Robert Vaughn, an appreciation

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo in a first-season main titles of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

For people of a certain age, it’s inconceivable that Robert Vaughn is gone, dead at 83.

That’s because it seems he’s always been there. His acting career lasted more than 60 years.

It began with small parts, to finding steady work (including a secondary lead in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven), to being a star in the 1960s with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and going back to being a steady performer.

His IMDB.COM ENTRY lists more than 200 acting credits. He received one Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (1959’s The Young Philadelphians) and won an Emmy (the 1977 miniseries, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, essentially the story of the Nixon administration with the names chaned).

With U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn became a leading man, making the character name Napoleon Solo one of the big names of the 1960s spy boom.

The show flirted with cancellation early in its first season because it was up against a popular CBS variety show hosted by Red Skelton.

But with a time slot change and a surge in interest in spy entertainment thanks to 1964’s Goldfinger, U.N.C.L.E. became a hit. Episodes of the show were re-edited (with extra footage added) to create eight movies for the international market. At the peak of U.N.C.L.E.’s popularity, the early movies were even released in the United States.

In some ways, though, Vaughn didn’t act like a star. Most series leads aren’t studying for a Ph.D during production. Vaughn did.

On some series, the lead actor guards his or her status. Yet, Vaughn didn’t seem to mind as David McCallum, as Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin, went from supporting player to joint star of the show. Maybe he figured McCallum’s increased workload would free him up for more study time.

For a time, it appeared as if Vaughn might go into politics. He was politically active protesting the Vietnam War. But a political career for Vaughn never happened.

Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Vaughn in To Trap a Spy, the first U.N.C.L.E. movie.

Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Vaughn in To Trap a Spy, the first U.N.C.L.E. movie.

After U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn continued to be cast in movies and guest roles on television shows. Often, he played villainous politicians (Bullitt) or business moguls (Superman III). He was in two episodes of Columbo. In the second, Last Salute to the Commodore, writer Jackson Gillis and director Patrick McGoohan sprung a twist that played on audience expectation that Vaughn must be the killer.

The actor enjoyed a late-career renaissance, with the lead in the series Hustle, about a group of London con artists. The show ran 48 episodes from 2004 to 2012. He also had a regular part in the series Coronation Street.

Over a career as long as Vaughn’s, you take some jobs that puzzle your fans. At one point, the actor did commercials for various law firms. He also promoted the Helsinki Formula for hair restoration. That even became a joke in an episode of Seinfeld titled The Deal. As The New York Times noted in its obituary of Vaughn, the actor later said he made quite a bit of money from the television spots.

But that sort of thing is only a footnote. The primary story is the connection Vaughn made with the audience. People who discovered him on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remained fans decades later.

As word of Vaughn’s death spread on the internet on Friday, there was shock followed by sadness followed by reflection.

He had always been there. It’s now just sinking in that he’s actually gone.

Robert Vaughn dies at 83

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

Robert Vaughn, star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series, died today at 83, according to an obituary at Deadline: Hollywood.

The actor died after battle with acute leukemia, according to the entertainment news website.

Vaughn had plenty of roles over a long career, including The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Bullitt (1968). He remained active in recent years, including a U.K. stage production of 12 Angry Men.

Still, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which ran from September 1964 to January 1968 on NBC, made Vaughn a star. He played Napoleon Solo, a character created by Norman Felton and Ian Fleming. Solo was an enforcement agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, an international agency. U.N.C.L.E., which was developed fully by writer-producer Sam Rolfe, was a post-Cold War series airing in the midst of the Cold War.

Vaughn’s Solo had similarities to Fleming’s James Bond. Both were womanizers and sophisticated in the ways of the world. But Solo worked with a Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). In the Bond film series, the notion wouldn’t occur until 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.

Solo also had more of a moral code than Bond. Part of the format called for Solo to interact with “innocents,” ordinary people either recruited to help U.N.C.L.E. or who stumbled into the action. As a result, Solo had to look out for the innocents, which made his character different than 007.

