U.N.C.L.E.’s odd post-series history

"It's hard to find our show some times, Illya."

“It’s hard to find our show sometimes, Illya.”

UPDATE: The 1980s section, corrects name of network to Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN changed its name to Family Channel name after it showed U.N.C.L.E.

Also, readers (one is a comment below, the other was on Facebook) have mentioned the following: The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair, a 1986 A-Team episode with U.N.C.L.E. memes (Robert Vaughn was a regular in that show’s final season and David McCallum was the episode’s guest star) as well as a Dec. 31, 1989-Jan. 1, 1990 U.N.C.L.E. marathon on TNT.

While we’re at it, Turner Classic Movies a few years ago had a daylong marathon of the eight U.N.C.L.E. movies, with the first beginning at 6 a.m. eastern time. TCM still occasionally shows them.

With the news that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is going to be shown by MeTV in the U.S. starting next month, here’s a review of the show’s odd history after it ended its 1964-68 run on NBC.

This is by no means a definitive history. But it gives you an idea how a series that once was very popular had trouble finding an audience after its first run. The show made stars of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, even to the point where the Beatles wanted to meet Vaughn in 1966. But later, it was as if the show disappeared.

Meanwhile, other series that were on at the time, such as Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West, were much easier to find on local television stations. And, of course, the original Star Trek (which shared many of the same guest stars as U.N.C.L.E.) became a broad pop culture event while in syndication.

Circa 1968-1969: For a period, U.N.C.L.E. could be seen in syndication. An Indianapolis independent station showed U.N.C.L.E. (Both Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) Monday through Friday in an afternoon time slot.

However, this did not last that long. In general, there was a concern about violence on television and this perhaps affected U.N.C.L.E. For whatever reason, U.N.C.L.E. soon became virtually invisible.

1970s: The best chance to see U.N.C.L.E. was when one of the eight “movies” — re-edited from series episodes — popped up on local television. In the `1970s, I caught To Trap a Spy (an expanded version of the series pilot) on a local television station. CBS even showed The Spy With My Face, an expanded version of the first-season episode The Double Affair, on the CBS Late Movie. At the time, CBS didn’t have its own viable late-night show and was content to show movies starting at 11:30 p.m. eastern time.

1980s: In the early 1980s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which made the series in association with producer Norman Felton’s Arena Productions, dusted off U.N.C.L.E. The studio made a renewed syndication push. The original MGM logs at the end of episodes were removed and new ones added.

In 1985, the Christian Broadcasting Network — controlled by tele-evangelist Pat Robertson — showed The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at 11 p.m. eastern time in the U.S. But for the CBN debut,the channel skipped over the entire black-and-white first season. Its first telecast was The Arabian Affair from the second season.

By the spring or summer of 1986, CBN showed all but four episodes: the two-part Alexander the Greater Affair and The Very Important Zombie Affair from the second season and The Abominable Snowman Affair from the third. The latter two weren’t shown, reportedly because of their un-Christian content (voodoo with Very Important Zombie, depictions of Eastern religions in Snowman). As for Alexander the Greater, it turned out nobody could find it. More about that shortly.

Meanwhile, there were changes behind the scenes. Television mogul Ted Turner bought MGM, primarily to gain control of its film library, including classic films such as Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur. But Turner borrowed heavily for the purchase. So he sold the studio, while keeping the film library — which also included U.N.C.L.E.

Thus, in 1988, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was part of TNT’s Saturday morning (and later Saturday afternoon) programming. TNT telecast Very Important Zombie and Abominable Snowman shortly thereafter.

1990s: By the mid-1990s, U.N.C.L.E. shows up in the early-morning hours of Tuesday (technically part of its Monday schedule). In 1999, a Turner employee finds Alexander the Greater. The two-part story was telecast July 4, 2000, the last U.N.C.L.E. telecast on the cable network. In the interim, Turner has sold out to Time Warner, whose Warner Bros. now controls the show.

NBC had never rerun Alexander the Greater. So the TNT telecast was the first time the television version had been seen since September 1965. Until then, only the movie version, One Spy Too Many, had been available.

