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Spies on Television & Radio ~
Behind the Scenes of “Discards” – How Diagnosis: Murder Brought Back U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, I Spy, and Mission: Impossible

By Wesley Britton

Discards cast
Diagnosis: Murder star Dick Van Dyke joins his guest stars Barbara Bain, Patrick Macnee, Robert Culp and Robert Vaughn for the episode “Discards”.

On November 13, 1997, fans of four 1960s spy television shows were delighted by a special episode of the detective series, Diagnosis: Murder.

That night, Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Patrick Macnee (The Avengers), Robert Culp (I Spy), and Barbara Bain (Mission: Impossible) starred with DM lead Dick Van Dyke in an espionage-oriented murder investigation. TV Guide took note of the occasion, publishing an interview with the old spies on November 8. “Wry Spies” by Ted Johnson gave each star a chance to reminisce about their glory days and talk about their most famous characters – Napoleon Solo (Vaughn), John Steed (Macnee), Cinnamon Carter (Bain), and Kelly Robinson (Culp). (Note 1)

What none of them could have expected was that this experience would turn out to become something of a cult classic for spy buffs, a topic on websites and list-serves long after the original broadcast.

How this special hour came to be, and its place in TV spy history, is a story that weaves together nostalgia, creative script-writing, and an example of how fans of old shows can please other aficionados of the genre with intelligence, craft, and the excitement armchair spies still enjoy.

“My father the spy.”

But before exploring how “Discards” came to be, it’s worth reviewing the storyline for those who’ve never seen it or have forgotten the details.

In the opening teaser, a figure walking in an airport parking garage is suddenly attacked by a Middle-Eastern assassin. The figure – Robert Culp – fights back in martial arts style, and kills his opponent. The scene changes to the home of Jesse Travis (a series regular), who finds his frequently-absent father sitting in a chair. It’s Dane Travis, played by Culp, who quips, “I got held up at LAX. Parking there is murder.”

After the credits, we see Dr. Sloan (Dick Van Dyke) and his team examining the corpse of the dead Middle Eastern would-be killer. They’re mystified by the lack of any records for him but have the license plate number of a suspect car. At the same time, Jesse becomes upset when his father says he must leave quickly. They agree to meet and talk things over at Del Floria’s restaurant (an allusion familiar to any fan of U.N.C.L.E. – Del Floria’s was the name of the tailor shop that was the secret entrance to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters).

Thinking his father is spending time with his second family, Jesse was not surprised to have a young man arrive at his office and say he'’ his half-brother. But, at the restaurant, the supposed brother tries to kill Dane, who kills him instead. Dane is forced to tell Jesse he has no second family, that he was a spy for the CIA, and the story was simply a cover he used to explain his long absences.

Meanwhile, Sloan and his team track down the license number and confront the owner of the company who owns the car. He’s Mr. Drake (Robert Vaughn), who claims his Bureau of Investigatory Surveys is merely a bug exterminating company and he has no idea where his employee, Dane Travis, is. We also see John Kessler (Phil Morris), Drake’s second-in-command, watching the exchange.

Fearing both he and his son are now in unexplained danger, Dane and Jesse go to the home of Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), who is clearly old friends with both Drake and Dane. Hiding in her heavily-protected sanctuary, Dane tells his son about his days as a spy, especially “Operation Turnkey.”

Twenty years before, Dane and his partner – Greg Kessler – had become involved in a bungled operation to keep tapes away from the Soviets. During their escape, Kessler had blown his cover and Dane had been forced to kill his own partner for which he feels continuing remorse. The mission had been for nothing – the Russians got the technology anyway. Since then, he’d been a “discard,” “inactive since the wall came down.” Carter adds her memories of the elder Kessler, saying his son would have made a fine IMF agent before going to work for Drake.

Dane and Jesse then visit a Mr. Garrison (Patrick Macnee), a former spy now in business providing security for private companies. He’s been in contact with Drake, whose company is really a CIA front, and arranges a meeting so Drake can explain what’s going on. But before Drake can talk, he’s gunned down at the meeting.

Sloan accompanies the old spies, who accuse Garrison of setting up the hit. He responds he is innocent and that Drake was running a new “Turnkey,” this time planting fake technology in Iraqi hands.

Hearing this, Dane realizes his own mission had been far different than he realized – the Russians had been intended to get the old tapes, which were useless “Trojan horses.” The death of his partner had been arranged to make the Soviets believe the stolen tech was the real thing, just as the Iraqis were supposed to believe in what Garrison was selling them.

Sloan, Jesse, and Dane hide out on one of Garrison’s boats, where the doctor and old spy talk. Dane reveals his regrets that marriage, family, and a normal life had all been lost, and possibly all for nothing. Sloan replies that his work had been part of the effort to keep nuclear war from never happening. And Jesse reassures his father, saying everyone deserves a second chance.

Sloan figures out the current killings have nothing to do with international intrigue, but involved something related to Dane’s family history. So he sets up a trap at Carter’s home, where Johnny Kessler arrives, revealing the plan was to avenge the death of his father.

After his arrest, Carter and Dane are reactivated and set up headquarters in LA to run a new “Turnkey” where Dane can be close to his son.

Origins of “Discards”

According to Lee Goldberg, executive producer, script-writer, and author of acclaimed novels based on the CBS series, Diagnosis: Murder followed the adventures of Dr. Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke), “an amiable and avuncular doctor who is also a genius at solving murders.” (Note 2)

Dr. Sloan was aided in his homicide investigations by his son, LAPD Lt. Steve Sloan (Barry Van Dyke), pathologist/medical examiner Dr. Amanda Bentley (Victoria Rowell), and ER resident Dr. Jesse Travis (Charlie Schlatter, a central figure in “Discards.”)

During its network run (Jan 1992 to May 2001), DM was noted for a number of “stunt” episodes which tied in with other television series. It all began with one starring Mike Connors reprising his role as Joe Mannix. Goldberg recalled, “The Mannix episode was such a huge hit – in terms of publicity and ratings – that we knew we had to do more like it. Not only that, but I am a major TV geek. I was reliving my TV youth by doing these shows. I think the first one we did after Mannix was TV cops (an episode with Fred Dryer, Martin Milner, Kent McCord, Angie Dickinson and James Darren), then TV spies, TV doctors (Wayne Rogers, Chad Everett, Jack Klugman, Bernie Kopel, etc.) TV SciFi (with George Takei, Walter Koenig, Grace Lee Whitney, Majel Barrett, Billy Mumy, etc.) and even a “fire” show with cast members from Emergency. We also did some bizarre ‘theme’ stunt casting shows. . . like one entirely comprised of people from various versions of M*A*S*H (Elliott Gould, Jamie Farr, Sally Kellerman, Loretta Swit, etc.) and another of just actors who’d starred in Garry Marshall sitcoms, another full of country music stars. We just wanted to have fun. . . and to indulge our love of old television. Plus the stunt episodes all got big ratings and tons of publicity. The public loved it as much as we did.”

According to script-writer David Carren, the story for the spy-oriented “Discards” came before the casting. “Actually we were all talking about doing a show stunt cast with famous TV spies – I think that was Lee’s idea. Then, Larry [Carroll] and I came up with the idea that Jesse’s dad had been a spy living a double life. In an earlier episode, Jesse had talked about his Dad having a new family and no time to spend with him. We jumped on that – what if the Dad had been a spy and there never was a second family?”

Mission: Impossible Connections

Two casting choices were of special interest for Mission: Impossible fans. It so happened, “Paramount, parent company of Viacom, producer of Diagnosis, owned the rights to the Cinnamon Carter character,” Carren explained. Barbara Bain was available, so viewers got to see what might have been for one former Mission: Impossible veteran. (Note 3)

Another Mission: Impossible connection was the casting of Phil Morris, son of Greg, who’d been one of the original cast members back in the ‘60s. In 1988, Phil had joined the cast of the new Mission: Impossible in a much publicized role as the son of Barney Collier. The actual and fictional father-and-son pairing even starred together in one episode. (Note 4)

According to Lee, “We knew he was in the new MI . . . and, of course, we knew his dad was in the original. We had to have him in the show. In a way, he was our bridge to the past, literally and in the story itself.”

Goldberg explored using other MI motifs. “We wanted to use MI music cues, too, but Tom Cruise wouldn’t let us (we used the theme from Mannix in our DM episode with Mike Connors). That’s right, Tom Cruise. Paramount bowed to him on all issues regarding the MI franchise.” Goldberg added, “We spent a lot of time going through the Paramount library, seeing what they owned and what might be ripe for a revival/reunion on DM. I think the only ones we did were Matlock, Mannix, and MI.”

Culp, Macnee, and Vaughn

Macnee and Goldberg
Patrick Macnee (as Mr. Garrison) with Lee Goldberg, Executive Producer on Diagnosis: Murder.

