Fleming and U.N.C.L.E.: More than a footnote

Ian Fleming

This weekend marked the 53rd anniversary of the death of 007 creator Ian Fleming.

Understandably, there were the usual observations of his passing. After all, without Fleming, we wouldn’t have James Bond movies or the 1960s spy craze.

After all these years, however, there’s an oddity. That is, Fleming’s connection to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television show.

U.N.C.L.E. originated because there was interest in turning Fleming’s Thrilling Cities book into some kind of television show.

That led to television producer (who concluded the book would not be the basis of a show) into doing a pitch for something different. In turn, that led to NBC saying it Fleming could be enticed into participating, it’d buy the series without a pilot being produced.

In turn, that led to meetings between Felton and Fleming in New York in October 1962. In turn, that led to Felton writing up ideas and Fleming (after days without much being accomplished) writing on 11 pages of Western Union telegram blanks. In turn, that led to Felton employing Sam Rolfe to concoct something that went beyond far beyond the initial Felton-Fleming ideas.

Eventually, Fleming exited the project (under pressure from 007 film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman), selling off his interest for 1 British pound.

Regardless, without Fleming, U.N.C.L.E. wouldn’t exist given the history with Thrilling Cities. But some long-time (i.e. original) U.N.C.L.E. fans hesitate to acknowledge that. Felton and Rolfe did the heavy lifting — there’s no denying that at all. But Thrilling Cities was the catalyst.

Also, Fleming’s idea of naming the hero Napoleon Solo (Felton’s initial idea was Edgar Solo) was huge. The original idea was Solo would be an ordinary looking fellow. But a character named Napoleon Solo was not going to be your next door neighbor or the guy in the apartment down the hall.

At the same time, Bond movie fans don’t even consider it. And Ian Fleming Publications, run by Fleming’s heirs, don’t even mention U.N.C.L.E. in the IFP timeline of Fleming’s life. 

Fleming was connected to U.N.C.L.E. for less than eight months (late October 1962 to June 1963). Not an enormous amount of time but more than just a footnote.

It is what it is, as the saying going. The 2015 movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. didn’t give a credit to either Sam Rolfe or Ian Fleming, while Felton (who died in 2012) got an “executive consultant” credit. Ironically, one of Fleming’s 1962 ideas — of Solo being a good cook — was included in the film.

It would appear that U.N.C.L.E. will remain Fleming’s bastard child (figuratively, of course) now and forever.

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4 Responses

  1. Being a huge fan (and an original cousin) of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I can add to the Fleming- U.N.C.L.E. connection, by referencing Heitland’s well research book, which is (truly) the behind-the-scenes story of a television classic! All this may (or not) have been mentioned before, in the history of the Spy Command. But is only being offered now to encourage new viewers to an original series. Which shows 6 days a week on the Heroes & Icons network!

    Jon Heitland’s book, (pgs. 5-10) provides an interesting backstory about the Fleming – U.N.C.L.E. relationship. “In searching for the right format for such a series, Felton was eventually drawn away from the Hitchcock concept and toward the spy novels of English writer Ian Fleming.” It was suggested that Felton read “Thrilling Cities” to see if it would be appropriate for a TV series. And while Felton disagreed, he liked the idea presented for showcasing adventure in exciting cities. To promote his concept (still in the fledgling state) he decided to pitch his idea during a breakfast meeting (with representatives) at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. While dining Felton “…asked his companions if they knew who was In the next booth; he said he had heard that the man was an agent who worked for the Secretary General of the United Nations in solving secret international problems.” During which time, Felton supplied incredible details about the undercover agent. This is how Felton caught the attention of the representatives, in terms of pitching his TV series idea.

    It was suggested that Fleming and Felton meet. “Felton found Fleming to be a charming man.” But “he found it difficult to get Fleming to concentrate on the task at hand.” “Felton decided that something had to be put on paper for the series.” Felton continued to flesh out his ideas. “When Felton told Fleming that he had made some notes, Fleming seeming surprised and protested that that was his task. At brunch in Fleming’s room on October 30, 1962, the morning [Fleming] was to leave, [he] looked Felton’s notes over and expressed agreement. Fleming then suggested that the hero be giving the name Napoleon Solo. Fleming then had a surprise for Felton. He produced a series of eleven Western Union handwritten telegram blanks on which he had made his own notes on the proposed series, complaining that there was no stationary in his room, although Felton suspect Fleming just enjoyed the novelty of creating a television series on telegram blanks.”

    Fleming’s Solo was not at all (or very, very little) similar to U.N.C.L.E.’s Solo, although Fleming described him to be “not a superman, but suffers from normal human frailties – hangovers, colds…. .” He did described Solo’s flirtatious nature! And so the two of them, came up with additional details about the character. “They discussed how their Solo would be hard-hitting, fearless, and imperturbable.” Certainly traits in evidence of U.N.C.L.E.’s Solo. “After he and Ian Fleming concluded their meeting with a handshake on a Manhattan street at midnight, Norman Felton returned to California and set to work, further developing the Solo project.”

