1977: Sam Rolfe (sort of) revisits U.N.C.L.E.

Sam Rolfe dances with Jill Ireland in an early episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. while director Richard Donner hams it up.

Sam Rolfe was nothing if not persistent. In the 1970s, he re-worked his two greatest television triumphs. One, The Manhunter, took the concept of a bounty hunter, a la the western Have Gun-Will Travel, and set it during the Great Depression. It ran for one season.

With Engima, a pilot production, the writer-producer revisited the basic concept of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Enigma, like U.N.C.L.E., was a mysterious organization with a secret headquarters. Enigma’s base of operations was further out, an island in the Caribbean.

Enigma, like U.N.C.L.E., featured a dashing operative, in this case Andrew Icarus (Scott Hylands). He’s assisted by Mei San Gow (Soon-Tek Oh) and reports to Maurice Mockcastle (Guy Doleman). The supporting players were alumni of the James Bond film series (The Man With the Golden Gun and Thunderball respectively) and Doleman had been in other espionage productions.

Enigma, like U.N.C.L.E., also had a thing for triangles. U.NC.L.E.’s security badges were triangle shaped. Enigma’s headquarters made triangles a major part of the interior design.

Around this same time, Rolfe had also scripted a proposed TV movie that would have been a straight U.N.C.L.E. revival that would have been titled The Malthusian Affair. That project was commissioned by producers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, veteran writer-producers themselves but without U.N.C.L.E. experience. It was never produced.

With Enigma, Rolfe also wore the producer’s hat as well as writing. For director, he hired Michael O’Herlihy, who had been one of the leading directors of Hawaii Five-O but by this point had moved on. O’Herlihy also had directed one first-season episode of U.N.C.L.E. and would later direct The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair, an episode of The A-Team with Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

Rolfe’s Enigma had one other thing with U.N.C.L.E. Like U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo, Andrew Icarus recruits an “innocent” to help him accomplish his mission.

This curiosity has been posted to YouTube by the Museum of Classic Chicago Television. You can take a look for yourself. The video includes commercials.

U.N.C.L.E. script: The Cut and Paste Affair Part IV

Miki and Illya at the end of The Four-Steps Affair

There are a number of differences between Ian Fleming’s two spy heroes. James Bond plays card games like baccarat. Napoleon Solo likes to play chess.

That probably reflects the fact that Solo was developed by Sam Rolfe, who co-created Have Gun-Will Travel. That was a 1957-63 Western series whose hero, Paladin, could out-play chess grandmasters. Not to mention being able to quote poets, scholars, and philosophers.

Needless to say, Kaza at the end of Act III of The Four-Steps Affair has fallen into a trap sprung by Solo. The agent’s gun was loaded with blanks. Everything was a ruse to force Kaza to force his hand. And Solo’s gun has a homing device so U.N.C.L.E. can follow him.

Solo soon joins up with Australian U.N.C.L.E. agent Kitt Kittridge and a group of operatives who are ready to make an assault on the Thrush headquarters.

That’s a good thing because Thrush is getting ready to execute Miki, a 10-year-old boy who is the religious leader of a country in the Himalayas. Also on the execution list is Illya Kuryakin, Solo’s partner, and Kelly Brown, a young nurse looking after Miki.

The script depicts more tension between Kaza and Walchek (renamed Rudnick in the final broadcast version). In the script, Kaza complains about being shot accidentally while that isn’t specified in the broadcast version. Walchek, meanwhile, complains about being in a no-win situation no matter what he did.

Before IIlya, Miki and the nurse can be executed, Solo and the U.N.C.L.E. assault team arrive. Much of this sequence was used as extra footage for The Spy With My Face feature film.

During this sequence, Miki is confronted with how Kaza is a traitor. “So, my little friend; you learn even more about the ways of men,” Illya says.

Eventually, the U.N.C.L.E. agents prevail. Kaza and Walchek start to flee. Solo is ready to open fire at them. But he is interrupted by Miki, again showing more maturity than a 10-year-old would normally demonstrate. Miki notes the Thrush superiors of both men will know they have failed and neither can be headed toward any sort of sanctuary.

CLOSE SHOT OF SOLO
A unique situation: Napoleon Solo stands in open-mouthed astonishment, digesting the wisdom of the little sprout who confronts him, and whom he has not previously met. But he has obediently lowered his weapon.

