Ian Fleming and U.N.C.L.E.: the myth and the truth

We’re a long way from a movie based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. becoming reality and already there’s one myth taking hold in the entertainment press.

For example, the Hollwood Reporter’s story about the latst developments had this passage:

U.N.C.L.E. aired on NBC from 1964-68, during a Cold War period that saw numerous spy shows hit the airwaves. James Bond author Ian Fleming was even a creator of the show…

Meanwhile, The Wrap, another prominent entertainment news Web site, ran a story that had this passage:

James Bond author Ian Fleming co-created NBC’s Cold War-set spy series, which followed the adventures of American and Russian members of a secret agency known as the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

OK, time for a little fact checking before this gets too much out of hand. While Fleming had a presence, these references do a disservice to two men, executive producer Norman Felton and developer/first-season producer Sam Rolfe, who did the heavy lifting on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Felton had wanted Fleming to be more involved but it didn’t work out. In an exhaustively researched James Bond-Man From U.N.C.L.E. timeline, U.N.C.L.E. fan extraordinaire Craig Henderson has this passage:

Monday, Oct. 29, 1962
Ian Fleming meets Norman Felton in New York to discuss creation of a TV series involving international adventure and intrigue. In three days of discussions, Fleming contributes little of lasting use beyond the memorable name he bestows on Felton’s mystery man: Napoleon Solo.
Wednesday, Oct. 31, 1962

Fleming reads Felton’s new pages then shows him his own notes, hand-written on Western Union telegram blanks found in his hotel room. Fleming gives Solo various character attributes and avocations, a Jesuit philosophy toward battling evil, and a secretary named April Dancer. Fleming’s notes also include a dozen one-line plot ideas, one of which — gold smuggling in Macao — is the subject of a chapter in Thrilling Cities.

Felton, in a 1997 interview with Lee Goldberg, also described what it was like to deal with 007’s creator. It was an interesting experience but sometimes difficult. Felton’s descriptions start around the 14:40 mark of this video:

Felton started the project and Sam Rolfe fleshed it out, coming up with the details of the U.N.C.L.E. organization, a multi-national security force — a sort of United Nations of spies — as well as the other key characters such as Russian U.N.C.L.E. operative Illya Kuryakin. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum brought the Solo and Kuryakin characters to life.

Felton is 97 now. Rolfe died in 1993. But if an U.N.C.L.E. movie becomes reality — hard to say given there have been efforts to get one off the ground since the early 1990s — they shouldn’t be forgotten nor should Fleming’s role be exaggerated.