Lee Majors Week: The True Story of the U-2 Spy Incident (1976)

Many tried to bring this tale of American Airforce pilot and CIA operative Francis Gary Powers to the big screen — an incident that occurred on May 1, 1960. The single-jet engine plane of the title, the U-2, was nicknamed “Dragon Lady” by its maker, Lockheed Aircraft, to work as a high-altitude reconnaissance craft for all-weather intelligence gathering. Flown successfully throughout the late ’50s over China, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam, the plane was actually shot down twice: the second time, which resulted in the dealt of pilot Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr., was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Image of ’80s home video VHS repack courtesy of Paul Zamarelli/VHS Collector.com.

In fact, back in 1962, Roger Corman hired Robert Towne (later of Chinatown fame) to whip up a script, I Flew a Spy Plane Over Russia that, thankfully, was never filmed. It took prolific TV producer Charles Fries — who not only brought us the first live-action adaptation of Spiderman (the recut TV pilot became an overseas theatrical hit, reaching #1 in Japan) but also gave us the Star Wars-infused The Martian Chronicles and the witch romp The Initiation of Sarah — to get it on the air on September 29, 1976, for NBC-TV. Fries’s other films? Well, there Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction, Are You In the House Alone?, and Secret Night Caller, just to name a few. He even went theatrical with Amicus’ Tales from the Crypt. Just look at that IMDb page! We could do a month-long tribute on his films alone. And while we haven’t delved deeply into the resume of his Academy Award-winning director (1955’s Marty), Delbert Mann, Mann’s extensive TV resume includes one of the movies we really love around here, the early ’70s possession flick, She Waits.

Lee Majors — Powers’s preferred choice was Martin Sheen! (and Powers had some pull, since this was based on his best-selling paperback, but he lost out to the network) — shot this, his seventh TV movie (including his three, pre-series Steve Austin movies), while working on The Six Million Dollar Man. And while Sheen would be have been wonderful, Lee shines in his role as Powers. Keen eyes of all things ’70s and ’80s TV will notice Noah Berry, Jr. (from TV’s The Rockford Files) as his dad, along with a cast rounded out by Lew Ayers, William Daniels, Nehemiah Persoff, and James Gregory (who worked with Lee on The Big Valley and came to be know for his work on TV’s Barney Miller, but we love him around here for his work as Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

You can watch a truncated, 45-minute clip on You Tube.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.

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