The rise of the ‘origin’ storyline

Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale

Daniel Craig and Jeffrey Wright in Casino Royale

Fifty, 60 years ago, with popular entertainment, you didn’t get much of an “origin” story. You usually got more-or-less fully formed heroes. A few examples:

Dr. No: James Bond is an established 00-agent and has used a Baretta for 10 years. Sean Connery was 31 when production started. If Bond is close to the actor’s age, that means he’s done intelligence work since his early 20s.

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: During the first season (1964-65), Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) has worked for U.N.C.L.E. for at least seven years (this is disclosed in two separate episodes). A fourth-season episode establishes that Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) graduated from U.N.C.L.E.’s “survival school” in 1956 and Solo two years before that.

Batman: While played for laughs, the Adam West version of Batman has been operating for an undisclosed amount of time when the first episode airs in January 1966. In the pilot, it’s established he has encountered the Riddler (Frank Gorshin) before. There’s a passing reference to how Bruce Wayne’s parents were “murdered by dastardly criminals” but that’s about it.

The FBI: When we first meet Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) in 1965, he’s established as the “top trouble shooter for the bureau” and is old enough to have a daughter in college. We’re told he’s a widower and his wife took “a bullet meant for me.” (The daughter would soon be dropped and go into television character limbo.) Still, we don’t see Young Lewis Erskine rising through the ranks of the bureau.

Get Smart: Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) was a top agent for CONTROL despite his quirks. There was no attempt to explain Max. He just was. A 2008 movie version gave Max a back story where he had once been fat.

I Spy: Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby) have been partners for awhile, using a cover of a tennis bum and his trainer.

Mission: Impossible: We weren’t told much about either Dan Briggs (Steven Hill) or Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), the two team leaders of the Impossible Missions Force. A fifth-season episode was set in Phelps home town. Some episodes introduced friends of Briggs and Phelps. But not much more than that.

Mannix: We first meet Joe Mannix (Mike Connors) when he’s the top operative of private investigations firm Intertect. After Joe goes off on his own in season two, we meet some of Joe’s Korean War buddies (many of whom seem to try to kill him) and we eventually meet Mannix’s father, a California farmer. But none of this is told at the start.

Hawaii Five-O: Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) is the established head of the Hawaiian state police unit answerable only to “the governor or God and even they have trouble.” When the series was rebooted in 2010, we got an “origin” story showing McGarrett (Alex O’Loughlin) as a military man, the unit being formed, his first meeting with Dan Williams, etc.

And so on and so forth. This century, though, an “origin story” is the way to start.

With the Bond films, the series started over with Casino Royale, marketed as the origin of Bond (Daniel Craig). The novel, while the first Ian Fleming story, wasn’t technically an origin tale. It took place in 1951 (this date is given in the Goldfinger novel) and Bond got the two kills needed for 00-status in World War II.

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson, co-bosses of Eon Productions

Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Nevertheless, audience got an “origin” story. Michael G. Wilson, current co-boss of Eon Productions (along with his half-sister, Barbara Broccoli) wanted to do a Bond “origin” movie as early as 1986 after Roger Moore left the role of Bond. But his stepfather, Eon co-founder Albert R. Broccoli, vetoed the idea. With The Living Daylights in 1987, the audience got a younger, but still established, Bond (Timothy Dalton). In the 21st century, Wilson finally got his origin tale.

Some of this may be due to the rise of movies based on comic book movies. There are had been Superman serials and television series, but 1978’s Superman: The Motion Picture was the first A-movie project. It told the story of Kal-El from the start and was a big hit.

The 1989 Batman movie began with a hero (Michael Keaton) still in the early stages of his career, with the “origin” elements mentioned later. The Christopher Nolan-directed Batman Begins in 2005 started all over, again presenting an “origin” story. Marvel, which began making movies after licensing characters, scored a big hit with 2008’s Iron Man, another “origin” tale. Spider-Man’s origin has been told *twice* in 2002 and 2012 films from Sony Pictures.

Coming up in August, we’ll be getting a long-awaited movie version of U.N.C.L.E., this time with an origin storyline. In the television series, U.N.C.L.E. had started sometime shortly after World War II. In the movie, set in 1963, U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t started yet and Solo works for the CIA while Kuryakin is a KGB operative.

One supposes if there were a movie version of The FBI (don’t count on it), we’d see Erskine meet the Love of His Life, fall in love, get married, lose her and become the Most Determined Agent in the Bureau. Such is life.

Groundhog Day: 007, U.N.C.L.E. fan comments

SPECTRE teaser poster

Daniel Craig in SPECTRE teaser poster

Like the movie Groundhog Day, some things in spy fandom happen over and over.

In the James Bond world, even though Daniel Craig was cast as 007 almost a decade ago, you can still find fan debates about the 47-year-old actor.

