Hugh O’Brian dies at 91

TV Guide cover with the stars of Search, Hugh O'Brian (lower right), Tony Franciosa, middle, and Doug McClure, top

TV Guide cover with the stars of Search, Hugh O’Brian (lower right), Tony Franciosa (middle), and Doug McClure (top).

Actor Hugh O’Brian died at age 91, according to an obituary posted by the Los Angeles Times.

O’Brian was best known for starring in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, a 1955-61 television series. But he also made a try at a spy-related show, Search, which ran on NBC during the 1972-73 season.

Search concerned a private organization, the World Securities Corp. Its operatives were equipped with the (then) latest high-tech gear, including miniature cameras that enabled operations chief Cameron (Burgess Meredith) to stay in contact constantly.

O’Brian starred in the two-hour TV movie pilot, titled Probe, as Hugh Lockwood, the top agent for World Securities. It was written and produced by Leslie Stevens, who had also created The Outer Limits television series.

When the now-titled Search went to series, the format was changed so the show rotated O’Brian, Tony Franciosa and Doug McClure as World Securities operatives. Meredith, as the cranky Cameron, was the one constant.

The initial day-to-day producer was Robert H. Justman, who had been associate producer on the original Star Trek series. Anthony Spinner, producer of the fourth season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was the story editor.

Justman departed before the end of the season and Spinner, who was a veteran at QM Productions, took command. Meanwhile the show’s roster of writers includes the likes of Norman Hudis, Irv Pearlberg and Richard Landau, who had all contributed to 1960s spy shows.

Search is available from Warner Archive. Here’s a preview clip of an episode featuring O’Brian.

Fidelity-Bravery-Integrity: The FBI’s 50th anniversary

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a first-season episode of The FBI

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a first-season episode of The FBI

The FBI, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Sept. 19, was an idealized version of the real-life U.S. agency that symbolized the motto “fidelity, bravery, integrity.”

The series would go on to be the longest-running show for producer Quinn Martin. To do so, it would face challenges not faced by most television series.

According to the 2003 book Quinn Martin, Producer, the QM FBI endured a lot of scrutiny by its real-life counterpart.

Among those who underwent FBI background checks were star Efrem Zimbalist Jr.; William A. Graham, director of its first episodes (who served in U.S. Naval intelligence in World War II); Hank Simms, another World War II veteran and announcer for the show’s main titles; and Howard Alston, a production manager for the series.

What’s more, the bureau had veto power over guest stars, which cost The FBI the services of Bette Davis, a fan of the show.

Initially, the show emphasized the personal side of Zimbalist’s Inspector Lewis Erskine. He was a widower (his wife perished during an attack intended for Erskine) with a daughter in college. That fell off, in part because of audience reaction.

Quinn Martin & Co. quickly shifted to providing more detailed back stories for villains and other characters (not subject to the same scrutiny from the bureau), giving guest stars the chance to well-rounded characters.

It also helped that Martin paid about twice the going rate at the time for guest star roles ($5,000  versus the normal $2,500 for an one-hour episode).  Actors such as Charles Bronson (primarily a movie actor by 1966), Louis Jourdan, Gene Tierney and Karin Dor (a one-time James Bond actress) signed up to play guest stars on The FBI.

The show’s producer for the first four seasons, Charles Larson, frequently rewrote scripts (usually without credit), keeping the show on more than an even keel. Larson exited after the fourth season, with the slack picked up by Philip Saltzman for another four seasons and Anthony Spinner for the series’ final ninth season.

The FBI heavily featured espionage stories, especially in its second and third seasons, as Erskine and his colleagues tracked down foreign agents. That trailed off over time, with three espionage stories (out of 26 total) in the seventh season and only one in the eighth. There were no spy stories in the final season.

The show never had a big following in U.S. syndication. Still, the series had a fan base. Warner Archive began offering The FBI on a “manufactured on demand” basis in 2011. There was enough demand the entire series was made available by the end of 2014. The last two seasons came out after the May 2014 death of star Zimbalist at age 95.

For more information, CLICK HERE to view The FBI episode guide. The site is still under construction but reviews have been completed for the first five seasons.