In the final episode of the series, Vaughn had one of his best scenes as he confronted the conspirators of a plot to take over the world. That was a familiar plot of escapist 1960s spy entertainment. Yet, in that scene, Vaughn played it entirely seriously, giving the proceedings a gravitas they might ordinarily lack.

Years after the series, Vaughn had a lengthy interview with the Archive of American television. Here’s a clip where he discussed U.N.C.L.E.

In real life, Vaughn was an intellectual. He studied for his Ph.D while U.N.C.L.E. was in production. Vaughn, an opponent of the Vietnam war, debated the subject with William F. Buckley on the latter’s Firing Line series. Buckley introduced Vaughn as “a professional actor.” However, Vaughn was thoroughly prepared and the debate (on Buckley’s home turf) was judged a draw.

Post-U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn tended to play villains, such as the politician he portrayed in Bullitt. He did get to reprise the Solo role in the 1983 television movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. He indicated he’d be willing to play a cameo role in the 2015 film version directed by Guy Ritchie. But he was never approached.

Vaughn died 11 days short of what would have been his 84th birthday.

We’ll have a more detailed “appreciation” post tomorrow.

Mission: Impossible 6 to be released in July 2018

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise

Paramount has scheduled Mission: Impossible 6, starring Tom Cruise, for July 2018, Deadline: Hollywood and Variety reported separately.

The specific date is July 27, 2018. The last weekend of the month is becoming a bit of a preferred release date for spy movies.

Cruise’s last M:I film, Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, debuted on July 31, 2015. Universal had the U.S. launch of Jason Bourne on July 29 this year.

Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation had a U.S. opening weekend of $55.5 million, as part of a total U.S. box office of $195 million and $682.3 million globally.

Deadline noted that Warner Bros./DC Comics has an unspecified movie scheduled for the same date as M:I 6.

The Cruise M:I movies began in 1996. The producer-star will be 56 when the latest installment comes out.

This month’s ‘other’ Ian Fleming anniversary

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Earlier this month, Oct. 5, was Global James Bond Day, celebrating the 54th anniversary of the original U.K. premiere of Dr. No.

Today, Oct. 29, is the 54th anniversary of another Ian Fleming-related annivesary: When the James Bond author first met television producer Norman Felton in New York.

The results, eventually, would be The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. However, those meetings, which lasted into Oct. 31, 1962, according to Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. Timeline website, don’t get much attention.

Ian Fleming Publications, for example, doesn’t mention the meetings in its detailed ONLINE TIMELIME OF FLEMING’S LIFE. Ironically, IFP’s 2013 007 continuation novel by William Boyd was titled Solo, the original title for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Fleming was bullied by James Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman from exiting the project. You can read some of the correspondence involved by CLICKING HERE. Fleming sold his interest in U.N.C.L.E. for the princely sum of 1 British pound.

Meanwhile, U.N.C.L.E. fans downplay Fleming’s involvement. Yes, some say, he named Napoleon Solo, but so what? And, to be fair, others did the heavy lifting on U.N.C.L.E.

On the other hand, Fleming’s involvement, however limited, had attracted NBC’s interest.

Had Fleming remained on the show, the network was willing to commit to a series without a pilot. After Fleming’s departure, a pilot would be necessary. Still, by that time a lot of energy and time had been invested. It wasn’t just dropped after Fleming’s exit.

Title page to pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when the title was still Solo.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. originally was to have been billed Ian Fleming’s Solo.

Thus, ironically, Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. involvement isn’t celebrated by either the Bond and U.N.C.L.E. sides. On the U.N.C.L.E. side, the narrative (understandably) plays up the contributions of Felton and Sam Rolfe, the writer of the U.N.C.L.E. pilot who produced the first season of the show.

It didn’t help that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (where U.N.C.L.E. was produced) put out a press release denying had been involved (even though he was). No doubt that was the result of threatened legal action from Eon Productions. Lawyers for Eon had sent a cease and desist letter in early 1964 claiming the character Napoleon Solo infringed on the production company’s rights to Goldfinger, which included a gangster named Solo.

