Universal in the ’60s & ’70s: The Television Factory

 

Universal logo, circa 1960s

In the 1960s and ’70s, Universal’s television division was like a TV factory.

Its shows had a certain look, a certain sheen. Universal’s TV operation would help launch the careers of people such as director Steven Spielberg and writer-director Steven Bochco (who both worked on the same episode of Columbo).

Universal developed the concept of “the wheel,” where different shows rotated in the same time slow, or a series that had rotating leads. Examples: The NBC Mystery Movie (different rotating shows) and The Name of the Game (rotating leads).

Universal, of course, still produces television shows. It’s now part of Comcast as is NBC, where many Universal shows were telecast. But it’s not the same because, naturally, television has evolved. Still, it’s a worth a look back.

Origins: Music Corp. of America, or MCA, was a talent agency. But MCA saw the potential of television. It formed Revue in 1950 as a television production arm. It acquired the studio lot of Universal (then known as Universal-International) in 1958 and eventually acquired Universal itself.

Revue produced all sorts of shows: Westerns (Wagon Train and The Virginian), comedies (The Jack Benny Program, Leave It to Beaver, The Munsters), crime dramas (M Squad), and anthology shows such as Alfred Hitchock Presents (hosted by Hitch), Thriller (hosted by Boris Karloff) and The General Electric Theater (hosted by Ronald Reagan).

Eventually, all of its TV series were under the better-known Universal brand. The boss of MCA-Universal was Lew Wasserman, who became a major figure in Hollywood. Writers Richard Levinson and William Link, when devising the Mannix television series, came up with a character named Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella) who was modeled on Wasserman.

The Universal mogul apparently didn’t mind. After Campanella’s Wickersham character was written out after the first season of Mannix, the actor ended up as one of the leads on “The Lawyers” part of The Bold Ones, another Universal “wheel.”

Glory Days: Universal was a major supplier of shows for U.S. television. As early as 1964, it embraced the idea of made-for-television movies. Its first effort, The Killers, directed by Don Siegel, was deemed too violent and got a theatrical release.

One of the early TV movies was 1966’s Fame is the Name of the Game, starring Tony Franciosa as an investigative reporter for a magazine.

This would be the basis for The Name of the Game (1968-71), an early example of “the wheel.” Franciosa, Robert Stack and Gene Barry rotated as the leads of the series, which concerned the magazine empire headed by Glenn Howard (Barry).

A key figure at Universal television, who is not remembered much today, was Richard Irving (1917-1990), a producer-director. He oversaw a Universal Western series (Laredo), which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1967.

Irving also produced and directed the 1968 television movie Prescription: Murder, where TV audiences were first introduced to Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk). The same year, he produced and directed a TV movie with international intrigue titled Istanbul Express, starring Barry, Senta Berger and John Saxon.

Irving remained a booster of Columbo. He directed another TV movie with the detective, 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man, which finally sold Columbo as a series.

The Universal TV operation cruised throughout the ’70s. In the early 1980s, it had another hit with Magnum: P.I. But things got tougher that decade. Universal excelled at one-hour dramas and TV movies at a time things were changing.

In 1990, MCA sold itself to Japan’s  Matsushita Electric. It would be bought and sold over the years before being acquired by Comcast.

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.

Happy Mother’s Day from The Spy Command

Here’s a sampling of images of Mothers from the spy genre for Mother’s Day. If your mother is still available for a chat, take advantage of the opportunity.

99 became a mother toward the end of Get Smart's 1965-70 run.

Barbara Feldon’s 99 became a mother toward the end of Get Smart’s 1965-70 run.

Boris Karloff's title card from The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.'s The Mother Muffin Affair

Boris Karloff’s title card from The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.’s The Mother Muffin Affair

Judi Dench, who played two versions of M.

Judi Dench, who played two versions of M in James Bond films.

U.N.C.L.E. double feature in LA on Nov. 21-22

UNCLE DOUBLE FEATURE

Theatrical showings of two movies re-edited from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. are scheduled for Los Angeles on Nov. 21 and 22.

The Spy With My Face and One Spy Too Many are to be shown at the New Beverly Cinema, a revival movie house owned by director Quentin Tarantino. Each movie will be shown once on Friday, Nov. 21 and twice on Saturday, Nov. 22. The latter date also marks the 82nd birthday of Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo in the 1964-68 series.

For specific times and a link to buy tickets, you can CLICK HERE.

Each film contains scenes not in the television versions of their stories. For more information about The Spy With My Face, CLICK HERE and scroll down to episode 8. For more information about One Spy Too Many, CLICK HERE and read about episodes 30-31 at the top of the page.

The theater also plans another double feature of note for spy fans.