Most of the other new roles weren’t based on characteristics of the roles that had made this cast famous, with the exception of Robert Culp, the Kelly Robinson of I Spy. “Obviously, the Robert Culp role was modeled after his I Spy character. We would have been fools not to!” Few who knew much about I Spy missed the similarities. As I wrote in my book Spy Television (2004), “. . . the Culp character, sounding very much like Kelly Robinson, confessed his doubts about any contributions he may have made in the undercover world. He mourned the death of his ex-partner, and told his son he regretted neglecting his family all those years. In an interview about this Diagnosis: Murder appearance, Culp was asked what Kelly Robinson would be doing in the ‘90s. He replied, ‘Kelly would be dead of alcoholism somehow. Either that or he might be a kept man. But they’d have to lock him up to keep the booze away from him.’” (See Note 1 below.)

So one major theme of “Discards” was Dane Travis’ rehabilitation. Along with Cinnamon Carter, he is re-activated by the CIA at episode end.

But as to Robert Vaughn and Patrick Macnee, writer Carren recalled, “I don’t remember us giving much thought to prior characters in the rest of the casting. We simply cast the actors that were available for the roles that were suitable.” None of them contributed to any script changes. “Culp had a lot of thoughts about staging and intention on the set,” Carren said, “but not much dialogue was changed. And our cast regulars, especially Dick, rarely changed things on or off the set. They were great about that.”

Still, the names chosen for the characters had old TV connections. Vaughn’s Drake obviously referred to John Drake of Secret Agent fame and Mr. Garrison was Goldberg’s homage to Michael Garrison, the creator of The Wild Wild West.

In choosing the cast, there were some intriguing might-have-beens. “From the outset, we knew we wanted Barbara Bain, Robert Culp, Robert Vaughn and Patrick Macnee,” Goldberg asserts. “How could you do a TV spy show without them?”

But “We couldn’t use Peter Graves because we’d already established him as, well, Peter Graves in a preceding episode of DM where he was hired to play Dr. Mark Sloan in a TV pilot. We thought if we had Barbara, we had to have Phil Morris. As I recall, we pursued David McCallum as well, but for some reason we couldn’t make it work. I also wanted to use George Lazenby, but we’d already exhausted our casting budget for the episode. We ended up having Lazenby in a guest role in another episode.” While not considered for “Discards,” “one-time Saint Ian Ogilvy also guest-starred in several DM episodes.”

Personal connections, and simply being a TV fan, helped Goldberg find his players. “Macnee is a friend of my mother’s, so I called him in Palm Springs and begged him to come up and do the role.” Everyone, Goldberg admitted, “needed a paycheck. They were delighted by the concept and appreciated the straight-forward, non-campy approach to the material. They also wanted to work. The sad thing is, at the time no one except Phil Morris was working much. Macnee had all but retired. I think Macnee had the most fun of anybody; he really seemed to be enjoying himself. The only trouble we had, as I recall, was negotiating Vaughn’s salary, since he was living on the east coast at the time and we had to pay for his travel and lodging (something we didn't usually do).”

Memories and Aftermath

For a number of reasons, “Discards” has an interesting place in TV history. Ironically, without intention, the role played by Phil Morris brought with it a connection with an earlier Dick Van Dyke series. His father, Greg Morris, had guest-starred on a 1963 episode of the original Dick Van Dyke comedy show, “That’s My Baby,” in a role that both broke new ground in racial relations and helped I Spy get off the ground.

In that program, Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) worried that his newborn son might have been exchanged with another family at the hospital. In the final scene, he learns the other family was African-American. Despite network fears that a culture still heavily segregationist would not react well to this scene, the studio audience gave The Dick Van Dyke Show one of its longest-running sustained laughs for this appearance. Producer Sheldon Leonard was armed with this fact, and over a thousand positive letters, when he went in to sell the idea of casting Bill Cosby in I Spy – a character clearly inspiring the Greg Kessler in “Discards.” (Note 5)

So, in a sense, starring Phil Morris in a new Van Dyke production both showed how times have changed and brought the Van Dyke-Morris family connection full circle. As I Spy fan Debbie Lazar noted, “Those two ‘fictional’ baby boys and their real counterparts – Phil Morris and Barry Van Dyke – were also reunited in ‘Discards’.” (Note 6)

It seems clear all the “Discards” participants had an enjoyable experience. “I had such a good time talking to those actors about their days on U.N.C.L.E., I Spy and MI,” Goldberg remembers. “And Barbara had lots of great stories to tell about Space 1999. I think the cast was surprised that we were such big fans of their work. I think David and Larry [the writers] were on the set almost the entire time. It’s a wonder we got any other work done.”

David Carren had similar sentiments. “My favorite memory is having all those great stars sign a copy of the script for me. I was a fan of all these people and their series. Where do you think the reference to Del Floria’s came from? I adored Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Mission: Impossible – I grew up on those shows. Miss them to this day.”

