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.

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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.

 

Morton Stevens: Obscure composer, famous tune

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

The name Morton Stevens is barely known by the general public. Yet his signature piece of work — the theme to Hawaii Five-O (or Five-0 as it’s spelled for the revival series that began in 2010) — is almost universally recognized.

In the 1950s, Stevens worked for Sammy Davis Jr. as his music arranger. Then, in 1960, Davis had the chance to perform a dramatic role in The Patsy, an episode of The General Electric Theater, an anthology series.

According to television and film music historian Jon Burlingame (in an audio commentary for the DVD set for the Thriller anthology show hosted by Boris Karloff), Davis wanted Stevens to score the episode. Stevens got the assignment and made a career switch.

Stevens quickly began scoring a variety of genres, including Westerns, crime dramas and horror (the aforementioned Thriller series). And then there were his espionage-show efforts.

Stevens was the first composer to follow Jerry Goldsmith with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In fact, the very first piece of U.N.C.L.E. music — a few seconds accompanying the U.N.C.L.E. global logo at the start of The Vulcan Affair, first broadcast on Sept. 22, 1964 — was composed by Stevens.

When Goldsmith did the pilot, the show was to be titled Solo. When the show began production of series episodes, the name was changed to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. With that change, the globe logo was devised and it would be shown at the very start of each episode.

Stevens’ “insignia” U.N.C.L.E. music (as it’s known) led off the first 14 episodes of the show. Stevens also did the first new arrangement of Goldsmith’s theme, which first appeared with the 15th episode, The Deadly Decoy Affair. It would be used for almost all of the second half of the second season.

In all, Stevens did four original U.N.C.L.E. scores but his music was frequently re-used in first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes without an original score. Often, these “stock scores” paired Goldsmith music (composed for three episodes) with that of Stevens. Their styles melded well.

In April of 1965, Stevens became the head of CBS’ West Coast music operation involved with the network’s in-house productions. As a result, he assigned other composers on CBS productions while taking on some jobs himself.

In that capacity, he scored the 1968 pilot for Hawaii Five-O. In that production, Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) locked horns with Chinese spy Wo Fat (Khigh Dheigh), giving the crime drama a spy twist from the start.

In the first season of the show, Stevens was only credited for an episode’s score (“Music by”) or, on some episodes for “music supervision.”

However, if another composer was credited for an episode, Stevens didn’t get a mention. That was consistent with CBS policy at the time, which denied theme credits for many series, including Gunsmoke, which ran on the the network for 20 years.

A Morton Stevens title card for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

A Morton Stevens title card for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

Early in the show’s second season, Stevens did get a “theme by” credit for episodes where he didn’t provide the score. (When Stevens did provide an original score, he still got a “music by” credit.).

Eventually, the theme had to be turned into a song. Appropriately, Sammy Davis Jr. performed it.

Still, despite how famous the theme became — decades later, it’s regularly performed by marching bands — fame eluded Stevens.

Stevens never moved in a major way into scoring movies unlike contemporaries of his such as John Williams (who, ironically, received the job of scoring the 1969 Steve McQueen film The Reivers from Stevens when CBS was releasing films, according to the Burlingame Thriller commentary track) and Lalo Schifrin.

Stevens died in 1991. His Five-O theme outlived him, however. When the 2010 version of the show debuted, its pilot originally had a “rock music” arrangement that made the rounds on social media before the new show’s debut.

It wasn’t received well. The new series quickly commissioned a more traditional sounding version, which debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comic Book Con. Some of the musicians who performed the theme had worked on the original 1968-80 series.

While Stevens gets a credit on the current series, unfortunately it’s during the end titles. Stevens’ credit flashes by so quickly, you can’t really see it. Regardless, his legacy continues.

 

U.N.C.L.E.’s connection to The Prize (1963)

Poster for The Prize (1963)

Poster for The Prize (1963)

This week, Turner Classic Movies televised a series of spy films, including The Prize (1963). The movie, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, had a number of connections to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Some of this stemmed from how U.N.C.L.E. was also produced at MGM. In any case, here’s a partial list of U.N.C.L.E. ties to The Prize.

Crew: These names show up on just about every production either produced by MGM or made at MGM in the 1960s: George W. Davis (co-art director), Henry Grace (co-set decorator) and Franklin Milton (sound or recording supervisor). Another name that shows up in many MGM-related productions is William Tuttle, who headed MGM’s makeup department.

