The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.’s 45th anniversary: a spinoff fails to take off

This week is the 45th anniversary for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Its failure to find an audience — it only lasted one season — is a reminder of what can happen when creators don’t especially believe in what they’re doing.

A spinoff of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., featurng a woman agent, was the idea of NBC. The wife of a network executive had even suggested a name for such an operative: Cookie Fortune. Norman Felton, the executive producer of The Man From From U.N.C.L.E., wasn’t keen on the notion. He counterproposed having two hour-long shows each week simply called U.N.C.L.E., where agents could be mixed and matched. NBC stood firm.

Girl’s pilot aired at a second-season episode of Man called The Moonglow Affair, scripted by Dean Hargrove. Hargrove passed on using Cookie Fortune as a name; he ended up going to Ian Fleming’s list of ideas for Man and used April Dancer (envisioned by Fleming as a Miss Moneypenny type character).

In Moonglow, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) are incapacitated. April (Mary Ann Mobley) is assigned to take over the assignment, aided by a middle aged Mark Slate (Norman Fell). For the series, April was recast with Stefanie Powers and Slate was turned into a Brit in his 30s, with Noel Harrison in the role.

What happened next was a vicious cycle. By many accounts, Powers and Harrison couldn’t take the material seriously. Douglas Benton ordered scripts to take a lighter tone, figuring it would play to the strengths of Powers and Harrison. One of the crew was associate producer Max Hodge, who had written the first two Mr. Freeze stories on the 1966 Batman series.

Also, Felton & Co. weren’t comfortable having April actually fight guys (and absorb at least some punishment).
As a result, Slate’s Harrison had to take the beatings for two characters, making him look weaker. Meanwhile, ABC was importing episodes of the U.K.-produced The Avengers featuring Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel. April looked weak by comparison.

A light tone can work when 1) the jokes are funny and 2) the audience laughs with the hero. The problem with Girl is frequently the jokes weren’t funny and came at the expense of April Dancer and Mark Slate. Late in the season, Hargrove returned and wrote The Double-O-Nothing Affair. It was still light (Thrush villain Edward Asner’s base of operations is disguised as a used-car lot) but the jokes worked and April and Mark came across as capable and brave agents. Perhaps Hargrove had invested enough in the character of April Dancer to try to make it work.

Too little, too late. Girl was canceled in the spring of 1967 and an opportunity was lost. The show is now on DVD. Here’s a clip from what may be the worst episode of the series, The Paradise Lost Affair, in which the supposedly professionally trained April looks weak against villain Genghis Gomez VIII (Monte Landis). Warner Bros. uploaded this clip to YouTube to try to get people to buy the DVDs. Oops.

A proposal for revamping U.N.C.L.E. creator credits

All of a sudden, if you want U.N.C.L.E., you got U.N.C.L.E.: the complete Man From U.N.C.L.E. series (first released in 2007), The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (out today, Aug. 23) and the eight Man From U.N.C.L.E. movies (ditto). But there’s one nagging aspect about all of them: none of the creator credits is entirely accurate.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series and movies have the credit, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Developed by Sam Rolfe.” The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. has “U.N.C.L.E. Format Developed by Sam Rolfe.” Both are accurate as far as they go. But do they go far enough?

Rolfe created a good 90 percent or more of the finished product. Still, he wasn’t brought in until an idea had been hatched, and developed for a bit, by producer Norman Felton, who tried to get Ian Fleming involved., The 007 author had contributed some ideas, the most enduring to name the lead spy Napoleon Solo and the other that a Miss Moneypenny type be named April Dancer.

Trying to entice Fleming was a bit of salesmanship by Felton; NBC was willing to commit to a series without a pilot made if it could market a show as being created by Ian Fleming. (For further details, VIEW CRAIG HENDERSON’S FOR YOUR EYES ONLY WEB SITE BY CLICKING HERE. Meanwhile, Rolfe didn’t really have much to do with The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. itself. The spinoff show would be part of the U.N.C.L.E. universe that Rolfe had mostly created. But writer Dean Hargrove did the heavy lifting in coming up with a woman U.N.C.L.E. agent.

With that in mind, these revamped credits might be more accurate. They might not pass muster with the Writer’s Guild of America (which has specific rules for creator credits on TV shows). In any case, judge for yourself:

FOR THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.:
(Big type)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Developed by
SAM ROLFE

(smaller type)
Based on a Character Created by
NORMAN FELTON and IAN FLEMING.

FOR THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.:

(same size type for both)
The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Developed by
DEAN HARGROVE

Based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Developed by
SAM ROLFE

Of course, it’s too late to change at this late date and Fleming signed away any rights he had for one British pound to keep 007 producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off his back. Still, credits approximating these might be more representative of what actually happened.

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. available on DVD this week

The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., the spinoff series from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will become available on Aug. 23 on DVD from Warner Bros.

The price is $59.95. Be warned: the picture has not been digitally remastered (similar to Warners Bros.’s releases of The FBI) and appears to be a “manufactured on demand,” or MOD. That means no extras. That’s a far cry from Warners’s 2007 release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which was loaded with extras.

Girl featured the adventures of agent April Dancer (Stefanie Powers), assisted by fellow U.N.C.L.E. operative Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Leo G. Carroll played U.N.C.L.E. boss Alexander Waverly in both the spinoff and parent series. The pilot for Girl was a second-season episode of Man called The Moonglow Affair, which featured Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell, playing a frumpy, older-than-40, American Mark Slate.

Norman Felton, Man’s executive producer, wasn’t particularly keen on the spinoff, which was the brainchild of executives of NBC. Girl, which ran during the 1966-67 season, often had even goofier humor than Man’s third season. But it has some gems, including The Double-O-Nothing Affair, written by ace Man scripter Dean Hargrove, who also wrote The Moonglow Affair. Double-O-Nothing features Edward Asner is a Thrush operative, with a used-car lot as his cover.

Another notable episode was The Mother Muffin Affair, where Man’s Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) appeared to oppose independent woman criminal Mother Muffin, played by Boris Karloff. Thus, it was the one production with both U.N.C.L.E. characters named by Ian Fleming. (Fleming had suggested the name of April Dancer for a Miss Moneypenny-type character when he met with Felton in 1962.)

Douglas Benton, Girl’s producer, in a late 1990s interview said the production team was thinking about casting Dame Judith Anderson. Joseph Calvelli, the writer, was asked to describe Mother Muffin and he replied, “Boris Karloff in drag.” Benton had worked with Karloff on the 1960-62 anthology series Thriller, offered him the role and Karloff, according to the producer, immediately accepted. (The interview is recreated on a commentary track on the Thriller DVD set, with Benton’s son reading his father’s words.)

Finally, for Bond fans, Luciana Paluzzi is a guest star in Girl’s first episode, The Dog Gone Affair.

For more information about the DVD set, including how to order, JUST CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, here’s a clip from The Mata Hari Affair, the fourth episode. Truth be told, it’s not that good despite being directed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best of the Man directors. For some viewers, though, this scene is still a highlight: