TV’s First Reel Private Dickette
by Colleen Collins. All rights reserved.
The weekly ABC private eye show Honey West, starring Anne Francis as the sultry, high-tech private eye Honey West, ran for only one season (1965-1966), but all these years later it’s a cult classic. It was gimmicky, action-packed, with moments of sexism (don’t forget we’re talking about a mid-60s TV show), but it also showed a woman as action-heroine. And unlike the fantastic elements in the British show The Avengers, Honey West offered straightforward crime plots.
Recently, I found an Internet list of “The Ten Best TV Private Detectives,” and I was happy to see that Honey West was on that list (by the way, the only female PI on the list).
Maybe Honey West’s ongoing popularity has to do with her sensual beauty, her leopard-print dresses, an expertise with state-of-the-art (and way-over-the-top) sleuth-devices, or that she owned an ocelot named Bruce. Or maybe because Honey West was, to quote one fan, “a very bad girl, or better yet, a very bad good girl, TV’s first reel private dickette.”
To nit-pick, Nora Charles was another TV dickette prior to Honey, but Honey West made a big, blonde splash all on her own. Oh, there was a sidekick, a guy…what’s-his-name. Hard to remember because he didn’t own half the screen the way Nick Charles did with Nora. Honey West was her own woman, and it was her show.
It All Started at the Brown Derby
In an interview, Anne Francis explained how the the idea for the Honey West TV show happened after a lunch at the legendary Brown Derby restaurant:
I was having lunch one day with my agent and just casually he said, “I know you’ve never been interested in doing a series, but if you did, what kind of show would you like to do?” I said if I’d do one I’d want an adventure show, a lot of action. Tongue in cheek, I said, “kind of like a female Amos Burke.” We were having lunch at the Derby. The next day my agent called and said, “What’s this game you and Aaron Spelling are playing with me?” I said, “What are you talking about? You’re putting me on, aren’t you? I don’t even KNOW Aaron Spelling!” He said, “Aaron called and said he had a project he thought would be perfect for you. He said he saw you yesterday at the Derby and his character was like a female Amos Burke.” I said, “Super, wonderful.” Read the script and did it.
Aaron Spelling, who produced the Honey West series, later produced Charlie’s Angels. Even though he dumped Honey West after only 30 episodes, he obviously learned that the sexy female private eye was a commodity, so he made a show with three sexy private eyes.
Honey West Pulp Novels
The writers of the show, the husband-and-wife team Forest E. “Skip” Fickling and his wife Gloria (Gautraud) Fickling, wrote under the pseudonym G. G. Fickling. They’d already written about Honey West as the protagonist in such pulp novels as Kiss for a Killer and This Girl for Hire. After the TV series ended, they continued writing Honey West pulp fare, which ultimately sold some 7 million copies around the world. There were other lucrative marketing ventures as well:
- The Honey West doll
- Honey West board game
- Honey West outfits and spy gadgets for kids
- Honey West Girl Private Eye Game.
Although their shared pseudonym is on these books, apparently they weren’t really a cooperative effort. In the article “Honey West: A Fresh Look” written by Gary Warren Niebuhr for mysteryfile.com, he quotes Gloria as saying that her husband was the sole author (“Every book was his totally…I was more like the sounding board and technical advisor.”).
In checking out Amazon, some of the Honey West books have been reissued, with a few available on Kindle. Check ’em out by clicking here. Gary Warren Niebuhr also lists synopses of all these books in “Honey West: A Fresh Look”
Gloria Fickling Today
Skip died in 1998, right before his and Gloria’s 50-year wedding anniversary. In a 2013 Orange County Register interview, she referred to herself as a “sentimental slob” because she keeps her husband’s ashes on a bedroom nightstand in a Baileys Irish Cream tin tied with a pink ribbon. “We’re waiting till I’m gone,” she said, “and we’ll be sprinkled together. Probably off Catalina.”
Santa Catalina was where Skip and Gloria, in their 20s, met and fell madly in love. No surprise their first Honey West novel, released in 1957, is set on Catalina Island.
Honey West Gadgets and Clothes
Honey used some wickedly wonderful gadgets in her detective biz, such as a radio lipstick case, a garter-belt gas mark, a fake martini-olive on a stick for recording conversations, and tear-gas earrings. Yes, all laughable. But there’s some funky-to-funny gadgets for sale in the real world for private investigations, such as books that are secret safes and lighters that are really cameras. When I first became a private investigator I purchased a lighter that was secretly a camera and could never get it to work properly. That ended my purchase of cute gadgets.
Back to Honey West. Her clothes were as flashy as the gadgets: a black snakeskin trench coat, a white beaded gown trimmed in sable and a tiger-skin bathing suit with matching cape. She obviously didn’t follow the rule that a private eye’s job is to blend in, but hey, she was Honey West.
Honey West, the Feminist?
Despite her seductive, girly ways, don’t forget that before Honey West many women characters in TV shows were dutiful housewives (The Donna Reed Show, Father Knows Best, even I Love Lucy although it can be debated how dutiful she was).
Then along came Honey West with her independent, take-charge style. Later in life, Anne Francis recognized the influence Honey West had on baby boomers: “Producers and writers I work with, young women in their 30s and 40s, tell me all the time, ‘You have no idea what an influence you had on me with Honey West. You showed that I could do something unusual with my life, that I could have my freedom and not be dependent on another human being for my livelihood.'”
Another quote from Anne Francis: “A lot of people speak to me about Honey West. The character made young women think there was more they could reach for. It encouraged a lot of people.”
Golden Globe Win, Nomination for Emmy
Anne Francis won the Golden Globe in 1966 for her role as Honey West, and was also nominated for an Emmy that same year.
For a show that lasted only one season, the win and nomination are impressive, so why did the show end? In a 1997 interview with David D. Duncan (“Hollywood Heroine”), Anne Francis explained why: “ABC said, ‘We can buy The Avengers cheaper than we can make Honey West.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
A Honey West Film?
In a 1996 interview, Anne Francis commented about a new Honey West project in the works: “Danny DeVito owns the property. From what I understand, they have it as a work in progress. I think two or three different scripts have been written, but none have completely taken yet. I don’t know what he’s planning with it.”
DeVito did nothing with it. Other producers, such as Dodi Fayed and Harvey Weinstein, also took out options to make a Honey West movie, but no films were ever made. A few years ago, Universal Studios had plans for Reese Witherspoon to star as Honey West, but that project has yet to happen.
More About Anne Francis
Born Anne Lloyd Francis (although her New York Times obit gave her birth name as Anne Marvak) on September 16, 1930, the only child of Philip and Edith Francis. She became a child model during the Great Depression, and her first stage appearance at age 11. Her first film role was in 1947 (This Time for Keeps), after which she had leading and supporting roles in more than thirty films and TV shows. She also wrote the book Voices from Home, which she described as her “spiritual expose.” She died January 2, 2011, from complication due to pancreatic cancer.
Honey West Open 1965 Anne Francis ABC (YouTube)
Honey West (The Thrilling Detective Web Site)
This article is based on a book excerpt from Secrets of a Real-Life Female Private Eye by Colleen Collins.
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