    “In March of 1963, Ian Fleming was in New York again ….[for] negotiations with [him] for his continued involvement as advisor to the proposed series, now called Mr. Solo.” “Fleming requested $25,000 per production year …. .” The agreement included “an exclusive option on Fleming’s services; he would do no other television work while the agreement was in force, and he would not sell any of his books to television or let his name be used on any other series – an important item, since the James Bond movies were becoming popular.” Felton brought in Sam Rolfe (considered a top producer) to help develop a prospectus for the series, who aided in fine-tuning the series to its now familiar format. “Felton contacted Fleming by personal letter on June 7, 1963, enclosing a copy of Rolfe’s prospectus, pointing out ….” the differences that Rolfe had conceived. “Felton mentioned in his letter the element of an ‘innocent’ person becoming involved in each of the adventures of Mr. Solo. This concept, a hallmark of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., had been only superficially discussed by the two men in New York, although Fleming was especially intrigued by the idea, feeling it would separate the series from his Bond stories (which seldom involved everyday people). Felton, recalling the Hitchcock thrillers, felt the innocent’s involvement was crucial to audience empathy, providing a vicarious involvement in the action, and remarked to Fleming in his letter how ‘a young mother living in Dubuque, Iowa …. ‘ ” would represent the viewer’s experience.

    “After mischievously inviting Fleming to submit his comments on Rolf’s prospectus …. Felton set up another meeting with Fleming , this time in England.” “But trouble began brewing, as word of Fleming’s involvement with the new series spread.” “Fleming’s lawyers advised him to steer clear of the Solo project” fearing that his further involvement would surely result in a suit by Broccoli against Felton and Arena productions. “In June 1963, Felton flew to England …. [finding him] in ill health and unwilling to go along with the series. Fleming was willing to sign over any interest he had in the project, and executed a release to that effect on June 26, 1963. To make the release binding under both English and American common law, Fleming acknowledged being paid the token sum of one pound as consideration for the release, witnessed by his secretary, Miss Griffiths.”

    “NBC, which had authorized the series on the strength of Fleming’s name, began to have second thoughts. Felton remembers telling the network executives ‘You liked the project at the beginning. One man, Fleming, is not necessary for our project.’ After seeing Rolf’s prospectus, the network decided to go ahead.”

    Felton was contacted by Fleming’s estate in September 1963, and later from Eon Productions in 1964. “Although Fleming’s release meant that Felton was free to proceed with the project and use Fleming’s names and ideas without fear of legal action from Fleming, it did not eliminate legal action from those Fleming had assigned his rights to. Eon Productions felt that the use of the names Solo, Napoleon Solo, and Mr. Solo by Arena violated their interests in the Goldfinger property, purchased from Fleming along with the other Bond novels, since Solo was the name of a minor villain in that novel. (Fleming had apparently forgotten he had used the name).” “Felton brought in MGM’s legal staff, and they sent Felton to obtain an affidavit from Fleming himself on February 24, 1964.” The purpose of which was to cite relevant differences between the two projects. “Fleming acknowledged that he had read the pilot script by Sam Rolfe and viewed the pilot film as well, and found nothing in either that he felt he had contributed. Fleming died shortly after this.” “Eon agreed to forego any suit if the name of the series was changed – one of the reasons why the title became ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Rolfe’s prospectus had established [only] U.N.C.L.E..” “The name Solo could be used in the series itself, but MGM would have to issue a news release disclaiming any involvement by Fleming.” From then on and “in response to these legal actions, Felton decided in May of 1964 that all scripts would need to be reviewed by the legal department to be sure that no storyline too closely resembled any of the Bond novels. Even as late as July 1965, when the show was a big hit, Felton was advised not to discuss his meetings with Fleming with a writer doing a biography of the author.”

    “Although Fleming had bowed out of the project and had left behind only the name Napoleon Solo, his influence was still felt. The movie version of Goldfinger was one of the top ten money-making films for 1964, the year The Man from U.N.C.L.E. premiered.” “The fad the James Bond movies created gave an impetus to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. far beyond anything contributed by Fleming in his meeting with Felton.”

  2. Fleming also stated that Napoleon Solo like blue shirts and Bow Ties as did James Bond. Fleming also came up with the name April Dancer for a female agent.

  3. Fleming’s April Dancer was more of a Moneypenny character. Writer Dean Hargrove, who drew the assignment of writing The Girl From UNCLE pilot, used the name for that show’s lead character. The network had suggested Cookie Fortune. Thankfully, Hargrove found the April Dancer name to substitute.

  4. Also, one of the Fleming ideas — that Solo was a good cook who kept a “coppery kitchen” — was used in the 2015 Man From UNCLE movie.

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