The Man From U.N.C.L.E. celebrates its 50th anniversary

Publicity still from the 1964-68 series.

Publicity still from the 1964-68 series.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted 50 years ago today with the telecast of The Vulcan Affair on NBC.

The series had false starts. First Ian Fleming was a participant, then after several months he wasn’t, bowing out to pressure from Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Then there was threatened legal action from Eon Productions stemming from the show’s original title, Solo.

In turn, the series got a new title and the legal problems went away. The makers of Goldfinger did make one change in their film. A gangster named Solo died the most spectacular death among hoodlums invited to Goldfginer’s Kentucky stud farm, a change from earlier drafts and from Fleming’s original novel. (Adrian Turner’s 1998 book on Goldfinger details the changes in the movie’s script.)

Nor did U.N.C.L.E. get off to an easy start. Airing on Tuesday nights, it was up against The Red Skeleton Show on CBS, which nearly led to cancelation before a mid-season switch to Monday nights.

But the audience discovered the series, eventually ensuring a renewal for a second season for 1965-66, which would be its highest-rated campaign.

Executive Producer Norman Felton soldiered on. His developer-producer Sam Rolfe departed after the first season and things weren’t quite the same, certainly not as consistent. Various other producers — David Victor, Boris Ingster and Anthony Spinner among them — put their own stamp on the show with varying degrees of success. Major contributions were made by writers such as Alan Caillou (who arguably shaped the Illya Kuryakin character), Dean Hargrove and Peter Allan Fields.

It remains to be seen whether U.N.C.L.E. can resonate with modern audiences. A movie version won’t be out until next year, and some fans aren’t crazy about the idea. It is back on U.S. television, via MeTV, which is showing it on Sunday nights.

Regardless, happy anniversary, U.N.C.L.E.

Happy birthday, David McCallum

Happy 81st birthday, Mr. McCallum. We can see you’re busy.

David McCallum roughing it on his birthday

David McCallum roughing it on his birthday

Jonny Quest’s 50th: espionage gets animated

Race Bannon about to rescue Jonny Quest

Race Bannon about to rescue Jonny Quest

A half-century ago, one piece of spy-related entertainment involved a villain planning to use a laser beam to shoot down a U.S. rocket being launched to go to the moon.

A mix of Dr. No and Goldfinger? Sort of. It was the debut of The Adventures of Jonny Quest, later shortened to just Jonny Quest.

The Hanna-Barbera cartoon debuted on Sept. 18, 1964, with The Mystery of the Lizard Men on ABC’s prime-time schedule.

The series chronicled the adventures of Jonny, only son of key American scientist Benton Quest. The importance of Dr. Quest, a widower, was such that U.S. intelligence operative assigned agent Roger “Race” Bannon as bodyguard and tutor.

According to AN ONLINE DOCUMENTARY, the project originated when producer Joseph Barbera saw Dr. No, the first James Bond film. Barbera knew it was a genre he and partner William Hanna had to develop a cartoon for.

The producers initially thought they could revive the radio series Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. A test cartoon was made and, the Quest documentary states, part of it was incorporated into the start of Jonny Quest’s end titles.

Hanna and Barbera soon dropped that idea and opted to develop their own characters. They enlisted cartoonist Doug Wildey, who ended up doing much of the heavy lifting of devising characters. Much of the finished product was Wildey’s. One major exception, according to the documentary, was Jonny’s pet dog, Bandit. Wildey wanted a more exotic pet while Bandit ended up an obvious cartoon dog.

In the opener, ships are being destroyed in the Sargasso Sea by mysterious means. Thus, Benton Quest is called in to investigate with his son and Bannon in tow. Soon after, Jonny, Race and Bandit are soon in peril and stumble upon the conspiracy by an unnamed foreign power headed by an unnamed villain.

The story — written by Wildey, Hanna, Barbera and Alex Lovy — reflected its Bondian influences. The plot’s McGuffin resembles Dr. No. The villain’s main gadget, a laser gun, was part of Goldfinger, which was debuting in the U.K. at the same time (and wouldn’t reach the U.S. until December).

Quest was different than previous H-B productions. Characters (with the exception of Bandit) were drawn realistically, including shadowing.

The series was helped significantly by composer Hoyt Curtin, especially the debut episode. According to the Quest documentary, Curtin wrote the signature theme in such a way that trombone players couldn’t actually be played correctly. It was Curtin’s way of getting back at the musicians who playfully complained that the composer’s music was too easy to play.