In 1999, TV Land had a “spy week” promotion in connection with the second Austin Powers movie. Four episodes each of The Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. are shown on separate nights, along with series such as It Takes a Thief and The Avengers. For Man, four first-season episodes are telecast. (Girl only ran one season, making selection easier.) TNT, around the same time, showed some episodes of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. in connection with the birthday of star Stefanie Powers.

21st century: Both The Man and Girl From U.N.C.L.E. have shown up on other cable channels but don’t enjoy a lot of visibility.

In 2007, the series is released on DVD, initially by Time-Life. The original MGM logo at the end of episodes was restored. Within a few years, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and the eight U.N.C.L.E. movies are released by Warner Archive, the manufactured-on-demand arm of Warner Bros.

MeTV picking up The Man From U.N.C.L.E. comes just ahead of the show’s 50th anniversary as well as a movie version of the show coming in January.

Licence to Kill’s 25th: 007 flops in the U.S.

Licence to Kill's poster

Licence to Kill’s poster

Licence to Kill, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, is mostly known for a series of “lasts” but also for a first.

It was the last of five 007 films directed by John Glen, the most prolific director in the series; the last of 13 Bond films where Richard Maibaum participated in the writing; it was the last with Albert R. Broccoli getting a producer’s credit (he would only “present” 1995′s GoldenEye); it was the last 007 movie with a title sequence designed by Maurice Binder; and the it was last 007 film where Pan Am was the unofficial airline of the James Bond series (it went out of business before GoldenEye).

It was also the first that was an unqualified flop in the U.S. market.

Bond wasn’t on Poverty Row when Licence to Kill began production in 1988. But neither did 007 travel entirely first class.

Under financial pressure from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (which acquired half the franchise after buying United Artists earlier in the decade), Eon Productions moved the home base of the production to Mexico from Pinewood Studios.

Joining Timothy Dalton in his second (and last) outing as Bond was a cast mostly known for appearing on U.S. television, including Anthony Zerbe, Don Stroud, David Hedison (his second appearance as Felix Leiter), Pricilla Barnes, Rafer Johnson, Frank McRae as well as Las Vegas performer Wayne Newton.

Meanwhile, character actor Robert Davi snared the role of the film’s villain, with Carey Lowell and Carey Lowell and Talisa Soto as competing Bond women.

Michael G. Wilson, Broccoli’s stepson and co-producer, took the role as lead writer because a 1988 Writers Guild strike made Richard Maibaum unavailable. Maibaum’s participation didn’t extend beyond the plotting stage. The teaser trailer billed Wilson as the sole writer but Maibaum received co-writer billing in the final credits.

Wilson opted for a darker take, up to a point. He included Leiter having a leg chewed off by a shark from the Live And Let Die novel. He also upped the number of swear words compared with previous 007 entries. But Wilson hedged his bets with jokes, such as Newton’s fake preacher and a scene where Q shows off gadgets to Bond.

Licence would be the first Bond film where “this time it’s personal.” Bond goes rogue to avenge Leiter. Since then, it has almost always been personal for 007. Because of budget restrictions, filming was kept to Florida and Mexico.

The end product didn’t go over well in the U.S. Other studios had given the 16th 007 film a wide berth for its opening weekend. The only “new” movie that weekend was a re-release of Walt Disney Co.’s Peter Pan.

Nevertheless, Licence finished an anemic No. 4 during the July 14-16 weekend, coming in behind Lethal Weapon 2 (in its second weekend), Batman (in its fourth weekend) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (also fourth weekend).

Glen and Maibaum were done with Bond, the latter being part of the 007 series since its inception.

Initial pre-production of the next 007 film proceeded without the two series veterans. Wilson wrote a treatment in 1990 for Bond 17 with Alfonse Ruggiero but that story was never made.

That’s because Broccoli would enter into a legal fight with MGM that meant Bond wouldn’t return to movie screens for another six years. By the time production resumed, Eon started over, using a story by Michael France as a beginning point for what would become GoldenEye. Maibaum, meanwhile, died in early 1991.

Today, some fans like to blame MGM’s marketing campaign or other major summer 1989 movies such as Batman or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But Licence came out weeks after either of those blockbusters. In the end, the U.S. audience didn’t care for Licence. The movie’s total U.S. box office of $34.7 million didn’t match Batman’s U.S. opening weekend of $40.5 million. Licence’s U.S. box office was almost a third less than its 007 predecessor, The Living Daylights.

Licence to Kill did better in other markets. Still, Licence’s $156.2 million in worldwide ticket sales represented an 18 percent decline from The Living Daylights.

For Dalton, Glen, Maibaum and even Broccoli (he yielded the producer’s duties on GoldenEye because of ill health), it was the end of the road.

Wilson & Broccoli, an appreciation

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the co-bosses of Eon Productions, are scheduled to get an award from the Producers Guild on Jan. 19. The half-siblings this week were featured in a write-up on Variety.com previewing the event.

Evaluations of second-generation business leaders (and running the Bond franchise qualifies as a business) can vary. Occasionally, the second-generation outshines the first (think Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM). Sometimes, the second generation’s ambitions are frustrated by the first (think Edsel Ford). Sometimes, the second generation can make its own mark that’s simply different than the first (think Richard D. Zanuck).

In any case, it can be a balancing act. In the case of the 007 franchise, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli was a co-founder and a showman. His stepson and daughter succeeded him in the 1990s but had entirely different styles.

Wilson and Broccoli’s main accomplishment may have been to deal with changing executive regimes at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman initially had the support of a firmly entrenched group of executives at United Artists, including Arthur Krim, Robert Benjamin and David Picker. That began to change in the 1970s (and after Saltzman departed the series). MGM acquired UA in the early ’80s and changes in the executive suite accelerated.

Also, Wilson and Broccoli were handed the reins in the midst of a six-year hiatus that might have killed the series. In the 21st century, MGM went through bankruptcy, another time of uncertainty.

Wilson and Broccoli may not have the publicity flair that Albert R. Broccoli had. Wilson has his P.T. Barnum moments, where his statements don’t always square with each other. Barbara Broccoli can rely on a few catch phrases such as “the money’s on the screen.”

Still, the pair remain in charge of the Bond franchise, which will result in the start of production of Bond 24 later this year.

Our modest proposal for a James Bond-related movie

Ian Fleming, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli

Ian Fleming, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli

This weekend in the U.S., Saving Mr. Banks, a telling of the behind-the-scenes turmoil during the making of 1964′s Mary Poppins, is out. Generally, movie makers love to make movies about their industry. So why not a movie based on how James Bond made it to the screen?

There certainly were moments of drama that occurred before 007 made it to the screen in 1962′s Dr. No. The meeting where Irving Allen, then the partner of Albert R. Broccoli, ridicules the Bond novels to Ian Fleming’s face. The ticking clock as Harry Saltzman strained to make a deal with a studio before his six-month option on the bulk of the 007 novels expired. How the producers and United Artists wrangled about who to cast to play Fleming’s gentleman agent with a license to kill.

Such a project likely would face complications. It’d be easiest for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in partnership with Sony. Saving Mr. Banks was released by Walt Disney Co., which meant it was no problem to use clips from Mary Poppins in a sequence about the movie’s world premier. However, an MGM-Sony combo would need to proceed cautiously, not wanting to alienate Eon Productions, which actually produces the 007 movies.

One possible vehicle to do a “being the scenes of 007″ movie would be to acquire the screen rights of one-time United Artists executive David V. Picker’s memoir, which includes a chapter on the Bond movies and how they came to be. One possible scenario for a movie would be show how things came to be through Picker’s eyes.

Don’t hold your breath for such a movie (or even TV movie). But it would have the potential to be an entertaining film.

The polarizing history of Kevin McClory

Kevin McClory's cameo in Thunderball

Kevin McClory’s cameo in Thunderball

Kevin McClory could always stir emotions among James Bond fans.

In the early 1980s, some fans viewed him as a hero. He had stood up to Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli and had helped bring an alternate version of 007 to the screen. It would have Sean Connery back in the role and show Eon what Bond movies should be.

Over the past 15 years, some fans (on Internet message boards and the like) have been vocal in casting McClory as, at best, a pest and at worse a villain who helped drive Ian Fleming to an early grave.

The more complicated truth has been the subject of books such as The Battle for Bond.

