I Spy: The Lotus Eater (1967)

Robert Culp and Bill Cosby

Country: United States
Director: Christain Nyby
Starring: Robert Culp, Bill Cosby, Vivienne Ventura, Michael Evans, Sheldon Leonard
Writers: Elick Moll, Joseph Than

Of course, the television series, I, Spy needs very little introduction here. The Lotus Eater is an episode from the third series and the scholarly among you are probably aware that in Homer’s Odyssey IX, the Lotus Eaters were a people whose land Odysseus visits. They live on the lotus-fruit, which makes those who eat it, forget their home and they desire to remain in Lotus-land forever.

Here’s a snippet of Odyssey IX (translated by Samuel Butler) via Wikipedia which relates to the Lotus Eaters

“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of 9 days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

This episode, The Lotus Eater unashamedly follows a similar story structure, but with an I, Spy twist. As the episode begins, Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) arrives by boat at a seaport on a small Mediterranean island. He asks a local fisherman, if he has seen an American (who plays tennis) in the village. The fisherman responds in the affirmative and that the man that Scott seeks, is living in a building high up on the cliffs overlooking the seaport. Scott begins the long winding up-hill walk.

As you have guessed, the man that Scott is seeking is his partner in espionage, Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp). Robinson had been scheduled to meet Scott in Athens ten days previously to start a new assignment, but did not show up.

When Scott reaches the top of the cliff, he finds Robinson sitting casually on a whitewashed wall, swinging his legs like a child. He is incredibly relaxed and speaking in riddles like he is drunk or as if he has been drugged. But a happy kind of drug. Scott claims that he has ‘come in from the cold’ and is ‘not in the spy business anymore’.

Robinson is living with a beautiful nightclub singer named Irena (Vivienne Ventura), who continually plies Robinson with large amounts of Ouzo. Ventura, in her fairly short career – she only appeared in nineteen productions – was quite a ‘spy girl’,  chalking up appearances in The Persuaders, Get Smart, The Man From Uncle, The Wild Wild West, The Saint and she also appeared in the movie, Battle Beneath the Earth. All in all, a pretty impressive resumé.

Naturally Scott is very suspicious. Over his career, Robinson has had plenty of pretty girls throw themselves at him, and drunk his share of booze, but it has never effected him before. Scott’s suspicions are confirmed, when after leaving a nightclub, two thugs try to jump him. He fights them off, but recognises them as minions of a master criminal named Sorgi. Producer, Sheldon Leonard plays Sorgi (that’s how it is spelled on IMDb), however it should be noted that Leonard played a character called Sorge in the Season 1 episode, Three Hours on a Sunday Night (which is an episode I haven’t seen). The character name is undoubtedly a a reference to infamous Russian spy Richard Sorge.

It is more than a coincidence that Sorgi, who deals in information, happens to be anchored in his luxurious yacht, off the same island where ex-spy Kelly Robinson is having his Odyssian breakdown – with wine, women and song.

The Lotus Eater is a fine episode, carried by Culp’s performance as a drug addled ex-spy, and then later as his defences wear down, a man falling apart. On the opposite side of that ledger, Cosby’s performance is good too – as a complete professional / no nonsense spy, which is completely at odds with the image that he (post Cosby Show) projects today. The only thing that dampens Cosby’s performance – and to be honest, I am sure that this is a part of the shows formula – is the semi-comedic sign off at the end of the episode. So Cosby goes from professional ‘hard bastard’ to ‘knock around guy’ in one scene. It seems out of place, but as I said, it’s formula. Fine entertainment.

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