Forgotten Films is a semi-regular feature on Film Junk where we explore interesting movies that have fallen off the radar or slipped through the cracks over the years.
I’ve been getting a bit behind on my Forgotten Films lately, but in a way, it’s only fitting that I waited until now to write this column since there has been so much Cosby content on the Film Junk Podcast lately. While Jay has been busy going through every single season of The Cosby Show, a couple of months ago I rewatched one of Bill Cosby’s less celebrated classics: the disastrous ’80s spy spoof, Leonard Part 6.
There once was a time when Bill Cosby could do no wrong. He made a name for himself doing stand-up comedy in the ’60s, and his charisma and knack for storytelling and characterizations led to him being cast in I Spy alongside Robert Culp. His TV career continued to fluorish over the years, and his early jumps to the big screen were also fairly well-received. He re-teamed with Robert Culp on the gritty cop drama Hickey & Boggs (written by Walter Hill) in 1972, and then starred in a handful of Sidney Poitier comedies including Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again and A Piece of the Action.
Of course, this is a side of Bill Cosby I’ve never really known. Growing up in the ’80s, it was The Cosby Show that was universally watched and universally adored, and although this kept him pretty busy throughout most of the decade, he did find time to star in a couple of high-profile films, one of which was Leonard Part 6.
Now, I don’t want to say that this was Bill Cosby’s first big failure, because I’m sure there were some earlier performances that received mixed reviews, but there’s no two ways about it: Leonard Part 6 was a massive box office bomb and critics didn’t think twice about tearing it to shreds. I can certainly understand why, as it absolutely bored me to tears, both then and now.
As a kid, I was a big fan of detective and spy stories, and when I first heard about Leonard Part 6, I was pretty excited. I was even more excited about the promotional tie-in of a mini-spy camera that you could mail away for. Ironically, the advertising campaign is something that a lot of critics referenced in their reviews, thanks to the ridiculous amount of product placement in the film. It really does get out of hand with Coca Cola, Alka Seltzer, Palmolive, and many others ending up on display in the most blatant of ways. I like to think someone out there learned a lesson from the excessive shilling that goes on in this flick, as studios have at least learned to hide product placement a little better over the years.
So here’s the basic plot: Cosby stars as Leonard Parker, a legendary secret agent who is called out of retirement in order to stop evil vegetarian Medusa Johnson (played by Gloria Foster, aka The Oracle in The Matrix) from using a mind-control device that turns harmless animals into killing machines. Sounds kinda funny, right? Not so much. Along the way he must try to make amends with his ex-wife, who dumped him seven years ago when she caught him naked in a sauna with a 19-year-old.
The title alone is an indication of how badly most jokes in this movie flop. They called it “Part 6″ in order to be funny, but it just caused confusion since parts 1 to 5 do not actually exist. The pay off was Leonard’s butler telling us that the first five installments were held back from the public for the purposes of world security. Hilarious.
The movie then tries to be clever with some cryptic opening shots that only make sense later in the film (including part of the infamous ballet dancing fight scene). A few of the early death scenes are fun, including a rainbow trout attacking someone in a pool, and frogs bouncing someone’s car into the water. From here, however, things go downhill… and they do so verrrrry slowly. The first half of the movie contains almost no espionage at all, and instead it attempts to create some moments of classic Cosby family humour, such as the scene where his daughter introduces him to her boyfriend (who is old enough to be her grandfather), and the dinner scene where his ex-wife slathers food all over him. Some of this might have actually worked if it didn’t drag on for quite so long.
Once we finally get to the action, the movie becomes even more incomprehensible. I can’t possibly explain to you everything that happens, but it ends with Bill Cosby wearing his ridiculous astronaut/spy outfit throwing meat patties at henchmen and forcing them to eat hot dogs, which causes their heads to explode. He then rides an ostrich off into the sunset… or something like that. I know that probably sounds like campy fun, but Cosby just looks sweaty, bored and/or miserable the whole time.
Other actors who turn up in the film include Joe Don Baker, who plays Snyderburn, the head of the CIA, and Grace Zabriskie (Big Love, Twin Peaks, Seinfeld) who also works for the CIA. It was directed by Paul Weiland, a first-time director that Cosby was quick to blame the film’s failure on. Cosby publicly denounced the film before it was even released, appearing on talk shows telling people not to see it. He must have forgotten that he also produced it and wrote the story himself. Recently it seems that Weiland may have finally overcome this stain on his resume, as he directed the 2008 romantic comedy Made of Honor starring Patrick Dempsey!
Leonard Part 6 won three Razzies and currently sits at #63 on IMDb’s Bottom 100. The movie is mercifully short, but even at 85 minutes it’s still painful to sit through. For those interested in bad movies, you may get some measure of entertainment out of the wacky ideas and strange imagery it contains, but I promise you this: you will not laugh. I’m afraid this one deserves to remain buried and forgotten, a sad footnote in the mostly illustrious career of Mr. Bill Cosby.