UPDATE: 20 years of the U.N.C.L.E. episode guide

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

Originally posted May 18. Re-posting (with some tweaks and additions) today, Dec. 1, the date of the actual anniversary.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode guide marks its 20th anniversary today. Naturally, after researching some things, the Spy Commander couldn’t wait to do a post.

The episode guide was one of the first U.N.C.L.E. fan sites. It first went live on Dec. 1, 1996. It wasn’t complete at the time by any means, but there were at least some reviews for each of the four seasons of the show.

The following summer, the Spy Commander did a geeky thing, sending a printout of the website to retired executive producer Norman Felton. After putting it in the mail, I immediately had the equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Some of the Season Three reviews (when the show often took a campy approach) were pretty rough. What if Felton became offended? I wondered. Yikes.

Not to fear. Felton sent a letter dated June 23, 1997. At the top, there was a cartoon of someone critiquing a frustrated William Shakespeare. “Good, but not immortal.”

The letter read thusly (underlined words are highlighted with asterisks) in part:

Terrific! The pages from the Web page — yes, and there were ‘duds’ along the way — but enough *good enough* for our *fans*, yes?

In a P.S. he said he might send a copy of a screenplay he was about to finish. “*Not* in the vein of U.N.C.L.E. — and certainly *not* immortal. Wow!”

Also included were two strips of film with a Post It Note. “Enclosed bits of film made to checking lighting for the cameraman” during filming of U.N.C.L.E.’s pilot.

The Spy Commander did a second geeky thing. Making yet another printout, I went to a collectible show in suburban Chicago in the late 1990s where Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo, had a table signing autographs.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a printout of a website.”

No reaction from an actor. I began to try to explain but simply felt embarrassed for bringing the printout. Later, I was told from someone who talked to him extensively he wasn’t on the internet much at the time.

The episode guide also generated a response from writer Stanley Ralph Ross, a frequent writer for the 1966-68 Batman show, who also penned some third-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes. He liked how the episode guide noted how the writer used the same joke in U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

An e-mail interview ensued. “I have some funny stories about the show, especially when I was in The Pop Art Affair,” he wrote in a June 21, 1999, e-mail. Ross said he did an uncredited rewrite on the episode and got a part in the third-season episode as part of the deal.

“David  asked me to stand on a box,” Ross wrote. “I am already 6:6 and said that he would look like a midget but he replied that the taller I was, the stronger and more macho he would seem for having me beat up.” Ross referred to 5-foot-7 David McCallum, who played U.N.C.L.E. Russian agent Illya Kuryakin.

The U.N.C.L.E. episode guide, meanwhile, has had its share of ups and downs. It originally was hosted by AOL. But in 2008, AOL stopped hosting websites. It moved to the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website. But when HMSS went offline in 2014, the episode guide went dark with it — missing the show’s 50th anniversary in September of that year.

But you can’t keep a good U.N.C.L.E. agent down. The episode guide returned on Oct. 18, 2014 on WordPress, part of a family of websites including The Spy Command.

Since then, the site has been improved, including finally finishing reviews for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  and updating and adding features because of the 2015 movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.

As far as those two geeky incidents? I don’t really have regrets. Felton died in 2012 and Vaughn on Nov. 11 of this year. My interactions with them may have been awkward. But at least I did gain some insight because of them.

In particular, I remember Vaughn talking about the end of the series at one of the collectibles shows. He said he wasn’t crushed about the show being canceled.  “I just went on to the next thing I had to do.”

Hopefully, the episode guide will remain around for a while — good, but not immortal.

Robert Vaughn dies at 83

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

Robert Vaughn, star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series, died today at 83, according to an obituary at Deadline: Hollywood.

The actor died after battle with acute leukemia, according to the entertainment news website.

Vaughn had plenty of roles over a long career, including The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Bullitt (1968). He remained active in recent years, including a U.K. stage production of 12 Angry Men.

