What if Fleming hadn’t exited U.N.C.L.E.?

The cast of Checkmate

The cast of Checkmate

We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming crying U.N.C.L.E. and opting to end his participation in the television series that would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But would have happened if he had stuck around?

It might have been similar to Checkmate, a 1960-62 crime drama on CBS.

Checkmate featured two dashing private detectives (Anthony George and Doug McClure), aided by an academic (Sebastian Cabot). Two things stood out about the show: it was produced by a production company owned by Jack Benny and it was billed as having been created by novelist Eric Ambler (1909-1998), a contemporary of Ian Fleming. In fact, in the novel From Russia, With Love, Fleming’s James Bond has an Ambler novel with him on his journey to Istanbul. Amber in 1958 also married Joan Harrison, an associate of Alfred Hitchcock, who oversaw production of the director’s television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

According to IMDB.com, Ambler never wrote an episode of Checkmate. According to the IMDB.com information, he sometimes got a creator credit and sometimes didn’t during the two seasons of the show. (From a few episodes we’ve seen, the “Created by Eric Ambler” credit appears in the main titles during the first season and shows up in the end titles in the second.)

Ambler’s participation (or lack of it) in Checkmate mirrors what was shaping up with the television project originally named Solo: it was originally to have billed Ian Fleming’s Solo, but the heavy lifting of devising a pilot episode story was done by writer Sam Rolfe. Once Fleming signed away his U.N.C.L.E. rights for 1 British pound, Rolfe still only got a “developed by” credit instead of a “created by” credit for the 1964-68 series.

Based on a sampling of episodes, Checkmate is entertaining. One episode (The Human Touch) featured Peter Lorre as the villain. Also, the series, including its theme music, was an early credit for composer John Williams (who called himself Johnny Williams at the time). Still, Ambler didn’t do the heavy lifting in terms of coming up with stories. That was left to others.

As a result, we suspect had The Man From U.N.C.L.E. come out as Ian Fleming’s Solo, the author would have been a kind of front man (even if he had lived past August 1964) while executive producer Norman Felton, Rolfe (who produced the show’s first season) and others done most of the work of devising story lines.

Anyway, (as long as YouTube doesn’t yank it) you can check out The Human Touch episode of Checkmate for yourself:

An obscure 007-Hitchcock connection: Charles Bennett

This week, there was a dialogue among proprietors of 007 Web sites among connections between James Bond and director Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps one of the most direct ties (behind the camera) is also the most obscure.

Writer Charles Bennett worked on 1940′s Foreign Correspondent starring Joel McCrea


One of the most cited examples was how North by Northwest’s crop-duster plane sequence inspired a scene in From Russia With Love where a helicopter dive bombs 007. The U.K. Daily Mail wrote up how Ian Fleming hoped Hitchcock would direct a Bond film before the Eon Productions series began production.

However, the most direct connection is the 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale that aired on CBS, starring American actor Barry Nelson. It was co-scripted by Charles Bennett (1899-1995). Bennett was a screenwriter on a number of Hitchock films, including The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940). Bennett also co-authored the story that was the basis of the 1934 and 1956 versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

By the 1950s and ’60s, a period that included the first Casino Royale adaptation, Bennett was mostly writing for television. His work also included one episode of The Wild, Wild West, “The Night of the Eccentrics,” that introduced Count Manzeppi, intended to be a recurring villain. Manzeppi, played by Victor Buono, would only return for one additional episode (which Bennett would not write). Still, the episode is rather quirky, and includes Richard Pryor as one of Manzeppi’s henchmen.

Salute to Charles Bennett

Not many writers can claim to have collaborated with Alfred Hitcock, did the first adaptation of an Ian Fleming novel or created the (arguably) second-most popular villain on The Wild, Wild West.

Then again, few writers had the longevity or talent of Charles Bennett (1899-1995).

Bennett was a screenwriter on Hitchcock’s <a.1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps.

Decades later, Bennett, along with writer Antony Ellis, adapted Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, for television. It was a tricky affair. Even though CR was Fleming’s shortest novel, it would be used as part of CBS’s Climax! anthology program in 1954. That meant squeezing the short novel (or novella, depending on your personal definition) to a 60-minute time slot. Even though there were fewer commercials then compared to today, it still meant 50 to 52 minutes of airtime.

Bennett and Ellis ended up making James Bond into an American operative (Barry Nelson) and transforming Felix Leiter into a European agent. Also, the writers melded two characters, Vesper Lynd and French agent Rene Mathis, into “Valerie Mathis.”

Here’s the ending of the 1954 production, including the end titles, which haven’t been included in all home video releases:

About a decade later, Bennett penned an episode of The Wild, Wild West. It featured a villain named Count Manzeppi, intended to be a recurring foe similar to the popular Dr. Loveless. Manzeppi, played by Victor Buono (007 screenwriter Richard Maibuam’s choice to play Goldinger), would only appear in two WWW episodes. Still, Manzeppi was memorable. Here, in the Bennett-scripted debut, he confronts a U.S. Secret Service agent (whose life expectency can be measured in minutes) along with a henchman played by Richard Pryor:

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