(Totally as an aside: Grace resembled Dwight Eisenhower. As a result, he played the Allied supreme commander in 1962’s The Longest Day.)

The Prize also includes a score by Jerry Goldsmith. At this point, Goldsmith was transitioning from a television composer to a movie composer. Despite that, Goldsmith scored the pilot episode for U.N.C.L.E. as well as two additional episodes.

Speculation: The Spy Commander has long wondered if Goldsmith, in his early 1960s work, was influenced by Bernard Herrman. Both Herrmann and Goldsmith did work at CBS during this period. In his score for The Prize, there are bits of Goldsmith’s score that evokes Herrmann (this also applies to Goldsmith’s score for 1964’s In Harm’s Way).

Cast: The Prize (which, essentially is a star vehicle for Paul Newman) includes a number of cast members who would later appear in U.N.C.L.E. Among them:

Leo G. Carroll: Played U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverly. In the Prize, he plays a small, but key, role as a Swedish count who helps administer the Nobel Prizes.

John Banner: Most famous for playing Sgt. Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, the character actor also played one of a group of scientists trying to take over the world in The Neptune Affair in U.N.C.L.E.’s first season. In The Prize, he plays a newscaster during the movie’s title sequence.

Teru Shimada: In U.N.C.L.E., he plays the head of an Asian country who’s the target of an assassination plot in Season Two’s Part Two, Alexander the Greater Affair. In The Prize, he’s another newscaster in the title sequence. Shimada also played Mr. Osato in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Kevin McCarthy: He played the villain in the U.N.C.L.E. Season Two episode The Moonglow Affair (which was also the pilot for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.). In The Prize, he plays a Nobel Prize winner.

Ben Wright: The character actor was in two U.N.C.L.E. episodes (The Deadly Games Affair and The Girls of Nazarone Affair). In The Prize, he plays a reporter who asks question of Andrew Craig (Paul Newman’s character) at a press conference.

Noel Drayton: Played a physician who conducts an autopsy on a seal in U.N.C.L.E.’s The Finny Foot Affair. In The Prize, he plays a policeman trying to verify what seems to be a wild story from Newman’s character.

Miscellaneous

Irving Wallace: The Prize is based on a novel by Wallace, who also had written some episodes of Have Gun — Will Travel, which was co-created by Sam Rolfe, who developed U.N.C.L.E. Wallace’s nephew was Danny Biederman, a first-generation U.N.C.L.E. fan who (with Robert Short) attempted to produce an U.N.C.L.E. movie in the late 1970s-early 1980s.

 

TCM has a night of spy films on Jan. 25

TCM logo

Turner Classic Movies will show five spy films the evening of Jan. 25 and early-morning hours of Jan. 26.

Here’s the lineup. All times EST.

8 p.m.: Arabesque (1966), directed by Stanley Donen: Donen had a success with 1963’s Charade, a suspense film that included a bit of humor. That movie also included a score by Henry Mancini and titles by Maurice Binder.

Mancini and Binder reunited with Donen on Arabesque, with Gregory Peck as a university professor who gets involved with spies as well as a woman played by Sophia Loren.

Also present was Charade scripter Peter Stone. However, Stone took an alias (Pierre Marton) and shared the screenplay credit with Julian Mitchell and Stanley Price.

 10 p.m.: The Ipcress File (1965), directed by Sidney J. Furie: James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman launched a second, less flamboyant, spy film series based on Len Deighton’s novels. This was a source of tension with Saltzman’s 007 partner, Albert R. Broccoli.

The name of Deighton’s spy wasn’t disclosed in the novel that’s the basis of this movie. The character, as played by Michael Caine, was christened Harry Palmer for the film.

For the first of three Palmer films, Saltzman hired a number of 007 film crew members, including composer John Barry, production designer Ken Adam and editor Peter Hunt.

12 a.m.: Our Man Flint (1966), directed by Delbert Mann: The first of two spy comedies with James Coburn as Derek Flint.

The movie takes nothing seriously, with an organization called ZOWIE (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage). ZOWIE is headed by Kramden (Lee J. Cobb), who gets exasperated when he’s forced to recruit Flint (who wouldn’t follow orders when Kramden knew him during their military days). Kramden has no choice because ZOWIE computers have pinpointed Flint as the only man who can foil a plot by Galaxy.

