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.

U.N.C.L.E. movie, we hardly knew ye

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

This month marks the year anniversary of the release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie.

For a film that seemed to disappear from theaters almost without a trace, it occasionally showed up on lists of underrated movies.

Also, we heard anecdotes from people who convinced friends to see it in the theater (while they could). These friends, the way these anecdotes were told, would then say they were surprised (pleasantly) by the movie.

Still, numbers are hard things. The 2015 Guy Ritchie-directed movie had a global box office of only $109.8 million, and only $45.4 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to Box Office Mojo.

To put that in perspective, this year’s remake of Ghostbusters, had worldwide box office as of Aug. 3 of $161.3 million, with $109.6 million coming from the U.S. and Canada. And it’s not even seen as a hit.

Last year, was, as this blog called it, “The Year of the Spy.” U.N.C.L.E., which last saw a new production with a TV movie in 1983, was the runt of that litter. About the only place the movie was a hit was Russia, presumably thanks to the presence of Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

Still, numbers aren’t everything. The U.N.C.L.E. movie was not a James Bond wannabe. Instead, it tried to be its own thing.

Some fans of the original 1964-68 series felt the movie tried too much to be its own thing, with no cameos by original stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, and the original Jerry Goldsmith theme barely being present.

Yet, it seems unlikely cameos or a longer version of the theme would have substantially boosted the box office. Some times, a movie simply fails to find an audience.

The movie’s biggest change was an edgier version of Illya Kuryakin. The film’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) was similar to that of the series, albeit with changes to the character’s back story, primarily a history of being a thief blackmailed into working for the CIA.

For the Spy Commander, this month is one of nostalgia for the movie. For a brief time, there was a new version of U.N.C.L.E. Even with debates among first-generation fans, at least there was *something new* to discuss after decades.

By contrast, 2016 has a new Bourne movie — and one not so much different than most Bourne films — and not much else. U.N.C.L.E. and “The Year of The Spy” isn’t happening again soon.

 

Jack Davis, extraordinary artist, dies at 91

Jack Davis promotional art for Get Smart

Jack Davis promotional art for Get Smart

Jack Davis, a talented artist known for his work on Mad magazine and various commercial artwork, died Wednesday at the age of 91, the University of Georgia said in an announcement.

The university released the news because Davis, a Georgia native, often did caricatures of the school’s bulldog mascot.

Besides Mad, Davis frequently got work commercial art jobs promoting movies and television shows. Perhaps his most famous was the movie poster for 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with caricatures of Spencer Tracy and the film’s mammoth cast.  Davis then parodied his own work for the cover of It’s a World, World, World, World Mad, a paperback collection of Mad reprinted features.

With the popularity of spy shows in the 1960s, Davis did illustrations promoting The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart and I Spy. The artist also illustrated an U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox.

Davis also drew an intricate illustration promoting NBC’s 1965-66 television lineup. To appreciate it better, click on the image below.

Jack Davis' epic illustration promoting NBC's 1965-66 television lineup

Jack Davis’ epic illustration promoting NBC’s 1965-66 television lineup

 

 

Morton Stevens: Obscure composer, famous tune

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Morton Stevens (1929-1991)

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

The name Morton Stevens is barely known by the general public. Yet his signature piece of work — the theme to Hawaii Five-O (or Five-0 as it’s spelled for the revival series that began in 2010) — is almost universally recognized.

In the 1950s, Stevens worked for Sammy Davis Jr. as his music arranger. Then, in 1960, Davis had the chance to perform a dramatic role in The Patsy, an episode of The General Electric Theater, an anthology series.

According to television and film music historian Jon Burlingame (in an audio commentary for the DVD set for the Thriller anthology show hosted by Boris Karloff), Davis wanted Stevens to score the episode. Stevens got the assignment and made a career switch.

Stevens quickly began scoring a variety of genres, including Westerns, crime dramas and horror (the aforementioned Thriller series). And then there were his espionage-show efforts.

Stevens was the first composer to follow Jerry Goldsmith with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In fact, the very first piece of U.N.C.L.E. music — a few seconds accompanying the U.N.C.L.E. global logo at the start of The Vulcan Affair, first broadcast on Sept. 22, 1964 — was composed by Stevens.