(snip)
SOLO
Uh…ten years old?
ILLYA (to Solo; knowingly)
I don’t believe it either.

However, the script has something not present in the final episode.

CLOSE SHOT — MIKI’S FACE
He is grinning — just like a kid.

The next day, Miki is preparing to return to his home country. Miki reassures his nurse one last time. Solo wishes Miki well and then tells Kelly not to worry because the young leader will carry his burden “like the mature man he is.”

But there’s one last piece of business. Illya, sent on a mission by Miki, returns with some bubble gum. Miki, as mature as he is, still has some growing up to do.

WE WISH TO THANKS THE UNITED NETWORK COMMAND FOR LAW AND ENFORCEMENT WITHOUT WHOSE ASSISTANCE THIS POST WOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE.

U.N.C.L.E. script: The Cut and Paste Affair Part III

Things aren’t looking good for Solo and Waverly at the end of Act III of The Four-Steps Affair.

At the midway point of The Four-Steps Affair, neither Napoleon Solo nor Illya Kuryakin is in a good place.

Solo gets out of his fix first. Angela (Luciana Paluzzi) attempts to shove Solo into the line of fire of an assassin outside her house. The U.N.C.L.E. agent side steps Angela, leading her to hit by a burst of machine gun fire.

In the TV version, Angela survives while in To Trap a Spy, she’s done for. Solo manages to get away and back to safety at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.

Solo then confers with Alexander Waverly, the U.N.C.L.E. chief and Australian agent Kitt Kittridge, who was with Illya when the Russian picked up Miki, the religious leader of a remote Himalayan nation.

Kaza, Miki’s wounded guardian, emerges as the leading suspect who helped set up Miki for an ambush.

Solo confronts Kaza in his hospital room. The U.N.C.L.E. agent claims that Angela has talked (we are told she was unconscious but this wasn’t shown)..

Meanwhile, at a Thrush mansion, Illya, Miki and nurse Kelly Brown are imprisoned. The script has a scene not seen in the broadcast version of the episode.

Walchek (changed to Rudnick for the broadcast version) is in the library reading Crime and Punishment. When one of his men tries to interrupt, “Walchek holds up his hand for silence. After a short pause, he closes the book and shakes his head slightly at what he’s just read.”

In U.N.C.L.E., as a general rule, the villains were a well-read bunch.

Walchek and his subordindate analyze what has gone wrong this evening. Most of this exchange is absent from the final broadcast version. Walchek/Rudnick comes across as more of a threat than the final show.

Meanwhile, Illya is launching an escape attempt. It almost succeeds. Miki had a chance to get away on his own but decides to come back. This leads to one of the best exchanges in the episode.

ILLYA
Friends! You are responsible for an entire country. You must have no friends.

CLOSE SHOT OF MIKI
as he blinks at Illya’s tone and words. He has been told, and is disgesting, a practical truth.

Back at the hospital where Kaza is staying, the potentate admits he’s working with Thrush. This confession would not be part of the episode. Instead, on the show, he continues to claim his innocence.

Soon, Kaza grabs Solo’s handgun from his shoulder holster. He blasts both Solo and Waverly and makes his getaway.

TO BE CONTINUED

U.N.C.L.E. script: The Cut and Paste Affair Part II

Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Angela (Luciana Paluzzi) play some deadly cat-and-mouse games in The Four-Steps Affair

When Arena Productions decided to cook up a new episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. using extra footage from two of the theatrical film versions, the question is who would do it.

The final writing credit for The Four-Steps Affair (dubbed The Himalayan Affair in the script) listed Peter Allan Fields for the teleplay and Joseph Calvelli for the plot.

Calvelli had been associate producer during the first half of U.N.C.L.E.’s first season. He had also rewritten The Double Affair, which was the basis for the second U.N.C.L.E. movie, The Spy With My Face.

Based on the final writing credit, it appears Fields may have done the heavy lifting. Fields was a former lawyer for the Williams Morris Agency. He was hired to rewrite a script (The Fiddlesticks Affair). He proved to be fast, turning out four acts in four days, all of which was “shootable.” That probably explains how he was assigned The Four-Steps Affair.

In the new material, presumably penned by Fields, U.N.C.L.E. agents Illya Kuryakin and Kitt Kittridge pick up Miki, the 10-year-old boy who is the spiritual leader of Shanti, a country in the Himalayas. With him is Kaza, his guardian, and Kelly Brown, a nurse accompanying Miki after dental surgery.

