How Hollywood still doesn’t get U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: misunderstood in Hollywood

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: misunderstood in Hollywood

Scott Z. Burns, who wrote a script for a proposed movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., seems really proud that he based the plot off the real-life Palomares 1966 crash of a B-52 plane with atomic bombs.

There was one bomb that wasn’t recovered initially. It was “laying on the floor of the Mediterranean and no one could find it and so it was the race to find it that was what our episode was about,” Burns told Collider.com IN AN INTERVIEW. The scribe said he thought “it “was going to be really, really cool and I’m bummed we didn’t get to do it.”

The thing was the crash happened Jan. 17, 1966, less than a month after Thunderball, the fourth James Bond movie, debuted. Thunderball centered on the theft of two atomic bombs from a NATO aircraft. When the Palomares incident occurred, comparisons to Thunderball were made then and since SUCH AS THIS 2012 STORY on the BBC’s Web site or THIS POST on the Web site of The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Put another way, Burns, who was working for director Steven Soderbergh (who ditched the project in late 2011), wasn’t exactly examining fresh ground. Especially considering the last official U.N.C.L.E. production, 1983’s The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television movie, concerned how a resurgent Thrush (the villainous organization that opposed U.N.C.L.E. in the show) stole, you guessed it, two atomic bombs from a U.S. military plane.

What’s wrong with that? Wasn’t The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sold to NBC as “James Bond for television”? True enough, but if you take the time to actually watch the show, you’ll see some technology that still hasn’t been invented: a near limitless power source held in reserve in case Earth is ever invaded (The Double Affair); a vaporizer (The Arabian Affair); a mind-reading machine (The Foxes and Hounds Affair); and a serum that accelerates the healing process (The Girls of Nazarone Affair). And that’s just off the top of our head.

But U.N.C.L.E. was different than Bond in more than gadgets. The dynamic was noticeably different, in part, because Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) interacted with “innocents,” or stand-ins for the television audience. Some times, it was deliberate (recruiting a former girlfriend of the villain in the pilot episode), other times “innocents” got drawn into the story by dumb luck.

In any event, Solo and Kuryakin had to try to defeat the villain *and* look out for the “innocents.” That element alone changed the dynamic significantly compared with James Bond’s film universe. In addition, Napoleon Solo, while sharing Bond’s appreciation for the ladies, also had a moral streak Bond didn’t seem to exhibit.

Perhaps the best example was the show’s final episode, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair Part II. A former U.N.C.L.E. official believes the world is inevitably headed for ruin unless the “right” people take over. Kingsley (Barry Sullivan) has access to a gas that will make people obedient (there’s that tech that hasn’t been invented yet). This way, “my way,” as Kingsley says, the never-ending battle between evil and good will be settled permanently for good.

Solo is offered a chance to join Kingsley but instead sharply criticizes Kingsley and his lieutenants, the “wonders” of the title. “In your world, Kingsley, there’ll be no wonder,” Solo says in what is one of Robert Vaughn’s best acting moments in the series. It’s a bit of gravitas in a story that was padded out for a two-part length so it could be released internationally as a movie.

You wouldn’t get much of this vibe from comments that Soderbergh and Burns made about U.N.C.L.E. while they were involved in the aborted movie. All too often, U.N.C.L.E. is viewed in Hollywood as a way to do an alternate James Bond.

To a degree that’s understandable. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot and was the first-season producer, died two decades ago. Norman Felton, the long-retired executive producer, died last year at age 99. There are few people left in Hollywood who even remember the show much, much less know what made it tick.

Until evidence surfaces to the contrary, it’s clear Hollywood simply doesn’t get U.N.C.L.E.

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What Soderbergh’s U.N.C.L.E. would have been like

The cast of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television show.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: still dormant.


Scott Z. Burns, who wrote a script for director Steven Soderbergh for a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 2011, has told COLLIDER.COM some details about the aborted project, which would have been set in the 1960s.

