There was a time when TV and cinema screens were mostly devoid of spy heroes. You might get the ordinary, innocent person caught up in a spy plot by accident, especially in Alfred Hitchcock's films, like The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938) and North by Northwest (1959). You might also see some wartime era spy work in the likes of O. S. S. (1946), or true life stories of undercover agents in Nazi-occupied Europe, as in Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).
But the spy as action-adventure hero didn't really take off on screen until the 1960s, a decade that saw the big and small screens flooded with fictional spies. Although spy mania reached its peak in this era, aided by the prominence of real life spies in the Cold War, secret agents have never completely gone out of fashion. In fact, with series like the Jason Bourne films, Mission Impossible and Kingsman, they're probably more popular now than they were in the previous couple of decades.
Here then is a rundown of the Top 10 Film and TV Spies. For inclusion on this list, all characters had to be fictional. They also have to have appeared in multiple films, or starred in their own TV series.
10. Austin Powers
A spoof of 1960s spy heroes, British spy Austin Powers first appeared in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in 1997. Powers was played by Mike Myers as a 1960s relic, with bad teeth, hairy chest wig and NHS specs. Myers stated that he was inspired to create the character after hearing the Dusty Springfield song The Look of Love, which was used in the 1967 spy spoof Casino Royale, on the radio.
Myers reprised the role twice, in 1999's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and 2002's Austin Powers in Goldmember. As the film titles suggest, Myers borrowed heavily from the Bond films, as well as from lesser known 1960s characters like Matt Helm, Jason King and possibly Adam Adamant, an Edwardian hero frozen in ice and thawed out in the swinging sixties. Like Adam Adamant, Austin Powers was frozen, although in his case in the 1960s, and defrosted thirty years later to deal with his arch-nemesis, bald Belgian criminal genius Dr. Evil (also played by Myers).
The Austin Powers films are crude and unsophisticated in their humour, but there's no denying that Powers is a memorable creation. His father, Nigel Powers, was played by Michael Caine in the third film, Austin Powers in Goldmember.
9. Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin
It's the height of the Cold War, but an American agent and a Russian agent, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum), are working together for the common good in the TV Series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Their boss is Mr Waverly, played by Leo G. Carroll, the head of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, better known as U.N.C.L.E. Their spying agency was formed to combat the threat from the international criminal organisation with the unfortunate name of THRUSH. Although THRUSH looks like an acronym, it doesn't appear to stand for anything, so maybe all their agents just suffered from fungal infections.
Like many other film and TV spies, especially in the 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was obviously inspired by the success of the James Bond films, and Bond creator Ian Fleming even had some input into the creation of this television series.
The series ran from 1964 to 1968 and was popular enough to produce a series of feature films, edited together from the TV episodes, with some new footage added. It also led to a short-lived spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966-67), starring Stefanie Powers.
A 2015 film version, starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, with Hugh Grant as Waverly, was an unexpected (and undeserved) box office flop.
8. Ethan Hunt
The TV series Mission: Impossible originally ran on American television from 1966 to 1973 and chronicled the exploits of the modestly named Impossible Mission Force.
The 1990s saw Hollywood dusting off old TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s and belatedly turning them into feature films. Along with film versions of The Addams Family (1991), The Fugitive (1993), Maverick (1994) and The Saint (1997), came the first Mission Impossible film, released in 1996.
The film version starred Tom Cruise as a new character, super-spy Ethan Hunt. Hunt is on a mission in Prague when most of his team is wiped out and he has to leap into action to find those responsible.
Cruise starred as Ethan Hunt in a further five (so far) films, ranging from the poor Mission Impossible 2 (2000) to the passable Mission Impossible 3 (2006) and the not-at-all-bad Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) and Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018).
The TV series was originally a team affair, but the films focused more on Cruise and his action man antics. Every assignment seems to involve Cruise falling out of something, jumping off from something, leaping on to something or, at the very least, trying to look cool on a motorbike.