5 U.N.C.L.E. TV stories new fans should see before the movie

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t gotten a lot of exposure since its last broadcast on Jan. 15, 1968. Yet, seemingly against long odds, a big-screen version comes out on Aug. 14.

There are a lot of new fans — particularly those who are fans of actors Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer — who haven’t had a lot of opportunity to catch the original show. With that in mind, here are five U.N.C.L.E. stories from the 1964-68 series that may enhance the experience of new fans ahead of the film.

These aren’t necessarily the very best episodes. But some have elements in common with the movie. Also, this list is intended to include examples from all four seasons of the show. Stories told over two episodes are listed as a single entry here.

The Quadripartite Affair/The Giuoco Piano Affair: These two episodes were filmed together but presented as separate, but related episodes.

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Quadripartite was the third episode broadcast. It’s also the first episode where Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) function as a team. There’s plenty of good “bits of business” for both characters.

The story involves a power-hungry woman, Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis), whose lover, Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen), is one of the world’s richest men and who’s more than willing to finance her plans. That’s not unlike the new film, where Elizabeth Debicki, is the lead villain.

Giuoco Piano (the seventh episode broadcast) is even better than Quadripartite, showing how manipulative Solo can be. The title comes from a chess gambit that symbolizes Solo’s plan. If James Bond is the blunt instrument, this story demonstrates how Solo is the sharp operator.

Both episodes were written by Alan Caillou, who did intelligence work for the British in World War II. Think an Ian Fleming, who actually went out into the field. Caillou’s two scripts helped define the Kuryakin character. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot, envisioned Kuryakin as a large, massive man. Caillou provided McCallum with the material so the actor could make Illya his own.

Also, the two episodes were directed by Richard Donner, who’d become an A-list film director in the 1970s.

The Never-Never Affair: Through the first season, the show tried to find the right balance of drama and humor. Never-Never, aired late in the season, became the model for future episodes.

"I can't believe everything that's going on, Illya."

Solo and Illya during the theater shootout in The Never-Never Affair

In the story, Solo feels sorry for U.N.C.L.E. translator Mandy Stevenson (Barbara Feldon), who yearns for an adventure. He sends her to get pipe tobacco for U.N.C.L.E. chief Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), while telling her she’s acting as a courier. However, she accidentally is given a valuable microdot covered by the villainous organization, Thrush.

The episode includes a memorable set piece, where a Thrush assassin is firing through a movie theater screen at Solo and Kuryakin, who are having to deal with other Thrush operatives. A high percentage of the jokes work, and writer Dean Hargrove would become one of the main scribes of the series. It was the second episode of show helmed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best directors on the series.

The Foxes and Hounds Affair: A breezy episode that aired early in the show’s second season. The new movie’s tone is supposed to be similar to the second season and Foxes and Hounds is one of the season’s better entries.

U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush are both after a mind-reading machine. That’s pretty fantastic, but no more so than what can be seen in a Marvel Studios film of the 21st century. Both Solo and Kuryakin get chances to shine. We also see that Waverly is perfectly capable of being cold blooded. On top of everything else, Vincent Price is a very good villain who has to watch his back for attacks from a rival in Thrush (Patricia Medina).

The Concrete Overcoat Affair: This two-part episode was edited into a movie for international audiences called The Spy in the Green Hat. Thrush has another ambitious plan that U.N.C.L.E. is trying to foil. But some retired gangsters end up becoming involved and act as a wild card.

This ran during the third season, when the drama-humor balance got out of whack in favor of humor. This Joseph Sargent-directed story reins that in to an extent. There’s also a good scene early in Part II where Solo wants to go save Kuryakin but Waverly disapproves. The U.N.C.L.E. chief relents, but only reluctantly. It’s an unusual moment of drama in a season where that was in short supply.

The Test Tube Killer Affair: In the fourth season, new producer Anthony Spinner wanted to dial the humor way back. This episode, early in the season, is one of the better entries produced by Spinner.

Christopher Jones, center, one of Thrush's "test tube" killers in a fourth-season Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode

Christopher Jones, center, as Greg Martin, in The Test Tube Killer Affair.

Thrush’s Dr. Stoller (Paul Lukas) has been raising young men from childhood to be the perfect killing machines, able to turn their emotions on and off as needed. Stoller’s prize pupil, Greg Martin (Christopher Jones), has been chosen to blow up a dam in Greece. It’s strictly an exercise and the dam has no strategic importance but many will die if Martin succeeds.

