Robert Vaughn, an appreciation

Napoleon Solo on TV: fully formed

Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo in a first-season main titles of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

For people of a certain age, it’s inconceivable that Robert Vaughn is gone, dead at 83.

That’s because it seems he’s always been there. His acting career lasted more than 60 years.

It began with small parts, to finding steady work (including a secondary lead in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven), to being a star in the 1960s with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and going back to being a steady performer.

His IMDB.COM ENTRY lists more than 200 acting credits. He received one Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (1959’s The Young Philadelphians) and won an Emmy (the 1977 miniseries, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, essentially the story of the Nixon administration with the names chaned).

With U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn became a leading man, making the character name Napoleon Solo one of the big names of the 1960s spy boom.

The show flirted with cancellation early in its first season because it was up against a popular CBS variety show hosted by Red Skelton.

But with a time slot change and a surge in interest in spy entertainment thanks to 1964’s Goldfinger, U.N.C.L.E. became a hit. Episodes of the show were re-edited (with extra footage added) to create eight movies for the international market. At the peak of U.N.C.L.E.’s popularity, the early movies were even released in the United States.

In some ways, though, Vaughn didn’t act like a star. Most series leads aren’t studying for a Ph.D during production. Vaughn did.

On some series, the lead actor guards his or her status. Yet, Vaughn didn’t seem to mind as David McCallum, as Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin, went from supporting player to joint star of the show. Maybe he figured McCallum’s increased workload would free him up for more study time.

For a time, it appeared as if Vaughn might go into politics. He was politically active protesting the Vietnam War. But a political career for Vaughn never happened.

Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Vaughn in To Trap a Spy, the first U.N.C.L.E. movie.

Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Vaughn in To Trap a Spy, the first U.N.C.L.E. movie.

After U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn continued to be cast in movies and guest roles on television shows. Often, he played villainous politicians (Bullitt) or business moguls (Superman III). He was in two episodes of Columbo. In the second, Last Salute to the Commodore, writer Jackson Gillis and director Patrick McGoohan sprung a twist that played on audience expectation that Vaughn must be the killer.

The actor enjoyed a late-career renaissance, with the lead in the series Hustle, about a group of London con artists. The show ran 48 episodes from 2004 to 2012. He also had a regular part in the series Coronation Street.

Over a career as long as Vaughn’s, you take some jobs that puzzle your fans. At one point, the actor did commercials for various law firms. He also promoted the Helsinki Formula for hair restoration. That even became a joke in an episode of Seinfeld titled The Deal. As The New York Times noted in its obituary of Vaughn, the actor later said he made quite a bit of money from the television spots.

But that sort of thing is only a footnote. The primary story is the connection Vaughn made with the audience. People who discovered him on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remained fans decades later.

As word of Vaughn’s death spread on the internet on Friday, there was shock followed by sadness followed by reflection.

He had always been there. It’s now just sinking in that he’s actually gone.

P.F. Sloan, co-writer of ‘Secret Agent Man,’ dies

P.F. Sloan, co-writer of the song “Secret Agent Man,” has died at age 70, the LOS ANGELES TIMES REPORTED IN AN OBITUARY.

“Secret Agent Man” was an anthem for the 1960s spy craze. The song accompanied the main titles of Secret Agent on CBS, the U.S. version of the British television series Danger Man, starring Patrick McGoohan.

Sloan and Steve Barri wrote “Secret Agent Man,” which was performed by Johnny Rivers. The song long outlived the U.S. run of the show.

In 2000, when the UPN network (which later was aborbed into a merger that resulted in the CW network) had a spyish TV series called Secret Agent Man, the Sloan-Barri song naturally figured into the main titles.

The Times’ obituary emphasized Sloan’s writing of another song of the era, “Eve of Destruction.” Here’s an excerpt:

By the time he was 16, Sloan was a professional songwriter. But even churning out pop hits for big labels with co-writer Steve Barri failed to make him feel like anything but an outsider.

His hits, with Barri, included the Turtles’ “You Baby,” the Grass Roots’ “Where Were You When I Needed You?” and many others.

Then “Eve of Destruction” happened.

“It was the night P.F. Sloan was born,” he wrote.

“I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be Elvis. I wanted to be Ricky. I wanted to be Bobby and Tony and Frankie… But P.F. Sloan? He wanted honesty and truth.”

Anyway, there have been many performances of “Secret Agent Man.” Here’s one, with Johnny Rivers introduced by Judy Garland.

George Baker, 007 and Prisoner actor, dies

Character actor George Baker, who appeared in both James Bond movies and the original version of the televison series The Prisoner, has died at 80, according to an obituary on the BBC’s Web site.

Baker played Sir Hilary Bray, who James Bond (George Lazenby) impersonates, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and a British naval officer in 1977’s The Spy Who Love Me. He also was one of many Number Twos, in The Prisoner. To view his credits on IMDB.com, JUST CLICK HERE.

