11 questions about a Soderbergh-Clooney U.N.C.L.E. movie

So now that Steven Soderbergh says he’s “obligated” to do a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (the word he used in a recording at the Studio 360 Web site), that generated more questions. So, in honor of Napoleon Solo’s No. 11 U.N.C.L.E. badge number, here are 11 of them:

1. What does “obligated” mean, anyway? Has Soderbergh actually signed a contract? Has he given only a verbal commitment? The Studio 360 recording is from a Soderbergh appearance in Omaha, Nebraska. He said at the time that he’s turned down other offers, intending to make a Liberace film and an U.N.C.L.E. movie his last two film projects. That implies something more than verbal, but there’s no way to tell and Soderbergh didn’t specify.

2. Soderbergh also indicated that George Clooney would play Solo. Is that a sure thing? Clooney has been quiet on the subject and he’s busy with other projects at the moment. Clooney once was supposed to play Artemus Gordon in the 1999 movie version of The Wild, Wild West. It didn’t happen. Some caution may be called for.

3. Does Soderbergh really plan to make his U.N.C.L.E. movie a 1960s period piece? According to THIS REPORT FROM LAST YEAR, that was the plan. Once again, Soderbergh didn’t get into that level of detail.

4. Hasn’t Clooney’s name been mentioned before? Indeed, it has. Quentin Tarantino, in the late 1990s, talked about directing an U.N.C.L.E. movie and casting Clooney as Solo. His idea of Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent? The director thought, well, Quentin Tarantino, would be an excellent choice. Obviously, it never happened.

5. Is Clooney too old to play Napoleon Solo? The actor turns 50 this year, the same age Robert Vaughn was when the 1983 television film The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came out, depicting an obviously older Solo. Clooney is in good shape as he demonstrated in 2010’s The American. A little hair coloring and he could pass for 40. Of course, that’s still older than the Solo of the original televsion series.

6. Would an older Solo change the Solo-Kuryakin dynamic of the original show? Vaughn and David McCallum, the show’s Kuryakin, were less than a year apart in age. If you had a 50-passing-for-40 Solo, would that lead to casting a younger Kuryakin, to create contrast?

7. Have any potential Kuryakins showed up? If they have, Soderbergh hasn’t talked about it publicly.

8. Would a Clooney Solo help guarantee good box office for an U.N.C.L.E. movie? Hardly. According to the By the Numbers Web site, hasn’t had a big hit since the Soderbergh-directed, 2007 Ocean’s Thirteen, which grossed $117 million the U.S. and almost $312 million worldwide. The American grossed $35.6 million in the U.S. and $46.6 million worldwide.

9. So why does it appear Clooney has the inside track to play Solo? Because Soderbergh, a friend, would be the director. They’ve worked together several times and apparently want to do so one more time.

10. When would filming begin? There have been multiple accounts that the Liberace movie, with Michael Douglas playing the late entertainer, would start later this year. U.N.C.L.E. would appear to be some time after that. More is known about the Liberace project than the U.N.C.L.E. one.

11. Will this become reality? There have been numerous efforts since the early 1990s to get an U.N.C.L.E. movie going. It’s probably closer to reality than at any time in the past 20 years. But, until more of these questions get answered, it’s still not a sure thing.

11 U.N.C.L.E. facts for fans of Mad Men

Thanks to a clip shown on the most recent episode, fans of AMC’s Mad Men series have either discovered or re-discovered The Man From U.N.C.L.E. So here are 11 U.N.C.L.E. facts for fans of the show. Why 11? Check out reason No. 1:

1. Napoleon Solo, the title character of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wore badge 11 while at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. Fellow agent Illya Kuryakin’s badge number was 2 and Alexander Waverly, Number One of Section One, apparently first among equals of U.N.C.L.E.’s five regional headquarters, wore the No. 1 badge.

2. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was involved with U.N.C.L.E. for a short time. He contributed the character names Napoleon Solo and April Dancer. Under pressure from 007 producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, he bailed out of the project and signed away any rights for one British pound.

3. U.N.C.L.E. has no “created by” credit but Sam Rolfe received a “developed by” credit. He wrote the pilot script and produced the first season of Man (including The Hong Kong Shilling Affiar, the episode shown on the Aug. 22 episode of Mad Men).

