Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled Palmer… Harry Palmer: 13 fictional spies made possible by James Bond

1. John Steed

The Avengers debuted in 1961, before the James Bond movies captured the world's attention. But back then, the ultra-suave, bowler-hatted super-spy John Steed wasn't the main character, and it was more a flashy police procedural than an espionage adventure. It wasn't until a few years later, after 007 became an iconic figure, that the popularity of The Avengers exploded and John Steed made his transformation from rough-and-tumble cop to dashing international man of mystery. Even then, it took the addition of science-fiction elements—and a rotating cast of ass-kicking lovelies—to fully flesh out what would become one of the longest-running spy shows of all time. As the series went on, John Steed, played with deadly élan by Patrick Macnee, became more Bond-like, and while co-stars Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg both went on to spend time with 007, Rigg's catsuit-favoring Emma Peel became Steed's most iconic sidekick.

2. Harry Palmer

Len Deighton introduced the character-to-be-known-as-Harry-Palmer as the nameless protagonist of The IPCRESS File in 1962. Conceived as the antithesis of Bond, he got a name and an unmistakable look from Michael Caine in the 1965 film adaptation of IPCRESS. Working-class and schlubby, Palmer takes no pleasure in his job, which mostly involves a lot of tedious observational work broken up by outbursts of paranoia and violence. But he still seems determined to make the best of it, taking pleasure in classical music, and in one memorable scene, the most seductive meal canned vegetables can create. Deighton wrote five more novels featuring his nameless spy, two of which were turned into Palmer movies starring Caine, who reprised the role again for a pair of TV movies in the '90s.

3. James Bond Junior

The protagonist of the 1967 novel 003 1/2: The Adventures Of James Bond Junior isn't, as the name suggests, the son of James Bond, but his nephew. Young Master Bond's adventures proved short-lived, however, as the series never spawned any sequels. (It did inspire an early-'90s cartoon series.) The most intriguing aspect of the project may be the true identity of its author, "R.D. Mascott," whose real name has never been revealed.


4. Maxwell Smart

There had been a few isolated spoofs of James Bond when ABC producer Daniel Melnick got the idea to put a super-spy parody on the air, but his turned out to be the most lasting. His original intent, explained to two relatively unknown network writers named Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was to roll into one character the suave super-agent and the bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau, both of whom were incredibly popular at the time. The part was handed to a stand-up comic named Don Adams, whose hysterical, incompetent self-confidence is what made Agent 86 so memorable. Watching the series today, it holds up amazingly well, largely because it's such a pitch-perfect parody of Bond—from the international settings to the colorful villains to the crazy gadgets—that keeps with Brooks' intent to take the original 007 oeuvre and "stretch it half an inch." This year's remake failed to capture the spirit of the original in spite of reprising some familiar elements.

5. Austin Powers

Mike Myers' temporally displaced super-spy/super-swinger became so ubiquitous—and his lines so endlessly parroted by would-be funny guys—that it's easy to forget that Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery wasn't a huge hit when it was released. And no wonder: It's a curiously timed comedy, coming a good 30 years after James Bond parodies were anything close to culturally relevant. It also came at a rotten time in Myers' career, following two huge duds, So I Married An Axe Murderer and Wayne's World 2. It's hard to believe the movie's simple concept took him a full four years to develop, even given his alleged perfectionist tendencies, but it all paid off in the end: The movie became a big hit on its video release, and its sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, was a box-office monster. In one of those goofy show-business ironies that crop up from time to time, it may have even helped rejuvenate the James Bond franchise by sparking interest in the super-spy genre among younger audiences.

6. Derek Flint

A sort of Austin Powers from the heart of the era the Powers movie sent up, Derek Flint served as the protagonist of 1966's Our Man Flint and its 1967 sequel In Like Flint. James Coburn (and his blinding teeth) played Flint, an agent of Z.O.W.I.E., and like Get Smart, the Flint films found humor in stretching the Bond formula just a little. Coburn plays a marine biologist/art collector/karate expert/you get the joke by now who lives with beautiful women devoted to his happiness and well-being, when he isn't saving the world via amazing gadgets like a lighter with 82 different functions. Or 83, actually, if you count lighting a cigar.

7. Sydney Bristow

Alias has all sorts of hip modern elements, as one might expect from its impish creator, J.J. Abrams. There's the tortured family drama, the betrayal of trust, the divided loyalties, the suppressed romantic yearnings, and the mysterious Italian prophet/inventor. Yeah, yeah. The real appeal of the show, and its ass-kicking, name-taking heroine, Sydney Bristow, is that she's James Bond for the Lost generation. The parallels are so obvious, they're painful: the mildly disapproving head man, the mildly incomprehensible gadget man, the shadowy enemy organization with impenetrable goals, the international jet-setting, the barely maintained disguises, the elaborate pre-credit action sequences: the whole show simply screams "Bond." Jennifer Garner spent a little more time crying than 007 ever did, but at least Anna Espinosa was easier on the eye than Jaws.


8. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Both versions of Nick Fury were a product of uncanny trend-spotting by Marvel Comics head honcho Stan Lee. First introduced in 1963, in Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #1, Fury was intended to capitalize on the then-popular genre of World War II comics, and his rambunctious band of fightin' dogfaces proved popular. But before long, Lee sussed that super-spies would be the next big thing, and only a few months later, Nick Fury showed up in modern-day Fantastic Four stories as the top agent of the awkwardly named S.H.I.E.L.D., an espionage organization under the command of the United Nations. Given a superhero-style outfit, and tricked out with super-spy weapons and gadgets, the new Fury came across as a mixture of James Bond and Captain America. Eventually becoming a fixture in the Marvel Universe, Fury became the star of his own title, and was briefly written and drawn by the legendary Jim Steranko in what's generally recognized as one of the most artistically stunning accomplishments of the Silver Age. In the 21st century, Fury was revamped as a Samuel L. Jackson look-alike for Marvel's Ultimate line, which led in turn to Jackson playing Fury in Marvel films, beginning with Iron Man. He's such an enduring character that he even survived being played by David Hasselhoff in a TV movie.

9. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

From 1964 to 1968, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum played international crime-fighters facing off against the world-domination-craving agents of THRUSH, with the help of Bond-like gadgetry and wall-sized computers. Like The Wild, Wild West and Mission: Impossible, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. fetishized nonexistent technology, integrating its fountain-pen communicators, pencil-thin air rifles, and triangular badges so fully into the show that they became as important as the plots. U.N.C.L.E.'s biggest gimmick was McCallum's character: a Russian fighting alongside the good guys. McCallum's presence sent a message to Americans that bitter Cold War enemies could come together to fight the death-ray-wielding super-crooks that were the world's real threat.

10. Steve Victor (a.k.a. The Man From O.R.G.Y.)

Swinging super-spy Steve Victor provided the prolific writer Ted Mark with a meal ticket from 1965 to 1981 via adventures of a slightly more explicit nature than Bond's in books like Dial "O" For O.R.G.Y. and The Square Root Of Sex. Victor starred in one movie adventure, The Man From O.R.G.Y., in 1970. Robert Walker Jr. starred as Victor (alongside co-star Slappy White) but the film wasn't a hit and has since fallen into obscurity, leaving behind only an intriguing New York Times review that noted its "plump, often pretty girls" with "piled-up hairdo's" and "frightened eyes."


11. Agent Cody Banks

Kiddie knockoffs of James Bond have restrictions on gunplay, fast cars, and hot women, for obvious reasons, so that leaves a junior CIA agent like Cody Banks with an excess of the other Bond trademark: high-tech gadgets. On the heels of Spy Kids, Agent Cody Banks and its quickie sequel, Agent Cody Banks: Destination London brought super-spy fantasy to 10-year-old boys at a conspicuously modest price. Among Banks' toys: X-ray sunglasses (fitted with a V-chip, to make them less fun), a holographic cell phone, a wristwatch with a shock button, and a fleet of Segway scooters, which were already considered lame from the moment they were unveiled as the next big thing. Star Frankie Muniz has a bright, winning what-have-I-won expression, but he can only look so cool posing on a snowboard on a bluescreen projection of a mountain.

12. and 13. Tony Rome and Matt Helm

James Bond's weakness for booze, broads, and brawling made him a kindred spirit with the testosterone-crazed overgrown lads in the Rat Pack. So it isn't surprising that when Bond began cutting in on the Rat Pack's playfully debauched territory, the fellas fought back with Bond-style franchises of their own. 1967's Tony Rome introduced Frank Sinatra as the title character, a two-fisted Miami P.I. who lives on a houseboat and has a weakness for the fairer sex. It was followed a year later by Lady In Cement.

Not to be outdone, Dean Martin lent his boozy persona to four, count 'em, four adaptations of Donald Hamilton's ongoing series about U.S. government counter-agent Matt Helm: 1966's The Silencers, 1966's Murderer's Row, 1967's The Ambushers, and 1969's The Wrecking Crew. Rome and Helm made for two of the coo-coo craziest, most ring-a-ding crime-fighters ever to battle villains, enjoy a drink, or woo a dizzy dame.

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