R.I.P. ANNE FRANCIS
Lovely Anne Francis passed away recently and in tribute below is a portion of her profile from my book Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Film & Television, 1962-1973, which I co-wrote with Louis Paul, where we pay homage to Francis’ cult TV spy series Honey West.
Anne Francis (born on September 16, 1930 in Ossining, New York) had a long career before she starred as TV’s first female private detective cum secret agent Honey West. She began as a child model and soon progressed to appearing on Broadway and in a number of radio soap operas. In the late forties Hollywood beckoned but after appearing in few minor roles Francis returned to New York. She appeared in a number of live television productions and hosted the NBC series Versatile Varieties from 1949 through 1950. Darryl Zanuck took notice of her and signed her to a contract with 20th Century-Fox. After three years she left Fox and signed with MGM where she starred in some of her most memorable films including Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), Battle Cry (1955), Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956). Francis went freelance in the late fifties and after appearing in a few films including Girl of the Night (1960) and The Crowded Sky (1960) she concentrated on television, which included an appearance in “Jess-Belle” one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Francis’ journey to being cast as Honey West began at the famed Brown Derby. Writing in her autobiography entitled Voices from Home: An Inner Journey, Anne Francis stated, “One day I had lunch with my agent at the Brown Derby. Although he knew I had not wanted to be tied down to a series…what kind of project might I find interesting? I presented the idea of a kind of female Amos Burke with lots of action, glamour and a comedic flair.” The next day Francis’ agent received a phone call from producer Aaron Spelling who had seen her at the restaurant and thought she would be perfect for the role of Honey West. Francis was first introduced as the slinky detective in the episode entitled “Who Killed the Jackpot?” (4/21/65) on Burke’s Law as West and Amos Burke (Gene Barry) find themselves investigating the same murder.
Honey West began as a regular TV series that September. It was based on the popular series of novels by Gloria and Forest G. “Skip” Fickling beginning with This Girl for Hire in 1957 and ending with Honey on Her Tail in 1971. However the pulp Honey was always losing her clothes and being rescued in the nick of time by her loyal and virtuous boyfriend Sam Bolt. The series kept the boyfriend (played by John Ericson) but the TV Honey had no problems keeping her exotic wardrobe on. It was one of the first continuing drama series to star an actress in the lead role. Honey West was a private eye who relied first on “smiles, sweet talk and flapping eyelashes” to outwit the bad guys. But if things got rough or out of hand she was an expert in karate. (Francis trained with Hawaiian instructor Gordon Doversola to look authentic in the close up shots.) If things got really desperate, Honey would reach into her black alligator attaché case and pull out a pearl-handled derringer or a fountain pen that sprays tear gas or exploding earrings or even a walkie-talkie concealed in a jeweled compact. And Honey could be rest-assured that her adoring boyfriend/ partner was always nearby. No expense was spared in outfitting Honey with nothing but the best. She drove a Cobra sports car equipped with a telephone and $50,000 was budgeted for her wardrobe, which included “a tiger-skin bathing suit with matching cape, an all-black ensemble consisting of leotards, boots, turtle-neck shirt, belt and gloves, and a billowing ball gown that converts into culottes for chase sequences.” And Honey also owned a man-hating ocelot named Bruce Biteabit, which she had tied to a silver leash.
Produced by Aaron Spelling, Honey West first aired on September 17, 1965 on ABC opposite Gomer Pyle, USMC on CBS and the second half of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show on NBC. The premiere episode entitled “The Swingin’ Mrs. Jones” had Honey going undercover in high society to bust up a blackmail ring. More of a private eye than spy series, Honey investigated such standard crimes such as arson, kidnappings and robberies usually showcased on detective series. In most cases, Honey must masquerade as someone to uncover the culprit. In “The Princess and the Paupers” (10/29/65) Honey grooves with the record business crowd to locate kidnapped a rock ‘n’ roll singer (Bobby Sherman). “A Nice Little Till to Tap” (12/31/65) features Honey as a bank teller who is being wooed by a suave thief (Anthony Eisley) for inside information. The 2/11/66 episode featured Francis in a dual role as Honey and as her look-a-like Pandora Fox, a thief who sets Honey up for a heist of missing furs.
Honey West received mostly fair reviews during its run while Anne Francis received relatively good reviews for her performances. For example, Variety noted that “ the good meat of this little half hour continues to be on the fine bones of star Anne Francis rather than the scripts.” One exception was Cleveland Amory writing in TV Guide who nicknamed her character “Jane Blonde” and commented, “The very casting—or miscasting—of Miss Francis to begin with should set your mind at ease: Her unsuitability for the role is proof it’s a spoof.” Most critics disagreed and Francis went on to win the Golden Globe Award for “Best Actress in a Drama Series.” She was also nominated for an Emmy award but lost to Barbara Stanwyck in The Big Valley.
Despite excellent ratings, ABC cancelled Honey West after only one season. According to Anne Francis, “They [ABC] were able to buy The Avengers from England for less than it cost to produce our show.”