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.
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 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.
Filed under: The Other Spies | Tagged: Albert R. Broccoli, Anthony Spinner, BBC, Boris Ingster, David McCallum, David Victor, Goldfinger, Harry Saltzman, Ian Fleming, Norman Felton, Robert Vaughn, Sam Rolfe, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Other Spies, TV spy shows, Variety |