For example, a story IN THE U.K. MIRROR reported Honor Blackman said that Craig, and not Sean Connery was now the best film Bond.

“I’m sorry to say he’s a better actor – but I think Sean would acknowledge that,” the Mirror quoted Blackman, who played Pussy Galore oppose Connery in Goldfinger. “I think Dan is terrific. He’s capable of so much more.”

Naturally, on social media, Craig fans and supporters noted the story and got into it with critics of the actor.  It happens the other way round, of course, when someone famous — say Ursula Andress in a DAILY MAIL STORY — says Craig isn’t the best Bond (“‘Hes a great actor, but not James Bond.”) Fan critics seize on comments such as that and try to rub it in the nose of Craig fans.

Then again, maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. There are still 007 fans who harshly criticize Roger Moore — who hasn’t done a Bond movie in 30 years — for taking too light a tone with his Bond films.

At the same time, Blackman’s comments were totally comfort food for 007 fans.

“Now it’s no longer like Ian Fleming, it’s more like The Bourne Identity,” Blackman said about current Bond movies. “It’s a different kind of film.” A lot of Bond fans don’t like the comparison with the Bourne films.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser poster

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser poster

Meanwhile, fans of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. continue to have variations on a the same theme: Namely, should a movie version of the 1964-68 spy show have been made at all?

There are some fans of the original show who never wanted it made in the first place and view it as garbage four months before it’s due out in theaters.

Among the reasons: it changes the U.N.C.L.E. timeline (the movie depicts the beginning of U.N.C.L.E. in 1963, whereupon in the show it began sometime shortly after World War II); there’s no way the stars (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer) can possibly compare to Robert Vaughn and David McCallum); and the movie has lost the “everyman” dynamic of the show because it with two leads over 6-feet tall, including the 6-foot-5 Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, originally played by the 5-foot-7 McCallum.

As details dribble out, such as the movie Solo has a history as an art thief, that debate intensifies.

Nevertheless, other U.N.C.L.E. fans, having gone without an official U.N.C.L.E. production since a 1983 television movie, are looking forward to the film and want to give it a chance.

Both are spy entertainment’s version of Groundhog Day. No doubt somebody will again gear up one or the other debate sooner than later.

Napoleon Solo’s blood type and continuity

Fugitive Nazi scientist Prof. Amadeus about to drain Napoleon Solo of his blood in The Deadly Games Affair.

Fugitive Nazi scientist Volp about to drain Solo of his blood in The Deadly Games Affair.

In the 1960s, continuity wasn’t a high priority for the makers of television series. It turns out The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had a remarkable piece of continuity — intended or not.

In the first season, in The Deadly Games Affair, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) are on the trail of a fugitive Nazi scentist, Wolfgang Volp (Alexander Scourby). It turns out Volp, who now calls himself Professor Amadeus and teaches in a New York City-area college, is selling off rare stamps.

Volp/Amadeus isn’t working on any ordinary project. It turns out he has Adolf Hitler in suspended animation. But the scientist needs “fresh, whole blood” to reanimate his former boss. He’s selling off his rare stamps to buy enough blood for the task. Solo falls into Volp’s hands. This turns out to be the answer to Volp’s “last, desperate prayers” because Solo has the same blood type as Hitler.

Needless to say, things don’t go the way Volp wants. Solo wheels Hitler into a fire. Volp, who can’t stand it anymore, throws himself into the flames as well.

To be sure, the name “Hitler” isn’t actually uttered. But in the context of the episode (particularly Solo’s look of horror when he finds Hitler in suspended animation) it can’t be anybody else.

Flash forward to the show’s final season. In The Thrush Roulette Affair, around the 38:00 mark, the viewer gets a look at a Thrush dossier of Solo. We’re told he’s 6-foot tall (taller than actor Robert Vaughn) and weights 175 pounds. It also says Solo’s blood type is A.

Well, according to the website WHAT’S MY BLOOD TYPE, the two episodes are actually consistent. Solo had type A. Hitler had type A. (So did Alan Alda, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.)

Was this actually planned? Doubtful. The Deadly Games Affair was written by Dick Nelson, who penned three first-season episodes and never worked on the show again. The Thrush Roulette Affair was written by Arthur Weingarten, who never worked on the series before its final season. Also, there’s no guarantee that Weingarten supplied the Solo dossier materials.

Anyway, given how continuity was normally an afterthought in 1960s shows, it’s remarkable the two references actually match up.

UPDATE (March 20): In case you’re wondering how common Type A is, the answer is at LIVESCIENCE.COM.

In the U.S.,34 percent of the population has A-positive and 7 percent has A-negative. The most common type is O-positive at 38 percent. The rarest is AB-negative at 1 percent.

Evolution of the spy turtleneck

David McCallum's main titles credit in the final season

David McCallum’s main titles credit in the final season

The unveiling of SPECTRE’s teaser caused a bit of stir when it was released on social media on Tuesday.