The credits on Jonny Quest downplayed the significance of Wildey and Curtin. Wildey wasn’t created as the show’s creator. On some episodes, he was listed as “supervising art director,” in others it was stated the show was “based on ideas created by” Wildey. Curtin was credited for “musical direction.” Meanwhile Hanna and Barbera got a “produced and directed by” credit in larger type for each episode.

Quest wasn’t a big hit. It ran only season in prime time. It would later be rerun on Saturday mornings. In the 1980s and ’90s, there would be Quest cartoon revivals. But it was never the same.

In the 2000s, there was a DVD release of that first season. But there were changes. Some politically incorrect lines were taken out. Also, the end titles from two episodes were used over and over. The writing credits for each episode were in the end titles. As a result, the viewer doesn’t really know who penned the episodes.

In any case, for people of a certain age, Jonny Quest still resonates, especially Curtin’s theme. Quest’s golden anniversary, understandably, will be overlooked because of the 50th anniversary of Goldfinger. Still, for some, will look back at the series with great fondness.

U.N.C.L.E. at 50: an unusual anniversary

Robert Vaughn in a first-season main title.

Robert Vaughn in a first-season main title.

This month marks The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s 50th anniversary. But the milestone comes at an unusual time and is full of ups and downs.

The original 1964-68 series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum is getting a bit more visibility in the U.S. because THE METV CHANNEL HAS STARTED TELECASTING the show. Meanwhile, in the Los Angeles area, there’s a SOLD OUT EVENT LATER THIS MONTH featuring actors and crew members of the series.

Of course, there’s a reborn U.N.C.L.E. in the form of a Guy Ritchie-directed film starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in the Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin roles. But the only people outside of Warner Bros. who’ve seen it are those who’ve attended test screenings. The movie, which originally had a mid-January release date, now won’t debut for 11 months.

Fans generally welcome the MeTV development, except for those annoyed at their local MeTV outlet for pre-empting the show for other programming.

On the other hand, divides U.N.C.L.E. fans. Some would like to see a movie, if it’s true to the spirit of the show. We already know it’s not true to the last letter of the show. The movie, set in the early 1960s, is an U.N.C.L.E. origin story. In the series, U.N.C.L.E. had been established for years.

Other fans are actively rooting against the movie for a variety of reasons. Examples: the original doesn’t need remaking, the changes already known between film and series are too much and objections to the casting (for a variety of reasons) of Cavill and Hammer. How deep is such feeling? In the absence of scientific polling, hard to say.

The show did help launch spymania on U.S. television. There had been other espionage series, such as Five Fingers, starring David Hedison and Luciana Paluzzi, that ran just one season. Even the notion of a multi-national organization, one of the ways U.N.C.L.E. differentiated itself, had been tried in AN UNSOLD PILOT that aired as the last episode of the Boris Karloff Thriller series in 1962.

The series got off to a slow start, but was helped by a mid-season change in time slot and the surge of movie spymania stemming from 1964’s Goldfinger. By the fall of 1965, other spy series were on the air.

U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t had the visibility of other old television shows, one reason why the show joining MeTV’s Sunday night schedule was welcomed by fans.

The movie is something else. Go to various places on social media and you can see the debates for yourself.

As a result, U.N.C.L.E. on its golden anniversary doesn’t seem to have the sense of celebration as, say, Dr. No’s golden anniversary two years ago.

It’s still an anniversary worth noting. Those attending the Los Angeles area program will have the chance to meet with crew members in their 80s and 90s and will get the opportunity to hear their insight. Still, it’s a different kind of anniversary, for good or ill, depending on your view.

Richard Kiel, 007 and spy villain, dies at 74

Richard Kiel as Jaws

Richard Kiel as Jaws

Richard Kiel, who stood more than 7-feet-tall, making him a natural as a villain in 1960s spy series plus two James Bond films, has died at 74, according to an obituary in the LOS ANGELES TIMES. An excerpt:

Richard Kiel, the 7-foot-2 actor best known for portraying the James Bond villain Jaws, never wanted to be typecast as a dimwitted character just because of his enormous stature. While his towering physique may have made him intimidating, he was not dumb, he told the Los Angeles Times during a 1978 interview. “If I wanted to be a trial attorney, I could have been. If I wanted to be a real estate magnate, I could have been that, too,” he said.