An excerpt:

Burns: Yeah, Steven and I both loved it because (U.N.C.L.E.) was a way of doing a spy movie and setting up a really interesting character that was fascinating to us, because U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t affiliated with the US or with Russia, it was this great cold war thing. And now spies have all these great toys but we would have to take some of them away, because it was the 60’s and there would be different plots because you didn’t always have a cell and you couldn’t solve problems with some of the things now.

So we had this idea based on something happening in the real world…there was a thing that happened with a B-52 bomber in like 1966 or 1967 over Spain where it was refueling and there was an accident and it lost its payload and three bombs fell on Spain and the Atlantic, and they hadn’t been armed, but …contained warheads.

So we scattered plutonium all over a farm field in Spain, the second bomb was recovered, but the there was a period of time when the third bomb was laying on the floor of the Mediterranean and no one could find it and so it was the race to find it that was what our episode was about, which I thought was going to be really, really cool and I’m bummed we didn’t get to do it.

Burns also told Collider that the project “was pretty close to going. I think we were all shocked that it didn’t happen.” Instead, Soderbergh quit the project.

This came out because Soderbergh, 50, wants to retire from directing. After U.N.C.L.E. crashed, he and Burns did a medical thriller called Side Effects, which comes out Feb. 8. Thus, publicity for Side Effects is underway.

Soderbergh’s last directing project, is a made-for-HBO movie about Liberace. Meanwhile, there have been no signs that Warner Bros., which has the rights to the 1964-68 U.N.C.L.E. television series, is doing anything with the property soon.

A footnote (or two) to last year’s aborted U.N.C.L.E. movie

A story popped this week on the Deadline entertainment news Web site that reminded us of last year’s aborted movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Channing Tatum: one-time Solo contender, now hot Hollywood property


The May 29 story said GI Joe 2 was being delayed from the end of June until early 2013 so scenes could be reshot. The reason? So that Channing Tatum’s character, who was going to be killed off, would miraculously survive. The original announcement of the delay said it was so the movie could be converted to the 3D format.

Anyway, we were minded about the U.N.C.L.E. project because Tatum had been mentioned as a possible Napoleon Solo had director Steven Soderbergh not exited the project. Tatum, a mix of linebacker build, jug ears and six-pack abs, wasn’t our first choice for the role. However, according to Deadline, Tatum is now such a hot property that Paramount decided it couldn’t afford his character being killed off in GI Joe 2. Tatum is in the Magic Mike movie coming out in June about male strippers directed by Soderbergh.

Meanwhile, all this got us to thinking more broadly about a 21st Century U.N.C.L.E. Throughout most of 2011, it seemed as every turn of the screw got lots of media attention — until Soderbergh quit. There were reports that Warner Bros. still wants to make an U.N.C.L.E. but the project is off the radar.

Robert Vaughn: the original Solo


Speculation (and we stress it’s only that): the source of much of 2011’s coverage of U.N.C.L.E. movie developments stemmed from Soderbergh himself. He granted many interviews, which makes you wonder if he was the source of the stories attributed to “sources.” There’s no way to know for sure. Still, once Soderbergh became involved, there were stories aplenty. After he left, virtually none.

In any case, for now, the only Napoleon Solo anybody is going to see is Robert Vaughn’s original on DVD.

Soderbergh says more about his U.N.C.L.E. project

Steven Soderbergh, in another interview about his film Haywire, dropped a few more hints what his now-defunct version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would have been like.

In an interview with The Playlist Web site, the director had this to say about U.N.C.L.E.:

Yeah, with that we had a couple of sequences that I thought conceptually were interesting and weren’t necessarily…there was only one hand to hand thing and there was an element in it that made it different than what we were doing in “Haywire.” Then the other action stuff had interesting ideas in it, that were not sort of straight forward, they all had some kind of weird thing going on. But it was also, I mean it was a real spy movie. Scott [Z. Burns, the writer of this and “Contagion”] wrote it so it was dense, it was smart, it was funny. I really like the Harry Palmer films a lot, so there was a lot of that in that. “The Ipcress File,” “Funeral in Berlin” and “Billion-Dollar Brain.” “Funeral in Berlin” I really liked a lot. Scott and I talked about that a lot. We were watching those as we were working on the script.