Kaza is “a large, imposing man; a potentate in stature as well as name.” Kelly Brown is “about nineteen years old, very scrubbed-looking, and trying quite hard to live up to the student nurse’s uniform she wears.”

The U.N.C.L.E. agents lead the group from the safe house where they have been to a waiting station wagon. An ambush ensues. Kaza is wounded. Kittridge and Kuryakin return fire. Illya drives off with Miki and the nurse while Kittridge fights off the remaining Thrush operatives.

With Thrush temporarily subdued, Kittridge radios to headquarters that Kuryakin is on his way. He also arranges for Kaza who has only been wounded in the “fleshy part” of the shoulder to be transported to the hospital.

Inside the car, Miki, who acts quite mature for his age, is comforting the nurse.

MIKI (helpfully)
To release one’s emotions is quite therapeutic, Miss Brown.

ILLYA
Thereapeutic? How old are you, my friend?

MIKI
I am ten, Sir…in my present reincarnation.

Things, however, don’t go as planned. The car is spotted by a panel truck (in the televised version, it would be a Volkswagen minibus) which has a device that takes control of the car. Thrush now has abducted the group. The U.N.C.L.E. station wagon is guided and goes inside a large truck. Once secure, the truck drives off.

At this point, the script goes back to the (mostly) Sam Rolfe-scripted sequence where Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) encounters the deadly Angela.

Solo checks out the wreckage of a car driving by the missing (and by now dead) agent Dancer.

Solo is ordered to return to headquarters because Illya didn’t arrive on time. He begins to drive back. However, he soon realizes he’s not alone.

As “Solo drives, the scent of perfume reaches his nostrils,” according to the stage directions. “For a moment, he hesitates, ‘tasting’ the scent. He likes it, but not enough to stop being alert. His casualness is studied.”

Naturally, Angela is in the back seat. After a period of questioning and flirting, Angela tells Solo that Dancer is trying to contact him but his communications device can only receive but not send.

“Her voice has been extremely sincere,” the stage directions read. “Solo opens the door of his car for her.”

“I’ll have to find out…won’t I?” Solo says.

The script alternates between Illya and the Thrush prisoners and Solo and Angela.

With the former, nurse Kelly Brown is getting emotional. Apparently, she’s had relationship trouble and is getting anxious because of her present situation.

MIKI (to Illya — man to man as they stare uncomfortably at Kelly’s weeping)
They did not instruct me about such things at the Lamasery.

ILLYA (resignedly — indicating Kelly)
For men, there is no instruction on such things.

Meanwhile, Solo arrives at Angela’s house, still on guard for trouble. He flirts with Angela (in To Trap a Spy they end up having sex, but this is for television so it never goes beyond flirting). But then Solo discovers a label from from Dancer’s jacket in the fire place. Dancer had tried to burn it before he was killed.

Solo, of course, now knows Angela is with Thrush. She attempts to spring the same trap that did in Dancer. She tries to guide Solo to a large widow. An assassin outside the house waits to do in the U.N.C.L.E. agent.

TO BE CONTINUED

U.N.C.L.E. script: The Cut and Paste Affair Part I

Luciana Paluzzi’s title card for The Four-Steps Affair

Television producer Norman Felton was many things. The list would include efficient and thrifty.

During the first year of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., extra scenes were filmed so two episodes, The Vulcan Affair and The Double Affair, could be turned into films for the international market. The show would be so popular the resulting films, To Trap a Spy and and The Spy With My Face, were released in the U.S. as a double feature in 1966.

But what if even more use could be had from those extra scenes? Felton and his Arena Productions did just that, writing a new story to incorporate those scenes in an episode titled The Four-Steps Affair, airing on NBC on Feb. 22, 1965.

A script dated Dec. 30, 1964 has the original title, The Himalayan Affair. One of the villains for Thrush, the evil organization, is named Walchek, but the name would be changed later to Rudnick.

The script opens with a sequence copied from Sam Rolfe’s extra scenes for The Vulcan Affair/To Trap a Spy. An U.N.C.L.E. operative is on the run from Thrush agents trying to kill him. Here, he’s named Dancer. In Rolfe’s original, he was Lancer.

Regardless, the sequence plays out as Rolfe wrote it. Dancer seeks refuge at the home of Angela, a woman he knows. The stage directions describing Angela are the same.