4. While Rolfe created Illya Kuryakin, Number Two of Section Two (Operations and Enforcement, where Solo was Number One of Section Two), the character was refined, and perhaps even defined, by writer Alan Caillou (1914-2006), who wrote seven Man episodes including the first with significant Illya time (The Quadripartite Affair), the first Illya-centric episode (The Bow-Wow Affair) and two episodes where he also appeared as an actor (The Terbuf Affair and The Tigers Are Coming Affair) He bailed out during the second season, a loss for the series.

5. Man was threatened with cancellation in its first season. It initially aired on NBC Tuesday nights and couldn’t overcome Red Skelton’s variety show on CBS. Midway through the first season, it got moved to Monday nights (which incuded the episode seen on Mad Men) and ratings improved. It also helped that Goldfinger, which had its U.S. premier in the U.S. in December 1964, boosted the market for spy-related entertainment.

6. NBC was keen for a spinoff featuring an U.N.C.L.E. woman agent even if Man stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were hostile to it. Thus, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was born, running just one season, 1966-67.

7. Man’s best season for ratings was its second campaign, the 1965-66 season, when it aired at 10 p.m. Fridays on NBC>

8. NBC twice pre-empted Man to show specials (The Incredible World of James Bond and Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond) promoting the James Bond movies Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. That’s ironic, because Broccoli and Saltzman had previously sued to try to prevent Man from ever going on the air, claiming that the dashing Napoleon Solo would be mistaken for the gangster Mr. Solo, who got killed by Oddjob in the film version of Goldfinger.

9. The papers of Man executive producer Norman Felton (b. 1913) and veteran Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum (1909-1991) are both stored at the University of Iowa.

10. Man, a little more than three years after its debut, was canceled, with its last episode appearing in January 1968. The very next week, on Jan. 22, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in debuted featuring Leo G. Carroll, in character as U.N.C.L.E. boss Mr. Waverly.

11. There have been various attempts at an U.N.C.L.E. revival: a 1977 project featuring a Sam Rolfe script that was never filmed; an early 1980s project intended as a feature film in which Bond production designer Ken Adam was interested in doing the sets; and a 2005 (or so) project where the producer involved was found by a jury of being guilty of fraud.

The only revival project to actually be produced, to date, was a 1983 television movie called The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair, which aired on CBS but didn’t result in a new series. The cast included George Lazenby, the one-time 007, as “JB,” a British spy who comes to the aid of Napoleon Solo in Las Vegas.

To look at various other ties between U.N.C.L.E. and 007, just CLICK HERE, in which you’ll see a photograph of a famous actor who just celebrated his 80th birthday and another Scotsman who was seen on the Mad Men episode.

To see many, many stills from The Hong Shilling Affair episode shonw on Mad Men, you can CLICK HERE.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. meets Mad Men

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the 1964-68 spy series, had a one-evening revival — as a 1960s cultural reference on the acclaimed cable-television series Mad Men. Here’s how Vanity Fair’s James Walcott described the reference:

What was even more harshly cruel about the Sally’s shaming was that she was only responding naturally to the sight and plight of The Man of U.N.C.L.E.’s Illya Kuryakin. All the little girls loved Illya Kuryakin with his blonde bangs and black turtlenecks, and the older girls too. That’s how it was then–for a season or two, in adolescent hearts across America, Illya was the Fifth Beatle.]

To read all of Walcott’s post on Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men blog, just JUST CLICK HERE.

The U.N.C.L.E. scene is from the first-season episode The Hong Kong Shilling Affair, in which agent Kuryakin is tied up along with Glenn Corbett as the episode’s “innocent.” There might have been a shot of Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo also, but it’s hard to tell; by that point, Mad Men’s camera is away from the television set. For more details and a review of the U.N.C.L.E. episode, just CLICK RIGHT HERE.

An U.N.C.L.E. friend pointed out the Walcott blog. We’re going to watch the entire Mad Men episode now.

Martin Benson, Goldfinger’s Mr. Solo, dies

Martin Benson, the veteran character actor who played the gangster Mr. Solo in Goldfinger, died last week.

In that role, Benson had the most prominent on-screen presence of the gangsters who thought they were selling Goldfinger what he needed to raid Fort Knox. The presence of Mr. Solo in the story was also Eon Productions’s primary pillar in its lawsuit to stop production of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., where Ian Fleming contributed a few ideas, including the name of its hero, Napoleon Solo. In Goldfinger, Mr. Solo had the most spectacular death, which varied from Fleming’s novel and the early drafts of the screenplay.

