Norman Felton, an appreciation

Norman Felton, the executive producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., died last month at age 99. The news was first reported by Variety and other outlets, including the BBC’s Web site have run items.

Norman Felton

It took Felton two years of effort to get the show on the air. His efforts included wooing Ian Fleming, who contributed the Napoleon Solo name for the lead character; Fleming dropped out, rather than risking the wrath of Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the 007 film producers. Fleming’s participation would have guaranteed a sale to NBC.

So Felton had to make a pilot to get NBC to buy the show. The pilot did sell, but the show had a near-death experience its first season when it ran on Tuesdays in the fall of 1964. A movie to Mondays (plus increased spy interest thanks to Goldfinger) saved the series.

Ace U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum)

U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t Felton’s biggest hit. Dr. Kildare, with Richard Chamberlain, ran five seasons to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s three-and-a-half. U.N.C.L.E. also ran a bit unevenly.

For many fans, the first season was great because Sam Rolfe, who had developed the show was on board as producer.

The second season was the most popular, ratings wise. The third season ran to the goofy side.

The abbreviated fourth season was as serious as a heart attack as that season’s producer, Anthony Spinner, a veteran of Quinn Martin shows, imported QM’s brand of gravitas. (One notable exception of The Prince of Darkness two parter that is more second season; even there, some serious stuff creeps in).

What made Felton’s contribution unique is he produced, in effect, the utopian spy show. An American (Solo) and a Russian (Illya Kuryakin) worked side by side.

Pretty heady stuff given that the program’s September 1964 premier was less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an element of idealism you didn’t find in James Bond movies or other television spy efforts.

Also, U.N.C.L.E. was the first spy hit of the period. It may have been helped by 007, but U.N.C.L.E. had things that made it different than Bond.

With Felton’s passing, almost all of the key production team including Rolfe, David Victor (producer or supervising producer in seasons 2 and 3), Boris Ingster (producer during seasons 2 and 3), Joseph Calvelli (associate producer for the first half of season 1) are gone. U.N.C.L.E. isn’t remembered by the general public as much as, say, Mission: Impossible. Periodic attempts to make an U.N.C.L.E. movie fizzle out.

Still, Felton was responsible for something that entertained and thrilled fans in its day. Perhaps it will be rediscovered by the general public. Even if it’s not, U.N.C.L.E. fans still remember. And it all started with Norman Felton.

2 Responses

  1. The Variety piece speaks of a movie being in the works with Guy Ritchie at the helm. Any word on this?

  2. When Soderbergh quit late last year, Warner Bros. assigned the project to Ritchie to produce and possibly direct:

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