A 2000 story for my “Sidecar” column for New Times LA, an alternative weekly published from 1996 to 2002.
From Calabasas with Love
Collector Danny Biederman sends the CIA spy toys they wish they’d invented.
BY AL RIDENOUR
At 7:30 p.m., February 8, a team of CIA agents moved in on the Calabasas home of Danny Biederman. Previous reconnaissance had determined the residence contained documents related to acts of international conspiracy and terrorism along with a private arsenal of high-tech weaponry. For three days, CIA operatives combed through the cache, photographing evidence, making sketches, and filing reports.
On the last night, the agents sat down together with the suspect’s wife and kids and watched an old “I Spy” episode.
“We had a great time,” says Biederman, a thin, balding, 46-year-old screenwriter and spy memorabilia collector living in a tastefully furnished tract home miles from the nearest supervillain’s lair. He keeps nearly all of his collection in storage because his wife, Bea, doesn’t approve of the clutter, but at the request of government agents, she allowed it in the house.
From a variety of locations Biederman prefers to keep secret, the collector hauled in nearly 4,000 or so film props, posters, fanzines, spy novels, scripts, and other mementos as one of the first steps in mounting “The Spy-Fi Archives” at the CIA’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters. The exhibit — as you may have guessed — is not open to the public, but was intended as a morale booster for agency personnel, many of whom were inspired in their career choice by the Hollywood fantasies represented.
“The Spy-Fi Archives” displays 400 objects ranging from the slightly scuffed “Get Smart” shoe phone ensconced in a velvet-lined vitrine (previously displaying the bust of a less inspiring personage) to “Avenger” Emma Peel’s leather pants obligingly spread-eagled on invisible wires. There’s even a suave little stick of James Bond deodorant.
Agency press releases dryly cast the exhibit as a case study of art imitating life, but from Biederman’s perspective it’s much, much more; it’s art imitating life imitating art imitating life infinitely reflected and extremely personal like visual feedback on some cosmic surveillance camera.
Beiderman hunches forward on his living room sofa, brow furrowing as he recalls a once-in-a-lifetime call from Destiny. “I came home one day to find on my answering machine a voice saying, ‘Yes, could you please call the CIA?’. It was like the “Twilight Zone!” When I think of being a little kid sitting in front of a black-and-white TV watching those shows, it feels like a dream. Not only would I have never imagined I could ever own these gadgets — but that the CIA would come to my house looking for them? It’s like — what’s going on here? What universe am I in?”
Biederman is by no means lost in the mirrors of this mental funhouse. He’s doesn’t share those crazy collector traits you might expect — he doesn’t ramble endlessly about the movie minutiae, or attend fan conventions, at least not “those costume things,” as he puts it. In fact, his collecting days have tapered off. He’s a fan, but he’s also a professional. Biederman has hundreds of articles on the spy genre under HIS belt. As a recognized authority, he served in 1997 as an expert witness for MGM in a high-profile case against Sony over the rights to the Bond franchise.
His screenwriting credits include the NBC’s 1982 spy show “Gavilan,” a documentary on “The Avengers,” and dozens of other projects. As a teen, in Tarzana, he began using his dad’s camera to make films, most of them spy-related. These days, he’s contemplating a screenplay based on his Walter Mitty meets Rod Serling adventures with the CIA.
Biederman’s clearly had fun goofing on his double agent role in the worlds of spy fiction and fact. When he met the CIA reps flown in to survey his collection, he couldn’t resist cueing up the theme from “I Spy” on the stereo on the way from the airport to his home. Later, when he flew to headquarters, he made a point to carry particularly valuable exhibit items on board in perfectly cinematic attaché case, “without the handcuff, because there just wasn’t time, he says. And while at he agency, he gleefully sported his original “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” badge alongside official CIA ID.
Then there’s those deliciously paranoid plot elements. Deep in the sodium-penathol-accessible depths of Biederman’s brain is classified data, including memories of a visit to an engineering division where real-life spy gadgetry is crafted. Did umbrellas spray poison gas? Did switchblades pop out of shoes? We’ll never know. Biederman doesn’t dare give the official name of the department, but does admit to meeting a former agent, “who told me they used to come in after watching “Mission Impossible” and ask ‘Who told them about this?’ or ‘Why don’t WE have this?'” Biederman was not allowed to bring home videotapes of his speeches or photos of his exhibit. But they’ll be provided to him once certain faces in the crowd are digitally obliterated. “If those faces were known,” — Biederman’s voice drops to a whisper — “lives could be at stake.”
