Happy 80th birthday, Robert Vaughn

Happy birthday, Mr. Solo

For people of a certain age, it’s doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., turns 80 on Nov. 22.

The 1964-68 spy series was just one stop on a long, and still continuing, career.

He’s the last surviving actor of those who portrayed the title characters in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. He picked up a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1959’s The Young Philadelphians, holding his own in a veteran cast. He was twice nominated for an Emmy in political-related drams and received one playing a thinly veiled version of H.R. Haldeman in the 1977 mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors. And he’s played more than his share of oily and/or villainous businessmen and/or politcians, thanks to 1968’s Bullitt.

Still, when he shows up at collectible shows, he’s more than often or not autographing stills of himself as Napoleon Solo, the television spy with a name courtesy of 007 creator Ian Fleming and developed by Sam Rolfe under the supervision of executive producer Norman Felton. For those who weren’t there during its run on NBC, U.N.C.L.E. really was a big deal.

The production values may look cheap compared to modern-day television. The series did all of its filming within about a 30-mile radius of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Culver City, California, studios. None of that matters. Vaughn established a U.S. beachhead for 1960s spy entertainment beginning in the fall of 1964. U.N.C.L.E. was pitched as “James Bond for television” but it successfully developed its own spin on the genre. Other fondly remembered shows followed, starting in the fall of 1965.

Vaughn had help, of course. His co-star, David McCallum, became popular in his own right. Early episodes were directed by the likes of Richard Donner and Joseph Sargent, who’d go on to direct feature films. Writers including Alan Caillou, Dean Hargrove and Peter Allan Fields spun tales that hold up today, despite the modest production budgets.

Still, it was up to Vaughn to sell everybody on all this. And sell it he did. Vaughn last played the character in the 1983 television movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But he remains tied to Solo. So happy birthday, Mr. Vaughn.

TCM to have an evening of the Other Spies on Jan. 24

Turner Classic Movies is having an evening of the “other” spies on Jan. 24, emphasizing lighter fare.

The evening starts at 8 p.m. New York time with In Like Flint (1967), the second of two James Coburn outings as Derek Flint. The intrepid adventurer shows off his ability to talk to porpoises, infiltrates the Kremlin and ends up in outer space.

Next up at 10 p.m. is Where The Spies Are (1966) with David Niven, once Ian Fleming’s preferred choice to play James Bond in what amounts to a warmup for the 1967 Casino Royale spoof. Midnight brings Agent 8 3/4 (1964) with Dirk Bogarde. At 2 a.m. (actually on Jan. 25, of course), TCM is scheduled to telecast 1966’s The Silencers, the first of four films with Dean Martin performing a spoof version <a.of Donald Hamilton’s counter assassin, Matt Helm.

TCM’s final spy entry at 4 a.m. is Salt and Pepper (1968), with Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford. The duo had done an episode of The Wild, Wild West together (The Night of the Returning Dead) and liked how director Richard Donner operated. Thus, Donner was hired to direct Salt and Pepper, one of Donner’s first theatrical films.

The FBI, season 1, part II now on sale

The rest of The FBI’s first season is now on sale through Warner Bros.’s online store. Included among the 15 episodes of the Quinn Martin/Warner Bros. series are these espionage-theme tales:

The Sacrifice: A defecting Soviet diplot informs the bureau that a key U.S. military contractor has been infilatrated by a spy ring. Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) and his partner Jim Rhodes (Stephen Brooks) are assigned the case.

The Spy Master: Erskine impersonates a U.S. diplomat who has been approached by China about turning over a valuable document known as the Forsythe Memo. Erskine’s assignment is to identify members of a Chinese spy ring. The episode was directed by future feature-film director Richard Donner.

The Defector: Two-part story has the bureau seeking an intelligence operative of an unnamed Eastern European country who wants to defect. The agent’s home country wants to prevent that. Meanwhile, a cagey chess player (John Van Dreelen) attempts to play both sides against the middle.

Non-espionage stories include Charles Bronson as a murderous criminal (The Animal), Colleen Dewhurst as a mentally unbalanced woman who has abducted a baby (The Baby Sitter) and Kurt Russell as a boy kidnapped by Wayne Rogers and Edward Asner (The Tormentors).

