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Anne Francis: TV’s First Female Detective Could Match the Boys

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Anne Francis made men purr like kittens.

As the smart and sexy private detective Honey West, Francis broke a major barrier. She was television’s first female detective to be featured in a weekly TV series.

Francis, 80, died from pancreatic cancer Sunday in Santa Barbara, California. She had a bout with lung cancer in 2007, when she underwent surgery and chemotherapy.

Long before hard-hitting characters like Hit Girl in “Kick-Ass” and Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo in “Kill Bill” came along, Francis taught a lot of baby boomer teenagers that a spy girl could hold her own with James Bond and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” in which she appeared in two episodes before she became Honey West in the 1965-66 television season.

With her beauty mark and shoulder-length blond hair, Francis starred in 30 black-and-white episodes of “Honey West,” making an impact on girls who wanted to solve crime all day and enjoy a cocktail in the evening.

Honey West kept her pet ocelot named Bruce on a leash, drove a custom-built Cobra convertible sports car and had a souped-up mobile surveillance van. She wore a killer wardrobe that highlighted her feline qualities. In one episode, she sported a tiger-skin bathing suit with matching cape. (Meow!)

“She was probably the forerunner of what we would call the good aspects of female independence,” Francis told The Commercial Appeal of Memphis in 1997.

Born Sept. 16, 1930 in New York, Francis got her start as a child model and radio actress. She had leading or supporting roles in many movies, including “Blackboard Jungle” and “Funny Girl,” and performed with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Spencer Tracy, Paul Newman and Glenn Ford.

Over the years, Francis gained cult status for two of her roles: as Altaira in the 1950s science-fiction classic “Forbidden Planet,” and as a girl-turned-mannequin in a classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “The After Hours.”

But it was her role as Honey West that earned her the most acclaim. She won a Golden Globe for best female TV star and received an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Honey West.

“Honey West” was based on a character created by Gloria and Forest Fickling who appeared in 11 mystery novels written by the couple under the pseudonym “G.G. Fickling” in the late 1950s and 1960s.

In the television world, Francis came to compete against Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale (who Francis resembled) and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the British show “The Avengers.”

Instead of a black catsuit like Emma Peel’s, West wore a black fabric body stocking. When the job called for it, West, who took over her father’s PI business, had no problem playing the seductive card to get the intel she needed. She had a black belt in judo and carried an array of gadgets, including the ingenious garter-belt gas mask and a pen that doubled as a microphone. And what girl didn’t covet West’s martini olives that doubled as radio transmitters?

Even the titles of the episodes were savvy – “Live a Little, Kill a Little,” “The Flame and the Pussycat” and “A Matter of Wife and Death.” , “Honey West” was canceled and replaced by “The Avengers.”

“It was shot in black-and-white and we were planning to go to color the following season,” Francis said in a 1997 interview. “But ABC [the network] and Four Star [the production company] disagreed and ABC said, we can buy ‘The Avengers’ cheaper than we can make ‘Honey West.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”

On her website, Francis once signed pictures for fans of “Forbidden Planet” and “Honey West” but had disabled the request, writing that health issues prevented her from processing requests in a timely manner.

Not just a trailblazer on the screen, Francis adopted a baby girl as a single mother in 1970. Already the mother of a daughter, she was granted one of the first adoptions to a single person in California.

On any given day, Honey West could dodge bad guys, flying lamps and pointed guns. In the sole season of her TV show, Francis gave baby boomer girls a great gift – the dream to believe they could take on the world with cool style and brassy boldness.

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Written by suziparker1313

March 10, 2011 at 3:01 am

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