In short, McClory had worked on a Bond movie project in the 1950s. Ian Fleming was involved. The heavy lifting on the script was done by writer Jack Whittingham. When a film didn’t materialize, Fleming based his Thunderball novel on at least some of the screen material. McClory sued and, in a settlement, got the screen rights.

McClory entered an agreement with Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to make Thunderball. McClory even had a cameo in a casino sequence.

As part of the deal, McClory had to wait 10 years before doing anything more with his rights. When that time was up, the Broccoli-Saltzman partnership had ended and the Eon Productions 007 series was in flux. Court fights ensued between McClory and Broccoli. It would take several years, but finally Never Say Never Again, a Thunderball remake, came out in 1983.

It was during this period that McClory was hailed by some fans, particularly those who felt the Eon 007 films with Roger Moore had gone too light. In the end, Never did OK at the box office but not as well as Octopussy, Eon’s 1983 007 entry.

Years passed and McClory kept trying anew to start his own Bond series. Eventually, if you took a look around 007 Internet outlets, fans complained about McClory, wondering why he just couldn’t go away — especially during court fights in the 1990s.

The MI6 007 website has a story 10 NEGATIVE WAYS KEVIN MCCLORY AFFECTED THE 007 FRANCHISE, summing up the anti-McClory case.

McClory died in 2006. His family and estate have sold whatever rights he had held to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Broccoli family. The move brings an end to McClory’s polarizing 007 history.

Will Blofeld return to the 007 film series?

"Good to see you again, Mr. Bond." (Graphic by Paul Baack.)

“Good to see you again, Mr. Bond.”
(Graphic by Paul Baack.)

Now that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the Broccoli family have acquired the 007 film rights held by the estate and family of Kevin McClory, the obvious question is whether Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond’s arch-enemy, will return to the film series.

The brief announcement on Nov. 15 didn’t provide details of the settlement. But it closed a half-century saga. It began with an ill-fated James Bond movie project in the 1950s in which 007 author Ian Fleming participated. When the project fell apart, Fleming based his Thunderball novel on screenplays written for the never-made movie.

A legal fight ensued. Under a settlement, Kevin McClory held the screen rights. As a result, he had the leverage to negotiate a deal with 007 film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman for a co-production of Thunderball. Fleming’s novel had introduced Blofeld and his SPECTRE organization (the SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion). Broccoli and Saltzman already had inserted SPECTRE into their adaptations of Dr. No and From Russia With Love, Fleming novels that hadn’t included SPECTRE.

Ten years after Thunderball, McClory began efforts to do his own Bond movies based on his Thunderball rights. As a result, the Eon Productions series steered clear of Blofeld and SPECTRE.

Barbara Broccoli, daughter of Albert R. Broccoli and current co-boss of Eon Productions, previously said Blofeld was past his due date. For example there was A CRAVEONLINE INTERVIEW where this exchange occurred:

Barbara Broccoli: I mean, we’ve talked about Blofeld over the years. The thing is Blofeld was fantastic for the time but I think it’s about creating characters that are, villains that are more appropriate for the contemporary world. It’s more exciting for us to create somebody new.

Some fans cite comments like this one and figure there’s no way Blofeld will return. However, that’s also the same interview where Broccoli denied writer John Logan had been hired to write Bond 24 and Bond 25, the next two movies in the series. (“That was a Hollywood announcement, not from us if you notice.”) A few days after the interview was published, MGM confirmed on an investor call that Logan had, indeed, been hired to script the films. When it comes to previous statements by Bond producers, caveat emptor applies.

As reader Mark Henderson pointed out in a response to a previous post, “The realism of the last three movies, and the legacy of Austin Powers, all but preclude the Nerhu jacket and white cat fetish.” But that garb and pet were creations of the early Bond filmmakers. There’s nothing to preclude a darker, more realistic Blofeld.

In From Russia With Love and Thunderball (with Anthony Dawson providing the body and Eric Pohlman providing the voice), Blofeld wore a plain business suit. The character didn’t get the Nehru jacket until 1967′s You Only Live Twice.

Only Ms. Broccoli, her half-brother Michael G. Wilson and their associates know whether Blofeld, and SPECTRE, will only live twice. But the McClory settlement certainly makes it possible. The real question is whether Broccoli and Wilson want do exercise that option.

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