Meanwhile, the young killer is highly intelligent — intelligent enough where it appears Solo and Kuryakin may have met their match. The episode has a less-than-happy ending, something not common on the show.

The FBI season 9: Erskine’s final cases

Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

The FBI, after eight seasons, was still getting decent ratings but they were declining. Executive Producer Quinn Martin decided to shake things up.

A new/old face was brought in as the day-to-day producer. Anthony Spinner, a writer on the series during the first, second and fifth seasons, took the helm.

Spinner had his ups and down at QM Productions. He left his post as associate producer of The Invaders to become the producer during the last season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He returned to QM to produce Dan August, a police drama that only lasted one season. Later he left again to work as story consultant and then producer of Search, another series that only lasted one season.

Whether it was Spinner’s doing or not, his tenure on The FBI’s final season resembles his time on U.N.C.L.E. On both shows, there was a “back to basics” feel. In the case of The FBI, there was a new young sidekick (Shelly Novack as agent Chris Daniels) for Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Lewis Erskine. This was similar to the show’s first two seasons when Erskine had a young sidekick, Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks).

This meant William Reynolds, sidekick for six seasons, was out although he’d appear in two season 9 episodes. It turned out Reynolds’s Tom Colby had gotten a promotion and was now stationed on the West Coast.

Also, the final season went back to a minute-long version of Bronislau Kaper’s theme for the main titles, again similar to the first two seasons. Since the third season, there had been a very short main titles.

Still, it wasn’t enough to save the show. The FBI had always been an idealized version of the real-life U.S. agency. By the time episodes began airing in the fall of 1973, the Watergate scandal overwhelmed the news, including giving a black eye to the real FBI.

The show still maintained its quality, drawing a combination of old pros (Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Susan Oliver, Gary Lockwood) and upcoming actors (Harvey Keitel) as guest stars. Perhaps it was just time. Nevertheless, it could be said that The FBI (the series) never “jumped the shark” the way other long-running series did.

UPDATE (Sept. 24): Season 9 of The FBI is available in the U.S. from Warner Archive. CLICK HERE for ordering information.

Anatomy of a television inside joke

Never let it be said television writers don’t have a sense of humor — especially when making inside jokes about their profession.

"Who's the funny guy?"

“Who’s the funny guy?”

We were watching an episode of Mannix from the 1973-74 season called Sing A Song of Murder. In it, intrepid P.I. Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) gets the drop on a guy who’s been tailing him. The interloper is a P.I. from Chicago named Anthony Spinner, who’s revealed later to be a hitman.

That caught our attention since another Anthony Spinner was the producer for the fourth, and last, season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and would go on to be producer for a number of Quinn Martin series, including The FBI, Caribe and Cannon.

The Mannix episode was written by Stephen Kandel, who wrote for a number of spy-related series including I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O and A Man Called Sloane. He also has a bit of cult fame as the writer of the two Harry Mudd episodes on the original Star Trek series.

Anyway, Kandel also wrote for a Quinn Martin series that ran during the 1970-71 season called Dan August, whose producer happened to be….Anthony Spinner. He later wrote for Cannon when Spinner was producer of that QM show.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but given the background, an inside joke for viewers seems the more likely explanation.

Search now available on home video

Search's main title logo

Search’s main title logo

Search, a spy-ish series that lasted only one season on NBC, is now available on home video in the U.S. through Warner Archive, Warner Bros.’s manufactured on demand arm.

The show ran during the 1972-73 season and featured the exploits of operatives of the World Securities Corp. Here’s an excerpt of the series description:

Hugh O’Brian, Doug McClure and Tony Franciosa rotate leads as elite high tech espionage operatives for Probe Division of World Securities Corporation in this spy-sensational SF-flavored actioner… Each agent, dubbed a “Probe”, is wired up for worldwide surveillance thanks to their Scanners (miniature video cams) and dental/ ear implants. Tracking their telemetry and giving real-time mission advice is the team of specialists gathered together at Probe Control under the direction of the brilliant, irascible V.C.R. Cameron (Burgess Meredith). O’Brian plays Lockwood, Probe One, ex-astronaut and lead agent, McClure plays CR Grover, Standby Probe, brilliant beachcomber goofball and Franciosa plays Nick Bianco, Omega Probe, street savvy ex-NYC cop tasked with organized crime capers.