Also, Felton, on advice of his attorneys, declined to write up notes about his meetings with the 007 author for Fleming biographer John Pearson concerning U.N.C.L.E. (Read Text of Letters About Ian Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. Involvement for more details.)

Still, an anniversary is an anniversary. In this case, it’s an anniversary of an event (the Fleming-Felton meetings) that helped lead to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Meanwhile, here’s a shameless plug. If you want to read more about the subject, this blog’s editor has an article in MI6 Confidential No. 37. For more information about the issue (which includes an article about 007 film production designer Peter Lamont), CLICK HERE. 

James W. Gavin, ace pilot for TV and movies

James W. Gavin pilots a helicopter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

James W. Gavin pilots a helicopter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on board.

One in a series about unsung figures of television.

James W. Gavin over a long career in television and movies mostly went unnoticed.

The pilot/second unit director/bit part player was a top helicopter pilot. His services were in demand for various TV serious as well as films such as Vanishing Point and The Towering Inferno.

Gavin got a bit of recognition in the documentary Inside Diamonds Are Forever.

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz told the anecdote of how Gavin had the presence of mind to get the cameras rolling when explosions were set off for what was supposed to be a rehearsal for the oil-rig sequence.

According to Mankiewicz, some of that footage ended up in the final version of Diamonds.

On occasion, Gavin got to be an actor. Not surprisingly, he played pilots, presumably because it was cheaper to film him reciting lines while he was flying. In some cases, he was billed as “Gavin James,” rather than by his real name.

Gavin was one of the go-to pilots for QM Productions, flying helicopters for the company’s various shows, including The FBI.

Gavin died in 2005 at the age of 70.

Jonny Quest score available from La-La Land Records

Race Bannon about to rescue Jonny Quest

Race Bannon about to rescue Jonny Quest

The score to the original 1964-65 Jonny Quest cartoon series is now AVAILABLE FROM LA-LA LAND RECORDS.

The series, created by cartoonist Doug Wildey, originally ran on prime-time on ABC. It was Hanna-Barbera’s first attempt at a realistic-looking presentation (well, except for Jonny’s pet dog, Bandit).

There were later revivals but for some fans, nothing tops the original.

Here’s an excerpt from the announcement:

La-La Land Records and Warner Bros. present the world premiere release of the original television score to the 1964-65 classic animated Hanna-Barbera adventure series JONNY QUEST, with music by William Hanna, Joseph Barbera and Hoyt Curtin and musical direction by Hoyt Curtin and Ted Nichols. Requested by fans for decades, the thrilling and groundbreaking original music from one of the most beloved 60’s animated shows of all time finally makes its official debut with this deluxe, knockout 2-CD presentation.

Only 3,000 of the soundtrack sets will be sold and the price is $24.98. The set includes liner notes by Jon Burlingame and Jeff Bond. Burlingame has produced soundtracks to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible series.

Below is an excerpt from an online documentary about Jonny Quest that highlights Hoyt Curtin’s work.

A peek behind U.N.C.L.E.’s visual effects

RISE, a visual effects studio, has released a video showing some of its work on 2015’s movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The film opened in 1963 Berlin. RISE’s video shows how that era was recreated for the movie. Stars Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander mix with green screens and models.

In the sequence, CIA agent Napoleon Solo moves to get Gaby, daughter of a nuclear scientist, out of East Berlin, with KGB operative Illya Kuryakin.

The video RISE released shows how even a relatively modest production (U.N.C.L.E.’s production budget was a reported $75 million) utilizes visual effects. In this case, it’s trying to disguise that visual effects are even being used. RISE has also worked on Marvel Studios movies.

The video is embedded below. Thanks to Robert Short of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Inner Circle page on Facebook for the heads up.

RISE REEL – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from RISE on Vimeo.