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.

Run James, Run – Brian Wilson’s James Bond theme

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson

By Paul Baack

It is early 1966. The fourth 007 screen adventure, Thunderball, recently released, is a monstrous hit. “James Bond mania” is at its peak. You happen to be Brian Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys — “America’s Band” — and in a personal neck-and-neck competition with the Beatles to conquer new sonic frontiers in pop music. So what do you do? You decide to compose a theme song for the next James Bond movie.

It’s a little-known fact that Brian Wilson harbored such an intent, much less actually went and did it. Working in the studio with the cream of Los Angeles-based studio musicians (while his bandmates were on tour in Japan), Wilson composed and recorded an instrumental track titled Run James, Run. Stacked with swinging brass, bongos, and (the de rigueur) twangy guitars, it’s a quintessential piece of 60s-style spy music. Unfortunately, Wilson wasn’t the most self-confident person in the world to begin with, and his fragile psyche was further compromised by nervous breakdowns, heavy drug use, and (later diagnosed) bipolar syndrome. End result: he lost his nerve and never submitted the music to Eon Productions, producers of the Bond films. Happy ending: he renamed the piece Pet Sounds and made it the title track to one of the greatest albums of the rock era.

It’s an interesting thought that the natural, intuitive, pairing of James Bond and pop music would have been his countrymen — and fellow British invaders — the Beatles1. But it was their American counterpart who actually made the first move, abortive as it was. At any rate, here is an imagining of the title sequence for You Only Live Twice, marrying Maurice Binder’s visuals with Brian Wilson’s music:

(Courtesy LuiECuomo’s channel on YouTube.)

1 Who knows? Maybe they were still smarting over the “earmuffs” crack in Goldfinger. Maybe John Lennon would’ve had political issues with the amorality of the screen 007. Maybe Paul was setting things up for Live and Let Die. Maybe Ringo was setting things up for Barbara Bach…

1966: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. meets The Beatles

This month marks the 45th anniversary of The Beatles’ final U.S. tour, which included a meeting the group sought with Robert Vaughn, the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

According to a 2004 blog post by Derek Lamar, the meeting took place on Aug. 24, 1966, at the Capitol Records building. The blog entry includes a photograph. Here’s an excerpt:

All sorts of people started showing up: both to gawk as well as to be let into the basement door in the back of the building. Robert Vaughn showed up and everyone yelled their support for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television show.

Vaughn, then 33, wasn’t there as a Beatles groupie. Instead, the Fab Four were fans of the show, which was in production for its third season. They wanted to see the actor who played Napoleon Solo. Lee Pfeiffer, publisher of Cinema Retro magazine, briefly describes how it came about around the 3:50 mark of this video related to the 2007 release of U.N.C.L.E. DVDs:

Pfeiffer also wrote about Vaughn describing the meeting in a post on Cinema Retro’s Web site. Here’s an excerpt:

(Vaughn) also recalled an ill-advised meet-up with The Beatles that turned to potential disaster when word leaked out. The crowds were so crazed, Vaughn and the Fab Four had to be rescued in an armored car.

To see another photo of the meeting, CLICK HERE.

This was just part of the ending of an era. The Beatles became strictly a studio band after this, according to Wikipedia’s entry on the group. U.N.C.L.E.’s popularity, meanwhile, had reached its peak and less than 18 months later, it would be canceled in January 1968.

The meeting, though, is significant for fans of 1960s spy entertainment. James Bond in 1964’s Goldfinger referred to drinking warm champagne as being as bad as “listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Ian Fleming’s other spy, Napoleon Solo (at least the actor who played him) got to hang with the band. As people might say today in the 21st Century, “Way to go, Dawg!”

(Thanks to our friend Marc for a research assist.)