The series was created by Leslie Stevens, who had created The Outer Limits. The pilot was a television movie called Probe, but either Warner Bros. (which made the series) or NBC decided Search was a more appealing name.

Members of the production team had previously worked on the original Star Trek series and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Robert H. Justman, who had been associate producer on Trek (and had worked on The Outer Limits as well) was producer of the first half of the series. Anthony Spinner, the fourth-season U.N.C.L.E. producer was initially the story editor and took over as producer.

The price is $49.95 and you can find more information on ordering by CLICKING HERE.

Some (very early) predictions about the U.N.C.L.E. movie

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (Art by Paul Baack)

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Solo and Kuryakin
(Art by Paul Baack)

Guy Ritchie’s movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is scheduled to start filming next month. While there’s a lot that isn’t known, here are a few predictions about the film that may emerge.

No dancing gorillas (or other third-season silliness from the original series): The movie probably will be similar in tone to the director’s two Sherlock Holmes movies.

Based on the early information available in the film’s IMDB.COM ENTRY, much of the crew worked on Ritchie’s two Holmes films. There will be some humor, but there will be much serious adventure also.

That wouldn’t be a bad thing. The original show’s FOURTH AND FINAL SEASON perhaps over-corrected the silly THIRD SEASON. Both seasons have good episodes but the drama-humor balance was out of whack compared with the first two seasons. The third season was like an U.N.C.L.E. version of the Adam West Batman series. The fourth seemed as if it were produced by Quinn Martin; the final season was produced by Anthony Spinner, a QM veteran.

U.N.C.L.E.’s wheelhouse lies somewhere inbetween those extremes. Whether Ritchie & Co. can achieve that remains to be seen. But the guess from here is that’s the goal. The two Ritchie-directed Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law were in that same general area. The question is whether Ritchie can achieve that with U.N.C.L.E.

It won’t be exactly like the television show because it will be done as a period piece. The television series was a product of its time. It was a post-Cold War series (an American and a Russian working together to deal with the greater evil) taking place in the middle of the Cold War (producer Norman Felton and author Ian Fleming had their first meetings a few weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962).

But when you do a story as a period piece, everything changes. The movies Murder, My Sweet (1942) and Farewell My Lovely (1975) are based on the same Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe novel. They’re both good, but the latter, starring Robert Mitchum, emphasizes its 1940s settings in ways the earlier Dick Powell film didn’t.

The movie’s success will depend on the chemistry of the lead actors: The original show was intended to center around Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. But David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin made such an impression, the two emerged as equals. The Vaughn-McCallum pairing ensured that, in the fall of 1965, that The Wild, Wild West (with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) and I Spy (with Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) had the same dynamic.

For the new U.N.C.L.E. movie to work, Henry Cavill (as Solo) and Armie Hammer (as Kuryakin) have to display at least similar chemistry. Cavill was a late casting as Solo after Tom Cruise exited the project.

Still, late castings can work. Jack Lord was cast as Steve McGarrett in Hawaii Five-O just *five days* before the pilot to that 1968-80 series started production. Cavill got the U.N.C.L.E. job about three months ahead of production. Compared with Jack Lord and Five-O, that’s a breeze.

RE-POST: The 45th anniversary of the end of U.N.C.L.E.

Originally published Dec. 28. Re-posted for the actual anniversary.

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)


Jan. 15 marks the 45th anniversary of the end of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It was also the beginning of the end for 1960s spymania.

Ratings for U.N.C.L.E. faltered badly in the fall of 1967, where it aired on Monday nights. It was up against Gunsmoke on CBS — a show that itself had been canceled briefly during the spring of ’67 but got a reprieve thanks to CBS chief William Paley. Instead of oblivion, Gunsmoke was moved from Saturday to Monday.

Earlier, Norman Felton, U.N.C.L.E.’s executive producer, decided some retooling was in order for the show’s fourth season. He brought in Anthony Spinner, who often wrote for Quinn Martin-produced shows, as producer.