ANGELA is an attractive girl, with short, cropped hair. She is wearing a negligee and carrying a hairbrush. Her eyes reflect surprise at encountering Dancer. Apparently she was in another part of the house when he entered. As Dancer spins around she sees the blood on his shirt and she gasps.

What Dancer is unaware of is that Angela works for Thrush. She double-crosses him and Dancer is killed amid machine-gun fire.

Perhaps the most significant change is that Dancer first manages to call Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), the chief of U.N.C.L.E.’s New York headquarters, to deliver a vague warning. “The bird is on the wing.”

The part of Angela was cast with Italian actress Luciana Paluzzi. When this episode aired, Paluzzi was filming Thunderball, playing SPECTRE agent Fiona Volpe. Both Angela and Fiona were femme fatales.

After Dancer’s death, we meet Walchek. In Rolfe’s original, he was simply referred to as the Leader. He is a “well-dressed man in his early forties, that part of him which isn’t nasty is just plain grim.” The new script adds having Walchek saying the late Dancer’s car will be “excellent bait” to trap other U.N.C.L.E. agents.

What follows is a new scene at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, setting up the plot for the television episode. A formerly violent country in the Himalayas has been tamed by Miki, a 10-year-old “boy lama” who has unified his nation. He is believed to be the reincarnation of “their ancient Supreme Lama.”

Miki has been in the U.S. for dental surgery but now appears to be the target for Thrush.

Illya Kuryakin and an Australian agent, Kitt Kittridge, are assigned to bring Miki and his group to safety. Waverly also wonders where Napoleon Solo is.

FLASH PAN TO:

EXT. BEHIND HOME — TWO SHOT NIGHT — NIGHT

of SOLO and an anonymous GRADE AA YOUNG LADY, as they recline in each other’s arms on a double chaise lounge.

Solo, however, has to answer a call on his communications device to go look for Dancer. This script has a bit that wouldn’t be in the episode.

Solo rises quickly, puts his radio away, leans over, KISSES Grade AA on the forehead, SALUTES, and MOVES OUT OF FRAME briskly, without explanation. She growls after him.

TO BE CONTINUED

Happy 87th birthday, David McCallum

David McCallum in a Man From U.N.C.L.E. publicity still

Today, Sept. 19, is David McCallum’s 87th birthday.

There’s not a whole lot that needs saying. He’s had a great career. He still has many fans who admire him. Happy birthday. We’ll leave it at that.

Five years later: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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

Five years after the 2015 movie of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came out, my social media inbox is pretty full about the Guy Ritchie-directed film.

It’s a mixed bag. I know some people who loved it. These folks liked the updated take on Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant).

Within that group, there was a sigh of relief the movie didn’t end up like Wild Wild West (1999) and I Spy (2002) — other films based on 1960s spy shows.

I know others who hated it.

With that group, there’s criticism about the lack of a secret headquarters, badges (to access the secret headquarters) and cool gadgets. It’s not U.N.C.L.E., just something with that name.

Over the past year, I’ve gotten a few questions about my own opinion. For me, despite changing Solo’s backstory, the Henry Cavill version of Solo is more or less where Robert Vaughn’s original was.

The more radical change was Armie Hammer’s Kuryakin. The 2015 movie suggests some serious mental issues. That didn’t stop David McCallum from endorsing the film in a 2015 interview with Fox News.

My main complaint? The filmmakers could have given us more of Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme. Guy Ritchie wanted to avoid that, but a few notes of the original theme were sneaked into the film.

Some original fans complain about Hugh Grant’s Waverly. They cite how much younger Grant was compared with Leo G. Carroll’s Waverly. The thing is, the original Waverly was very manipulative, a trait that Grant’s Waverly had.

One footnote: The 2015 movie worked in one of Ian Fleming’s ideas from October 1962 (namely that Solo liked to cook). So there’s that.

In any event, I personally was surprised by the amount of social media chatter about the fifth anniversary of the movie.

Do I think there will ever be a sequel? I doubt it. I’ll take what I can get, though.

U.N.C.L.E. script: The Never-Never Affair

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

The Never-Never Affair was an important episode for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Supposedly, after it aired, NBC executives decided its balance of drama and humor were what they were looking for in the show.

