Joseph Sargent talks about directing U.N.C.L.E.

Joseph Sargent (1925-2014)

This weekend, the blog caught up on a 2006 interview that director Joseph Sargent (1925-2014) did for the Archive of American Television and checked out what he had to say about The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Sargent said the 1964-68 spy show helped him develop as a director.

Sargent working on episodic television in general was a training ground “not the least of which was Man from U.N.C.L.E. That was like summer stock is to an actor in terms of training.”

U.N.C.L.E., he said, gave him “the opportunity to break the envelope a little bit.”

“It was an  innovative and very daring and very wild, free style kind of show. It had whip pans for instance for the first time, it gave it a sense of energy.”

Whip pans (sometimes call zip pans) have the camera move suddenly, creating a blur. U.N.C.L.E. used whip pans as a transition between scenes.

“There was this twinkle Bob Vaughn and David (McCallum) had about the whole role,” Sargent said in the 2006 interview.

The series involved “a very broad, wonderful concept of peace and cooperation between, in effect, the two major antagonists of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and America.” At the same time, he said, it employed humor which “saved it from being a heavy polemic.”

Sargent directed 11 episodes of the series, plus one episode of its spinoff, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. The series was made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer while the studio still had its legendary production lots still in tact.

As a result, Sargent said, scenes were devised “using the available infrastructure of MGM Studios,” which was like being “a kid in a candy store.”

U.N.C.L.E. episodes were shot in six days, often in a hurry.

Getting Napoleon Solo out of this fix had to be devised during lunch.

“We had a script that was incomplete,” Sargent said. “In this case, they were writing and still writing and I was on the scene that hadn’t been written yet and it was going to be filmed right after lunch.”

The scene to be filmed, but not yet written, involved Illya Kurykin (McCallum) having to rescue fellow agent Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) from being executed by the villains.

Over lunch, Sargent talked to the prop man who gave him a small tape recorder. After lunch, the scene was filmed. Two agents assisting Kuryakin play the tape, which is a cavalry charge, and provide Kuryakin protective fire which he performs the rescue.

“Of course, you couldn’t do that today,” Sargent said.

Two asides:

–In the interview, Sargent mis-remembers one aspect of the scene. He describes a character played by Ricardo Montalban as trying to kill Solo. Actually, that character was double crossing his allies in the story. They catch on and are trying to kill Montalban’s character as well in the scene. Remember, though, the interview was done 40 years after the episode aired.

–The episode is titled The King of Diamonds and has its oddities. It was plotted and co-scripted by Edwin Blum, who co-write Stalag 17 with Billy Wilder. The script was rewritten by Leo Townsend, a co-writer on Beach Blanket Bingo. The tone is a bit uneven.

Anyway, the portion of the 2006 interview dealing with U.N.C.L.E. is in the video below. It begins around the 11:30 mark.

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