Of course, there have been a number of similar spy re-unions. For but a few examples, Robert Vaughn worked with Patrick Macnee several times. Macnee, along with ex-Bond George Lazenby, appeared in the 1983 Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV movie. Both Vaughn and Macnee starred in two episodes of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues as elder statesman of spycraft. Vaughn had a recurring role as a vengeful power broker butting heads with DA Adam Schiff on NBC’s Law and Order, Schiff played by Mission: Impossible veteran Steven Hill.

But there has been nothing quite like “Discards,” an hour some thought the last spy hurrah for Vaughn (64 years old at the time), Culp (then 67), Bain (63), and Macnee (75). Well, British viewers can see Vaughn in his new role on the UK series, Hustle, and word has it Vaughn and other ‘60s alumni will be featured in an upcoming Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature film being planned by Embers Entertainment. So perhaps there’s still some kicks to come from the stars that started it all.

Diagnosis: Murder, too, is now TV history. But it remains popular in reruns, currently airing on PAX, also known as “I Television.” It’s also still alive in the original tie-in novels by Lee Goldberg. And he continues to weave the TV universe together.

“My DM books refer back to events in earlier episodes. And it looks like my first Monk tie-in will become a Monk episode.”

Hmm, wonder if those folks have a yen to . . .

Addendum ~ May 2006 ~

Some new connections between Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. just crossed my desk. According to Mike Thompson, “The Dove Affair,” one of the first season MFU outings, bears a great similarity to the first MI movie since they were both written by Bob Towne, who confessed that he had consciously stolen from this episode when writing the Cruise film.

Another first season MFU episode, “The Fiddlesticks Affair,” can be considered a prototype for Mission: Impossible (the series) complete with a Lalo Schiffrin score.

Notes ~

Note 1 – Johnson, Ted. “Wry Spies.” TV Guide, November 8-14, 1997. Pps. 23-7. Reprints can be found on various websites.

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Note 2 – For much more information about the series, see the Wikipedia entry on Diagnosis: Murder.

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Note 3 – From my book Spy Television ~

. . . Carter, a retired agent, meets up with old friends played by fellow ‘60s alumni Robert Vaughn, Patrick Macnee, and Robert Culp. In “Discards,” Carter revealed she received a special commendation from Ronald Reagan and George Bush on April 20, 1981 in a private ceremony. At the end of the episode, the CIA reactivated Culp and Bain, demonstrating that even old spies can have second lives.

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Note 4 – Again, from my book Spy Television ~

In a much-publicized move, Greg Morris’ son, Phil, played Collier’s son Grant in the new cast as the electronics expert. In the fifth episode, the young Morris/Collier join the new team to rescue his imprisoned father falsely accused of murder in Turkey, a storyline reworked from an episode in the original series. Like Robert Culp’s character in the Diagnosis: Murder spy reunion, the elder Collier showed remorse for neglecting his family during his MI days, but was comforted by his son who clearly admired him.

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Note 5 – I asked Lee if there was any discussion of this connection during production of “Discards.” He replied, “I don’t know about any conversation Phil and Dick had, but I know Dick mentioned to me that Greg was on the original DVD Show. We also had Dick, from the DVD Show, in an episode. In a DM episode, Mark goes to a radio station. . . as he is passing a booth, he sees a DJ on the air. The DJ is Rob Petrie from an episode of the DVD Show.”

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Note 6 – Debbie told me that I Spy fans were delighted by Culp’s presence in “Discards.” Speaking of the response on the “I Spy Forum,” she said, “everyone enjoyed the show and all agreed it was obviously an older Kelly Robinson, just with a different name – especially since the story was based on his having a black partner whom he was extremely close to. The script and all the characters were handled with dignity and style.”

She added, “Having ‘Kelly’ kill ‘Scotty’ to save a mission in the past – and the guilt that would have resulted from this act was powerful enough, but then to find years later, that it was all a sham provided for a very strong dramatic story. Plus, the evaluation of his life, by Culp’s Travis character, added to the poignancy of the story and gave it a finely honed emotional touch – having your life’s work end at a desk job shuffling papers, and having sacrificed one’s family to do it. Throw in a little humor, danger, action, and mystery – and they had quite an excellent and entertaining hour going. Of course, the combination of actors was a ‘complete and total delight’ and incorporated well into the Dr. Sloan framework.”

She pointed out Sheldon Leonard discussed the “That’s My Baby” episode in detail in his 1995 autobiography, And The Show Goes On including the complete dialogue.

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Photographs courtesy of Lee Goldberg.