UPDATE: Here’s part of the scene where Bond meets with Sir Hilary:

Lt. Columbo’s encounters with spies

Peter Falk passed away last month and obituaries SUCH AS THIS ONE IN THE LOS ANGELES TIMES documented his varied career while noting he was most famous for playing Lt. Columbo, who wore a rumpled raincoat but had a sharp mind. We thought we’d take some time out to detail a couple of enounters the character had with spies.

In “Identity Crisis,” in 1975 from Columbo’s fifth season on NBC, the murderer Columbo pursues is Nelson Brenner. The CIA operative is played by Patrick McGoohan, who seems to channel his John Drake and Number Six personas. McGoohan, who also directed the episode, was back for his second turn as a murderer on the show. McGoohan even works in his “Be seeing you!” line from The Prisoner.

The script, by Bill Driskill, is pretty complex. The murder victim (Leslie Nielsen) is another agent. There’s a non-existent operative named Steinmetz and….well, you get the idea.

Brenner has a cover identity as a business consultant. At one point, the CIA director (David White) pays a visit on Columbo, telling him to can his investigation in the interest of national security. Columbo, of course, doesn’t give up that easily but knows it’ll be even trickier to bring in Brenner.

The CIA shows up in a more indirect role in “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” the first Columbo to air on ABC when the show was revived in 1989. Elliott Blake (Anthony Andrews) is trying to convince the agency he’s a genuine psychic who can be of aid in intelligence work. The CIA hires a magician, Max Dyson (Anthony Zerbe), who has also exposed other psychics as frauds, to test Blake’s abilities.

The two men, however, have met before. They were in a prison in Uganda years earlier. They meet the night before the test and rig it in Blake’s favor. Afterward, Dyson says he agreed because of what the two mean to each other while in prison. Blake, though, knows that Dyson sold him out to get out of that prison. He kills Dyson, making it appear the magician was killed in an accident involving a guillotine trick.

Columbo engages in his usual cat-and-mouse games with Blake. Meanwhile, the CIA’s Mr. Harrow (Alan Fudge) is convinced Blake is the real thing. The agency is ready to whisk Blake away with a new identity. Columbo, armed with a court order, prevents that. He duplicates the Dyson-Blake test, ending the CIA’s interest in Blake.

The episode was written by William Read Woodfield (a writer on the original Mission: Impossible series and a magician himself) and directed by Leo Penn. It ends with Columbo taking a big chance to make his case against Blake:

Peter Yates, ‘Bullitt’ director, dies; had earlier directed Danger Man/Secret Agent

Peter Yates, best known as the director of 1968’s “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen, has passed away at age 81, according to an obituary at The Wrap Web site. Yates, though, had experience with spy stories, including episodes of the U.K. series “Danger Man,” shown in the U.S. as “Secret Agent.”

Bullitt is most famous for its car chase and a very good, understated performance by McQueen. Before getting a chance at that film, Yates helmed a number of episodes of Danger Man, with Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake. Here are some excerpts from one of the episodes he did. The episode was edited by John Glen, who directed five James Bond films in the 1980s.

Even earlier, in 1961, Yates was assistant director on “The Guns of Navarone,” set in World War II, a combination war/spy film. This clip includes the prologue (while excluding the narration) and the main titles with Dimitri Tiomkin’s magnificent theme music. That film also included photography by Oswald Morris, who finished up work as director of photogrpahy on The Man With The Golden Gun after Ted Moore fell ill.

PBS goes for the movie/tv spy cliches in describing Russian spy arrests

Last week’s FBI arrest of a Russian spy ring last week generated a lot of interest. And, at least two PBS programs couldn’t resist making puns or using cliches gleaned from movies and TV shows to describe it.

The McLaughlin Group: John McLaughlin, host of the gabfest that bears his name, introduced a segment he dubbed, “Secret Agent Man!” And just in case you didn’t get it, there was audio of the Johnny Rivers song “Secret Agent Man,” used in Secret Agent, the U.S. version of Patrick McGoohan’s Danger Man series.

Need to Know: Co-host Alison Stewart couldn’t resist a double dip. In her introduction for a segment about the busted spy ring, she said its members “wereSpies Like Us,” a reference to the 1985 John Landis-directed, Chevy Chase-Dan Aykroyd comedy. Stewart couldn’t leave it there, adding how the ring evoked a return to “Boris and Natasha,” the spies who did their best to make the lives of Bullwinkle J. Moose and Rocky the Flying Squirrel miserable.

Stewart also interviewed author Tim Weiner, who writes about intelligence matters. Weiner wasn’t impressed with the Russian spies, saying they were “the gang couldn’t spy straight.”

Patrick McGoohan, RIP

Like many, we were fans of Patrick McGoohan, star of The Prisoner and Danger Man (known as Secret Agent in the U.S.). His persona was unique and he took chances that other stars of his era didn’t. Reportedly, he turned down the role of James Bond, that made Sean Connery a star. But you got the impression that McGoohan never looked back.

He was also a talented director (helming some memorable episodes of Columbo). Below is a collection of clips from The Prisoner, including the line that defined the character of Number Six:

And here’s some excerpts of a Danger Man/Secret Agent episode called “Say It With Flowers.” It was directed by Peter Yates and the film editor was future 007 director John Glen.