It’s the biggest Hollywood movie ever shot in Cape Coral. And just about everybody agrees — it’s absolutely awful.

Even a 2005 DVD of “The Fat Spy” comes with an all-caps warning on the cover: “THE WORST MOVIE SHOT IN CAPE CORAL.”

But why stop there? Chris Schroder thinks “The Fat Spy” might be a world contender.

“We always say it’s the worst movie EVER made,” the longtime Cape resident says and laughs. “We go worldwide!”

The 1966 movie has everything: Hammy acting. An incomprehensible plot. Endless scenes of teens dancing to rock ‘n’ roll songs. A middle-aged man somehow posing as a teenager (the “Fat Spy” in the title). Phyllis Diller looking at the camera and saying, “Teenagers —yechhh!

All that and more gave “The Fat Spy” the curdled stink of a Z movie.

No wonder nobody watched the thing. Even Cape Coral resident Anne Duffala, 71, couldn’t make it through the movie more than once — and she was one of its extras (that’s her getting kissed by comedian Jack E. Leonard).

“I’ve seen it probably one and a half times,” Duffala says. “It’s hokey! It’s just hokey! It was like a ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ that went bad (laughs).”

“The Fat Spy” hit U.S. movie theaters in May 1966 and quickly faded into obscurity. No one seems to remember if it even played Southwest Florida.

But despite its frosty reception, the movie was a big deal for Cape Coral when director Joseph Cates started filming in 1965 with Hollywood stars Phyllis Diller, Jack E. Leonard, Brian Donlevy and Jayne Mansfield (in one of her last roles before her 1967 death in a car crash)

“It was a big hoopla at the time,” Duffala says. “Because of the stars that were involved in little ol’ Cape Coral.”

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The movie wasn’t just any movie, though. It was also a publicity stunt orchestrated by Cape Coral developers Gulf American Land Corp. That’s why the city’s name is mentioned often in the film and why scenes are shot at tourist-friendly spots like the Cape Coral Yacht Club, the beach, the Iwo Jima memorial and former tourist attraction Cape Coral Gardens, including shots of its rose garden, fountains and popular porpoise show.

“It was their sales gimmick, I think,” says Mary Lou Griffith, 91, of Cape Coral, who did PR for Gulf American owners the Rosen Brothers and booked flights for some of the Hollywood stars visiting Cape Coral.

The movie didn’t get much love at the box office, but it did generate news articles and media coverage. “It did the job,” Duffala says. “It helped put Cape Coral on the map.”

“The Fat Spy’s” head-scratching story involves a group of teenagers — all appearing a bit too old for their parts — who dance and sing to knock-off rock songs like “Do the Turtle” whenever they’re not searching for buried treasure on a (mostly) deserted island.

Meanwhile, the island’s owner (Brian Donlevy) enlists his daughter (Mansfield) and her rose-loving romantic interest (Leonard) to stop the teens. And Irving’s twin brother (also Leonard) and the villainous Camille Salamander (Diller) search everywhere for the long-lost Fountain of Youth.

With its dancing teens and long musical numbers, the movie is obviously meant to be a spoof of the 1965 beach-party movie “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. “The Fat Spy” even features two teen lovers named Frankie and Nanette.

And in the right context, Schroder says, the movie really isn’t THAT bad.

“The movie reminds me of ‘Austin Powers,’” the 66-year-old Cape resident says. "If the Rosen Brothers put out ‘The Fat Spy’ now, it would probably go over. It’s just so silly.”

During the movie's filming in the summer of 1965, Cape residents started getting used to the sight of Diller, Mansfield, Leonard and members of the rock band The Wild Ones (best known for recording the first version of the rock hit “Wild Thing,” later made famous by The Troggs). They’d see the actors exiting cars, dining at local restaurants or hanging out by the pool at the former Nautilus Hotel on Cape Coral Parkway (now a Holiday Inn Express).

“They were all around,” Duffala says. “You would see them.”

Griffith remembers Diller inviting local news reporters for homemade vegetable soup in her hotel room. Then there was the time Griffith got up close and personal with Mansfield in an elevator and gained a new appreciation for the sex symbol’s bountiful assets.

“You know what she’s known for,” Griffith says and laughs. “And I was impressed. She had a big bust! I could see her, and I thought, ‘Wow!’”

Nobody seems to have liked Leonard, though. The comedian was best known for his TV appearances, but “The Fat Spy” was his first — and last — starring role in a Hollywood movie.

“I didn’t appreciate Jack E. Leonard at all,” Duffala says. “He was kind of obnoxious and arrogant.”

Griffith agrees. “He was kind of gruff,” she says. “He was kind of a grouch. … But the others were really nice.”

Decades later, “The Fat Spy” can still be seen in YouTube videos (where you can watch the entire thing) or in poor-quality DVDs like the 2005 copy that called it “THE WORST MOVIE SHOT IN CAPE CORAL" (not that there’s much competition: Only a few movies have been shot in the city, including the 1990 comedy-drama “Coupe de Ville").

These days, the movie is known more for its notoriety than anything else. “The Fat Spy” charted at No. 46 in the 2004 documentary “The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made,” and the movie’s IMDb page has racked up 29 reviews from readers — all of them bad.

“Really one of the worst movies I've ever seen,” wrote one reviewer. “But funny in the same way ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ is. The ‘musical’ scenes are stunningly bad and the songs themselves are worse still. The acting is consistently horrific throughout.”

Another reviewer wrote that she'd be hard-pressed to find a worse movie than “The Fat Spy.” “This mid-Sixties teenage beach ‘comedy’ is about as funny as an ingrown toenail,” she wrote. “And the music is actually painful to listen to."

Even movie critic Phil Hall weighed in with a 2009 review for

“As a film reviewer, I get to see an awful lot of movies — not to mention a lot of awful movies,” he wrote. “However, every now and then, it is possible to come across a film that goes beyond just being bad. … The 1966 feature 'The Fat Spy' falls into that unique category.”

Hall went on to offer these pointed critiques:

  • “Mansfield goes through the film wearing a wig that looks like a dead lamb is resting on her head.”
  • “As for the teenagers — well, they seem a bit mature to be high school kids (especially the guy with the beard and the guy with the tattoos).”
  • “The songs represent the worst of American pop in the mid-1960s, particularly the big dance number where everyone is encouraged to dance 'The Turtle' (though the gyrating hips and swinging arms suggest rabid chimpanzees rather than sedate turtles).”

So, yeah, pretty much everybody agrees: “The Fat Spy” is bad.

Really, really bad.

Still, Duffala says she’s glad the movie exists, if only for purely historical reasons. It offers a window into 1965 Cape Coral and how it looked then, including many buildings that no longer exist.

“It’s interesting because of the history you can see,” she says. “For the history, it’s a good movie — if you can suffer through it.”

She laughs. “It’s pretty bad!”

Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells (Facebook), @charlesrunnells (Twitter), @crunnells1 (Instagram)


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