The pop-art impulses of ’60s culture often warred with the decade’s gritty, realistic side. This was especially true of the spy genre. Even the James Bond franchise—which helped turn a niche into a craze—struggled with whether fans were looking for the hard-edged action of Ian Fleming’s original novels or the kicky fun of gadgetry and super-villains. By the time the TV series It Takes A Thief debuted on ABC in 1968, spy stories had swung wildly from bloodless docu-realism to outsized spoofery. It Takes A Thief largely avoided outright camp, but it was still about as light-hearted as any show about the covert sabotage of socialist states could be.
Maybe that’s because its hero wasn’t, strictly speaking, a spy. Deploying a premise that’s served storytellers from Alfred Hitchcock to the USA Network, producer Roland Kibbee cast Robert Wagner as a master cat-burglar who does jobs for the U.S. government in exchange for his freedom. In the 66 episodes on the It Takes A Thief complete series DVD set, Wagner hops around the globe, usually undercover, to swipe top-secret documents and precious artifacts at the behest of his handler. In the first two seasons, Wagner answered to the gruff Malachi Thorne. In the third and final season—which was shot in Italy, and featured Fred Astaire as Wagner’s roguish father—Edward Binns gives the orders. No matter the assignment, the hero is ably assisted by beautiful female agents played by the likes of Susan Saint James and Yvonne Craig, whom Wagner inevitably ends up smooching mid-caper.
The color on the It Takes A Thief set has faded, and the original film elements are sometimes scratchy. But the quality of the direction by old Hollywood hands like Don Weiss and Jack Arnold hasn’t dimmed in the slightest. (So crisply paced! So fluidly shot!) And while the European season emphasizes scenery too much and stories too little, the show never loses track of the essential appeal of watching Wagner think his way through a difficult pinch, always coming up with off-the-cuff explanations when he’s caught with his hand in a safe. Mission: Impossible was the more stylish and sophisticated spy series, with more elaborate capers and a more heavyweight cast. But It Takes A Thief had more fun with Wagner’s exaggerated disguises, and wasn’t afraid to throw in a fight on a trampoline or a ditzy Teri Garr supporting performance if the story seemed to demand it. The show was frivolous, but never artless.
Key special features: Warm, lengthy interviews with Wagner and writer Glen A. Larson.