Friends speculate about phone taps, and his wife worries about kidnapping, but Biederman feels more comforted than threatened by the watchfulness of the CIA. “It may sound corny,” he says, “but I get a real sense that these are good people doing good work.”
At first intending to keep the exhibit hush-hush for fear of outcry against frivolous spending, the agency eventually realized the PR value of allowing Biederman to go public about the show, knowing that the idea of agents growing misty-eyed over a tiny pair “Man From U.NC.L.E.” pajamas couldn’t help but humanizing an organization tarnished by association with certain Panamanian druglords or Iraqi dictators.
Biederman says his own infatuation with the genre began at the age of 10, when he first saw “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” At the moment Robert Vaughn (as superspy Napoleon Solo) flipped open a gold cigarette case that concealed a radio, and activated communication with the command, “Open channel D,” it was as if a secret spy chakra had been opened in young fan.
“I’ve dreamt about that cigarette case since I was a kid,” he says, “recurring dreams where I’d walk into antique store or auction and there it would be.” After decades of dreaming, Biederman got wind of a prop master who’d bought out the collection that of someone who’d worked on the show. He called up the prop house and as the guy on the other end rattled through the inventory, he mentioned the radio “like it was no big deal.” After months of phone tag, Biederman finally nailed a visit to the warehouse, only to be informed that the radio had probably been tossed months ago. In a nearly catatonic depression, he passed a cluttered table as he left, glimpsing gold, “just the corner of something. I didn’t ask; I just reached in.” What he pulled out was the very radio that had signaled his destiny roughly twenty years before.
But Biederman’s collecting career, began not with collectibles, but with spy toys that crowded the shelves of mid-60s toy stores. What he couldn’t buy, he began creating in a bedroom laboratory. On display at CIA headquarters is one of these props: a pair of black loafers converted by the 10-year-old into “smoke screen spy shoes.” Deployment consisted of kicking a swiveling match to (theoretically) ignite a box of smoke powder concealed in the heel. Other creations included “knock-out” drops, a ring with pop-out blades, and a pen that shot “sleep” darts.
“That whole genre gave me a lot of strength,” Biederman recalls. “You could have some problem at school, but you’d know you’d have that hidden spy gadget; you had your heroes; you had your music; it was all cool.” He also had his fashions: white pants with white tennis shoes (borrowed from Robert Culp’s character in “I Spy”) and turtlenecks (courtesy McCallum of “Man From U.N.C.L.E.). On the day of this interview, Biederman was still sporting his trademark, pants,shoes and turtleneck.
From David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin, Biederman also borrowed the name for his firstborn daughter, Illya, now 13. Illya was followed by sister Moriah Flint (after the “Our Man Flint” series), and kid brother, Bond. “Every time we were going to have a kid, I’d have all these spy names, and I’d say, ‘How bout this? How bout this? How bout this?'” Biederman’s wife may have acquiesced, but the grandmothers were appalled, refusing outright to refer to the first baby girl by the name of a Russian man. Eventually, reactions softened, however, and by the time Bond came along, Biederman says, “Well, they kind of expected it.”
However, Biederman’s suggestion that the dog be named Largo (the villain from “Thunderball”) was refected by the kids favor of plain old Sparky. Nor has Biederman’s dream of driving a “Goldfinger-era” Aston Martin been fulfilled. For the time being, it’s just a Toyota Camry. And martinis are neither shaken nor even stirred in this teetotaling gun-free household.
But Biederman’s not overly concerned with flashy playboy displays. After all, his heroes, he says, “portray themselves as ordinary — a normal guy in a business suit. You may have a gun up your sleeve and a secret compartment in your belt, but it’s all about secrecy, concealment. People don’t know you have another agenda.”
Maybe that agenda is to make a movie, and in your screenplay are real life spies concealed as fiction. If that still seems obvious, what about using the nation’s most secretive organization, the CIA, as a publicity engine?