John Saxon’s forgotten spy TV movie

Publicity still for Istanbul Express with John Saxon, Gene Barry and Mary Ann Mobley.

Actor John Saxon died today at 83, according to The Hollywood Reporter. according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Saxon had many credits over a long career including Enter the Dragon and Nightmare on Elm Street. But he dabbled in the spy genre, including a 1968 TV movie, Istanbul Express.

Saxon played Cheval, who was in charge of security for a train running from Instanbul into Europe. The TV movie starred Gene Barry as an intelligence agent. The cast also included Senta Berger and Mary Ann Mobley,

There was quite a bit of behind-the-scenes talent involved. The producer-director was Richard Irving, a major player at Universal’s television factory. The writers were Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Columbo.

Universal pioneered made-for-TV movies and this espionage story was an early effort along those lines. It’s not well-remembered today.

As it turns out, Instanbul Express is on YouTube (at least for now)

U.N.C.L.E. script: The early days

Poster for The Spy With My Face, the movie version of The Double Affair, featuring Robert Vaughn as Solo, Senta Berger as Serena and David McCallum (in that order). Based on the “colour” spelling, it’s probably from the U.K. release.

May 1964 was the early days of production of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The pilot had resulted in a sale to NBC. But the first regular episode woudn’t go into production until June 1 of that year.

As a result, the first draft of The Double Affair, dated May 12, 1964, was written as the show was getting up to speed. The draft, written by Clyde Ware, is significantly different than the episode that would air on Nov. 17 1964.

Among other things, the U.N.C.L.E. chief in this draft is Mr. Allison, the character played by Will Kuluva in the pilot. The part would be renamed Alexander Waverly and recast with Leo G. Carroll.

Also, in this script, the villainous organization is referred to as MAGGOTT, spelled with all capital letters but no sign if it’s actually an acronym.

When the pilot (The Vulcan Affair) was filmed, the organization was called Thrush. But there was a debate among Arena Productions (the production company that made U.N.C.L.E.), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and NBC whether that was a good name.

One alternative was “Wasp.” That was eventually rejected, although the movie version of The Vulcan Affair saw “Wasp” dubbed for “Thrush.” MAGGOTT also (thankfully) went by the wayside. Still, it makes for amusing reading when looking at this script. Eventually, Arena/MGM/NBC agreed on Thrush for the series.

Project EarthSave

The story concerns an attempt by the villains to steal Project EarthSave. As described in this script it’s the “final weapon,” originally developed by scientists of multiple nations. The director of the underground facility in Switzerland that houses Project EarthSave provides U.N.C.L.E. agents some background in Act III.

The choice was dictated by the possibility of attack by a hostile force…Oh, not of this planet — the use of Project EarthSave might very well destroy the earth itself! But our scientists have picked up strange fragments of radio waves — from beyond our galaxy! If the world should be attacked from beyond the stars — imagine the power such an attack force would possess! Project EarthSave might wellbe our last line of defense. Our only chance.

To get at Project EarthSave, MAGGOTT has used plastic surgery to make one of its operatives the twin of U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo. That’s because Solo iss part of a team of U.N.C.L.E. agents who every August deliver the new combination for the vault that contains Project EarthSave. For this run, Russian U.N.C.L.E. Illya Kuryakin is participating for the first time.

The head of the MAGGOTT operation is Mars Two, who’d be renamed Darius Two in the episode. His team includes femme fatale Serena, who’d be played by Senta Berger. In the episode, Berger’s title care would appear after Robert Vaughn’s but before David McCallum’s.

She meets up with Solo at a restaurant, interrupting his date with a girlfriend named Sandy. He goes to answer a telephone call. “His senses highly developed, Solo immediately realizes there is no one on the end end of the phone,” according to the state directions. “And he becomes aware of something else — somebody is behind him.”

Meeting Serena

It’s Serena, of course. From the stage directions written by Ware:

As Solo turns — gun leveled — to face one of the most attractive women he’s ever seen. If Sophia Loren had a sister with a bit more of the sinister about her, Solo would be pressing his pistol almost into her rib cage. It’s fortunate he hasn’t raised the gun any higher…

MAGGOTT eventually captures Solo and substitutes its man. From that point onward in the script, the double is referred to as “Solo” (with quotation marks around the name) to distinguish him from the real Solo.

