53 years ago today…

Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo in the early moments of Act I of The Iowa-Scuba Affair, as photographed by Fred Koenekamp.

…production began on The Iowa-Scuba Affair, the first regular series episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (The pilot, The Vulcan Affair, had been filmed in late 1963.)

On June 1, 1964, even the earliest U.N.C.L.E. fans didn’t knew what awaited them in a few months. For the crew, it was another job.

What a crew it was.

The director, Richard Donner, would eventually become a big-time film director. The writer was Harold Jack Bloom. He shared an Academy Award nomination with episode producer Sam Rolfe on the screenplay of The Naked Spur, a 1953 western starring James Stewart.

The director of photography was Fred Koenekamp, who’d later photograph Patton. The composer for the episode was Morton Stevens.

While he’d never become famous, Stevens was a few years away from composing the theme for Hawaii Five-O, one of the best-know television themes.

When the cameras rolled, star Robert Vaughn, as Napoleon Solo, would be in almost every scene. David McCallum, signed to play Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin, wasn’t even in the episode. But McCallum would make his presence known shortly.

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.

 

Character actor William Schallert dies at 93

William Schallert

William Schallert

William Schallert, a character actor with a long career, mostly on television, died on Sunday at age 93, according to an OBITUARY IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.

The Times’ obit leads off with how he played the father on The Patty Duke Show. But Schallert played in many genres and naturally had experience on spy television of the 1960s.

His roles included Frank Harper, one of the substitute partners for James West (Robert Conrad) in the fourth season of The Wild Wild West when Ross Martin was recovering from a 1968 heart attack. Harper’s appearance took place during the show’s only two-part story, The Night of the Winged Terror. Harper, like Martin’s Artemus Gordon, was a master of disguise. Schallert had appeared earlier in the series in other parts.

Another spy-related role for the actor took place in Get Smart, which gets a mention in The Times’ obituary.

While the typical William Schallert character was focused and serious, he expressed particular affection for an atypical role: the wildly decrepit Admiral Hargrade, a recurring character on the spy spoof “Get Smart” (1967-70), who operated in a perpetual state of confusion. (“He reminded me of my grandmother when she got dotty,” Mr. Schallert said.)

Get Smart actually ran from 1965 to 1970. Schallert’s appearances on the show were from 1967 to 1970, according to the actor’s IMDB.com entry.

Other roles of note for Schallert included: a doctor in a 1967 Mission: Impossible episode; an oily lawyer defending a medical “quack” in a first-season, two-part episode of Hawaii Five-O (the same reason he played Frank Harper on The Wild Wild West); and a guest part in the Sam Rolfe-created 1970s series, The Delphi Bureau.

U.N.C.L.E.’s Mr. Fixit

George M. Lehr silhouette  (far right) incorporated into the title of Batman '66 Meets The Man From U.N.C.L.E. No. 6

George M. Lehr silhouette (lower, far right) incorporated into the title of Batman ’66 Meets The Man From U.N.C.L.E. No. 6

One of an occasional series on unsung heroes of television.

In the end titles of many television series, there are credits that don’t really don’t provide a viewer what a crew member really does.

So it was with George M. Lehr on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.

In the first season of Man, which ran from 1964 to 1968, Lehr had the title “assistant to producer.” In reality, he was a key member of the production team, headed by executive producer Norman Felton and producer-developer Sam Rolfe.

Lehr was, “for all intents and purposes, the third member of the Felton-Rolfe team,” Jon Heitland wrote in his 1987 book about U.N.C.L.E. “He undertook a myriad of duties on the show, including all postproduction work.”

That covers quite a bit of ground, from film editing to music scoring. That meant that Lehr touched a lot of bases with accomplished professionals.

U.N.C.L.E. was produced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where John Dunning (1916-1991), who won an Oscar for Ben-Hur, was the supervising editor. Franklin Milton (1907-1985), another Ben-Hur Oscar winner, was the recording supervisor.

Lehr even appeared on-screen, in a fashion. Starting with the eighth episode, The Double Affair, the main titles began with the silhouette of an attacker inside U.N.C.L.E. headquarters who fires a gun at Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn). This would last through the end of the first season. Lehr provided that silhouette.

During the second half of the show’s second season, Lehr got a promotion to associate producer (which meant a bigger credit in the end titles), a recognition of his contributions. For the 1966-67 season, he held the same title at The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (sharing it with Max Hodge).

After that series was canceled following its only season, he rejoined Man’s crew for its final campaign for the 1967-68 season, again with the title of associate producer. Lehr was around for the entire development of U.N.C.L.E.

“(H)e also helped to create the…”whip pan” by inserting blurred images between scenes,” Cynthia W. Walker wrote in Work/Text Investigating The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The “whip pan” was used as a transition and a key part of the show’s look.

Lehr’s silhouette from U.N.C.L.E.’s first season has surfaced on the cover of the Batman ’66 Meets The Man From U.N.C.L.E. mini-series published by DC Comics. The silhouette is altered slightly to make it appear that of an U.N.C.L.E. agent.

Meanwhile, you can see him in the video below, explaining the origin of the U.N.C.L.E. Special. It was part of an extra originally made for a 2007 DVD release of the show.