Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s 40th anniversary

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in a publicity still for The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Adapted from a 2013 post with updates.

You can’t keep a good man down. So it was for former U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who made a return 40 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 vintage Aston Martin DB5. (In real life, the car was constantly in need of repair.) JB helps Solo, who has just been recalled to active duty for U.N.C.L.E., to get out of a jam in Las Vegas.

In a sense, this TV movie was a footnote to 1983’s “Battle of the Bonds.” Roger Moore and Sean Connery were starring in dueling 007 films, Octopussy and Never Say Never Again respectively. All three Bond film actors up to that time were either playing 007 or a reasonable facsimile. Lazenby filmed his scenes for The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on Dec. 2-3, 1982.

The original U.N.C.L.E. series had been filmed no further out than 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.


George Lazenby’s title card in the main titles of The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

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 to 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. CBS, however, passed on committing to a new U.N.C.L.E. series.

For a long time, Return remained the last official U.N.C.L.E. production. Another U.N.C.L.E. project wouldn’t be seen until 2015. That’s when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. film debuted. It had an “origin” storyline, didn’t feature many of the familiar U.N.C.L.E. memes, and revised the back stories of Solo and Kuryakin.

In 2013, the blog published a post about Return’s 30th anniversary. Since then Vaughn, Macnee and Koenekamp have died.

For a more detailed review of The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., CLICK HERE.

Finally, in 2021, director Ray Austin hosted a live stream with participants of the 1983 TV movie. Austin had once been the stunt arranger on The Avengers television series.

4 Responses

  1. The Lazenby cameo meant that all 3 actors who had played Bond for Eon played him in 1983. Moore was in Octopussy. Connery was in Never Say Never Again. Lazenby in this movie completed the trifecta.

  2. Heitland’s book (for me) was the first behind-the-scenes (BTS) study of the MFU. I’ve read about other franchises. But I was hooked on MFU in every way. For the book the Actors were limited to talking about the most significant highlights. Expected for a book covering many aspects of MFU’s novel production. Publicity was also different in the Sixties. Controlled by a Studio for their own purposes, along with working actors respecting that privilege. Return of the MFU (Return) was different, and produced by Sloan & Co. During 1983 promotional tours the actors were encouraged to share their thoughts, about then and in 1983. Was it a more mature perspective. Less about crazed fans. Beyond the gimmickry. Past the wild tropes. Thankful for launching their careers.They even touched on a few secrets about the characters. But a promotional tour wasn’t the place for a deep dive. Keeping in mind, that straying to far from the original blueprint is risky. MFU’s experiment in 2015 didn’t go well, for the majority of fans who seem to agree.

    Which is why the discussion about JB is interesting. With an open forum for endless opinions. Like how far can a long-term character be drawn who is still understood and popular. Partly it’s a matter of taste, but moreso, is it purposeful imagination. “Does it work??”

    While original MFU fans were disappointed in Return. That the TV Movie made it to the screen at all, heightened the value of MFU’s original contribution. By giving it enough credit to re-enter a genre that long since passed. Which is a success that should surely be celebrated! And obviously, it was also riding on the coat tails of nostalgia! Including some other reboots out there.

    Here’s the link to Spy Commands article – End of Spymania:

    An interview with Ray Austin (as mentioned) remembers directing and experience with the Actors. Those doing the interview also wanted to connect with the actress who played the Russian Defector. But who wasn’t available. A few others from the cast, were. The Actors filmed 3 days in L.A.. With a tight turn around for long-distance locations, chosen for economy and access. Because they were busy working actors, they shuffled projects for coordinating schedules. Inspite of TV movie derived fom nostalgia with no assurance of a revival. Except for keeping the MFU Title alive.

    Sloan was an original fan. Said to be DMc’s long-time friend. Who he convinced first, during a meeting in NYC’s “Tea House.” With clever homage paid to it in the movie. L.A. streets subbed for NYC (in spite of overlooking the Palm Trees). L.A.’s non-stop traffic needed to be regulated enough so the Van could film that entensive walking scene from a variety of angles. With the climax of that scene requiring only one take. Curious as to whether planned or not, are the two pedestrians running with excitement having discovered their Idols.

    The Second Unit was based in L.A.’s Hotel (I believe The Biltmore). Where a floor was reserved for production. And the top floor for Solo’s Penthouse Apartment, indeed crowded for filming. The Bar Scene was challenged by awkward angles, subdued lighting and shadows. Was the cameo really James Brolin. Ground level exteriors, easy on the budget, conveniently suggested part of UNCLE’s Headquarters (??). Yet the interior Set Design for the Heaquarter’s offices of UNCLE’s chief executive were opulent and high-tech. Accommodations used by RV were unclear. But DMc hung out in a motorhome, and granted an interview.

    Vegas was real (except for windows which aren’t allowed) as were the Desert, Caves, and the Damn. Don’t forget JB (as mentioned in the article). IMO, there were so many clues in that Script, that any of them could’ve provided a continuation. Including an UNCLE promotion for the existing characters overseeing their subordinates. And requiring half the screen time. But am assuming the money wasn’t there for convincing them to revive a stereotype they worked 15 years towards overcoming!

    Postscript: For the legacy of additional film and the characters reunion, credit is given for the genuine friendships responsible for finalizing the project. And for the sake of the fans who they truly appreciated! Thank you!

  3. Do you have any info from the 2021 live stream event?

  4. I watched part of it, including a segment with Anthony Zerbe.

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