On Nov. 23 and 24, it will show The Venetian Affair, a serious 1967 spy movie also starring Robert Vaughn, with a cast that includes Luciana Paluzzi and Boris Karloff, and Hickey & Boggs, a 1972 movie reuniting Robert Culp and Bill Cosby as private eyes.Hickey & Boggs was directed by Culp and written by Walter Hill. Culp and Cosby had starred in I Spy, the 1965-68 espionage series.

Intrusion of real life paragraph:

Cosby has been in the news the past week because of rape allegations going back several years that he has denied (this CNN story summarizes the situation) and also because of his philanthropy (loaning 60 pieces of African art to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art as detailed in this NPR story).

Spring 1964: U.N.C.L.E. gets a new chief

Leo G. Carroll's title card for first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes

Leo G. Carroll’s title card for first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes

With less than a month before regular series production began, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had some tweaks, both major and minor.

Superficially, star Robert Vaughn changed his hairstyle, switching his part and going for more of a “dry look” compared to the pilot that would air as the first episode.

More substantively, U.N.C.L.E. would have a new chief: Leo G. Carroll, a mainstay of several Alfred Hitchcock films, was cast as Alexander Waverly, replacing Will Kuluva’s Mr. Allison.

Carroll was three decades older than Kuluva. He had two basic on-screen personas: kind and bumbling (the 1955 comedy We’re No Angels or the Topper television series) or cold and calculating (“The Professor” in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest).

Occasionally, he got to a character where he displayed *both* personas (such as THIS EPISODE of the Boris Karloff Thriller anthology series where his character’s seeming bumbling masked his true persona).

Here’s an entry from Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE:

Monday, May 18, 1964

(Executive Producer Norman) Felton officially informs NBC that (Rober) Vaughn and (David) McCallum will remain to play running characters but Will Kuluva has been dropped. The new chief at U.N.C.L.E. will be played by Leo G. Carroll, and the character’s name has changed from Allison to Alexander Waverly.

Arguably, Carroll’s Waverly is an extension of his “Professor” character. Waverly is calculating and, as the series went on, showed he was more than willing to sacrifice his operatives if necessary. In one second-season episode (The Foxes and Hounds Affair), Waverly drops Solo (just returning from a vacation) into the middle of a complicated assignment where the ace agent’s life is in danger.

The official casting of the new U.N.C.L.E. chief came less than two weeks before series production began on June 1. The first draft for The Double Affair, which would be the eighth episode broadcast, still refers to Allison as the U.N.C.L.E. chief.

As the first season unfolded, the production team would seek to expand Carroll’s role. Waverly would be given a cousin who bore an uncanny resemblance (The Bow-Wow Affair) and would occasionally demonstrate he had once been a pretty mean operative himself (knocking out a lackey in The Deadly Decoy Affair).

The on-camera team was now complete. The question now was whether the show would work — or even survive.

Boris Karloff’s visits to ’60s spy entertainment

Boris Karloff (1887-1969) is best remembered for horror roles such as Frankenstein’s monster. But Karloff was quite versatile and in the last decade of his life found himself drawn to spy-related entertainment, particularly on television. A spy boom was underway and the character actor ended up being part of it.

Boris Karloff as Mr. Singh in The Wild, Wild West


The Wild, Wild West, “The Night of the Golden Cobra”: Karloff is Mr. Singh, who abducts James West (Robert Conrad), ace U.S. Secret Service agent, so he can instruct his three sons in the art of killing. Singh doesn’t do things in a small way. Having emigrated from India, he has a palace out in the 1870s American West. The early second-season episode was scripted by Henry Sharp, one of the show’s best writers. Karloff makes the most of Sharp’s witty dialogue.

Boris Karloff clowns around with Stefanie Powers and Robert Vaughn during production of The Mother Muffin Affair


The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., “The Mother Muffin Affair”: Probably one of the best remembered episodes of a series that had a lot of duds. Karloff plays Mother Muffin, who heads up an independent assassination team. Producer Douglas Benton had worked with Karloff on the Thriller anthology series that ran from 1960 to 1962.

According to an interview Benton did in the late 1990s (which is re-enacted in a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words), writer Joseph Calvelli described Mother Muffin as “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton decided to send a copy of the script to Karloff, feeling it would appeal to the actor’s sense of humor. As Benton remembered it, the script came back a few days later with a note that read: “Where and when?” The episode has Robert Vaughn appearing as The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo, teaming up with Stefanie Powers’s April Dancer.

The Venetian Affair: This 1967 movie, based on a novel by Helen MacInnes, was a chance for Robert Vaughn to star in a serious spy vehicle compared with the more escapist fare on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Karloff is part of a cast that also includes Elke Sommer and Luciana Paluzzi. The film starts with an American diplomat performing a suicide bombing at a peace conference.