Star Daniel Craig, instead of the traditional Bond tuxedo or business suit, wore a black turtleneck as well as a shoulder holster while holding a gun. While a different look for the current 007, turtlenecks and spies have gone together for a half century. Here’s a quick look.

David McCallum, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin had an iconic look with his black turtleneck. Ironically, he actually didn’t wear it that often in the show but it’s an image that many people remember.

As we noted IN THIS POST, Jon Heitland’s Man From U.N.C.L.E. book includes a photo of McCallum making an appearance in a parade accompanied by Boy Scout “bodyguards” wearing turtlenecks and carrying toy U.N.C.L.E. Special guns. The actor, though, was wearing a suit and tie.

Occasionally, Kuryakin might vary his wardrobe by wearing a gray turtleneck or, in a second-season episode, a white one with a red jacket when he was going undercover as a musician. Armie Hammer, who has the Kuryakin role in this year’s movie version of the series, has worn dark turtlenecks.

Dean Martin as Matt Helm with Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Dean Martin and Stella Stevens in The Silencers.

Dean Martin, Matt Helm movies: Matt sometimes wore suits but he often favored light-colored turtlenecks, including tan and yellow ones. In the final film of the series, The Wrecking Crew, Helm donned a black turtleneck with white jacket and pants.

Sy Devore designed Dean Martin’s clothes for the 1966-68 film series. For whatever reason, turtlenecks (as well as dress cowboy boots) were a big part of the Matt Helm look. Devore had other celebrity customers, which is noted ON THE HOME PAGE of the store that bears his name.

Another moment of 007 clothing splendor

Another moment of 007 clothing splendor

Sean Connery, Diamonds Are Forever: Some fans make fun of the pink power tie that Sean Connery wore as 007 in his sixth Bond film for Eon Productions.

Yet, he had another outfit that sometimes draws comments: a brown turtleneck with a plaid sport jacket. Anthony Sinclair, it wasn’t. It’s only seen during a brief sequence where Bond accompanies Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) to find out what Blofeld (Charles Gray) has been doing with Whyte’s business empire. Bond is back in a three-piece suit for the climax aboard an oil rig.

Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Roger Moore in Live And Let Die

Roger Moore, Live And Let Die: Many Bond fans reacted to the SPECTRE teaser by saying it was an homage to Roger Moore in his initial 007 film in 1973. The actor donned black turtleneck and pants along with a shoulder holster to sneak around San Monique prior to rescuing Solitaire (Jane Seymour) and taking down Dr. Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). The outfit was also similar to an outfit Steve McQueen wore in Bullitt, which came out five years earlier.

UPDATE (March 18): Feedback here (see Orange Wetsuit’s comment below) and on social media call for mentions of:

–Jonny Quest and his trademark black turtleneck. He wasn’t a spy, of course, but Race Bannon was.

–The Saint (Roger Moore), who, while not a spy, did wear turtlenecks as part of “sneaking around” outfits.

–Derek Flint (James Coburn), who wore a white turtleneck as part of a white outfit in In Like Flint.

–The Archer spy cartoon series.

REVIEW: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. trailer

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser trailer debuted Wednesday night. There were at least a couple of surprises. And one possible James Bond homage.

To be specific:

–0:04 mark: Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo, in the back seat of a vintage car, asks, “Are they still following us?” He employs dramatic pauses similar to the original Solo, Robert Vaughn. Why is that surprising? Cavill has said he never watched an episode of the original 1964-68 series. Meanwhile, Brit Cavill sounds convincingly American (not surprising given how he played Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel).

–Armie Hammer, as Illya Kuryakin, has a strong Russian accent. It’s much stronger than David McCallum, the actor who originated the part, ever displayed.

–The homage? Around the 1:00 mark, CIA agent Solo and KGB operative Kuryakin fight in a rest room, demolishing it. That’s extremely similar to the pre-credits sequence of the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, the rebooted 007 movie where the British agent records his first kill.

According to the trailer, the year is 1963. An unknown criminal organization “with ties to former Nazis” is said to have built an atomic bomb. This forces the United States and Soviet Union to cooperate — even to the point of assigning Solo and Kuryakin, shown here as being foes, to work together.

Obviously, this just a taste of the movie. It doesn’t have familiar U.N.C.L.E. memes such as the secret headquarters, because U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t been formed yet. At the very end of the trailer, we catch a glimpse of Hugh Grant as Waverly. It’s hard to evaluate anything about how the actor will do playing a role originated by Leo G. Carroll.

The trailer, in effect, was the first “official” U.N.C.L.E. production since the 1983 TV movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It’s interesting. You can’t evaluate an entire movie based on a trailer, of course. For those who welcome a new take on U.N.C.L.E., there’s nothing to be discouraged about. For those who wanted the series left alone, they likely won’t be reassured.