When Goldsmith did the pilot, the show was to be titled Solo. When the show began production of series episodes, the name was changed to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. With that change, the globe logo was devised and it would be shown at the very start of each episode.

Stevens’ “insignia” U.N.C.L.E. music (as it’s known) led off the first 14 episodes of the show. Stevens also did the first new arrangement of Goldsmith’s theme, which first appeared with the 15th episode, The Deadly Decoy Affair. It would be used for almost all of the second half of the second season.

In all, Stevens did four original U.N.C.L.E. scores but his music was frequently re-used in first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes without an original score. Often, these “stock scores” paired Goldsmith music (composed for three episodes) with that of Stevens. Their styles melded well.

In April of 1965, Stevens became the head of CBS’ West Coast music operation involved with the network’s in-house productions. As a result, he assigned other composers on CBS productions while taking on some jobs himself.

In that capacity, he scored the 1968 pilot for Hawaii Five-O. In that production, Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) locked horns with Chinese spy Wo Fat (Khigh Dheigh), giving the crime drama a spy twist from the start.

In the first season of the show, Stevens was only credited for an episode’s score (“Music by”) or, on some episodes for “music supervision.”

However, if another composer was credited for an episode, Stevens didn’t get a mention. That was consistent with CBS policy at the time, which denied theme credits for many series, including Gunsmoke, which ran on the the network for 20 years.

A Morton Stevens title card for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

A Morton Stevens title card for a first-season episode of Hawaii Five-O

Early in the show’s second season, Stevens did get a “theme by” credit for episodes where he didn’t provide the score. (When Stevens did provide an original score, he still got a “music by” credit.).

Eventually, the theme had to be turned into a song. Appropriately, Sammy Davis Jr. performed it.

Still, despite how famous the theme became — decades later, it’s regularly performed by marching bands — fame eluded Stevens.

Stevens never moved in a major way into scoring movies unlike contemporaries of his such as John Williams (who, ironically, received the job of scoring the 1969 Steve McQueen film The Reivers from Stevens when CBS was releasing films, according to the Burlingame Thriller commentary track) and Lalo Schifrin.

Stevens died in 1991. His Five-O theme outlived him, however. When the 2010 version of the show debuted, its pilot originally had a “rock music” arrangement that made the rounds on social media before the new show’s debut.

It wasn’t received well. The new series quickly commissioned a more traditional sounding version, which debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comic Book Con. Some of the musicians who performed the theme had worked on the original 1968-80 series.

While Stevens gets a credit on the current series, unfortunately it’s during the end titles. Stevens’ credit flashes by so quickly, you can’t really see it. Regardless, his legacy continues.

 

Joseph Gantman: On the ground floor

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Cover to the first season MIssion: Impossible DVD set

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

Joseph Gantman in the 1960s found himself on the ground floor of notable television shows.

His primary legacy was as the day-to-day producer for the first two seasons of Mission: Impossible.

Gantman came aboard after the pilot was produced. Series creator Bruce Geller supervised the show, but it was up to Gantman to get things going, including securing a steady stream of scripts that could be filmed. He would end up winning two Emmys for his efforts.

Those two seasons featured some of the show’s best stories, such as Operation: Rogosh (the IMF tricks an “unbreakable” Soviet Bloc operative into thinking it’s three years later so he’ll give up where he’s planted germ cultures that will poison the drinking water supply of Los Angeles).

Gantman was worn down by the time he left the series at the end of its second season. His successors, William Read Woodfield and Allan Balter, who wrote many of the best stories of the first two seasons, bolted after disagreements with Bruce Geller. That was an indication that Gantman’s work wouldn’t be easy to duplicate. M:I was tough on producers generally. Gantman’s tenure was almost a marathon by comparison.

Before Mission, Gantmen worked on the pilot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with the vague tile of “production assistant,” but his title card in the television version featured his credit in the end titles on the screen by itself. Presumably, that was an indication he was a key contributor of the pilot.

During the 1964-65 season, Gantman was associate producer for 16 of the 32 episodes of the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, when that Irwin Allen-produced shows emphasized espionage over monsters.