Spinner had also written a first-season U.N.C.L.E. episode and summoned a couple of first-season writers, Jack Turley and Robert E. Thompson, to do some scripts. Also in the fold was Dean Hargrove, who supplied two first-season scripts but had his biggest impact in the second, when U.N.C.L.E. had its best ratings. Hargrove was off doing other things during the third season, although he did one of the best scripts for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. during 1966-67.

Hargrove, however, quickly learned the Spinner-produced U.N.C.L.E. was different. In a 2007 interview on the U.N.C.L.E. DVD set, Hargrove said Spinner was of “the Quinn Martin school of melodrama.” Spinner wanted a more serious take on the show compared with the previous season, which included a dancing ape. Hargrove, adept at weaving (relatively subtle) humor into his stories, chafed under Spinner. The producer instructed his writers that U.N.C.L.E. should be closer to James Bond than Get Smart.

The more serious take also extended to the show’s music, as documented in liner notes by journalist Jon Burlingame for U.N.C.L.E. soundstracks released between 2004 and 2007 and the FOR YOUR EYES ONLY U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE.

Gerald Fried, the show’s most frequent composer, had a score rejected. Also jettisoned was a new Fried arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music. A more serious-sounding one was arranged by Robert Armbruster, the music director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Most of the fourth season’s scores would be composed by Richard Shores. Fried did one fourth-season score, which sounded similar to the more serious style of Shores.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, however, weren’t a match for a resurgent Matt Dillon on CBS. NBC canceled U.N.C.L.E. A final two-part story, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, aired Jan. 8 and 15, 1968..

U.N.C.L.E. wouldn’t be the first spy casualty. NBC canceled I Spy, with its last new episode appearing April 15, 1968. Within 18 months of U.N.C.L.E.’s demise, The Wild, Wild West was canceled by CBS (its final new episode aired aired April 4, 1969 although CBS did show fourth-season reruns in the summer of 1970) and the last episode of The Avengers was produced, appearing in the U.S. on April 21, 1969. NBC also canceled Get Smart after the 1968-69 season but CBS picked up the spy comedy for 1969-70. Mission: Impossible managed to stay on CBS until 1973 but abandoned spy storylines its last two seasons as the IMF opposed “the Syndicate.”

Nor were spy movies exempt. Dean Martin’s last Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew, debuted in U.S. theaters in late 1968. Despite a promise in the end titles that Helm would be back in The Ravagers, the film series was done. Even the James Bond series, the engine of the ’60s spy craze, was having a crisis in early 1968. Star Sean Connery was gone and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman pondered their next move. James Bond would return but things weren’t quite the same.

45th anniversary of the end of U.N.C.L.E. (and ’60s spymania)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)


Jan. 15 marks the 45th anniversary of the end of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It was also the beginning of the end for 1960s spymania.

Ratings for U.N.C.L.E. faltered badly in the fall of 1967, where it aired on Monday nights. It was up against Gunsmoke on CBS — a show that itself had been canceled briefly during the spring of ’67 but got a reprieve thanks to CBS chief William Paley. Instead of oblivion, Gunsmoke was moved from Saturday to Monday.

Earlier, Norman Felton, U.N.C.L.E.’s executive producer, decided some retooling was in order for the show’s fourth season. He brought in Anthony Spinner, who often wrote for Quinn Martin-produced shows, as producer.

Spinner had also written a first-season U.N.C.L.E. episode and summoned a couple of first-season writers, Jack Turley and Robert E. Thompson, to do some scripts. Also in the fold was Dean Hargrove, who supplied two first-season scripts but had his biggest impact in the second, when U.N.C.L.E. had its best ratings. Hargrove was off doing other things during the third season, although he did one of the best scripts for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. during 1966-67.

Hargrove, however, quickly learned the Spinner-produced U.N.C.L.E. was different. In a 2007 interview on the U.N.C.L.E. DVD set, Hargrove said Spinner was of “the Quinn Martin school of melodrama.” Spinner wanted a more serious take on the show compared with the previous season, which included a dancing ape. Hargrove, adept at weaving (relatively subtle) humor into his stories, chafed under Spinner. The producer instructed his writers that U.N.C.L.E. should be closer to James Bond than Get Smart.