It also launched Dean Hargrove’s tenure as an U.N.C.L.E. writer. Up until this time, Hargrove had been primarily a comedy writer. Hargrove, in a 2019 video interview said his U.N.C.L.E. work boosted his career.

A preliminary script for the episode, dated Jan. 25, 1965, indicated there was a lot of work to be done before it’d be ready for airing on March 22.

The Jan. 25 script weighs in at 68 pages. The rule of thumb is each script page roughly equals one minute of screen time. In 1965, excluding commercials, an U.N.C.L.E. episode was 50 minutes, including titles and a preview of next week’s episode.

The early script has the core of what would be broadcast — the story’s “innocent,” Many Stevenson, is an U.N.C.L.E. translator yearns for the excitement of espionage. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) gives her a pretend mission (she’s really getting more tobacco for U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverly.

But she gets a microdot (intended to be taken by courier to Europe) by mistake. She is then sought by heroes and villains as she takes a route in New York City that Solo gave her.

However, a lot of streamlining would take place.

Agent Falchek we hardly knew ye: The story begins with U.N.C.L.E. agent Falchek being hunted by a team of Thrush operatives. Falchek has a microdot with information about the villainous organization and Thrush wants it back.

The sequence plays out pretty much like the final version. Falchek would be replaced by Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), cutting down the number of characters in the story.

In any case, Falchek brings the microdot to U.N.C.E. headquarters. Falchek later joins Solo and Illya in seeking Mandy. Falchek catches up to Mandy first but gets shot by Thrush agents for his trouble.

On page 24, the stage directions refer to “Falchek’s body” (one of the Thrush agents is searching Falchek’s pockets). But on the next page, a doctor tells Solo that Falchek is still alive despite being shot twice.

In the final version, there is no Falchek. It’s Illya who brings in the microdot. Illya also catches up to Mandy first, though he doesn’t get shot.

Theater shootout: When Hargrove pitched his Never-Never idea, one of its highlights was a shootout in a movie theater. A villain would be behind the movie screen hooting at the U.N.C.L.E. agents.

The Jan. 25 script has some differences from the broadcast version. The movie being shown is an “Italian melodrama” involving Mafia types. In the broadcast version, it’d be a war movie.

Solo and Illya, once they figure out where the Thrush assassin is empty their guns into the screen. Hargrove refers to the pistols as revolvers while the guns used in the show were P-38s. The killer falls through the screen, dead.

Hargrove’s stage directions have a touch not seen in the episode. “THE END” is being shown on the movie screen as Solo and Illya inspect the body.

Dean Hargrove

U.N.C.L.E. raid: Eventually, Mandy is captured by Thrush and taken to a field center disguised as a garage. Solo opts to go inside while Illya waits for reinforcements.

Hargrove’s script has a longer sequence of Solo dealing with a mechanic who is really a Thrush agent. The broadcast version shortened the sequence considerably.

As in the final version, Hargrove’s script has Solo captured but improbably getting the upper hand.

The Jan. 25 script, however, has an entire U.N.C.L.E. raid sequence, including Illya squaring off against Thrush henchwoman Miss Raven. In the final version, viewers could hear some shooting sound effects before Waverly and some agents show up.

The end: In Hargrove’s script, the final scene was at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. A courier named Pearson takes custody of the microdot.

Waverly remembers he still doesn’t have any new tobacco and the shop will close in a half-hour. In this script, Illya volunteers to get the tobacco because “I’m low on tobacco myself.”

In the final version, Solo gets the job of fetching Waverly his tobacco because of all the trouble he caused by playing the prank on Many in the first place. “Yes, I feel it is coming to me,” Solo says in the broadcast version.

Some U.N.C.L.E. myths, goofs for April Fool’s Day

U.N.C.L.E. insignia from a second-season episode

It may be April Fool’s Day, but one website apparently takes its readers for fools. It has some myths and goofs about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series.

The CrimeReads website has an April 1 article proclaiming, “These are plot descriptions of actual episodes from the 1960s spy television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and wow they are…insane.”

But not necessarily accurate. Time for a fact check.

The acronym for the villainous organization is T.H.R.U.S.H, which I think is also some kind of yeast infection.

In the series, the villainous organization was just named Thrush. No acronym. A tie-in novel, The Dagger Affair by David McDaniel, invented one. But it was never canon in the show. In fact, it was never referenced.

