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.

U.N.C.L.E. movie: 1 star has seen TV show, 1 hasn’t

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer (Art by Paul Baack)

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer
(Art by Paul Baack)

Henry Cavill, who plays Napoleon Solo in the movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t seen the original 1964-68 series while Armie Hammer, the film’s Illya Kuryakin, has.

The source of this is Empire magazine, which has published a feature about the movie, scheduled to be released in August 2015. The Empire story isn’t at the publication’s website but THE COMIC BOOK MOVIE WEBSITE has a summary.

According to that summary, Cavill told Empire, “I don’t see that it was necessarily important. I just wanted to meet with Guy (Ritchie, the director) to know how he saw it.”

Hammer told the magazine, “It is completely different. If you watch the pilot episode, it just starts. It doesn’t say what U.N.C.L.E. is, who these characters are. It just goes and you have to catch up. So, this is a genesis story of U.N.C.L.E.”

The Comic Book Movie post by Josh Wilding also has what are described as the first official images from the movie. You can CLICK HERE to see it.

The series, with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, marks its 50th anniversary next month. In the U.S., the MeTV channel will begin showing the series at 10 p.m. eastern time on Sunday, Sept. 7, as part of a weekly bloc of spy shows.

U.N.C.L.E. movie gets another test screening

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is getting another test screening on Aug. 26 in Pasadena, California. Here are the details, via @laneyboggs2001 on Twitter, who re-Tweeted a posting by an entertainment industry professional. As it turns out, the person who received the invitation isn’t eligible to go.

The movie, which now won’t be released until August 2015, had a test screening in June. Since then, stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer have participated in some reshoots. Those have been completed. Cavill is back in the Detroit area, where a Batman-Superman film is in production, with a March 2016 release date. You can CLICK HERE to view a Henry Cavill News post with photos of Cavill in his Superman costume.

Whether the new U.N.C.L.E. test screening will incorporate the latest reshoots isn’t known. There have been other reshoots not involving the main actors.

The film, directed by Guy Ritchie and based on the 1964-68 television series, originally had a January 2015 release date. Fan speculation has run the gamut from “it must be a disaster” to “maybe Warner Bros. has more confidence to release it in the summer.” Meanwhile, the test screening, by limiting attendees to no older than 54, will prevent a lot of first-generation U.N.C.L.E. fans from going, even if invited.

UPDATE: U.N.C.L.E. scholar Cynthia. W. Walker posted a link to one of the invitations. It has a description of the movie that expands on a plot summary in a September 2013 press release by Warner Bros. The expanded version reads as follows:

HENRY CAVILL (“Man of Steel”) stars as Napoleon Solo, opposite ARMIE HAMMER (“The Social Network”) as Illya Kuryakin. Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” centers on calm, cool, & collected CIA agent Solo, and hot-headed rival KGB agent Kuryakin. Forced to put aside longstanding hostilities, the charismatic duo team on a mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization, which is bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The duo’s only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization. Together, they must race against time — provided they stop flirting long enough to get the job done! — to prevent a worldwide catastrophe. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” is based on the popular 1960’s TV show of the same name, and also stars Alicia Vikander (“Anna Karenina”), Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”), with Jared Harris (“Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows”), and Hugh Grant (“Cloud Atlas”). The film is expected to be rated PG-13.

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.

U.N.C.L.E. debuts on MeTV on Sept. 7

Robert Vaughn in a first-season main title.

Robert Vaughn in a first-season main title.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will be telecast by MeTV on Sundays at 10 p.m. eastern time, starting Sept. 7, ACCORDING TO THE CHANNEL’S WEBSITE.

MeTV currently airs the 1960-62 Boris Karloff Thriller series in the time slot, part of a “noir” bloc of black-and-white television shows such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, Naked City and others.

U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, has been shown irregularly since its first run on NBC ended in January 1968. Some fans re-discovered the show when what was known at the time as The Family Channel began running episodes in 1985. The channel didn’t show any episodes from the black-and-white first season until the spring of 1986. TNT ran the show from 1988 to 2000, although very infrequently during the final years of that run.

The series will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sept. 22.

UPDATE: Starting Sept. 7, MeTV will follow up The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with THE ORIGINAL MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE SERIES, at 11 p.m. Eastern, 10 p.m. Central time, according to the MeTV website.

The Secret Service principals compare movie to old-style 007

UPDATE (July 26): A reader who was at the presentation tells us that a Colin Firth quote below was transcribed incorrectly by Screen Rant. Quote has been changed to reflect that.

Some of the people behind the new Kingsman: The Secret Service compared the upcoming film to 1960s James Bond movies and other spy entertainment of that decade, according to the entertainment website SCREEN RANT.

The movie got promoted at the San Diego comic book convention. The film is based on a 2012 comic book series by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

Millar made light of more recent Bond films with Daniel Craig in discussing Kingsman. “James Bond cries in the shower now in these movies but [star Colin Firth] gets to do cool stuff – like firing these gadgets and all this stuff. I think he got the best gig in the end.”

Firth kept his comparisons to the 1960s. He was quoted thusly by Screen Rant (with corrections included): “I enjoyed this kind of thing growing up in the ’60s and the character of the spy movie has its roots in the ’60s. It’s the Man from Uncle U.N.C.L.E., it’s the Harry Donner Palmer films, it’s John Speed’s Steed’s Avengers, and those early Bond films. It’s the guy in the suit who seems slick and cool and capable but very contained but you cross him at your peril.”

The Matthew Vaughn-directed film is due out this fall.

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