The more serious take also extended to the show’s music, as documented in liner notes by journalist Jon Burlingame for U.N.C.L.E. soundstracks released between 2004 and 2007 and the FOR YOUR EYES ONLY U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE.

Matt Dillon, right, and sidekick Festus got new life at U.N.C.L.E.'s expense.

Matt Dillon (James Arness), right, and sidekick Festus (Ken Curtis) got new life at U.N.C.L.E.’s expense.

Gerald Fried, the show’s most frequent composer, had a score rejected. Also jettisoned was a new Fried arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music. A more serious-sounding one was arranged by Robert Armbruster, the music director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Most of the fourth season’s scores would be composed by Richard Shores. Fried did one fourth-season score, which sounded similar to the more serious style of Shores.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, however, weren’t a match for a resurgent Matt Dillon on CBS. NBC canceled U.N.C.L.E. A final two-part story, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, aired Jan. 8 and 15, 1968..

U.N.C.L.E. wouldn’t be the first spy casualty. NBC canceled I Spy, with its last new episode appearing April 15, 1968. Within 18 months of U.N.C.L.E.’s demise, The Wild, Wild West was canceled by CBS (its final new episode aired aired April 4, 1969 although CBS did show fourth-season reruns in the summer of 1970) and the last episode of The Avengers was produced, appearing in the U.S. on April 21, 1969. NBC also canceled Get Smart after the 1968-69 season but CBS picked up the spy comedy for 1969-70. Mission: Impossible managed to stay on CBS until 1973 but abandoned spy storylines its last two seasons as the IMF opposed “the Syndicate.”

Nor were spy movies exempt. Dean Martin’s last Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew, debuted in U.S. theaters in late 1968. Despite a promise in the end titles that Helm would be back in The Ravagers, the film series was done. Even the James Bond series, the engine of the ’60s spy craze, was having a crisis in early 1968. Star Sean Connery was gone and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman pondered their next move. James Bond would return but things weren’t quite the same.

Norman Felton, an appreciation

Norman Felton, the executive producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., died last month at age 99. The news was first reported by Variety and other outlets, including the BBC’s Web site have run items.

Norman Felton

It took Felton two years of effort to get the show on the air. His efforts included wooing Ian Fleming, who contributed the Napoleon Solo name for the lead character; Fleming dropped out, rather than risking the wrath of Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the 007 film producers. Fleming’s participation would have guaranteed a sale to NBC.

So Felton had to make a pilot to get NBC to buy the show. The pilot did sell, but the show had a near-death experience its first season when it ran on Tuesdays in the fall of 1964. A movie to Mondays (plus increased spy interest thanks to Goldfinger) saved the series.

Ace U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum)

U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t Felton’s biggest hit. Dr. Kildare, with Richard Chamberlain, ran five seasons to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s three-and-a-half. U.N.C.L.E. also ran a bit unevenly.

For many fans, the first season was great because Sam Rolfe, who had developed the show was on board as producer.

The second season was the most popular, ratings wise. The third season ran to the goofy side.

The abbreviated fourth season was as serious as a heart attack as that season’s producer, Anthony Spinner, a veteran of Quinn Martin shows, imported QM’s brand of gravitas. (One notable exception of The Prince of Darkness two parter that is more second season; even there, some serious stuff creeps in).

What made Felton’s contribution unique is he produced, in effect, the utopian spy show. An American (Solo) and a Russian (Illya Kuryakin) worked side by side.

Pretty heady stuff given that the program’s September 1964 premier was less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an element of idealism you didn’t find in James Bond movies or other television spy efforts.

Also, U.N.C.L.E. was the first spy hit of the period. It may have been helped by 007, but U.N.C.L.E. had things that made it different than Bond.

With Felton’s passing, almost all of the key production team including Rolfe, David Victor (producer or supervising producer in seasons 2 and 3), Boris Ingster (producer during seasons 2 and 3), Joseph Calvelli (associate producer for the first half of season 1) are gone. U.N.C.L.E. isn’t remembered by the general public as much as, say, Mission: Impossible. Periodic attempts to make an U.N.C.L.E. movie fizzle out.

Still, Felton was responsible for something that entertained and thrilled fans in its day. Perhaps it will be rediscovered by the general public. Even if it’s not, U.N.C.L.E. fans still remember. And it all started with Norman Felton.