Talking With the Son of 'The Man Nobody Knew'

A new documentary tells the tale of William Colby, the enigmatic intelligence agent and C.I.A. director, and the family he kept at a distance

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First Run Films

In TV and film, this seems to be a banner year for spies. From The Hour to Homeland to The Debt to (in December) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, espionage has been one of the most reliable sources for recent drama. Going back to 1932 when Garbo played Mata Hari, the subject has always been a staple for Hollywood. At last count, the James Bond 007 franchise has generated more than $1.5 billion in box office revenue.

This weekend, moviegoers will get a decidedly different—and refreshing—take on spycraft with the release of The Man Nobody Knew. Even though it's a documentary, the picture plays like some of the best spy films. It's the story of William Colby, who spent most of his life in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

In 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Colby director of the CIA. Getting that job was the crowning achievement for a man whose life mission was fighting Nazis and communists. But two years later, it seemed to come crashing down around Colby when the Nixon administration was engulfed by the Watergate scandal and the CIA disclosed hundreds of examples of purported illegality (mind control and LSD experiments on unwitting humans, attempted assassinations, etc., now known as the "family jewels") going back to the '50s. The press and Congress charged the CIA with widespread allegations of overall corruption and massive abuse of power.

William Colby was left out on the firing line during this Washington upheaval—but he remained agile in his defense of the clandestine service. The Man Nobody Knew opens with a riveting scene of Colby facing criticism from a Congressional committee focused on the supposed immorality of targeting dictators and other tyrants for assassination. "I am against assassination," says Colby. "I think it's counter-productive and I've issued directives against it. But I confess in the dark reaches of my mind I would have very cheerfully helped carry the bomb into Hitler's bunker in 1944."

As The Man Nobody Knew reveals, whenever William Colby stepped into the breach, be it in Italy, Vietnam, or the Senate hearing room, he had a signature style: grace under pressure, steely cool, always in American trad clothes, and P-3 style eyeglasses. Colby's matte bone specs were such a part of his persona that when he died, New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner memorialized him this way: "When asked a question he did not care to answer, Colby would tilt back his head so light reflected off the lenses of his glasses, turning his eyes into blank white disks."

Colby's son, Carl, is the man behind this new picture as director/producer. In his other documentaries, Carl chronicled Bob Marley, Frank Gehry, and Franco Zeffirelli. This picture hits closest to home. "My father had just joined the CIA when I was born in Washington in 1951," he says, "and my mother had just learned this. We shipped off to Sweden two weeks later, where my father worked setting up 'stay-behind nets' in Scandinavia and the Baltic States and running covert ops into Soviet-occupied nations along the Baltic Sea."

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Making a picture that's a truthful examination of the life and work of one's father can be tough going for anyone, but it's especially difficult when your dad's expertise was keeping secrets. In the film, Carl and his mother, Barbara Colby, tell the story of a man who said little regarding his work and accomplishments, which ranged from parachuting behind enemy lines in Nazi-controlled France and Norway during World War II (Colby was a member of the "Jeds," an international contingent opposing the Nazis) to placing secret agents in communist North Vietnam in the early Sixties.

Often it was as though the Colby family was a cast of characters in a spy game. On what seemed to be casual weekend picnics, Carl's dad passed envelopes to men in gray suits. When Carl was in grade school in Rome, his father was operating undercover, trying to prevent the Soviet Union from transforming a left-leaning postwar Italy into more of its repressive regime. A few years later, Carl was growing up in Saigon. He would listen to bombs exploding nearby as the Vietcong readied for war.

In The Man Nobody Knew, moviegoers will meet a man who was called heroic only to be then labeled a war criminal and even worse by the end of his career. There's a family story here, too. During William Colby's time in Vietnam, his daughter, Catherine, dies in the U.S. from a battle with epilepsy and anorexia. Twenty years later, apparently still racked by questions of whether he did enough to help her, the former CIA chief mysteriously disappeared while on a solo canoe outing in Maryland. His body was discovered nine days later, and authorities concluded that he had either a stroke or heart attack and drowned, age 76.

The questions posed by this picture and Colby's life work are vital: What's the place of secrecy in an open society? Do the ends justify the means when the ends may include saving innocent lives and preserving freedom? The answers matter especially today, when the headlines are about drones killing an American terrorist and other issues that come with a war that's lasted more than a decade.

We spoke with Carl Colby in Beverly Hills.

This movie spans four decades of William Colby's life. He gets a little grayer, but as for his general appearance, 1975 doesn't seem much different than 1945. The fascinating thing is that he looks the same even with this cultural and generational tumult underway all around him.

My father was unflappable. A man called Stan Tempko, who went to law school with him and was best man at his wedding, said, "You could be talking to William Colby about the weather and somebody could be sawing off Colby's right arm but Colby would just keep talking to you. He wouldn't flinch."

That attitude comes through in some of the photographs of him.

He was an extraordinary person who worked hard at appearing ordinary. He wanted to be out-of-focus. Opaque. Almost intentionally erasing himself. He'd be the last person you'd remember from the reception. Whenever he went to the hot new restaurant, he never got the attention of the maitre d'. He liked that. Nevertheless, one always got the sense that around my dad, you were in the midst of people who play in the world. His favorite phrase was March toward the sound of the guns. In other words, get into the action of your times.

He wore the same P-3 style glasses most of his life.

That's right. And whenever he was at his most challenged, such as when he's being grilled by Congress or interviewed by CBS News after being fired as CIA director—we have all this footage in the film—take a close look. He's wearing his Jedburgh paratroop tie. It's as if he's stepping into the fray once again.

Who were his heroes?

He loved the Greeks—not the Romans, or the Egyptians. The Greeks.

What was life like for him after he left the CIA?

He never wanted an AARP card, or the senior discount. I remember calling to inform him that one of his Princeton roommates was found wandering under a bridge in Middlebury, Vermont, with advanced Alzheimer's. "Oh, that will never happen to me," he said. "Really?," I asked. "Nope. One day you'll hear that I was walking along a goat path on a Greek island and I fell into the sea." I said, again, "Really?" And he replied, "Yep. That's it."

Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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