Still, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which ran from September 1964 to January 1968 on NBC, made Vaughn a star. He played Napoleon Solo, a character created by Norman Felton and Ian Fleming. Solo was an enforcement agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, an international agency. U.N.C.L.E., which was developed fully by writer-producer Sam Rolfe, was a post-Cold War series airing in the midst of the Cold War.

Vaughn’s Solo had similarities to Fleming’s James Bond. Both were womanizers and sophisticated in the ways of the world. But Solo worked with a Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). In the Bond film series, the notion wouldn’t occur until 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.

Solo also had more of a moral code than Bond. Part of the format called for Solo to interact with “innocents,” ordinary people either recruited to help U.N.C.L.E. or who stumbled into the action. As a result, Solo had to look out for the innocents, which made his character different than 007.

In the final episode of the series, Vaughn had one of his best scenes as he confronted the conspirators of a plot to take over the world. That was a familiar plot of escapist 1960s spy entertainment. Yet, in that scene, Vaughn played it entirely seriously, giving the proceedings a gravitas they might ordinarily lack.

Years after the series, Vaughn had a lengthy interview with the Archive of American television. Here’s a clip where he discussed U.N.C.L.E.

In real life, Vaughn was an intellectual. He studied for his Ph.D while U.N.C.L.E. was in production. Vaughn, an opponent of the Vietnam war, debated the subject with William F. Buckley on the latter’s Firing Line series. Buckley introduced Vaughn as “a professional actor.” However, Vaughn was thoroughly prepared and the debate (on Buckley’s home turf) was judged a draw.

Post-U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn tended to play villains, such as the politician he portrayed in Bullitt. He did get to reprise the Solo role in the 1983 television movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. He indicated he’d be willing to play a cameo role in the 2015 film version directed by Guy Ritchie. But he was never approached.

Vaughn died 11 days short of what would have been his 84th birthday.

We’ll have a more detailed “appreciation” post tomorrow.

This month’s ‘other’ Ian Fleming anniversary

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Earlier this month, Oct. 5, was Global James Bond Day, celebrating the 54th anniversary of the original U.K. premiere of Dr. No.

Today, Oct. 29, is the 54th anniversary of another Ian Fleming-related annivesary: When the James Bond author first met television producer Norman Felton in New York.

The results, eventually, would be The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. However, those meetings, which lasted into Oct. 31, 1962, according to Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. Timeline website, don’t get much attention.

Ian Fleming Publications, for example, doesn’t mention the meetings in its detailed ONLINE TIMELIME OF FLEMING’S LIFE. Ironically, IFP’s 2013 007 continuation novel by William Boyd was titled Solo, the original title for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Fleming was bullied by James Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman from exiting the project. You can read some of the correspondence involved by CLICKING HERE. Fleming sold his interest in U.N.C.L.E. for the princely sum of 1 British pound.

Meanwhile, U.N.C.L.E. fans downplay Fleming’s involvement. Yes, some say, he named Napoleon Solo, but so what? And, to be fair, others did the heavy lifting on U.N.C.L.E.

On the other hand, Fleming’s involvement, however limited, had attracted NBC’s interest.

Had Fleming remained on the show, the network was willing to commit to a series without a pilot. After Fleming’s departure, a pilot would be necessary. Still, by that time a lot of energy and time had been invested. It wasn’t just dropped after Fleming’s exit.

Title page to pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when the title was still Solo.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. originally was to have been billed Ian Fleming’s Solo.

Thus, ironically, Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. involvement isn’t celebrated by either the Bond and U.N.C.L.E. sides. On the U.N.C.L.E. side, the narrative (understandably) plays up the contributions of Felton and Sam Rolfe, the writer of the U.N.C.L.E. pilot who produced the first season of the show.

It didn’t help that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (where U.N.C.L.E. was produced) put out a press release denying had been involved (even though he was). No doubt that was the result of threatened legal action from Eon Productions. Lawyers for Eon had sent a cease and desist letter in early 1964 claiming the character Napoleon Solo infringed on the production company’s rights to Goldfinger, which included a gangster named Solo.