Here’s John Barry’s score where Mr. Solo meets his demise:

Benson’s other credits include The Omen, The Saint television series, Cleopatra, A Shot in the Dark and The King and I.

Roundup of 007/Ian Fleming-related anniversaries this year

We’ve noted some of these and skipped others. In any case, this is proving to be quite the year for notable James Bond and/or Ian Fleming-related anniversaries. Here’s a recap:

April: 100th anniversary of the birth of 007 producer Albert R. “Cubby Broccoli.

May: 100th anniversary of the birth of 007 screenwriter Richard Maibuam

June: 30th anniversary of Moonraker’s premier
20th anniversary of Licence to Kill. (world preimier in U.K.; U.S. premier was in July)

September: 45th anniversary of world premier of Goldfinger

45th anniversary of the debut of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Ian Fleming helped name the lead character, Napoleon Solo, dropped out of project due to pressure from Bond producers Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

November: 10th anniversary of world premier of The World Is Not Enough.

December: 40th anniversary of world premier of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

35th anniversary of world premier of The Man With The Golden Gun

007’s intersections with U.N.C.L.E.

We were watching some DVDs and kept getting reminded about how the world of James Bond intersects with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Those intersections go beyond the basic category of spy-related entertainment.

A few examples:

Luciana Paluzzi. The Italian actress was hired to pad out the pilot of U.N.C.L.E. in case the series didn’t sell and a “movie” could be salvaged. As it turned out, the Paluzzi footage showed up in both formats: on TV as The Four-Steps Affair and in the “movie” To Trap A Spy, where she was billed as “special guest star.” The TV version was shown while Thunderball, the fourth 007 film where she appears as the femme fatale, was still in production.

“Bon appetit.” U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin utters this line in The Gazebo in the Maze Affair, a first-season episode that aired in the spring of 1965. The impetus was outsmarting a thug so a wolf was devouring him. James Bond (Sean Connery) utters the same line in You Only Live Twice after tossing Blofeld’s thug Hans into a pool of man-eating fish.

The Incredible World of James Bond was a 1965 special that aired on NBC and was produced to promote the upcoming Thunderball. It aired in U.N.C.L.E.’s time slot in the 1965-66 television season. Evidently, NBC figured there was what executives would not call “synergy.”

Solo: The hero on U.N.C.L.E. was originally to be called Edgar Solo. The show’s producer, Norman Felton, wanted to get Ian Fleming on board and the author suggest Napoleon was a much better first name. So it came to be. Solo also happened to be one of the gangster names in Goldfinger (and had appeared in Fleming’s 1959 novel). This coincidence became Eon Productions’ main point in trying to stop U.N.C.L.E. (which was to originally have been called Solo). Eon didn’t have much of a case to actually halt the series but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer agreed to shelve the Solo title to settle the case. Eon got its revenge (possibly unintentionally) by having the gangster Solo killed in spectacular fashion and in a way not used in Fleming’s original novel.

There are, actually, lots more. Just click RIGHT HERE.

Happy birthday (No. 96!) Norman Felton, the real Man From U.N.C.L.E.

We just wanted to wish Mr. Norman Felton a happy 96th birthday. It was Felton, looking for a change of pace from producing TV dramas, who spearheaded the project that would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Felton had a notion about a character he dubbed Edgar Solo, who seemed ordinary but worked for a special agency. Felton hoped to entice Ian Fleming into the project. But the author didn’t want to offend Eon Productions, which was beginning to crank out James Bond movies. Nevertheless, Fleming contributed a few ideas, including renaming the hero Napoleon Solo.

While it would be writer/producer Sam Rolfe who’d bring everything to life, it was Felton who oversaw The Man From U.N.C.L.E. for all four of its seasons, 105 episodes and eight theatrical movies developed from episodes.

Back in 2002, HMSS wrote about how Felton’s papers (along with those of 007 screenwriter Richard Maibaum) are stored at the University of Iowa.

And, below, are the end titles of The Giuoco Piano Affair, a first-season episode. In the final shot, that’s Mr. Felton looking over a chessboard at a party scene. Once again, happy birthday, Mr. F.