The Iowa Scuba Affair (S.1, Ep. 2)

When a young air force officer is shot to death in an Iowa cornfield, Solo finds scuba-diving suits, a fresh-scrubbed farm girl and a “farmer” whose silos contain not grain but a super-secret missile.

The air force officer is really a saboteur. He was shot to death by Solo. It turns out the saboteur murdered the air force officer and took his place.

The Finny Foot Affair (S.1, Ep.10)

A 12-year-old boy, a beautiful stripper, a dog named Spike and a murderous Japanese warlord send Solo and Illya to a mysterious castle where they discover a strange plague that ages its victims.

There is no stripper in the episode. I have no idea where CrimeReads got this from. I’ve seen the episode more times than I count. The boy was played by Kurt Russell, 13 years old at the time.

The Bow Wow Affair (S. 1, Ep. 20)

When world leaders are found dead with their throats slashed, Solo, Illya and Mr. Waverly suspect THRUSH has electronically gained control of the brain of each victim’s pet dog and turned it against its master.

One, Thrush isn’t part of the episode. Second, world leaders aren’t found with their throats slashed. They are rich people who have been attacked by their dogs. The person behind the threat is a gypsy. The gypsy is trying to get control of a major company. The rich people attacked by their dogs are major shareholders in the company.

The See-Paris-and-Die Affair (S. 1, E. 22)

A singing student is turned into a glamorous Parisian nightclub singer by Solo, Illya and Mr. Waverly when they use her to trap jewel thieves.

Waverly doesn’t appear in the episode.

The Discotheque Affair (S. 2, Ep. 5)

Solo, Illya and Mr. Waverly Watusi, frug and swim into a wild bunch of deadly dancers at a discotheque run by THRUSH.

Waverly is in the episode but goes nowhere near the discotheque until the end of the story when other U.N.C.L.E. agents arrive to mop things up. He certainly doesn’t Watusi, frug or swim.

The Thor Affair (S. 3, Ep. 7)

The Men from U.N.C.L.E. travel to Switzerland to protect an Asian leader and receive unexpected help when a vacationing schoolteacher’s dental work can tune in THRUSH’s radio communications.

Thrush isn’t part of the episode. The title refers to the villain, Brutus Thor, who is working for himself.

1965: Jesus and the spy (actors)

Blu Ray cover for The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

The death this week of actor Max Von Sydow was a reminder for the blog of a Biblical film that highlighted actors from the 1960s spy craze.

The movie was The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), about the life of Jesus Christ, played by Von Sydow.

The movie was years in the making. The writing of the script alone took about two years. Filming occurred in 1962 and 1963.

The producer-director was George Stevens (1904-1975). Over the years he had helmed movies such as Gunga Din (1939), I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953) and Giant (1956).

With the release of 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, Stevens was at the height of his powers. The film was both a popular and critical hit, winning three Oscars and nominated for five more.

For his next project, Stevens opted to tackle the story of Jesus. The film originated at 20th Century Fox (which had released The Diary of Anne Frank) but ended up at United Artists.

Major stars wanted to be part of the project. John Wayne got one line as a Roman centurion (“Truly this man was the son of God.”). Charlton Heston (as John the Baptist), Sidney Poitier, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Dorothy McGuire (as the Virgin Mary), Shelly Winters and Ed Wynn were in the cast.

And then there was the future spy actor contingent.

There were three future Blofeld actors — Von Sydow (Never Say Never Again), Donald Pleasance (You Only Live Twice) and Telly Savalas (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The latter shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate, a look he’d keep until the end of his life.

There was one Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum as Judas), one future Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and one future Rollin Hand (Martin Landau). In a 2007 extra for a home video release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn told McCallum that he, too, had sought the Judas role that McCallum won.

Also present: Victor Buono, who screenwriter Richard Maibaum had recommended to play Goldfinger. Buono had his share of work during the 1960s spy craze in The Silencers, The Wild Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy.

The Greatest Story Ever Told had an actual tragedy. Director of photography William C. Mellor, who had worked with Stevens on other films, died of a heart attack during production.

The movie proved to be a flop. By the time it came out in early 1965, the market for such films had seemingly run its course. The movie was earnest and sincere. So was Ben-Hur (1959), but that project had also ship battles and the famous chariot race.

Stevens would direct only one more film, 1970’s The Only Game in Town.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was nominated for five Oscars, including special visual effects. It lost out to another United Artists release.