Also, Felton, on advice of his attorneys, declined to write up notes about his meetings with the 007 author for Fleming biographer John Pearson concerning U.N.C.L.E. (Read Text of Letters About Ian Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. Involvement for more details.)

Still, an anniversary is an anniversary. In this case, it’s an anniversary of an event (the Fleming-Felton meetings) that helped lead to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Meanwhile, here’s a shameless plug. If you want to read more about the subject, this blog’s editor has an article in MI6 Confidential No. 37. For more information about the issue (which includes an article about 007 film production designer Peter Lamont), CLICK HERE. 

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.

Joseph Gantman: On the ground floor

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

Joseph Gantman in the 1960s found himself on the ground floor of notable television shows.

His primary legacy was as the day-to-day producer for the first two seasons of Mission: Impossible.

Gantman came aboard after the pilot was produced. Series creator Bruce Geller supervised the show, but it was up to Gantman to get things going, including securing a steady stream of scripts that could be filmed. He would end up winning two Emmys for his efforts.

Those two seasons featured some of the show’s best stories, such as Operation: Rogosh (the IMF tricks an “unbreakable” Soviet Bloc operative into thinking it’s three years later so he’ll give up where he’s planted germ cultures that will poison the drinking water supply of Los Angeles).

Gantman was worn down by the time he left the series at the end of its second season. His successors, William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, who wrote many of the best stories of the first two seasons, bolted after disagreements with Bruce Geller. That was an indication that Gantman’s work wouldn’t be easy to duplicate. M:I was tough on producers generally. Gantman’s tenure was almost a marathon by comparison.

Before Mission, Gantmen worked on the pilot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with the vague tile of “production assistant,” but his title card in the television version featured his credit in the end titles on the screen by itself. Presumably, that was an indication he was a key contributor of the pilot.

During the 1964-65 season, Gantman was associate producer for 16 of the 32 episodes of the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, when that Irwin Allen-produced shows emphasized espionage over monsters.

Later, during the 1968-69 season, he was producer for five episodes of the first season of Hawaii Five-O, including three of the first five telecast by CBS (excluding the pilot, which aired as a TV movie). Five-O’s initial campaign was rough (it was the first series actually filmed in Hawaii) and it chewed up producers.

Gantman isn’t remembered much today. U.N.C.L.E. is remembered, behind the camera, for the efforts of Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe. Voyage is seen as what launched Irwin Allen’s 1960s shows. M:I is recalled for Bruce Geller’s concept. The original Five-O is remembered for creator-executive Leonard Freeman, who guided the show for six of its 12 seasons before his death in early 1974.

Yet, Gantman was a key lieutenant, at one time or another (just one episode in U.N.C.L.E.’s case) on all of them. That’s why TV shows have title cards.

 

(Almost) 20 years of the U.N.C.L.E. episode guide

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

The original U.N.C.L.E.s, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

We were reminded the other day that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode guide will mark its 20th anniversary this year. Naturally, after researching some things, the Spy Commander couldn’t wait to do a post.

The episode guide was one of the first U.N.C.L.E. fan sites. It first went live on Dec. 1, 1996. It wasn’t complete at the time by any means, but there were at least some reviews for each of the four seasons of the show.

The following summer, the Spy Commander did a geeky thing, sending a printout of the website to retired executive producer Norman Felton. After putting it in the mail, I immediately had the equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Some of the Season Three reviews (when the show often took a campy approach) were pretty rough. What if Felton became offended? I wondered. Yikes.

Not to fear. Felton sent a letter dated June 23, 1997. At the top, there was a cartoon of someone critiquing a frustrated William Shakespeare. “Good, but not immortal.”

The letter read thusly (underlined words are highlighted with asterisks) in part:

Terrific! The pages from the Web page — yes, and there were ‘duds’ along the way — but enough *good enough* for our *fans*, yes?

