UPDATE: 20 years of the U.N.C.L.E. episode guide

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

Originally posted May 18. Re-posting (with some tweaks and additions) today, Dec. 1, the date of the actual anniversary.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode guide marks its 20th anniversary today. Naturally, after researching some things, the Spy Commander couldn’t wait to do a post.

The episode guide was one of the first U.N.C.L.E. fan sites. It first went live on Dec. 1, 1996. It wasn’t complete at the time by any means, but there were at least some reviews for each of the four seasons of the show.

The following summer, the Spy Commander did a geeky thing, sending a printout of the website to retired executive producer Norman Felton. After putting it in the mail, I immediately had the equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Some of the Season Three reviews (when the show often took a campy approach) were pretty rough. What if Felton became offended? I wondered. Yikes.

Not to fear. Felton sent a letter dated June 23, 1997. At the top, there was a cartoon of someone critiquing a frustrated William Shakespeare. “Good, but not immortal.”

The letter read thusly (underlined words are highlighted with asterisks) in part:

Terrific! The pages from the Web page — yes, and there were ‘duds’ along the way — but enough *good enough* for our *fans*, yes?

In a P.S. he said he might send a copy of a screenplay he was about to finish. “*Not* in the vein of U.N.C.L.E. — and certainly *not* immortal. Wow!”

Also included were two strips of film with a Post It Note. “Enclosed bits of film made to checking lighting for the cameraman” during filming of U.N.C.L.E.’s pilot.

The Spy Commander did a second geeky thing. Making yet another printout, I went to a collectible show in suburban Chicago in the late 1990s where Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo, had a table signing autographs.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a printout of a website.”

No reaction from an actor. I began to try to explain but simply felt embarrassed for bringing the printout. Later, I was told from someone who talked to him extensively he wasn’t on the internet much at the time.

The episode guide also generated a response from writer Stanley Ralph Ross, a frequent writer for the 1966-68 Batman show, who also penned some third-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes. He liked how the episode guide noted how the writer used the same joke in U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

An e-mail interview ensued. “I have some funny stories about the show, especially when I was in The Pop Art Affair,” he wrote in a June 21, 1999, e-mail. Ross said he did an uncredited rewrite on the episode and got a part in the third-season episode as part of the deal.

“David  asked me to stand on a box,” Ross wrote. “I am already 6:6 and said that he would look like a midget but he replied that the taller I was, the stronger and more macho he would seem for having me beat up.” Ross referred to 5-foot-7 David McCallum, who played U.N.C.L.E. Russian agent Illya Kuryakin.

The U.N.C.L.E. episode guide, meanwhile, has had its share of ups and downs. It originally was hosted by AOL. But in 2008, AOL stopped hosting websites. It moved to the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website. But when HMSS went offline in 2014, the episode guide went dark with it — missing the show’s 50th anniversary in September of that year.

But you can’t keep a good U.N.C.L.E. agent down. The episode guide returned on Oct. 18, 2014 on WordPress, part of a family of websites including The Spy Command.

Since then, the site has been improved, including finally finishing reviews for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  and updating and adding features because of the 2015 movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.

As far as those two geeky incidents? I don’t really have regrets. Felton died in 2012 and Vaughn on Nov. 11 of this year. My interactions with them may have been awkward. But at least I did gain some insight because of them.

In particular, I remember Vaughn talking about the end of the series at one of the collectibles shows. He said he wasn’t crushed about the show being canceled.  “I just went on to the next thing I had to do.”

Hopefully, the episode guide will remain around for a while — good, but not immortal.

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.

UPDATED: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. curse

The cast of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television show.

The cast of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television show.

Almost five years ago we published a post about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. curse.

Since the end of the 1964-68 series, a lot of things just seemed to go wrong. Well, after taking a look at the original, we decided to dress it up with events of the past few years. The more things change, the more, etc.

So you be the judge whether there’s a curse.

1970s: Veteran James Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum is hired to develop a new version of U.N.C.L.E. Nothing comes of it, despite Maibaum’s track record.

1976-77: Writer-producers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts hire Sam Rolfe, the original developer of the show, to do a script for a made-for-televison movie that could be the springboard for a new show. “The Malthusian Affair” has some interesting concepts (including having a dwarf occupy an armored exo-skeleton) but it doesn’t get past the script stage. Had it become reality, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum would have reprised their roles as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.

Early 1980s: Would-be producers Danny Biederman and Robert Short cobble together a theatrical movie project. Their script had Thrush, the villainous organization of the original series, take over the world without anyone realizing it. Vaughn and McCallum had expressed interest, as had former 007 production designer Ken Adam. Alas, nothing happened.

1983: The made-for-television series movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. airs on CBS. No series, or even a sequel made-for-TV movie, develops.

