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.

The Incredible World of James Bond’s 50th

Thunderball British quad that was auctioned this month

Thunderball British quad that was auctioned this month

This post is both to wish readers a Happy Thanksgiving Day and to note the 50th anniversary of The Incredible World of James Bond.

Incredible World first aired Nov. 26, 1965, in the United States. NBC pre-empted The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to air the special, which reviewed the first three 007 movies and promoted the upcoming Thunderball, due out the following month.

In the 21st century, business types would call this “synergy.” U.N.C.L.E. was at its peak of ratings. Bond was at his peak of popularity. Even though 007 producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had once tried to stop production of U.N.C.L.E., putting the Bond special in U.N.C.L.E.’s time slot made perfect business sense.

For this blog, there’s also a personal note. Incredible World was how the Spy Commnader first discovered 007.

Originally, Sean Connery was to host the special but he pulled out at the last minute. As a replacement, character actor Alexander Scourby was hired to narrate.

Scourby (1913-1985) had already acted as a narrator on other documentaries. He was blessed with a pleasant sounding, but firm, voice that conveyed authority. He was perfect for the project.

Had Connery gone through with it, Incredible World might have seemed like a cheesy infomercial (though the term hadn’t been coined yet). Scourby gave Incredible World a sense of heft, perhaps more than it actually deserved. It came across as a documentary, not a promotional vehicle (which it also was).

The narration spoken by Scourby covered both the movies and Ian Fleming’s novels, including a sequence providing a biography of Bond taken from the obituary chapter of You Only Live Twice. In short, Incredible World was the perfect vehicle to entice even more new followers for the exploits of agent 007.

So, Happy Thanksgiving. And happy anniversary to The Incredible World of James Bond.

UPDATE: A couple of other things of note about The Incredible World of James Bond:

–It shows part of the casino scene from Thunderball. Adolfo Celi and Claudine Auger can be heard speaking in their own voices. They were dubbed for the movie.

–Over at The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Inner Circle page on Facebook, an original viewer notes that U.N.C.L.E.’s David McCallum was seen at the end of The Incredible World of James Bond saying the show would be back next week but not sounding very pleased it had been pre-empted in the first place.

Our Ian Fleming U.N.C.L.E. primer

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Less than a month from now, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie will be in theaters. The point of this post is to keep everything concerning Ian Fleming’s connection to the original television series in perspective.

1962: There is interest in developing Ian Fleming’s non-fiction book Thrilling Cities into a television series. (For specific dates, as compiled by Craig Henderson’s For Your Eyes Only website, CLICK HERE.)

Late October 1962: Television producer Norman Felton meets with Ian Fleming in New York City. The duo eventually hash out some ideas for a television series.

Late May 1963: Fleming, under pressure from 007 film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, sends a message on his 55th birthday that he intends to exit the television project.

June 1963: Fleming signs away his U.N.C.L.E. rights for 1 British pound.

November 1963: The pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. begins filming. The script is written by Sam Rolfe (1924-1993).

1964: Broccoli and Saltzman try to stop U.N.C.L.E. from going into production. There’s a settlement where the lead character in U.N.C.L.E. keeps the name Napoleon Solo (a Fleming suggestion) For specific dates, check out Craig Henderson’s website by CLICKING HERE.

Sept. 22, 1964: The pilot episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. airs on NBC.

Nov. 26, 1965: NBC pre-empts The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to show the special The Incredible World of James Bond. Originally, Sean Connery was to be the narrator but pulls out at the last minute. Character actor Alexander Scourby takes over the narration duties. Many U.N.C.L.E. fans discover the world of 007 as a result.

Why William Boyd isn’t the best salesman for Solo

William Boyd

William Boyd

This week, author William Boyd makes his 007 debut when the James Bond novel Solo comes out in the U.K. The problem is Boyd isn’t necessarily the best salesman for his own product.

This week, a series of brief Boyd monologues were uploaded to YouTube. In THE FIRST VIDEO he acts as if he had unearthed a startling secret about the literary James Bond.

I suspect there are aspects of Bond people aren’t aware of. Of course the Bond aficionados, the Bond fans will know. The casual readers of Bond will not know some of the things I’ve put in the novel…For example, Bond’s Scottishness. Bond is not English — he’s half Scottish, half Swiss.

