Iowa, spy central

Originally published in 2002 in Her Majesty’s Secret Servant. Some time references have been tweaked

Iowa City is a fairly typical college town. It is home to the University of Iowa, one of the eleven schools of the Big Ten conference (it kept the name after adding Penn State University as a member some years ago).

Yet, for fans of espionage, the University of Iowa holds a special lure that can’t be found in the dark shadows of Moscow, the lights of Paris or the splendor of London.

The school houses the personal papers of two men who helped create espionage legends – Richard Maibaum, a screenwriter on 13 of the first 16 James Bond movies produced by Eon Productions, and Norman Felton, a veteran television producer whose credits included The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the first U.S. spy television series.

The papers of both men hold vast secrets, many of which are only now coming out to light as people take the time to examine them. In some cases, the papers reinforce and expand upon general knowledge about the likes of Bond and Napoleon Solo, the title character of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In other cases, they refute long-held beliefs. If “When Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend,” these papers provide the real facts. And in still cases, they provide interesting variations of what could have been – but wasn’t.

The Maibaum Papers

Richard Maibaum (1909-1991) was one of the biggest contributors to the early success of Eon’s James Bond series. Maibaum helped introduce wit and one liners not present in the Ian Fleming original novels (the manuscripts of which, ironically, are found at another Big Ten school, Indiana University, as detailed in a previous edition of HMSS). Maibaum had been a veteran of productions at Warwick Films, run by future Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli. An informal Warwick alumni association of Maibaum, director Terence Young, photographer Ted Moore and production designer Ken Adam helped launch the Bond series in a big way.

Maibaum donated his papers to the University of Iowa because he had graduated from there in 1931. British author and film critic Adrian Turner discovered what a treasure trove Maibaum donated to the university – copies of screenplays, treatments and production memos. In his 1998 book, Adrian Turner on Goldfinger, the writer details all the various drafts for third Eon James Bond film that were produced by Maibaum and British screenwriter Paul Dehn, brought into the project to punch up Maibaum’s early drafts.

One of the long-running jokes about Bond movies – picked up to great effect in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films – is why don’t the villains just shoot Bond and get it over with. Going through the Maibaum papers, Turner discovered the writers, in fact, put in a great deal effort trying to solve that very question. Fleming’s original novel (where Bond talks Goldfinger into making him his assistant) simply didn’t work. However, it took multiple drafts to come up with an acceptable, semi-plausible explanation. Turner also quotes from a Maibaum memo to producers Broccoli and Harry Saltzman where he says of the original novel, “The buzz saw must go. It’s the oldest device in cheap melodrama.” Thus, the origin of the laser table scene, one of the movie’s highlights. Maibaum also recommended American character actor Victor Buono for the part of villain Auric Goldfinger, Turner notes in the book. The role ended up going to German actor Gert Frobe.

Turner provides a very detailed account of how the scripts developed and we won’t repeat them here. Essentially, early drafts started out pretty close to the novel except for improvements such as the laser table. According to the author, the early drafts had more screen time for the gangsters whom have supplied Goldfinger with what he needs to invade Fort Knox. In later drafts by Dehn, Goldfinger actually makes into Fort Knox, we’re told by Turner and the idea is developed that Goldfinger is going to irradidate the gold, not steal it. Interestingly, although Broccoli and Saltzman turned the screenwriting over to Dehn, they still kept Maibaum in the loop. Maibaum is permitted to comment by memo about the changes Dehn was making.

One more interesting change is explained by Turner. In the early drafts, the gangster who opts out of assisting Goldfinger is named Springer. It’s the later drafts that have Mr. Solo be the gangster who isn’t inclined to go along with the plan – and who ends up being crushed inside a Lincoln Contential for his trouble (although the other gansters are also killed by Goldfinger). What Turner doesn’t mention is that by this time, Eon was threatening to sue Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. and Arena Productions Inc. over their planned television series, dubbed Solo. Which provides a transition in this article that will address a major misconception in the history of spy entertainment.

The Felton Papers

Producer Norman Felton (1913-2012) often dismissed his Man From U.N.C.L.E. as escapist entertainment. He had produced dramatic shows such as Dr. Kildare in the early 1960s and dramatic anthology shows in the 1950s and ’60s. He was looking for a change of pace. That’s how the U.N.C.L.E. series – about a multi-national organization dubbed the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – developed.