Early 1990s: Sam Rolfe attempts to do a made-for-cable-television movie that would have been an U.N.C.L.E. “next generation” story. Rolfe drops dead of a heart attack in 1993, ending any such prospect.

Circa 2004-2005: Norman Felton, executive producer of the orignal show, cuts a deal with a small production company for some sort of cable-televison project. Nothing concrete occurs.

2010-2011: Warner Bros. entices director Steven Soderbergh to direct an U.N.C.L.E. movie after a number of false starts. However, the director and studio can’t agree on budget and casting. Ironically, one of Soderbergh’s choices, Michael Fassbender as Napoleon Solo, later emerges as a star. Soderbergh gives up in late 2011.

Spring 2013: Guy Ritchie is now the director on the project. For a time, there are negotiations with Tom Cruise to play Solo. He’d be paired with Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin. In May, Cruise breaks off talks to concentrate on a new Mission Impossible movie.

June 2013: The Solo slot doesn’t stay vacant long. Henry Cavill, currently doing publicity for Warner Bros.’s Man of Steel emerges as the new choice.

September 2013: Filming actually starts on an U.N.C.L.E. movie. Is the curse abut to lift?

August 2015: The answer turns out to be no. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is trounced at the box office. One of the movies doing the trouncing: Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation starring none other than Tom Cruise. Meanwhile, some fans of the original show complain Rolfe was denied a credit and Jerry Goldsmith’s theme went almost entirely unused.

August 2016: A year after the flop, some salt gets rubbed in the wound. Matthew Bradford, in a post on the Facebook group The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Inner Circle notes the following: A commentary track for a Blu Ray release for Modesty Blaise dismisses U.N.C.L.E. as “unwatchable” today.

It turns out the commenter, film historian David Del Valle, based his comment on an episode of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., where Robert Vaughn appeared as Solo. That episode was titled The Mother Muffin Affair and features Boris Karloff as an elderly woman.

U.N.C.L.E. movie, we hardly knew ye

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

This month marks the year anniversary of the release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie.

For a film that seemed to disappear from theaters almost without a trace, it occasionally showed up on lists of underrated movies.

Also, we heard anecdotes from people who convinced friends to see it in the theater (while they could). These friends, the way these anecdotes were told, would then say they were surprised (pleasantly) by the movie.

Still, numbers are hard things. The 2015 Guy Ritchie-directed movie had a global box office of only $109.8 million, and only $45.4 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to Box Office Mojo.

To put that in perspective, this year’s remake of Ghostbusters, had worldwide box office as of Aug. 3 of $161.3 million, with $109.6 million coming from the U.S. and Canada. And it’s not even seen as a hit.

Last year, was, as this blog called it, “The Year of the Spy.” U.N.C.L.E., which last saw a new production with a TV movie in 1983, was the runt of that litter. About the only place the movie was a hit was Russia, presumably thanks to the presence of Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

Still, numbers aren’t everything. The U.N.C.L.E. movie was not a James Bond wannabe. Instead, it tried to be its own thing.

Some fans of the original 1964-68 series felt the movie tried too much to be its own thing, with no cameos by original stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, and the original Jerry Goldsmith theme barely being present.

Yet, it seems unlikely cameos or a longer version of the theme would have substantially boosted the box office. Some times, a movie simply fails to find an audience.

The movie’s biggest change was an edgier version of Illya Kuryakin. The film’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) was similar to that of the series, albeit with changes to the character’s back story, primarily a history of being a thief blackmailed into working for the CIA.

For the Spy Commander, this month is one of nostalgia for the movie. For a brief time, there was a new version of U.N.C.L.E. Even with debates among first-generation fans, at least there was *something new* to discuss after decades.

By contrast, 2016 has a new Bourne movie — and one not so much different than most Bourne films — and not much else. U.N.C.L.E. and “The Year of The Spy” isn’t happening again soon.

 

U.N.C.L.E. movie nominated for MTV fandom of the year

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie from 2015 has been nominated for MTV’s Fandom of the Year awards.

Here’s part of an MTV PRESS RELEASE:

NEW YORK, NY (July 11, 2016) – MTV today announced the nominees for “Fandom of the Year,” presented by JOLLY RANCHER Candy, which will feature 32 nominees going head-to-head across multiple platforms in a special social tournament spanning movies, TV dramas, TV comedies and, for the first time ever, video games.

In the movie category, the U.N.C.L.E. movie’s competition is pretty steep. The other nominees are: Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Mazerunner: The Scorch Trials, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and X-Men: Apocalypse.

Still, fans of the film, with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, have a chance to get the movie additional notice. The Guy Ritchie-directed film had a modest $109.8 million worldwide box office.

Voting can be done on MTV’S FACEBOOK PAGE. Participants basically vote by sharing a photo of their preferred movie to their Facebook page. Instructions are on the page. The first round of voting ends on July 13.

