angels, so it was nice to learn about the first of these type of series in the States.

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  3. My wife and I rented some of the HONEY WEST episodes from Netflix, and we enjoyed it, especially my wife (she offered this now classic quote: "She had an ocelot for a pet! How could you not like it?!"). Honey is a bit like Mrs. Peel (with Bondesque gadgets), but, as Rick said, the show doesn't quite reach the level of THE AVENGERS. And we also agreed that Sam was excessively snooty and needed to be slapped around, preferably by Honey and for the duration of an entire episode. Thanks, Rick, for a superb write-up that I know my wife will also enjoy!

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  4. Interesting series to read about, Rick. I have always liked Anne Francis. I have never seen this series but your description makes me want to try it. And Sark mentioned it is on Netflix so that settles it for me! Nicely written article and I enjoyed it!!

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  5. Brings back some memories Rick. I saw a few episodes when I was a teen but haven't seen them since. Need to get re-acquainted with Ms. West thanks to your cool post.

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  6. I've been working my way through the Honey West discs. It's a fun series. I love all of the leads, but I do agree that the scripts could have used a boost. If it were just a tad more witty, this would be one of my favorite shows. As it is, Anne Francis still does an amazing job playing a great heroine.

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  7. Rick, my family has discovered "Honey West," too! Anne is fabulous and has charisma galore. There are some very clever transitions but the scripts lack consistency. I also agree that John is capable but his character could use a course in employee relations with one's employer. I was quite surprised to see Honey have a pet ocelot and hope Bruce appears more often in the remaining episodes we have left to see. Great post!

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  8. I used to watch "Honey West" when it was on TV in the '60s...loved all the spy shows of the era...then at some point in the '90s an IT consultant I worked with - had been with Atari in the '70s - told me I reminded him of Honey West...I ran. Would love to see the series now to see how it holds up...and what that Atari refugee was talking about...

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  9. Rick, I think I remember Honey West best for her hair and her seductive little mole. As a teen, I wished I had a mole just like it. You are right on with your analysis of the series, and I remember it fondly as a fun show.

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