As you might surmise, MAGGOTT doesn’t succeed in getting Project EarthSave. However, there are still more differences in this script compared with the final episode, or, for that matter, The Spy With My Face,. The latter was the movie version of the episode, which included extra footage. It was released in the U.K. in August 1965. But U.N.C.L.E. was so popular, it got a U.S. release in 1966.

In any case, here are some aspects of the script that would be changed in the final version.

–A line by Mars Two, “And then UNCLE — and the rest of the world — will listen to MAGGOTT’s terms!” doesn’t make the episode. Imagine you’re an actor saying that line.

–We’re told that Solo’s mother lived in Wisconsin but she died in 1956 of natural causes. This occurs early in the script when MAGGOTT is assessing whether Solo’s double needs any last minute work to perfect the masquerade.

— One of the U.N.C.L.E. agents involved in the Project EarthSave mission is named Cluade Chanso. “Claude is tall, dark, suave — and as attractive as all Frenchmen would like the world to believe they are,” according to the stage directions. The character would become Arsene Coria, an Italian agent, in the finished episode.

–The script includes Namana, an African agent who would be in the final episode. Namana is alive at the end of this script. In the episode, he’s killed by Solo’s double after the vault to Project EarthSave is open.

Clyde Ware remained the only credited writer when The Double Affair aired. However, when the movie came out, the credit was altered to: “Screenplay by Clyde Ware and Joseph Cavelli, Story by Clyde Ware.”

Calvelli was associate produce for roughly the first half of U.N.C.L.E. first season. My guess he did the bulk of the revising from the May 1964 script.

1979: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie that wasn’t

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum

The impending start of production of a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a reminder of other attempts at reviving U.N.C.L.E. One of the most ambitious story lines was devised in the late 1970s as an attempt at a feature film.

Robert Short and Danny Biederman pitched what they called The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Feature Film. The Short-Biederman tale involved an all-out assault by Thrush, the villainous organization of the 1964-68 series, against U.N.C.L.E. Short and Biederman also intended that Robert Vaughn and David McCallum reprise their roles as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.

What’s more, according to a 17-page outline dated April 1979, Thrush “has gained a solid grasp on the world’s economy by having bought controlling interest in numerous multi-national corporations.”

A more elaborate 74-page treatment was later written but the outline provides an idea what this version of U.N.C.L.E. would have been like.

What follows are a few examples:

— We witness the destruction of U.N.C.L.E.’s New York headquarters.

— The “innocent” character is Brandy Burns, an advice columnist for The New York Times. (For a movie made in 1979-80, the New York Daily News or New York Post would have been closer to real life.)

— The femme fatale is Serena, played by Senta Berger in The Double Affair of the original series or The Spy With My Face, the movie version based on that episode.

— Alexander Waverly, the U.N.C.L.E. chief of the original show isn’t seen but we’re told by the end of the 17-page outline is still alive. LEO G. CARROLL, who played Waverly in the original series had died in 1972.

— Dr. Egret, a Thrush master of disguise who appeared in two first-season episodes, makes an appearance late in the story.

— The Thrush Ultimate Computer, only seen in one second-season episode (where it was blown up), plays a prominent role in the story.

— Late in the story we’re told that Thrush’s ruling council consists of “major world figures known to have died during the past several decades. As it turns out, each death had been a phony, staged to provide the individuals a means of exiting one position of power and enter another.”

No specific examples are given, but had a movie been given the go ahead in 1979-80, the possibilities are endless. John F. Kennedy (died 1963)? Robert F. Kennedy (died 1968)? Joseph Stalin (died 1953)? Mao Zedong (died 1976)? Nikita Khrushchev (died 1971)?

In the end, it was not to be.

The Short-Biederman project kicked round until the spring of 1982, according to CRAIG HENDERSON’S U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE ON THE FOR YOUR EYES ONLY WEBSITE. Sometimes it was pitched as a made-for-television movie as an alternate for a feature film. Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. timeline says in 1981 Short and Biederman lined up Laura Antonelli to play Serena, Jane Seymour as the innocent and Klaus Kinski as the villain.

A 1983 TV movie, The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., was made instead and was broadcast in April 1983. Vaughn and McCallum reprised the Solo and Kuryakin roles and Robert Short was technical adviser.