Of course, Solo is coming out less than a year after 2012’s Skyfall (worldwide ticket sales: $1.11 BILLION), which made a HUGE deal about exploring Bond’s roots, including the fact he was raised in Scotland, where the climatic sequence takes place. The movie was about as subtle about 007’s Scottish heritage as a heart attack.

Nor was Skyfall the first time. The 1965 television special The Incredible World of James Bond devoted a short segment to Bond’s origins in Scotland, based on the 1964 novel You Only Live Twice. While the bulk of the movies haven’t explored the topic, the fact that Bond has a Scottish heritage doesn’t represent the deepest research into the literary 007. Anybody who has read, say, The James Bond Bedside Companion by Raymond Benson is already up to speed on the topic.

Last spring, of course, Boyd boasted why Solo was such a good title for a Bond novel while seemingly unaware that Fleming had used Solo not once, but twice: as a character in Goldfinger and as the name for the lead character in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series.

It may yet turn out that Boyd’s 007 novel is a good addition to the literary canon. But Boyd doesn’t do himself any favors in promoting the new novel. Some of his major talking points don’t withstand the slightest examination.

EARLIER POSTS:
OPEN CHANNEL D: WILLIAM BOYD’S FLEMING RESEARCH GAP

WILLIAM BOYD’S NEW 007 NOVEL TO BE TITLED, IRONICALLY, SOLO

From Russia With Love’s 50th Part III: Desmond Llewelyn

Desmond Llewelyn instructs Sean Connery

Desmond Llewelyn instructs Sean Connery

Audiences of the initial release of From Russia With Love didn’t realize it at the time, but they witnessed the start of a character actor’s 17-film, 36-year run.

Desmond Llewelyn took over the role of Major Boothroyd from Peter Burton, who played the part in Dr. No. In the initial 007 outing, Boothroyd presented Bond with his new gun, a Walther PPK. Llewelyn’s Boothroyd gave Sean Connery’s James Bond something more elaborate: a briefcase, if not opened properly, that would emit tear gas. It was also equipped with a sniper’s rifle, 50 gold pieces and a knife.

At this point, the character wasn’t referred to as Q. M mentions “Q branch” and its “smart-looking piece of luggage.” Boothroyd doesn’t reveal much of his feelings toward Bond either.

No matter. The actor’s appearance in From Russia With Love set the stage for his long run in the part. The Guy Hamilton-directed Goldfinger established Boothroyd’s annoyance at Bond regarding the agent’s disrespect of Q-branch equipment. In the 1965 television special The Incredible World of James Bond, the character would be referred to as “the fussy Major Boothroyd.”

Eventually, Llewelyn’s character would just be called Q, though Soviet agent Triple-X reminded viewers of the Boothroyd name in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.

Llewelyn would play opposite five Bond actors. In the 1990s, the question was how long would the actor continue. Bruce Feirstein’s first-draft screenplay of Tomorrow Never Dies, includes a character named Malcolm Saunders, who is “Q’s successor.”

In his first appearance in the script, Saunders is “looking like a mummy – plaster casts on his left leg, left arm; neck-brace, crutch.” Saunders explains how he received his injuries: “Q’s retirement party. I’d just put the knife into the cake, and – ” However, the retired Q shows up later in the story. In the much-revised final story, we get a standard Bond-Q scene with Llewelyn opposite Pierce Brosnan, except it takes place in Germany instead of MI6 headquarters.

In Llewelyn’s finale, 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, Q/Boothroyd is talking retirement. Brosnan’s Bond doesn’t believe it — or doesn’t want to believe it. Q gives Bond some advice (always have an escape route) and makes his exit.

Llewelyn died in December 1999 of injuries from a car accident.

NEXT: Legacy

Michael G. Wilson says 007 is an anti-hero

Michael G. Wilson, co-boss of Eon Productions, which produces the James Bond films, gave an interview to USA Today that was published Feb. 1. This part caught our eye:

Though Bond has found competition of late in the form of Mission: Impossible installments, Liam Neeson’s action films and, particularly, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne series, 007 continues to resonate.
(snip)
“There are plenty of imitators, but Bond really is the first one that was an anti-hero,” says Skyfall producer Michael Wilson.