Other characters were brought in later, including comic relief character Benji (Simon Pegg) and fellow agents Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). Also along for the ride is computer expert Luther Stickwell (Ving Rhames), who has appeared in all of the Mission Impossible films so far.
The series has involved a reasonably eclectic group of directors, the first film being directed by Brian De Palma and subsequent films in the series by John Woo, J. J. Abrams, former Pixar director Brad Bird and, most recently, Christopher McQuarrie.
7. Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne is a former US soldier, moulded into an assassin and super-spy by the CIA's top secret "Treadstone" programme. The character first appeared in Robert Ludlum's 1980 novel The Bourne Identity, which was turned into a two-part TV film starring Richard Chamberlain in 1988.
It wasn't until 2002 that Bourne made his debut on the big screen in the film version of The Bourne Identity. In the film our hero, played by Matt Damon, is found floating in the Mediterranean Sea, suffering from amnesia. He spends the first film and its three sequels, The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Jason Bourne (2016), uncovering the truth about his identity as a trained assassin and trying to extricate himself from the CIA.
The first film in the series was directed by Doug Liman, but British director Paul Greengrass took over for the next three Jason Bourne films and introduced his own distinctive editing style for the action scenes. The makers managed to wring more mileage out of a fairly thin premise with a spin off, The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner as a different agent, in 2012.
6. John Drake / Number 6
John Drake was played by Patrick McGoohan, and was the main character in the spy series Danger Man. Danger Man was a half hour show that originally ran from 1960 to 1962, and was slightly more realistic than many contemporary fictional spy thrillers.
In line with other British series from Lew Grade's ITC stable, Danger Man was deliberately designed to appear "international", with Irish-American McGoohan cast in the lead and the globe-trotting Drake originally portrayed as a NATO agent, seemingly based in Washington D.C. Unusually, Drake rarely carried a gun and generally avoided romantic entanglements.
By the mid-1960s, film and TV spies were big business, and so Danger Man was revived in longer fifty minute episodes, with McGoohan returning to the role of John Drake, this time working as a spy for the British Government. The revived series ran from 1964 to 1968. In the U.S. it was broadcast under the self-explanatory title Secret Agent.
As Danger Man was coming to the end of its run, Patrick McGoohan starred in another spy series, The Prisoner. This surreal, quintessentially 1960s show, featured an unnamed spy who tries to resign from the secret service, only to be knocked out with stun gas. When he wakes up, he finds himself in a curious Italianate village, from which there appears to be no escape. In the village he is known only as Number 6, while TV viewers would come to know him as The Prisoner.
Many people have speculated over the years as to whether John Drake and Number 6 are the same man. This was never stated in the series, probably partly because it would mean giving credit and payment to Ralph Smart, the creator of Danger Man. But there's little doubt that one series helped to inspire the other.
5. David Callan
Edward Woodward first starred as British spy David Callan in the TV anthology series Armchair Theatre, in an episode called A Magnum for Schneider. David Callan soon got his own series, simply titled Callan, running from 1967 to 1972, with Edward Woodward returning as the title character.
Callan is an ex-con and reluctant spy who gets most of the dirty work in his shadowy department, referred to only as The Section. Callan is assisted by a malodorous petty criminal and burglar nicknamed Lonely (played by Russell Hunter) and jockeys for position in his team with fellow agents Toby Meres (Anthony Valentine) and James Cross (Patrick Mower).
Callan is an involving, but mordant and cynical spy series, and it turned Woodward into a household name in Britain. The series ended after four seasons, but was revived for a film version in 1974 and for a one-off TV movie in 1981.
4. George Smiley
John le Carré's inscrutable spymaster first appeared in his 1961 novel Call for the Dead. Smiley is a deliberately down to earth and unglamorous figure, a more realistic portrait of the kind of people involved in the spy world during the Cold War.
He was played in the 1965 film version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by Rupert Davies, but in that film he was only a supporting character. The following year saw another John le Carré adaptation, the film The Deadly Affair, based on Call for the Dead. This film starred James Mason and the Smiley character took centre stage, but the character's name was changed in the film to Charles Dobbs.