There hasn’t been an official U.N.C.L.E. production since. That will change if director Guy Ritchie begins filming his U.N.C.L.E. movie in early September with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Solo and Kuryakin.




Elizabeth Debicki talks up her U.N.C.L.E. movie role

Elizabeth Debicki

Elizabeth Debicki

Elizabeth Debicki, cast as a femme fatale in a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., has been talking up her role in the film scheduled to start filming in September.

The datails can be found ON THE WEBSITE OF THE TELEGRAPH NEWSPAPER IN AUSTALIA. Here’s an excerpt that refers to director Guy Ritchie and actors Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer:

“I’m a big fan of Guy’s work, I always have been,” Debicki told Confidential. “It is really exciting to be part of a remake of such a great show. The cast is fantastic and it will just be fresh and interesting and fun and dynamic. I love Guy’s genre, it is such a mashup which makes for really interesting films.”


“I’ve certainly had more offers than before but I just felt like this was the right project,” said Debicki, who is staying with friends in LA until rehearsals start later this month.

“The timing is right for me and it is a great role.”

Debicki, who hasn’t yet met Ritchie, Cavill or Hammer in person, can’t reveal too much information on her character.

Cavill and Hammer will play secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, the characters made famous by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the original television series.

“It is a substantial role, certainly to the plot and storyline,” she said. “Armie and Henry are really the leads as they are in the original TV series and there are baddies and goodies on either side of them.”

There were a number of femme fatale characters in the original 1964-68 television series. Two of the most memorable were Angelique, played by Janine Gray, and Serena, played by Senta Berger, both in the show’s first season. It remains to be seen whether the 23-year-old Debicki is playing of those characters or an entirely new character.

Red 2 utilizes a familiar meme

Luciana Paluzzi and Sean Connery during the filming of Thunderball

Luciana Paluzzi and Sean Connery on the set of Thunderball

This weekend’s release of Red 2 includes one of the most dependable memes of spy fiction: the hero and the femme fatale who have been more than friendly.

In the new movie, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s Katja is described as “Kryptonite” for Bruce Willis’s Frank Moses. Often the femme fatales are enemies but at times reach an uneasy alliance with the hero — at least until she starts trying to kill him again.

James Bond-Fiona Volpe (Thunderball): In Goldfinger, Sean Connery’s James Bond “recruited” Honor Blackman’s Pussy Galore to the side of right. In Thunderball, Connery’s Bond tries it again, albeit unsuccessfully, with Fiona Volpe (Luciana Volpe), the chief executioner for SPECTRE. “What a blow it must have been — you having a failure,” Fiona says. “Well, you can’t win them all,” Bond replies.

Fiona doesn’t survive long after that. But Paluzzi made such an impact that in the next 007 film, You Only Live Twice, Karin Dor’s Helga seems to be a knockoff of Fiona.

Napoleon Solo/Angela-Angelique-Serena Luciana Paluzzi had a dry run before her Thunderball role. When The Man From U.N.C.L.E. pilot was in production, producer Norman Felton had additional footage shot for a movie version for international audiences. Paluzzi’s Angela lures an U.N.C.L.E. agent to his death and tries to do the same with Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. The extra footage for the movie version as used, yet again, in a first-season episode of the series called The Four-Steps Affair.

Other Thrush femme fatale operatives showed up in Man’s first season, Serena (Senta Berger) and Angelique (Janine Gray). Solo has had a history with both but the viewer isn’t provided many details. Serena helps abduct Solo for a double can take his place. But at the story’s climax (the TV version was called The Double Affair, the movie version The Spy With My Face), Serena ends up shooting the double.

Matt Helm/Vadya: In the third Matt Helm novel by Donald Hamilton, The Removers, Helm goes to the “recognition room” to review dossiers of Soviet-bloc assassins. One of the dossiers concerns the mysterious “Vadya.” Helm readers don’t meet Vadya until Hamilton’s sixth Helm novel, The Ambushers. The encounter ends in a draw. Helm meets Vadya twice more in the novels The Devastators and The Menacers. She’s killed off early in The Menacers, but her death is a key part of the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, the 1967 adaption of The Ambushers, starring Dean Martin, includes Vadya (Senta Berger again), except the character has been renamed. The character is killed before the end of the movie.