October’s other Ian Fleming 50th anniversary

Ian Fleming

This month has seen the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the first screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s spy hero, James Bond, as well as the world premier of Skyfall, the 23rd film in the Eon Production series.

Next week is the 50th anniversary of another milestone involving the author, but it’s not likely to get the same publicity.

Oct. 29 through Oct. 31 marks 50 years since Fleming met with television producer Norman Felton concerning a project that would emerge as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series that ran on NBC from September 1964 to January 1968.

The two men met over three days in New York City about the project. Craig Henderson’s For Your Eyes Only Web site has a day-by-day account that you can read BY CLICKING HERE. In a 1997 interview, Felton (who passed away earlier this year at age 99) described how it was difficult to keep Fleming focused on the subject.

On the third, and final, day of meetings, Fleming produced some notes written on Western Union telegraph blanks. The one idea that Fleming has that would stick is naming the hero Napoleon Solo. Fleming would remain interested in the project until May 28, 1963, his 55th birthday and he’d finally sign away his rights on June 26, 1963.

The author was pressured by the producers of the Bond films, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, to abandon a television show they viewed as an unwelcome competitor. In any event, Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. involvement while brief, was eventful. He’d also end up supplying the name of April Dancer (which he intended as a Miss Moneypenny-type character), which would be used in the spinoff series, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

Tracing Ian Fleming’s involvement with U.N.C.L.E.

Ian Fleming

We’ve referenced Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. timeline that details 007-U.N.C.L.E. ties going back more than a century. With the news of the recent death of Norman Felton, executive producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., we decided to revisit that site, in particular the parts that dealt with Ian Fleming’s role in the 1964-68 television show.

Henderson’s research shows Fleming was quite interested for a time. Fleming’s first meeting with Felton was at the end of October 1962. By Nov. 21 of that year, according to an excerpt of Henderson’s timeline:

First presentation — 12 typewritten pages with a cover sheet reading “Basic Material Pertinent To… A New One Hour Television Series… SOLO. Assembled by: Ian Fleming and Norman Felton” — is sent by Jerry Leider of Ashley-Steiner to Jack Ball at J. Walter Thompson. (snip)

Fleming’s interest continues into early 1963. Also, lawyers already were doing research to ensure nothing in the television project infringed on the James Bond film rights held by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Fleming first indicates a change of heart on May 28, his 55th birthday, and signs away his U.N.C.L.E. rights on June 26.

To read more, CLICK HERE FOR 1962 DATES, HERE FOR 1963 DATES and HERE FOR 1964 DATES. You get an idea of some of Fleming’s suggested plot lines and the origins of Eon’s 1964 lawsuit and how it affected development of the show. (Among other things, the villainous organization Thrush was called MAGGOTT for a time in development.)

Ian Fleming and U.N.C.L.E.: the myth and the truth

We’re a long way from a movie based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. becoming reality and already there’s one myth taking hold in the entertainment press.

For example, the Hollwood Reporter’s story about the latst developments had this passage:

U.N.C.L.E. aired on NBC from 1964-68, during a Cold War period that saw numerous spy shows hit the airwaves. James Bond author Ian Fleming was even a creator of the show…

Meanwhile, The Wrap, another prominent entertainment news Web site, ran a story that had this passage:

James Bond author Ian Fleming co-created NBC’s Cold War-set spy series, which followed the adventures of American and Russian members of a secret agency known as the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

OK, time for a little fact checking before this gets too much out of hand. While Fleming had a presence, these references do a disservice to two men, executive producer Norman Felton and developer/first-season producer Sam Rolfe, who did the heavy lifting on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Felton had wanted Fleming to be more involved but it didn’t work out. In an exhaustively researched James Bond-Man From U.N.C.L.E. timeline, U.N.C.L.E. fan extraordinaire Craig Henderson has this passage:

Monday, Oct. 29, 1962
Ian Fleming meets Norman Felton in New York to discuss creation of a TV series involving international adventure and intrigue. In three days of discussions, Fleming contributes little of lasting use beyond the memorable name he bestows on Felton’s mystery man: Napoleon Solo.
(snip)
Wednesday, Oct. 31, 1962

Fleming reads Felton’s new pages then shows him his own notes, hand-written on Western Union telegram blanks found in his hotel room. Fleming gives Solo various character attributes and avocations, a Jesuit philosophy toward battling evil, and a secretary named April Dancer. Fleming’s notes also include a dozen one-line plot ideas, one of which — gold smuggling in Macao — is the subject of a chapter in Thrilling Cities.

Felton, in a 1997 interview with Lee Goldberg, also described what it was like to deal with 007’s creator. It was an interesting experience but sometimes difficult. Felton’s descriptions start around the 14:40 mark of this video:

Felton started the project and Sam Rolfe fleshed it out, coming up with the details of the U.N.C.L.E. organization, a multi-national security force — a sort of United Nations of spies — as well as the other key characters such as Russian U.N.C.L.E. operative Illya Kuryakin. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum brought the Solo and Kuryakin characters to life.

Felton is 97 now. Rolfe died in 1993. But if an U.N.C.L.E. movie becomes reality — hard to say given there have been efforts to get one off the ground since the early 1990s — they shouldn’t be forgotten nor should Fleming’s role be exaggerated.