Later, during the 1968-69 season, he was producer for five episodes of the first season of Hawaii Five-O, including three of the first five telecast by CBS (excluding the pilot, which aired as a TV movie). Five-O’s initial campaign was rough (it was the first series actually filmed in Hawaii) and it chewed up producers.

Gantman isn’t remembered much today. U.N.C.L.E. is remembered, behind the camera, for the efforts of Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe. Voyage is seen as what launched Irwin Allen’s 1960s shows. M:I is recalled for Bruce Geller’s concept. The original Five-O is remembered for creator-executive Leonard Freeman, who guided the show for six of its 12 seasons before his death in early 1974.

Yet, Gantman was a key lieutenant, at one time or another (just one episode in U.N.C.L.E.’s case) on all of them. That’s why TV shows have title cards.

 

(Almost) 20 years of the U.N.C.L.E. episode guide

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 the other day that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode guide will mark its 20th anniversary this year. Naturally, after researching some things, the Spy Commander couldn’t wait to do a post.

The episode guide was one of the first U.N.C.L.E. fan sites. It first went live on Dec. 1, 1996. It wasn’t complete at the time by any means, but there were at least some reviews for each of the four seasons of the show.

The following summer, the Spy Commander did a geeky thing, sending a printout of the website to retired executive producer Norman Felton. After putting it in the mail, I immediately had the equivalent of buyer’s remorse.

Some of the Season Three reviews (when the show often took a campy approach) were pretty rough. What if Felton became offended? I wondered. Yikes.

Not to fear. Felton sent a letter dated June 23, 1997. At the top, there was a cartoon of someone critiquing a frustrated William Shakespeare. “Good, but not immortal.”

The letter read thusly (underlined words are highlighted with asterisks) in part:

Terrific! The pages from the Web page — yes, and there were ‘duds’ along the way — but enough *good enough* for our *fans*, yes?

In a P.S. he said he might send a copy of a screenplay he was about to finish. “*Not* in the vein of U.N.C.L.E. — and certainly *not* immortal. Wow!”

Also included were two strips of film with a Post It Note. “Enclosed bits of film made to checking lighting for the cameraman” during filming of U.N.C.L.E.’s pilot.

The Spy Commander did a second geeky thing. Making yet another printout, I went to a collectible show in suburban Chicago in the late 1990s where Robert Vaughn, who played Napoleon Solo, had a table signing autographs.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“It’s a printout of a website.”

No reaction from an actor. I began to try to explain but simply felt embarrassed for bringing the printout. Later, I was told from someone who talked to him extensively he wasn’t on the internet much at the time.

The episode guide also generated a response from writer Stanley Ralph Ross, a frequent writer for the 1966-68 Batman show, who also penned some third-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes. He liked how the episode guide noted how the writer used the same joke in U.N.C.L.E. and Batman.

An e-mail interview ensued. “I have some funny stories about the show, especially when I was in The Pop Art Affair,” he wrote in a June 21, 1999, e-mail. Ross said he did an uncredited rewrite on the episode and got a part in the third-season episode as part of the deal.

“David  asked me to stand on a box,” Ross wrote. “I am already 6:6 and said that he would look like a midget but he replied that the taller I was, the stronger and more macho he would seem for having me beat up.” Ross referred to 5-foot-7 David McCallum, who played U.N.C.L.E. Russian agent Illya Kuryakin.

The U.N.C.L.E. episode guide, meanwhile, has had its share of ups and downs. It originally was hosted by AOL. But in 2008, AOL stopped hosting websites. It moved to the Her Majesty’s Secret Servant website. But when HMSS went offline in 2014, the episode guide went dark with it — missing the show’s 50th anniversary in September of that year.

But you can’t keep a good U.N.C.L.E. agent down. The episode guide returned on Oct. 18, 2014 on WordPress, part of a family of websites including The Spy Command.

Since then, the site has been improved, including finally finishing reviews for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.  and updating and adding features because of the 2015 movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.

Hopefully, the episode guide will remain around for a while — good, but not immortal.

In praise of the 2-part (or more) episode

In the 21st century, many television series are serialized, featuring a story line, or arc, that lasts an entire season. However, there was a time when a story that lasted two (or more) episodes was special, something to savored.

