We posted earlier today about Peter Falk; sharing a birthday with him, three years younger, Anne Francis (1930-2011) grew up in the same town of Ossining, New York. They must have known each other, right? She acted in two Columbo episodes; they certainly knew each other then.
I’d seen many odds and ends of Francis’s grab bag of work throughout my life: appearances in films like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Blackboard Jungle (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), Funny Girl (1968), Jerry Lewis’s Hook Line and Sinker (1969), Don Knotts’ The Love God? (1969), TV movies like Haunts of the Very Rich (1972) and Banjo Hackett: Roamin’ Free (1976) and guest shows on countless TV dramas and crime shows. Odd that not until recently (when I was doing my Aaron Spelling post) did I learn about what ought to be her greatest claim to fame, and what ought to be known by every pop culture buff. In 1965 and 1966, she co-starred as the title character in Honey West.
Honey West, created by the husband-wife writing team of Gloria and Skip Fickling, was conceived as a mash-up of Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer: a gorgeous, stylish lady private eye. Withe her pet ocelot Bruce and her professional partner, Sam Bolt (John Ericson) she solves crimes for a price using a variety of James Bond style gadgets and her own martial arts fighting skills. Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore in Goldfinger) was approached to play the part but turned it down. With Francis one can see the comparison though — the women share a forbidding kind of beauty. They both seem more likely to kick you in the balls than be receptive to your advances. And that’s a necessary quality in a universe so awash in oily men, constantly on the make, needing to be made to come to heel. The Avengers is a clear model for the show, although it definitely has an American be-bop feel (especially on the soundtrack) closer to something home-grown like Staccato.
I’ve seen some episodes now. The creators place such a premium of style, cramming as much “cool” as possible into every moment that qualities like character, story and substance are left behind, choking in the dust of the inevitable sports car. This explains, I feel, why the show was so short-lived. And it obviously got lost in the shuffle, what with so many similar shows clogging the networks at the same time (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy etc etc etc). And ABC decided to simply import The Avengers, rather than produce an expensive knock-ff.
But Honey West was groundbreaking. It’s one of the first television shows about a ass-kickin’ lady private eye, clearly paving the way not just for Spelling’s own later Charlie’s Angels, but also stuff like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars and Alias.
Francis appeared in two episodes of Charlie Angels, a blast from the past for those in the know. She worked steadily, mostly in TV guest shots through 1999, when she appeared on Fantasy Island. She came back one last time in 2004 for an episode of Without a Trace. In 2007, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, to which she succumbed four years later.