I Spy, “Mainly on the Plains”: Karloff is a scientist who seems to have become a bit unglued and is giving Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby) fits. The episode was scripted by series creators Morton Fine and David Friedkin (who didn’t get that creator credit while they were alive; they received it posthumously with the I Spy Returns 1994 TV movie) and directed by Friedkin.

RE-POST: What was happening in 1962?

Almost a year ago, we posted about some of the events that transpired in 1962, when Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy, James Bond, made his film debut. In honor of New Year’s Day of 2012, the start of the cinematic 007’s golden anniversary year, we’re re-posting that information, about events large and small.

Jan. 15: NBC airs “La Strega” episode of Thriller, starring Ursula Andress, female lead of Dr. No, which will be the first James Bond film.

Jan 16: Production begins on Dr. No, modestly budgeted at about $1 million. Fees include $40,000 for director Terence Young and $80,000 each for producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, not counting their share of profits. (Figures from resarch by film historian Adrian Turner). Star Sean Connery tells Playboy magazine in 1965 that he was paid $16,800 for Dr. No.

Inside Dr. No, a documentary made by John Cork for a DVD release of the movie, says about 10 percent of the film’s budget went to the Ken Adam-designed reactor room set, where the climatic fight between Bond and Dr. No takes place. (Date of production start from research by Craig Henderson’s For Your Eyes Only Web site.

Jan. 17: Jim Carrey is born.

Feb 3: U.S. begins embargo against Cuba.

Feb. 20: John Glenn becomes first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth.

March 2: Wilt Chamberlain scores 100 points as his Philadelphia Warriors team defeats the New York Knicks 169-147 in a game played in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Chamberlain achieves the feat by scoring 36 baskets and, perhaps most amazingly, by hitting 28 of 32 free-throw attempts. (Chamberlain was a notoriously bad free-throw shooter.) The player averaged 50.4 points per game in the 1961-62 season.

April 16: The Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming’s latest 007 novel, is published. The novel takes a radical departure from previous Bond novels. The story is told in the first person by a female character, Vivienne Michel, with Bond not appearing until two-thirds of the way through the story. Fleming, in his dealings with Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, specifies only the title is to be used for any movie. Broccoli (after Saltzman departs the film series) does just that in the 10th film of the 007 series, which comes out in July 1977.

May (publication date, actual likely earlier): The Incredible Hulk, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, debuts in the first issue of his own comic book.

June 1: Nazi Adolph Eichmann executed in Israel.

July 3: Future Mission: Impossible movie star Tom Cruise is born.

July 12: Rolling Stones debut in London.

August (publication date actual date probably earlier): Amazing Fantasy No. 15 published, debut of Spider-Man by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, with cover art by Jack Kirby and Ditko.

Aug. 5: Actress Marilyn Monroe dies.

Aug. 6: Michelle Yeoh, who will play Chinese secret agent Wai Lin in the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, is born.

Aug. 16: Future Get Smart movie star Steve Carell is born.

Aug. 16: Ringo Starr joins the Beatles.

Sept. 26: The Beverly Hillbillies debuts on CBS. In a later season, Jethro sees Goldfinger in a movie theater and decides that being a “Double-Naught” spy is his life’s calling.

Oct. 1: Federal marshals escort James Meredith, first African American student at the University of Missippi, as he registers at the school.

Oct. 1: Johnny Carson, a few weeks short of his 37th birthday, hosts his first installment of The Tonight Show. He will remain as host until May 1992. At one point during Carson’s run on the show, he and Sean Connery reference how Carson’s debut on Tonight and Connery’s debut as Bond occurred at around the same time.

Oct. 5: Dr. No has its world premier in London. The film won’t be shown in the U.S. until the following year. The movie will be re-released in 1965 (as part of a double feature with From Russia With Love) and in 1966 (as part of a double feature with Goldfinger).

Oct. 14: A U.S. U-2 spy plane discovers missile sites in Cuba, beginning the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis will bring the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of World War III.

Oct. 22: President John F. Kennedy makes a televised address, publicly revealing the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

Oct. 28: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announces the U.S.S.R. is removing its missiles from Cuba. (for a more detailed timeline of these events, CLICK HERE.)

Oct. 29: Ian Fleming begins three days of meetings with television producer Norman Felton concerning a show that will eventually be known as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (source: Craig Henderson) Fleming’s main contribution of the meetings is that the hero should be named Napoleon Solo.

Nov. 7: Richard Nixon loses race for governor of California, tells reporters “you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore.” He’ll be back.

Freddie Young and David Lean


Dec. 10: The David Lean-directed Lawrence of Arabia has its world premiere in London. The film’s crew include director of photography Freddie Young and camera operator Ernest Day, who will work on future James Bond movies. Young will photograph 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Day would be second unit director (with John Glen) on The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

For a more comprehensive list of significant 1962 events, CLICK HERE.