It wasn't until 1979 that Smiley would really make an impact on screen, in the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In that series he was played by Alec Guinness. Guinness reprised the role in the 1982 sequel, Smiley's People. Smiley reappeared in a 1991 TV film, A Murder of Quality, starring Denholm Elliott. The character returned to the big screen in 2011 in the film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with Gary Oldman playing George Smiley.
3. Harry Palmer
Harry Palmer was the 1960s' more realistic counterpart to the fictional super spies who populated film and TV screens in that decade. Like David Callan, he's a former criminal who is recruited into the British secret service and he makes for a very reluctant spy.
The character first appeared in Len Deighton's 1962 novel The Ipcress File, although he was never actually named in the book. He was given a slight makeover, together with the name Harry Palmer, in the 1965 film version starring Michael Caine.
The film of The Ipcress File has much of the atmosphere of the book, but plot-wise it's completely different. The film version sees Palmer drawn into a mystery involving an abducted scientist. As with some other of the more realistic spy stories of the Cold War era, the threat to Palmer comes not only from the enemy but also from a mole inside his own organisation.
The Ipcress File is the best of the Harry Palmer films and one of the best spy films of the 1960s. Palmer returned in two film sequels also based on Len Deighton's novels, Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). All three films were made under the auspices of Bond producer Harry Saltzman. Two not very good straight-to-video films also appeared in the 1990s, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg, with Caine as an older Harry Palmer, who is now retired from the secret service.
2. John Steed
Before The Avengers meant Marvel superheroes, it meant surreal spy capers, in one of the most enduringly popular TV series of the 1960s.
The Avengers ran from 1961 to 1969 and originally starred Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel, in what was then a fairly straightforward crime drama. Hendry's character was occasionally assisted by the suave John Steed, an agent of a mysterious department in the British Government. Steed was played by Patrick Macnee, and when Hendry left after one series, Macnee took over as the star, making Steed one of the most familiar screen spies of the 1960s.
Steed was gradually softened from the slightly tougher character seen in the early episodes to more of a dapper adventure hero, as The Avengers became increasingly tongue-in-cheek and surreal. Steed was never without his bowler hat, umbrella and vintage Bentley or Rolls-Royce. He was usually teamed with a female companion, the main co-stars being Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, then Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, and later Linda Thorson as Tara King.
Rigg's Emma Peel was probably the most popular of these and, like Honor Blackman, she left the series to embark on a film career, with both actresses co-starring in Bond films (Blackman in Goldfinger and Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service). In another Bond connection, Macnee would later appear in the 1985 Bond film A View to a Kill, as one of Bond's allies, Sir Godfrey Tibbett.
Patrick Macnee reprised his role of John Steed in a 1970s revival, The New Avengers, co-starring Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley, and had a voice cameo in the ill-fated 1998 film version, starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as Steed and Emma Peel.
1. James Bond
Ah, Mr Bond, we've been expecting you. James Bond as the top choice is so obvious that I originally thought about making this a list of the top 10 spies who aren't James Bond. But most of these other fellas wouldn't even be here if Bond hadn't made spies cool and exciting action heroes, and you can't deny the man his place in the spotlight. Or at least in a Maurice Binder gun barrel graphic.
Ian Fleming's super spy first appeared in his 1953 novel Casino Royale. He was played by Sean Connery in the first Bond film, Dr. No in 1962, and he would be played by Connery in a further 6 films until 1983. He was also played by George Lazenby (once), Roger Moore (7 times), Timothy Dalton (twice), Pierce Brosnan (4 times) and Daniel Craig (5 times, including his fifth Bond film No Time to Die, due in 2020). Bond was also played by David Niven in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale and by Barry Nelson as, unforgivably, an American agent, in an American TV adaptation of the same novel in 1954.
Well done if you noticed that was actually twelve spies, but given that I previously picked 12 Essential Hammer Horror Films and 12 Underrated Michael Caine Films, it's obvious that I'm incapable of keeping these lists down to ten.
If you have a favourite film or TV spy, or one you think should be on this list, then let me know in the comments.