You can’t keep a good man down. So it was for former U.N.C.L.E. spies Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who made a one-time return 30 years ago.
The intrepid agents, again played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, were back after a 15-year absence. This time they appeared in a made-for-television movie broadcast in April 1983 on CBS, instead of NBC, home of the original 1964-68 series.
It was a mixed homecoming. Return’s script, penned by executive producer Michael Sloan, recycled the plot of Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film. Thrush steals two nuclear bombs from a U.S. military aircraft. Thrush operative Janus (Geoffrey Lewis) boasts that the criminal organization is now “a nuclear power.” Yawn. Thrush was much more ambitious in the old days.
The show had been sold to NBC as “James Bond for television.” Sloan & Co. took the idea literally, hiring one-time 007 George Lazenby to play “JB,” who happens to drive as Aston Martin DB5. JB helps Solo, who has just been recalled to active duty for U.N.C.L.E., get out of a jam in Las Vegas.
The original U.N.C.L.E. had been filmed no further out that about 30 miles from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s studio in Culver City, California. Return was really filmed in and around Las Vegas, with the desert nearby substituting for Libya, where Thrush chieftain Justin Sepheran (Anthony Zerbe) has established his headquarters.
Vaughn and McCallum, being old pros, make the best of the material they’re given, especially when they appear together. That’s not often, as it turns out. After being reunited, they pursue the affair from different angles. Solo has to put up with skeptical U.N.C.L.E. agent Kowalski (Tom Mason), who complains out loud about new U.N.C.L.E. chief Sir John Raleigh (Patrick Macnee) bringing back two aging ex-operatives.
Sloan did end up bringing in two crew members of the original series: composer Gerald Fried, who worked on the second through fourth seasons, and director of photography Fred Koenekamp, who had photographed 90 U.N.C.L.E. episodes from 1964 through 1967. Also on the crew was Robert Short, listed as a technical adviser. He and Danny Biederman had attempted to put together an U.N.C.L.E. feature film. Their project eventually was rejected in favor of Sloan’s TV movie.
In the end, the April 5, 1983 broadcast produced respectable ratings but CBS passed on committing to a new U.N.C.L.E. series. Despite many attempts, Return remains the last official U.N.C.L.E. production.
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Filed under: James Bond Films, The Other Spies Tagged: | Anthony Zerbe, CBS, David McCallum, Geoffrey Lewis, George Lazenby, James Bond Films, Michael Sloan, NBC, Patrick Macnee, Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Other Spies, The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s 30th anniversary, Thunderball, Tom Mason, TV spy shows