Kiel appeared as Jaws in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and 1979’s Moonraker. But he had plenty of experience portraying menacing henchmen. He had one uncredited scene in the pilot to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as well as another first-season episode, The Hong Kong Shilling Affair. He was the henchman of Dr. Loveless, a scientist dwarf, in three episodes of The Wild Wild West, plus a later appearance as another character. And he appeared in In Spy. Here’s a sample of Kiel’s pre-007 work, the first Loveless episode on The Wild Wild West. Bear in mind it could be yanked from YouTube at any time. Kiel also reprised the Jaws role (sort of) at the 1982 Oscars during a production of For You Eyes Only, which was nominated for Best Song of 1981. He appeared along with Harold Sakata, who played Oddjob in Goldfinger.

Guy Ritchie’s U.N.C.L.E. philosophy

Photo of Armie Hammer and Guy Ritchie that appeared in the Daily Mail

Photo of Armie Hammer and Guy Ritchie that appeared in the Daily Mail last year.

The Empire magazine story about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie still isn’t online, but fans have posted images of the print version. It contains a few quotes from director Guy Ritchie.

Ritchie said he only dipped so far into the original 1964-68 series that starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

“We’re tipping our hat to the original series, but we’re really taking the positives of the existing brand and reworking them for a contemporary audience,” Ritchie told Empire.

“There were only a few things I needed to keep from the TV series. It needed global stakes, a Russian and an American. The Russian had to be blond and the American dark. Other than that, it brings no baggage for being an ‘inherited project.'”

The last comment is an apparent reference to how an U.N.C.L.E. movie project has been bouncing around for years. Ritchie took it over after director Steven Soderbergh exited in late 2011.

Ritchie’s movie is an “origin of U.N.C.L.E.” story, with Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) a CIA agent and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) a KGB operative who join forces in the early 1960s. In the television series, U.N.C.L.E. had been around for some time, with Solo and Kuryakin trained as U.N.C.L.E. agents in the 1950s.

The movie is schedule for release in August 2015.

UPDATE: Henry Cavill News has a post with an image of the article. You can CLICK HERE to view it. You can CLICK HERE for a larger image of the article on that website that’s easier to read.

 

Still new questions about the U.N.C.L.E. movie

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer during filming in 2013

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer during filming in 2013

As Michael Corleone once said, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” In that spirit, here’s a look at some new questions about the U.N.C.L.E. movie that have arisen in the past few weeks.

The release date has been pushed back to August 2015 from January. Good or bad? Honest answer: I don’t know.

Skeptics will say it’s another sign of trouble. Then again, the January date was seen as a sign of trouble, an indication that Warner Bros. didn’t think it could take the holiday season competition.

The more optimistic interpretation is that Warners has more faith in the project, concluding it could fare well in the late summer slot. On the studio calendar, “summer” starts on May 1, and in 2015 that means the sequel to Marvel’s The Avengers, which is already getting buzz. Marvel will also have Ant Man in July. While Ant Man isn’t that well known to the general public, the same was true of Guardians of the Galaxy, which has become a big hit.

So it’s probably a good idea to keep U.N.C.L.E. away from the early- to mid-summer months. But some summer movies released in August can become hits. We’ll see.

What’s up with all the reshoots? Again, hard to tell from the outside. At the very least, it indicates the studio isn’t just shoving the movie out the door. The first rounds of reshoots didn’t involve the principal actors. But Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer were eventually summoned back. That appears to be done because Cavill is back working on the Batman-Superman movie due out in March 2016.

The star hasn’t even watched the show. Good or bad? Cavill, who plays Napoleon Solo, told Empire magazine he hadn’t watched any episodes of the 1964-68 series.

That’s part of the actor’s M.O. He didn’t watch previous Superman movies or television stories, according to 2013 stories from REUTERS and THE DAILY BEAST He said he studied original comic books for insights into the character.

But one thing different about U.N.C.L.E. is that the television series is the source material. We’ll have to see how this turns out.

Illya Kuryakin is a hothead? What is up with that? This week, there’s another test screening of the movie. The invitations refer to “cool, & collected CIA agent Solo, and hot-headed rival KGB agent Kuryakin.”

For original fans, that’s a little concerning. Kuryakin very much kept his cool in tense situations and was a big part of the character’s appeal.

Then again, this is an “origin” story and the Kuryakin portrayed by Armie Hammer (who says watched original U.N.C.L.E. episodes) may not be fully formed yet. It sounds like a broken record, but we’ll see.

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