The best things about the movie are Coburn’s winning performance as Flint and Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Goldsmith’s music elevates the proceedings. In terms of production values, it looks only slightly more expensive than the television series produced at the time by 20th Century Fox.

2 a.m.: Our Man in Havana (1959), directed by Carol Reed:  The director again collaborates with Graham Greene, who adapts one of his novels. Vacuum cleaaner salesman Alec Guiness is recruited by British spook Noel Coward to do some spying in Cuba before the revolution. The cast includes Maureen O’Hara, Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacks.

4 a.m.: The Prize (1963), directed by Mark Robson: A spy tale starring Paul Newman centered around the Nobel Prizes being awarded in Stockholm. The script is by Ernest Lehman, who wrote 1959’s North by Northwest. Here Lehman adapts an Irving Wallace novel. The cast includes Leo G. Carroll, who was also in North by Northwest and who would shortly take the role of Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Jerry Goldsmith provided the score.

Shoutout to Mark Henderson who brought this up on Facebook.

 

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.

 

U.N.C.L.E. movie underwhelms in U.S. opening

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

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

UPDATE (Aug. 17) — Revised figures on Monday, ACCORDING TO THE NUMBERS WEBSITE, put The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie at $13.4 million, compared to $60.2 million for Straight Outta Compton.

(ORIGINAL POST): The Man From U.N.C.L.E. underperformed in the United States and Canada, finishing No. 3 in its debut weekend with estimated ticket sales of $13.5 million, according to THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER.

Guy Ritchie’s reinterpretation of the 1964-68 television series trailed Straight Outta Compton, a film about the rap group N.W.A. at $56.1 million and Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation, in its third weekend of release.

The Tom Cruise M:I film had estimate weekend ticket sales of $17 million, according to A TWEET from Exhibitors Relations.

Straight Outta Compton initially was estimated to produce a $30 million opening weekend and is coming in at almost twice that. It also was also shown on 2,757 screens, compared with U.N.C.L.E.’s 3,638, according to the Box Office Mojo website.

Over the weekend on social media, there was some debate about all this. Those who were annoyed (or worse) that the movie didn’t retain the series’ secret headquarters, Jerry Goldsmith theme (only a few notes were used in the film), or who wanted different casting, etc., said the results validated their positions.

The answer, though, may be more simple than that. It could be that outside of the aging U.N.C.L.E. fan base (including folks such as the Spy Commander) and the younger Henry Cavill fan base, there weren’t that many people who wanted to see the movie.

Warner Bros. can’t be blamed for a lack of marketing support. The studio bought ads all over U.S. television the past few weeks. For example, it paid for a two-minute ad on the ABC prime-time telecast of the ESPN ESPY awards. The spot ran shortly before transgender ex-athlete Caitlyn Jenner picked up an award for sports courage, the main highlight of the show.

Would having Jerry Goldsmith’s full theme boosted the box office take? If a great Goldsmith theme had that much impact, the 1973 series Hawkins on CBS would have lasted longer than a season and the 1975 Archer series (as in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer) on NBC would have run longer than six episodes.

Would having the secret HQs, complete with Del Floria’s tailor shop have changed the outcome? 2015 audiences already had a secret HQs in Kingsman: The Secret Service. It was basically an updated version of the U.N.C.L.E. secret HQs of the show.

Would having, say, Jon Hamm, the star of the now-completed Mad Men series, as Napoleon Solo instead of Henry Cavill changed things?

Hamm’s Million Dollar Arm in 2014 was No. 4 its opening weekend in the U.S. at $10.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It finished with worldwide box office of $38.3 million. Of course, to be fair, he also was the voice of Herb Overkill in Minions, which had worldwide box office of more than $900 million.

Would having cameos by Robert Vaughn or David McCallum, the stars of the original show, increased ticket sales significantly? Would ticket sales double or triple? Or would they have risen by 1 percent or less? Meanwhile, McCallum endorsed the film in a Fox News interview and that doesn’t seem to have had much impact.

For Warner Bros., the best hope for the film may be in overseas markets. The DEADLINE: HOLLYWOOD website reported there were early signs of a better reception in various countries, including Russia.