Some intriguing comments, in particular how Soderberger was graviating to the Palmer series, based on Len Deighton’s novels, starring Michael Caine and produced by Harry Saltzman, co-founder of Eon Productions. U.N.C.L.E. was disdained by some (including Albert R. Broccoli, the other Eon co-founder) as a Bond ripoff. But with Soderbergh exiting U.N.C.L.E. last year, it’s a vision we’re not going to see.

On the other hand, U.N.C.L.E. was originally pitched as “James Bond for television,” not “Harry Palmer for television.”

UPDATE: Thinking about it further, maybe U.N.C.L.E. fans dodged a bullet thanks to Soderbergh’s departure in a disagreement with Warner Bros. over the film’s budget. Napoleon Solo, like James Bond, is a romantic hero, not an antihero.

Soderbergh confirms U.N.C.L.E. exit concerned budget

Director Steven Soderbergh is making the rounds to publicize his new movie Haywire. In an interview with the Star-Ledger of Newark, he also confirmed he departed a planned movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in a disagreement with Warner Bros. about the project’s budget.

“(W)e were going back and forth and, in the end, I pushed them …and the studio said, ‘Well, if you’re really going to push us to answer now, the answer is no.’”

(snip)
“Frankly, I think there’s a piece of the narrative missing here, on their side, because the difference between their number and my number was not that big.”

No additional details were mentioned. Last year, The Playlist Web site reported that Warner Bros. offered a $60 million budget for the movie, and the director and studio had disagreements over casting.

Haywire, which hit theaters on Jan. 20, has a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, reportedly Soderbergh’s choice for Napoleon Solo after George Clooney turned it down, and Channing Tatum, who had been mentioned as a possible Solo but didn’t really strike us as a great choice.

UPDATE: Haywire finished No. 5 at the U.S. box office this week. CLICK HERE for more details.

Guy Ritchie may direct U.N.C.L.E. movie, Deadline says

Guy Ritchie, the one-time Mr. Madonna, may end up directing a movie based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E, according to Nikki Finke’s Deadline entertainment news Web site.

Very brief excerpt:

EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros is making a deal with Guy Ritchie and his new partner Lionel Wigram to come aboard The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the film that Steven Soderbergh left just recently over budget and difficulty with casting after George Clooney dropped out….The intention is for Ritchie to direct the film.

The 43-year-old Ritchie is a hot property after directing two Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Given the curse
that seems to hang over attempts to revive U.N.C.L.E. (created by Norman Felton and Ian Fleming, with writer-producer Sam Rolfe, who got a “developed by” credit, doing most of the heavy lifting), we can’t get very excited just yet.

UPDATE: Even if Ritchie actually ends up directing, don’t expect Robert Downey Jr. to play Napoleon Solo. The actor is developing a Perry Mason movie and is committed to reprising the title role in Iron Man III.

U.N.C.L.E. epilogue: Soderbergh finds a new project

Steven Soderbergh, who bailed out of directing a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., has found a new project, according to THE WRAP entertainment news Web site.

Steven Soderbergh has signed on to direct a new thriller, “The Bitter Pill,” TheWrap has confirmed.

Scott Burns wrote the script and is also producing. Other producers include Soderbergh’s producing partner, Greg Jacobs, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

Soderbergh recently bailed out of an U.N.C.L.E. film project at Warner Bros., which also would have used a script by Burns. Soderbergh on the one hand says he wants to retire from filmmaking while jamming his schedule before that retirement begins. Anyway, presumably The Bitter Pill will take up the time he would have spent shooting U.N.C.L.E., (reportedly starting between mid-February and March), which would be before his final directing project, a made-for-HBO movie about Liberace.

UPDATE: It turns out THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER was first to report the news.