GRADE: Incomplete. But we’d like to see more. You can view the trailer below:

UPDATE: Missed this the first three times, but at 1:08 mark, Kuryakin appears to be using a preliminary version of what would become the U.N.C.L.E. Special on the television series.

1:19 mark: another Vaughn like delivery by Cavill: “This could get a little messy.”

1:57 mark: possible homage to the original series and the third-season opener, The Her Master’s Voice Affair.

UPDATE II: Warner Bros. has yanked the video we embedded.

UPDATE III: This embedded video still works.

UPDATE IV: Could this be the movie’s version of the U.N.C.L.E. Special?

Armie Hammer with a weapon that looks like an U.N.C.L.E. special

Armie Hammer with a weapon that looks like an U.N.C.L.E. special

UPDATE V: The official WEBSITE FOR THE MOVIE is now up.

UPDATE VI: Daniel Pemberton, who composed music for the film, says via Twitter the trailer doesn’t contain his score.

People, Entertainment Weekly have U.N.C.L.E. peek

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer (Art by Paul Baack)

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer
(Art by Paul Baack)

Both People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, both part of Time Inc., have put out sneak peeks of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie hours ahead of the release of the film’s teaser trailer.

THE STORY ON PEOPLE’S WEBSITE centers on Henry Cavill, who plays Napoleon Solo, the role created by Robert Vaughn in the 1964-68 series. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Henry Cavill ditches his Superman suit for a sleek tux in this summer’s silver-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man of Steel actor calls the film, which is directed by Guy Ritchie, “a cool, sexy and especially not heavy Cold War spy thriller.”

The story is pretty short but has new images from the movie, which had principal photography in September-December 2013.

The ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY STORY is a little bit broader (and contains additional images). It includes this quote from co-writer Lionel Wigram about how the movie came to be an origin story.

“The series hadn’t really done the origin story—U.N.C.L.E. already existed,” says producer Lionel Wigram, who also co-wrote the screenplay. “At the height of the Cold War you’ve got a Russian and an American working together. How did that come about?”

The Russian is Illya Kuryakin, played in the film by Armie Hammer and a role originated by David McCallum. The trailer is scheduled to go online at 8 p.m. today, New York time.

UPDATE: This image of a poster has shown up on Twitter. Also the movie now has A TWITTER FEED. According to one of the images on the Twitter page, the movie will be available in Imax. (Also, there is now a FACEBOOK PAGE for the movie.)

MeTV’s spectacular Dec. 7 spy TV double feature

Madlyn Rhue, David McCallum and Robert Vaughn in The Terbuf Affair

Madlyn Rhue, David McCallum and Robert Vaughn in The Terbuf Affair

MeTV, the U.S. channel devoted to classic television series, is scheduled to telecast one of the best episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. followed by one of the best Mission: Impossible outings on the night of Dec. 7.

At 10 p.m. New York Time, is The Terbuf Affair, the 14th episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It was the fourth, and final, episode directed by future A-list movie director Richard Donner.

Alan Caillou, the episode’s writer, developed the character of Illya Kuryakin played by David McCallum. But Caillou also provides one of the few episodes to provide some of the back story for Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn.

In Terbuf, a woman from Solo’s past (Madlyn Rhue) seeks help from the U.N.C.L.E. agent. Solo and Kuryakin are due back at U.N.C.L.E. HQs shortly but Kuryakin isn’t going to let Solo venture into this personal mission alone.

Caillou, besides scripting this particular adventure, also gets to play a villain. From this point forward, U.N.C.L.E. fans wouldn’t get much in the way of Solo’s background. Menawhile, Caillou’s script builds upon what he established with previous episodes he wrote. All in all, a favorite for U.N.C.L.E. fans.

A classic M:I con in Operation: Rogosh

A classic M:I con in Operation: Rogosh

At 11 p.m., MeTV is scheduled to show the third episode of Mission: Impossible, Operation: Rogosh.

The original leader of the Impossible Missions Force, Dan Briggs (Steven Hill), has a doozy of an assignment. Rogosh, an operative of an unfriendly foreign power, has been in Los Angeles for a week. Rogosh typically leaves mass destruction in his wake.

Moreover, Rogosh (Fritz Weaver) is not know to break through “conventional means.” Briggs has a limited time to make the unbreakable Rogosh spill his guts.

The episode has many great moments. Rogosh (Fritz Weaver) is no one’s fool, so the IMF won’t have an easy time. Briggs’ plan calls to con Rogosh to believing it’s three years later and he’s being tried for his life in his native country. At the same time, Rogosh’s confederates are trying to find him to silence him permanently.

This episode would become the template for future M:I adventures. It’s greatly enchanced by a Lalo Schifrin score.

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