In a P.S. he said he might send a copy of a screenplay he was about to finish. “*Not* in the vein of U.N.C.L.E. — and certainly *not* immortal. Wow!”

Also included were two strips of film with a Post It Note. “Enclosed bits of film made to checking lighting for the cameraman” during filming of U.N.C.L.E.’s pilot.

The Spy Commander did a second geeky thing. Making yet another printout, I went to a collectible show in suburban Chicago in the late 1990s where Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo, had a table signing autographs.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a printout of a website.”

No reaction from an actor. I began to try to explain but simply felt embarrassed for bringing the printout. Later, I was told from someone who talked to him extensively he wasn’t on the internet much at the time.

The episode guide also generated a response from writer Stanley Ralph Ross, a frequent writer for the 1966-68 Batman show, who also penned some third-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes. He liked how the episode guide noted how the writer used the same joke in U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

An e-mail interview ensued. “I have some funny stories about the show, especially when I was in The Pop Art Affair,” he wrote in a June 21, 1999, e-mail. Ross said he did an uncredited rewrite on the episode and got a part in the third-season episode as part of the deal.

“David  asked me to stand on a box,” Ross wrote. “I am already 6:6 and said that he would look like a midget but he replied that the taller I was, the stronger and more macho he would seem for having me beat up.” Ross referred to 5-foot-7 David McCallum, who played U.N.C.L.E. Russian agent Illya Kuryakin.

The U.N.C.L.E. episode guide, meanwhile, has had its share of ups and downs. It originally was hosted by AOL. But in 2008, AOL stopped hosting websites. It moved to the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website. But when HMSS went offline in 2014, the episode guide went dark with it — missing the show’s 50th anniversary in September of that year.

But you can’t keep a good U.N.C.L.E. agent down. The episode guide returned on Oct. 18, 2014 on WordPress, part of a family of websites including The Spy Command.

Since then, the site has been improved, including finally finishing reviews for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  and updating and adding features because of the 2015 movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.

Hopefully, the episode guide will remain around for a while — good, but not immortal.

Thrilling Cities, the series?

Ian Fleming's Thrilling Cities book

Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities book

Actor Michael Weatherly’s production company is trying to turn Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities book into a television, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The story is mostly about Weatherly’s impending departure from the popular NCIS television series and Thrilling Cities only gets a passing reference.

“In the meantime, however, Weatherly said he’s busier than ever with his production company, Solar Drive Productions, which is working on turning the book Thrilling Cities, from James Bond author Ian Fleming, into a possible series,” the story by THR’s Kate Stanhope reads.

Thrilling Cities was a non-fiction book by Fleming. It was based on a series of stories he did for The Sunday Times about important cities around the world.

“Fleming saw it all with a thriller writer’s eye. From Hong Kong to Honolulu, New York to Naples, he left the bright main streets for the back alleys, abandoning tourist sites in favour of underground haunts, and mingling with celebrities, gangsters and geishas,” according to a summary on the Ian Fleming Publications website.

Fleming’s short story 007 in New York was included in the U.S. edition of Thrilling Cities. The author had a harsh opinion about New York City and the short story was a bonus for American readers.

In 1962, there was an attempt to turn Thrilling Cities into a television series. The result, ended up being The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series.

Craig Henderson’s 1962 page for his U.N.C.L.E. Timeline website notes that producer Norman Felton was asked to read galleys of the upcoming Fleming book concerning whether it could be made into a TV show.

At a meeting, “Felton rejects the possibility of developing a TV series from Thrilling Cities — but he’s inspired to ad lib an idea about a mysterious man who travels the world on sensitive secret missions,” according to Henderson’s website.

That was the genesis of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Fleming himself was involved with U.N.C.L.E. from October 1962 until mid-1963 before withdrawing under pressure from 007 film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

Also of note, one of Weatherly’s co-stars on NCIS is David McCallum, who played Illya Kuryakin on U.N.C.L.E. Irony abounds.