For viewers of the era, such multi-part episodes could be special. Because it wasn’t the norm, such story lines drew attention to themselves. What follows is a sampling.

Poster for One Spy Too Many, movie version of Alexander the Greater Affair

Poster for One Spy Too Many, movie version of Alexander the Greater Affair

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: In the first-season of the 1964-68 series, extra footage was shot so two episodes could be re-edited into feature films for the international market. Starting with the second season, the show produced two-part episodes that could be more easily be turned into movies.

Six such two-part episodes were made, two each for seasons two through four. One of the best was Alexander the Greater Affair at the start of Season Two. Industrialist Alexander (Rip Torn) was a fan of Alexander the Great and sought to control the world like his namesake. The movie version was titled One Spy Too Many. The television version, though, didn’t make the show’s syndication package and wasn’t seen again until 2000.

Mission: Impossible: The 1966-73 series included a number of two-part episodes. A second-season two parter was re-edited into a movie for international audiences called Mission: Impossible Versus the Mob.

M:I’s biggest multi-part adventure was a three-parter called The Falcon, which aired during the show’s fourth season. Arguably, The Falcon (written by Paul Playdon), was the series most intricately plotted story.

Hawaii Five-O: Another series with multiple two-part stories, some of which (FOB Honolulu, The Ninety-Second War) included Steve McGarrett opposing his arch enemy Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh). That includes the series’ pilot, which was re-edited into a two-part story at the end of the show’s first season.

What’s more, Wo Fat stories in the eighth and ninth season kicked off the season and were presented as two-hour episodes. The latter, Nine Dragons, featured extensive location shooting in Hong Kong.

Five-O’s fifth season also had a three-part episode where McGarrett took down the Vishons, a Hawaiian crime family. In the third part, McGarrett has been framed and doesn’t appear to have much chance to beat the rap. For one of its reruns on CBS, the story was re-edited into a two-and-a-half-hour presentation aired on a single night.

Also, a 1979 two-hour episode, The Year of the Horse, featured one-time 007 George Lazenby with “special guest star” billing, though he was a secondary villain. That installment included extensive on-location shooting in Singapore.

Poster for Cosa Nostra, an Arch Enemy of the FBI, movie version of a two-part episode of The FBI

Poster for Cosa Nostra, an Arch Enemy of the FBI, movie version of a two-part episode of The FBI

The FBI: The longest-running series from producer Quinn Martin had four two-part stories. The Defector, the show’s first-season two-parter, was an impressive espionage-themed effort.

The show’s two parter for the second season was The Executioners, which was edited into a movie for international audiences titled Cosa Nostra, an Arch Enemy of the FBI.

The series’ final two-parter, The Mastermind in the seventh season, featured three actors (Bradford Dillman, Steve Ihnat and Scott Marlowe), who were a kind of all-star collection of QM villains.

Mannix: The private eye drama featured a first-season story where Lew Wickersham (Joseph Campanella), the boss of Mannix’s detective agency, appears to freak out for no reason. Part I included a massive fight between Wickersham and Mannix (Mike Connors).

The series wouldn’t do another two-part episode until its seventh and eight seasons, when Mannix (Mike Connors) ran his own private eye agency. Both stories took Mannix out of the United States. The final two parter also included composer Lalo Schifrin’s final original score for the series.

The Wild Wild West: The 1965-69 series combined spies and cowboys. It only had one two-part story, The Night of the Winged Terror, but it was a doozy. It features Raven, a group trying to take over the world, which has demonstrated its power by programming officials into performing various destructive acts.

When the story (written by Ken Pettus) was filmed, co-star Ross Martin was recovering from a heart attack. So character actor William Schallert (1922-2016) played a substitute agent to work with Robert Conrad’s James West.

77 Sunset Strip: The show’s final season (1963-64) began with a *five*-part episode, simply titled “5.” Jack Webb, who had taken command of Warner Bros. television unit, ordered up a major revamp of the private eye series.

Only Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was retained, and his Stuart Bailey character was transformed into a lone wolf detective. “5” plunged Bailey into international intrigue, with an all-star cast of guest stars.

 

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