Other categories include TV dramas, TV comedies and video games. To read the full MTV press release, CLICK HERE.  Thanks to the Henry Cavill News website for giving us a heads up.

This may be the best hope for an U.N.C.L.E. sequel

Billionaire Warren Buffett (b. 1930), who's old enough to remember The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s original TV run

Billionaire Warren Buffett (b. 1930), who’s old enough to remember The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s original TV run

Parody alert

Mr. Warren Bufffett
Chief Executive Officer
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Dear Mr. Buffett,

You’re of an age when The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television show was big stuff. Last year, there was an U.N.C.L.E. movie released by Warner Bros. but things didn’t work out for the studio.

But U.N.C.L.E. is such an optimistic concept — West and East united against a common foe — it deserves another chance. And you could be the person to make that happen.

Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner, is having its problems these days. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice needed to be a billion-dollar blockbuster but fell short. It may have even lost money in its theatrical release.

Warners needs a break. And having a well-known billionaire — one who has a positive image — backing a movie would be a boost to the studio and to Time Warner.

You may ask, “But shouldn’t I back The Justice League movie instead?” The problem is, that would be too obvious. The Justice League is the next huge movie and for Warner Bros. to turn to you for financing would look like panic. Financing an U.N.C.L.E. sequel would be a much more subtle play.

By backing an U.N.C.L.E. sequel (50 percent of the production cost? 60 percent? 70 percent?) you could cast it as an investment in man’s better nature. Afterall, U.N.C.L.E. was the utopian 1960s spy show. It was a post-Cold War show that aired in the midst of the Cold War.

What’s more, your involvement would give Warner Bros. a much-needed boost of good publicity. In turn, that would give you the leverage to negotiate a purchase of a stake of Time Warner stock under good terms, as you’ve done with other companies as explained in a 2014 Forbes.com story. Also, when Warren Buffet takes a stake in a company, it usually results in good press for that company.

Finally, you’re at a stage of life where you’re testing out potential successors for Berkshire. You could give one of those possible successors as an assignment. A test, so to speak.

Finally, if you pursue this course, you’d easily be able to get Alicia Vikander (who just picked up an Oscar for a different movie), Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer to show up for the Berkshire annual meeting. That would be the talk of Omaha.

Just some food for thought.

Regards,

The Spy Commander

 

A few thoughts about the U.N.C.L.E. Blu Ray

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

The blog made an preliminary examination of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Blu Ray disc which went on sale today. Some random observations:

Some interesting content in the extras: For example, one of the extras shows how some of the stunts were performed. In an early sequence, Gaby (Alicia Vikander) and Solo (Henry Cavill) are in a car which Gaby appears to be driving. For much of the sequence, there was a stunt driver in a cage atop the car. There was also judicious use of “green screen” CGI.

Technology: In the original series, Sam Rolfe, who scripted the U.N.C.L.E. pilot, said he wanted the tech to be about 15 year ahead of what was available at the time. During the original show, the tech went beyond that, including vaporizers and mind-reading machines. Meanwhile, in one of the extras, co-scripter and co-producer Lionel Wigram said the idea in the movie was to keep the tech as close to the early 1960s as possible.

A bittersweet line: Also in the extras, Armie Hammer says he hopes the movie will lead to more U.N.C.L.E. film adventures. Given how the movie flopped, that’s not likely to happen.

Lens flares: Director Guy Ritchie appeared to adopt a visual signature of fellow director J.J. Abrams, particularly in the opening sequence in East Berlin and later when Solo is tortured by a former Nazi. But there’s even more of the visual technique through much of the movie.

Oops: At the 38:44 mark, you can see very faint shadow of a boom microphone on the door to Illya’s hotel room in Rome when Solo comes calling. To be honest, the Spy Commander missed this detail the five times he saw the movie in the theater. But it’s the kind of thing you can catch up with when you can pause and rewind.

“Have the chair warmed up”: This line was used twice, albeit in subtitles, and foreshadows a sequence when Solo is tortured by the former Nazi. Again, the kind of thing that’s easier to catch when you can pause and rewind.

Daniel Pemberton’s score: Still one of the best things about the movie. Director Ritchie didn’t want to mimic a John Barry James Bond score and it was one of the best decisions he made.

The Jerry Goldsmith U.N.C.L.E. theme: Ritchie really, really didn’t want it in the movie and Pemberton barely placed a few notes in it. In the end, it really wouldn’t have mattered to throw the original U.N.C.L.E. fans a bone and include it in the end titles.

It’s still one of the best entries in 2015’s “Year of the Spy.” Yes, it changed the back stories of Solo and Illya. Still, the movie got the most of its relatively modest $75 million production budget.