What is an anti-hero? The definition at Dictionary.com reads thusly:

noun, plural -roes
a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.

Not all see Bond as an anti-hero. The 1965 television special The Incredible World of James Bond took the opposite position in describing Agent 007’s appeal. Here’s the narration (spoken over scenes of Goldfinger’s pre-titles sequence) at around the 8:50 mark:

“The secret of (Ian) Fleming’s success is that, in the age of the anti-hero, he has created a romantic hero. Neither helpless nor neurotic, James Bond transports us to a world where all things are possible: adventure, love and glory.”

The special, directed by Jack Haley Jr. was intended to promote the upcoming Thunderball.

To read the entire USA Today story JUST CLICK HERE.

1965: Maxwell Smart tells advertisers about NBC’s lineup

NBC wanted to get advertisers excited about its 1965-66 program lineup. What would be the best way to do it? Would you believe the network hired Don Adams, in character as Maxwell Smart, to tell the advertisers what programs would be on that year? It begins with a clip from the Get Smart pilot in which Max was stuck in a closet. The presentation picks up from there:

Max makes these comments about his own show, starting around the 21:09 mark: “People who have caught advanced screenings of Get Smart have called this series the most hilarious satire on espionage they’ve ever seen. Now one couldn’t attribute all of the show’s brilliance to the genius of its star, Don Adams. On the other hand, one could.” We also see Maxwell Smart going through the doors at Control headquarters without any titles.

There are clips not only from Get Smart but I Spy, the serious Robert Culp-Bill Cosby spy drama and The Incredible World of James Bond special. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is mentioned near the end as a returning hit show.

There are also some interesting non-spy aspects about the presentation. It hypes the start of Joe Namath’s pro football career with the New York Jets (NBC carried American Football League games, “the league that tries harder,” as Max tells us) and talks about NBC News documentaries, including a long one about American foreign policy.

45th anniversary of The Incredible World of James Bond

This week (Nov. 26 to be precise) marks the 45th anniversary of the 007 infomercial, The Incredible World of James Bond. The program reflected how Agent 007 was reaching his peak popularity.

NBC pre-empted The Man From U.N.C.L.E., enjoying the best ratings that ’60s spy show would achieve, to show Incredible World. The move made a lot of sense for a number of reasons. It was a holiday week, when a lot of people would be at home. The special would inherit U.N.C.L.E.’s audience as well as drawing in Bond fans. And it aired as United Artists was already drumming up publicity about the upcoming fourth Bond film, Thunderball. In fact, Incredible World was a big part of that effort, with UA joining forces with David L. Wolper’s production company.

Producer-Director Jack Haley Jr. brought in actor Alexander Scourby (who had played an U.N.C.L.E. villain the season before) to read the narration written by Al Ramrus (who’d co-write an U.N.C.L.E. episode the following season). Scourby’s voice had an air of soft-spoken authority, as he described the Bond movies as comic strips for adults, which were kindred spirits of adventure stories of centuries past.

The term infomercial hadn’t been coined yet and, to be technical, Incredible World wasn’t exactly an informercial because NBC sold ads to other companies. (Thus, it was a great deal for UA — an hour-long promotion without having to pay for the time.) But the program certain shared some of attributes of infomercials; it was essentially a longer, extented promotion for Thunderball by showing viewers 007’s first three film exploits. Plus there were “candid” shots (which, truth be told, probably weren’t that candid) showing production of the upcoming Bond film.

In a cute touch, the end titles had a “cast of characters” list just like the end titles of a movie. Thus, for one occasion, you had “James Bond…..Sean Connery” heading a list of the major actors and characters of Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball. Also, in the special, viewers could hear Thunderball’s Claudine Auger and Adolfo Celi *before* they were dubbed over in the final film.

Here’s the start of what viewers first saw 45 years ago:

11 U.N.C.L.E. facts for fans of Mad Men

Thanks to a clip shown on the most recent episode, fans of AMC’s Mad Men series have either discovered or re-discovered The Man From U.N.C.L.E. So here are 11 U.N.C.L.E. facts for fans of the show. Why 11? Check out reason No. 1:

1. Napoleon Solo, the title character of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wore badge 11 while at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. Fellow agent Illya Kuryakin’s badge number was 2 and Alexander Waverly, Number One of Section One, apparently first among equals of U.N.C.L.E.’s five regional headquarters, wore the No. 1 badge.

2. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was involved with U.N.C.L.E. for a short time. He contributed the character names Napoleon Solo and April Dancer. Under pressure from 007 producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, he bailed out of the project and signed away any rights for one British pound.

3. U.N.C.L.E. has no “created by” credit but Sam Rolfe received a “developed by” credit. He wrote the pilot script and produced the first season of Man (including The Hong Kong Shilling Affiar, the episode shown on the Aug. 22 episode of Mad Men).

4. While Rolfe created Illya Kuryakin, Number Two of Section Two (Operations and Enforcement, where Solo was Number One of Section Two), the character was refined, and perhaps even defined, by writer Alan Caillou (1914-2006), who wrote seven Man episodes including the first with significant Illya time (The Quadripartite Affair), the first Illya-centric episode (The Bow-Wow Affair) and two episodes where he also appeared as an actor (The Terbuf Affair and The Tigers Are Coming Affair) He bailed out during the second season, a loss for the series.

5. Man was threatened with cancellation in its first season. It initially aired on NBC Tuesday nights and couldn’t overcome Red Skelton’s variety show on CBS. Midway through the first season, it got moved to Monday nights (which incuded the episode seen on Mad Men) and ratings improved. It also helped that Goldfinger, which had its U.S. premier in the U.S. in December 1964, boosted the market for spy-related entertainment.

6. NBC was keen for a spinoff featuring an U.N.C.L.E. woman agent even if Man stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were hostile to it. Thus, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was born, running just one season, 1966-67.

7. Man’s best season for ratings was its second campaign, the 1965-66 season, when it aired at 10 p.m. Fridays on NBC>

8. NBC twice pre-empted Man to show specials (The Incredible World of James Bond and Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond) promoting the James Bond movies Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. That’s ironic, because Broccoli and Saltzman had previously sued to try to prevent Man from ever going on the air, claiming that the dashing Napoleon Solo would be mistaken for the gangster Mr. Solo, who got killed by Oddjob in the film version of Goldfinger.

9. The papers of Man executive producer Norman Felton (b. 1913) and veteran Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum (1909-1991) are both stored at the University of Iowa.

10. Man, a little more than three years after its debut, was canceled, with its last episode appearing in January 1968. The very next week, on Jan. 22, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in debuted featuring Leo G. Carroll, in character as U.N.C.L.E. boss Mr. Waverly.

11. There have been various attempts at an U.N.C.L.E. revival: a 1977 project featuring a Sam Rolfe script that was never filmed; an early 1980s project intended as a feature film in which Bond production designer Ken Adam was interested in doing the sets; and a 2005 (or so) project where the producer involved was found by a jury of being guilty of fraud.

The only revival project to actually be produced, to date, was a 1983 television movie called The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair, which aired on CBS but didn’t result in a new series. The cast included George Lazenby, the one-time 007, as “JB,” a British spy who comes to the aid of Napoleon Solo in Las Vegas.

To look at various other ties between U.N.C.L.E. and 007, just CLICK HERE, in which you’ll see a photograph of a famous actor who just celebrated his 80th birthday and another Scotsman who was seen on the Mad Men episode.

To see many, many stills from The Hong Shilling Affair episode shonw on Mad Men, you can CLICK HERE.

David L. Wolper dies; his company produced ‘The Incredible World of James Bond’

David L. Wolper, whose company produced both documenaries and fictional entertainment (including the mini-series Roots) has died. He has a James Bond conection. Wolper’s company made The Incredible World of James Bond, a November 1965 documentary/infomercial (the latter term hadn’t been coined yet) that examined the first three 007 movies and hyped the then-upcoming Thunderball.

The heavy lifting on the TV special was done by producer-director Jack Haley Jr. Still, here’s the opening of the TV special that aired about a month before Thunderball opened in theaters. It aired on NBC, which pre-empted The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

And you can read Wolper’s obit in The New York Times by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.