It has been written many times how Felton approached Bond creator Ian Fleming about working on a television series. Although details vary, these stories agree on the following: Fleming bailed out quickly, but supplied Solo as the hero’s surname. Felton then hired writer Sam Rolfe to come up with a pilot script. Eon threatened legal action, claiming Felton & Co. had stolen the name of a critical character in Goldfinger. Eon settled when MGM agreed to change the name of the new series from Solo to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – which would debut in the fall of 1964, around the time Goldfinger would have its U.K. premier.

However, an academic who went through Felton’s papers at the University of Iowa discovered one thing about this basic account – it wasn’t quite so.

Cynthia Walker, assistant director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers in New Jersey, researched Felton’s papers for her Ph.D. Walker’s dissertation concerned communications theory and she used U.N.C.L.E. as her case study. She found that Felton, another alumnus of the university, had donated virtually every document Felton had generated during his long career.

Walker found a 1962 memo by Felton – written before Ian Fleming was ever approached – describing the hero of the proposed series. Felton describes a man called Edgar Solo. “It is obvious that the synopsis was written before the meeting with Fleming because it contains absolutely none of the material or suggestions later contributed by Fleming,” Walker said.

Hence, it’s clear from Walker’s research that the Solo surname, the basis for Eon’s lawsuit, had nothing to do with Goldfinger. The academic interviewed Felton when the producer was in his 80s. He didn’t remember all the details. But Felton did know an agent named Robert Solo – Walker speculates this may have been the source of the name and Felton acknowledged it as a possibility. “He wasn’t sure but he definitely agreed that it was very possible,” Walker said in an email interview. “Those early days are sort of a blur for him – there was a lot of pressure, especially after Fleming was brought into the project.”

In fact, Walker’s research turns up that one of Fleming’s few contributions was a stated dislike of Edgar as the hero’s first name. It is the Bond author who suggests Napoleon as a substitute – virtually the only Fleming suggestion that has an impact on the final product. Yet, this has a major effect. In Felton’s original memo, Edgar Solo was supposed to be a rather plain fellow, who his neighbors didn’t suspect was an agent of an organization like U.N.C.L.E. But how does someone calling himself Napoleon Solo come across as drab? In effect, Fleming in a subtle way affects the lead character, eventually played by actor Robert Vaughn. This also leads to an interesting possibility – did Eon alter its Goldfinger script as a backhanded way of getting even with the television producers? Clearly, with this research, it’s apparent Eon may have had less basis for legal action against The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Ironically, Walker found more memos after Sam Rolfe started writing the pilot script. He hated the name Napoleon, and at one point suggested the agent preferred to be called Tony because of having the middle name Anthony. Evidently, there was a impasse over all this. In the finished pilot, Solo’s first name is never mentioned. Yet, in a five-minute presentation for network executives and potential sponsors, Robert Vaughn talks directly to the camera and talks about what future episodes of the series will be like. He begins, “My name is Robert Vaughn, but when that camera rolls, well, Napoleon Solo is the name and espionage is the game.” Fleming’s idea, it seems, just wouldn’t die. In the 1964-1968 series, Solo is a ladies man, not unlike Bond but with some differences. One senses Solo is somewhat less “love them and leave them,” and certainly with the restrictions of 1960s television, couldn’t be seen bedding the women he came across.

Walker also got a feel for the personalities behind the camera. “I gained an enormous amount of respect for Norman Felton who was fair in his dealings with veryone, who was often bemused with network politics and was always smart enough to get his way.” The producer, an activist who opposes the death penalty, frequently expressed concern about violence in scripts. “He cared very much about the impact of the series on the kids and that shows up clearly in the private memos,” Walker said.

There’s much more to tell and this article merely skims the surface. More secrets await uncovering for those who have the time and patience to look.

Copyright © 2002 William Koenig

5 Responses

  1. […] HMSS ARCHIVE: Iowa, spy central […]

  2. […] IOWA, SPY CENTRAL (2002): The University of Iowa is home to the papers of 007 screenwriter Richard Maibaum and Norman Felton, executive producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Many behind-the-scenes details of both 007 and U.N.C.L.E. can be found at Iowa City. […]

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