Matt Helm

Matt Helm
Matt Helm as depicted on the back cover of The Wrecking Crew, 1960

Matt Helm is a fictional character created by author Donald Hamilton. He is a U.S. government counter-agent—a man whose primary job is to kill or nullify enemy agents—not a spy or secret agent in the ordinary sense of the term as used in spy thrillers.


The character and the series

The character appeared in 27 books over a 33-year period beginning in 1960 and established Helm as one of the most tough-minded, pragmatic, and competent of all fictional agents, whatever their roles. The series was noted for its between-books continuity, which was somewhat rare for the genre. In the later books, Helm's origins as a man of action in World War II disappeared and he became an apparently ageless character, a common fate of long-running fictional heroes.

In the first book in the series, Matt Helm: Death Of A Citizen, which takes place in the summer of 1958, 13 years after the end of the Second World War, Helm is frequently referred to by other characters as being of incipient middle age and apparently soft and out of shape, although no specific age for him is given.

In the next story, which apparently takes place in the summer of 1959, a hostile agent from a rival American spy organization taunts Helm as being a shopworn 36-year-old and clearly over the hill as a physical specimen. Later in the book, Helm himself says that he is 36 years old.

A long Internet article (on the now defunct by Hayford Peirce examined the issue of Helm's age, however, and found this figure to be improbably young given the information about Helm's background in Death Of A Citizen. Peirce postulated that Helm was actually several years older than the 36 years mentioned in The Wrecking Crew and that he was probably born around 1918. In the remaining 25 books of the series, however, the age issue vanishes completely.

Critic Anthony Boucher wrote: "Donald Hamilton has brought to the spy novel the authentic hard realism of Dashiell Hammett; and his stories are as compelling, and probably as close to the sordid truth of espionage, as any now being told." [1] Golden Age mystery writer John Dickson Carr began reviewing books for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1969. According to Carr's biographer, "Carr found Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm to be 'my favorite secret agent,'" although Hamilton's books had little in common with Carr's. "The explanation may lie in Carr's comment that in espionage novels he preferred Matt Helm's 'cloud-cuckooland' land. Carr never valued realism in fiction." [2]

Matt Helm in film and television

A movie series was made beginning in 1966 starring Dean Martin, who co-produced with his Meadway-Claude Production company and received a partnership in the films. The series was produced by Irving Allen, who had once been the partner of James Bond film producer Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli— the same man who had told Ian Fleming that his 007 novels were not "good enough for television," a point of contention between the two producers from 1958-1960 when they dissolved Warwick Films and went their separate ways.

The films used the name Matt Helm, his cover identity, plus book titles and some very loose plot elements, but otherwise the series bore no resemblance at all to the character, atmosphere, or themes of Hamilton's original books, nor to the hard-edged action of Bond. One reason was the attitude of the filmmakers that the only way to compete with the Bond films was to parody them. (See also Casino Royale.) Likewise, a 1970s TV series Matt Helm, which cast Tony Franciosa as Helm as an ex-spy turned private detective, also departed from the books and was similarly unsuccessful. Another variation from the books in the movie is that Matt's department was named; for the films Matt worked for Intelligence and CounterEspionage (ICE).

Martin played the part with his own persona of a fun-loving, easygoing, wisecracking playboy with plenty of references to singing and alcohol consumption. Like the Bond films, the Helm movies feature a number of sexy women in each, including a group of "Slaygirls."

For instance, in 1966's The Silencers, Stella Stevens played a redheaded bombshell who proves helpless while trying to help Helm, and a similar part was played in The Wrecking Crew by actress Sharon Tate. Martin co-starred in the films with popular '60s actresses such as Ann-Margret, Elke Sommer, Janice Rule, and Tina Louise.

Supposedly, the idea of a tongue-in-cheek Helm came from the first director, Phil Karlson. Karlson had the idea of filming The Secret Ways with that approach, but the star, producer, and husband of the screenwriter, Richard Widmark, fired him from the film and took over the direction himself without credit. Bond films of the 1970s, by contrast, adopted the style and setpieces of Helm films while also mostly ignoring the plot elements of Fleming's original books.