Happy birthday No. 98, the real man from U.N.C.L.E.

When somebody reaches their 98th birthday, there’s not much more than can be said. So happy birthday, Norman Felton, executive producer of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., born this day in 1913.

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again. Felton was the real man from U.N.C.L.E. He initiated the project, he bluffed network executives with a series proposal done on the fly, he enlisted the talents of people such as Sam Rolfe and Ian Fleming.

In the seventh episode of the 1964-1968 series, The Guioco Piano Affair, Felton was one of four crew members (director Richard Donner, developer-producer Sam Rolfe and associate producer Joseph Calvelli were the others) to appear in the story. You can view the episode’s end titles by CLICKING HERE. Felton can be seen in the final shot of the credits, the chess player at the left of the screen.

Anne Francis, ‘Honey West’ star, dies at 80

Actress Anne Francis has died at age 80. Most obituaries, such as the one in the Los Angeles Times, begin with how she starred in Forbidden Planet. But for our audience, she’s likely to be remembered as the star of Honey West, a one-season show on ABC.

Here’s some details from the Times obit:

Based on the title character in G.G. Fickling’s series of Honey West paperback mysteries launched in 1957, Francis’ Honey West was introduced to TV viewers in an episode of “Burke’s Law” in the spring of 1965.
(snip)
In what Francis later described as “a tongue-in-cheek, female James Bond,” her karate-chopping private eye drove a custom-built Cobra convertible sports car and, when necessary, worked out of a specially equipped mobile surveillance van that masqueraded as a TV service vehicle.

Also in her long-career, she was also a memorable villain in two first-season episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (The Quadripartite Affair and The Giuoco Piano Affair) as a power-hungry woman with a rich lover (played by John Van Dreelan) financing her schemes. The two shows were written by Alan Caillou and directed by Richard Donner.

RIP, Ms. Francis. Here’s a look at the main titles of the Aaron Spelling-produced Honey West:

UPDATE: Here’s the opening of The Giuoco Piano Affair, with Anne Francis billed as the special guest star. It was the last episode of U.N.C.L.E. featuring a longer, “documentary” style main titles.

Richard Donner reflects on directing ’60s spy shows

Richard Donner directed more than his share of episodic television shows before hitting it big as a feature film director in 1976’s The Omen. That work included putting his imprint on 1960s spy shows.

In a 2006 Archive of American television interview, Donner discussed his work on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart. He also did some episodes of The Wild, Wild West. The segment where he talks about U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart occurs roughly during the 21:50 to 26:38 of this video:

A few notes: Donner’s memory is a tad faulty in places. He refers to David McCallum having been married to Jill St. John when he meant Jill Ireland. Still, that kind of thing is easy to overlook. With U.N.C.L.E., Donner had a big impact; he directed four of the series’ first 14 episodes including the first (The Quadripartite Affair) that included an expanded presence for McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin and one of the few episodes (The Terbuf Affair) that provided much in the way of backstory for Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo.

You can see part of the finished product here. That’s Jill Ireland with McCallum (except in the long shots); a brunette Anne Francis as the lead villain; future Emmy-awarding winning director (for The Monkees) James Frawley as a treacherous policeman; executive producer Norman Felton as an irate chess player at a party; and Donner himself as a drunk at the same party:

1964: U.N.C.L.E.’s crew hams it up, aka Richard Donner, ACTOR

No matter how much a writer or a director or a producer accomplishes, some cannot resist the allure of appearing before the camera. Alfred Hitchcock certainly couldn’t and his cameos in his movies probably egged others on.

In its first season, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took the concept further. Four crew members went before the cameras in a party scene during Act I of “The Giuoco Piano Affair.” Executive Producer Norman Felton is a chess player; producer/developer Sam Rolfe is an oilman (you can tell by his string tie); and associate producer Joseph Calvelli is a writer.

But towering above them all is Richard Donner, ACTOR. The director, who wouldn’t become a big-time movie director for another 12 years, was the only crew member to get lines. Here, he shows David McCallum and Jill Ireland how acting is done. The question is which is louder: Donner’s spoken delivery or his sport coat. The scene lasts for the first 3:30 or so of this clip.