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.

5 U.N.C.L.E. stories to watch this weekend

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

With the passing of actor Robert Vaughn, a natural reaction for fans would be to view some episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

This list was originally devised last year ahead of the 2015 movie version. It was intended for people not familiar with the series.

It’s still a good list of episodes to view, even for long-time fans.

These aren’t necessarily the very best episodes. But the list was intended to include examples from all four seasons of the show. Stories told over two episodes are listed as a single entry here.

The Quadripartite Affair/The Giuoco Piano Affair: These two episodes were filmed together but presented as separate, but related episodes.

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Quadripartite was the third episode broadcast. It’s also the first episode where Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) function as a team. There’s plenty of good “bits of business” for both characters.

The story involves a power-hungry woman, Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis), whose lover, Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelan), is one of the world’s richest men and who’s more than willing to finance her plans. That’s not unlike the new film, where Elizabeth Debicki, is the lead villain.

Giuoco Piano (the seventh episode broadcast) is even better than Quadripartite, showing how manipulative Solo can be. The title comes from a chess gambit that symbolizes Solo’s plan. If James Bond is the blunt instrument, this story demonstrates how Solo is the sharp operator.

Both episodes were written by Alan Caillou, who did intelligence work for the British in World War II. Think an Ian Fleming, who actually went out into the field. Caillou’s two scripts helped define the Kuryakin character. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot, envisioned Kuryakin as a large, massive man. Caillou provided McCallum with the material so the actor could make Illya his own.

Also, the two episodes were directed by Richard Donner, who’d become an A-list film director in the 1970s.

The Never-Never Affair: Through the first season, the show tried to find the right balance of drama and humor. Never-Never, aired late in the season, became the model for future episodes.

Solo and Illya during the theater shootout in The Never-Never Affair

In the story, Solo feels sorry for U.N.C.L.E. translator Mandy Stevenson (Barbara Feldon), who yearns for an adventure. He sends her to get pipe tobacco for U.N.C.L.E. chief Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), while telling her she’s acting as a courier. However, she accidentally is given a valuable microdot covered by the villainous organization, Thrush.

The episode includes a memorable set piece, where a Thrush assassin is firing through a movie theater screen at Solo and Kuryakin, who are having to deal with other Thrush operatives. A high percentage of the jokes work, and writer Dean Hargrove would become one of the main scribes of the series. It was the second episode of show helmed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best directors on the series.

Vincent Price and Patricia Medina as rival villains in The Foxes and Hound Affair.

Vincent Price and Patricia Medina as rival villains in The Foxes and Hounds Affair.

The Foxes and Hounds Affair: A breezy episode that aired early in the show’s second season. The new movie’s tone is supposed to be similar to the second season and Foxes and Hounds is one of the season’s better entries.

U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush are both after a mind-reading machine. That’s pretty fantastic, but no more so than what can be seen in a Marvel Studios film of the 21st century. Both Solo and Kuryakin get chances to shine. We also see that Waverly is perfectly capable of being cold blooded. On top of everything else, Vincent Price is a very good villain who has to watch his back for attacks from a rival in Thrush (Patricia Medina).

The Concrete Overcoat Affair: This two-part episode was edited into a movie for international audiences called The Spy in the Green Hat. Thrush has another ambitious plan that U.N.C.L.E. is trying to foil. But some retired gangsters end up becoming involved and act as a wild card.

This ran during the third season, when the drama-humor balance got out of whack in favor of humor. This Joseph Sargent-directed story reins that in to an extent. There’s also a good scene early in Part II where Solo wants to go save Kuryakin but Waverly disapproves. The U.N.C.L.E. chief relents, but only reluctantly. It’s an unusual moment of drama in a season where that was in short supply.

The Test Tube Killer Affair: In the fourth season, new producer Anthony Spinner wanted to dial the humor way back. This episode, early in the season, is one of the better entries produced by Spinner.

Christopher Jones, center, one of Thrush's

Christopher Jones, center, as Greg Martin, in The Test Tube Killer Affair.

Thrush’s Dr. Stoller (Paul Lukas) has been raising young men from childhood to be the perfect killing machines, able to turn their emotions on and off as needed. Stoller’s prize pupil, Greg Martin (Christopher Jones), has been chosen to blow up a dam in Greece. It’s strictly an exercise and the dam has no strategic importance but many will die if Martin succeeds.

Meanwhile, the young killer is highly intelligent — intelligent enough where it appears Solo and Kuryakin may have met their match. The episode has a less-than-happy ending, something not common on the show.

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.

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.

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.

U.N.C.L.E. and catching lightning in a bottle

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 how this month is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles meeting Robert Vaughn, the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The gathering reflected how U.N.C.L.E., for a time in the 1960s, was a very big deal. 

It was the Fab Four who requested the meeting. They were fans of the show and wanted to see the actor.

Vaughn was busy simultaneously being the lead in a U.S. television series and studying for a Ph.D. But the meeting took place anyway.

U.N.C.L.E.’s history is very much one of ups and downs. It almost got canceled in its first season. It enjoyed its best ratings in its second season (1965-66).

In fact, James Bond films actually benefited from U.N.C.L.E. Two 007 television specials, The Incredible World of James Bond and Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond (made to promote Thunderball and You Only Live Twice), aired in U.N.C.L.E.’s time slot on NBC.

But by January 1968, U.N.C.L.E. was canceled as its ratings plunged.

For the most part, U.N.C.L.E. was like catching lightning in a bottle — bright and powerful. For enthusiasts (including the Spy Commander, it should be noted), the light still shines bright. To the broader population, not so much. The same applies to other ’60s spy entertainment such as The Wild Wild West, I Spy and other shows.

In the 21st century, the “lightning in a bottle” shows still are fondly remembered by the original fan base. Trying to interest younger viewers remains a challenge. A year ago this month, a new movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. didn’t find an audience even as the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible film series was a hit.

So it goes. Nevertheless, those who were along for the ride originally still have their memories.

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.