In the short term, the Dean Martin-Matt Helm series of spy spoof films proved to be the most successful of Bond-influenced ones in terms of sheer output: They totaled four—more than the film franchises about Derek Flint, Harry Palmer, or Austin Powers; however the Harry Palmer series released two further contemporary films in the 1990s, first matching, then surpassing the Helm series in number.

In 2002, it was reported that DreamWorks had optioned the entire Helm book series. On August 9, 2005, Variety reported that DreamWorks had signed Michael Brandt and Derek Haas to write a screenplay for a high-six-figure deal. According to the article, the film will be a contemporary adaptation of the character, but no casting or release information has been announced.

The Martin version of Helm served as a significant inspiration for Mike Myers's comic character Austin Powers and many references can be seen. Most significantly, both are fashion photographers as their cover jobs.

Paramount retained 100% of the Matt Helm series after its split from DreamWorks SKG. Currently, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are producing a more serious version of the Helm franchise. The tone of Paul Attanasio's script is closer to that of The Bourne Identity, reports Variety[1]. Despite having no contractual connections any longer, there are rumors that Steven Spielberg is considering directing or producing the Matt Helm update.


(all by Donald Hamilton)

  1. Death of a Citizen (1960)
  2. The Wrecking Crew (1960)
  3. The Removers (1961)
  4. The Silencers (1962)
  5. Murderers' Row (1962)
  6. The Ambushers (1963)
  7. The Shadowers (1964)
  8. The Ravagers (1964)
  9. The Devastators (1965)
  10. The Betrayers (1966)
  11. The Menacers (1968)
  12. The Interlopers (1969)
  13. The Poisoners (1971)
  14. The Intriguers (1972)
  15. The Intimidators (1974)
  16. The Terminators (1975)
  17. The Retaliators (1976)
  18. The Terrorizers (1977)
  19. The Revengers (1982)
  20. The Annihilators (1983)
  21. The Infiltrators (1984)
  22. The Detonators (1985)
  23. The Vanishers (1986)
  24. The Demolishers (1987)
  25. The Frighteners (1989)
  26. The Threateners (1992)
  27. The Damagers (1993)
  28. The Dominators – unpublished. Hamilton finished this novel in the late 1990s, and was reportedly revising it in preparation for seeking a publisher in mid-2002, but as of 2010 it has yet to be published.[2]

All of Hamilton's Matt Helm novels were first published in the United States by Fawcett Publications under their Gold Medal imprint.


(all starring Dean Martin as Helm)

  1. The Silencers (1966)
  2. Murderers' Row (1966)
  3. The Ambushers (1967)
  4. The Wrecking Crew (1969)

A fifth film was planned, based upon the novel The Ravagers, but Martin declined the opportunity to play the role once more, even though the title of the film was announced at the end of Wrecking Crew.[3]

A 4-DVD box set containing the four films was released in North America in December 2005.

As of 2006, a more serious adaptation of the Matt Helm novels was reported to be in the early planning stages, with DreamWorks holding the film rights to all of Donald Hamilton's books.[4] Years later, rumors of the Helm project continue, with Steven Spielberg reportedly signed to produce a film and possibly direct.[5] Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are also producing.[6] Bradley Cooper will play the role of Matt Helm[citation needed].

The TV Series

A television series loosely based upon Hamilton's character was launched by the ABC Network in 1975. Titled simply Matt Helm, the series starred Anthony Franciosa as a retired spy who becomes a private detective. After being launched by a pilot TV movie, it ran for only 13 episodes.


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, compiled by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, New York, 1976, page 195.
  2. ^ John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, New York, 1995, page 443.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^


  • John Dickson Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, New York, 1995
  • Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, New York, 1976, ISBN 0-07-061121-1
  • 'Spielberg Spying Matt Helm: Secret Agent May Be Subject of Director's Next Film', by Michael Fleming, Variety Magazine, Wed., Jul. 29, 2009

External links

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