Happy New Year, hoping for a better 2017

Our other annual greeting

The Spy Commander had considered retiring this greeting with the death of Robert Vaughn in November. But I decided against it.

It’s an amusing image and a perfect example of how Vaughn created the role of Napoleon Solo. Also, art outlives the artist. That’s the way of the world.

So, to all our readers, here’s hoping you have a great 2017 — or at least, you have a better year than 2016.

Once more, Napoleon Solo reminds everyone to party responsibly.

solonye

Bernard Fox, busy character actor, dies at 89

Bernard Fox in The Thor Affair, one of the better episodes in the third season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Bernard Fox in The Thor Affair, one of the better episodes in the third season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Bernard Fox, a busy character actor whose career extended into the 21st century, has died at 89, according to an obituary in The Hollywood Reporter.

Fox, born in Wales, had roles beginning in the mid-1950s to 2001, according to his entry in IMDB.com.

The actor made guest appearances in a number of 1960s spy shows.

Among them: Three episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (a two-parter in the second season as well as the title character in The Thor Affair in the third), one episode of The Girl From U.N.C.LE. (The Mother Muffin Affair, where he played a bumbling lieutenant of Boris Karloff’s Mother Muffin), The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief.

Fox could do both drama and comedy, but was often cast in comedic roles. The Hollywood Reporter obit led with his role as Dr. Bombay in Bewitched. He also played RAF Colonel Crittendon in Hogan’s Heroes.

In the latter role, Fox’s character didn’t know about Colonel Robert Hogan’s espionage operation in Stalag 13. But Crittendon, because he had more seniority, outranked Hogan (Bob Crane) and became the ranking Allied officer in the German prison camp every time he was stationed there.

This, of course, complicated whatever operation Hogan had underway at the time.

5 U.N.C.L.E. stories to watch this weekend

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

With the passing of actor Robert Vaughn, a natural reaction for fans would be to view some episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

This list was originally devised last year ahead of the 2015 movie version. It was intended for people not familiar with the series.

It’s still a good list of episodes to view, even for long-time fans.

These aren’t necessarily the very best episodes. But the list was intended to include examples from all four seasons of the show. Stories told over two episodes are listed as a single entry here.

The Quadripartite Affair/The Giuoco Piano Affair: These two episodes were filmed together but presented as separate, but related episodes.

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Quadripartite was the third episode broadcast. It’s also the first episode where Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) function as a team. There’s plenty of good “bits of business” for both characters.

The story involves a power-hungry woman, Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis), whose lover, Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelan), is one of the world’s richest men and who’s more than willing to finance her plans. That’s not unlike the new film, where Elizabeth Debicki, is the lead villain.

Giuoco Piano (the seventh episode broadcast) is even better than Quadripartite, showing how manipulative Solo can be. The title comes from a chess gambit that symbolizes Solo’s plan. If James Bond is the blunt instrument, this story demonstrates how Solo is the sharp operator.

Both episodes were written by Alan Caillou, who did intelligence work for the British in World War II. Think an Ian Fleming, who actually went out into the field. Caillou’s two scripts helped define the Kuryakin character. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot, envisioned Kuryakin as a large, massive man. Caillou provided McCallum with the material so the actor could make Illya his own.

Also, the two episodes were directed by Richard Donner, who’d become an A-list film director in the 1970s.

The Never-Never Affair: Through the first season, the show tried to find the right balance of drama and humor. Never-Never, aired late in the season, became the model for future episodes.

Solo and Illya during the theater shootout in The Never-Never Affair

In the story, Solo feels sorry for U.N.C.L.E. translator Mandy Stevenson (Barbara Feldon), who yearns for an adventure. He sends her to get pipe tobacco for U.N.C.L.E. chief Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), while telling her she’s acting as a courier. However, she accidentally is given a valuable microdot covered by the villainous organization, Thrush.

The episode includes a memorable set piece, where a Thrush assassin is firing through a movie theater screen at Solo and Kuryakin, who are having to deal with other Thrush operatives. A high percentage of the jokes work, and writer Dean Hargrove would become one of the main scribes of the series. It was the second episode of show helmed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best directors on the series.

Vincent Price and Patricia Medina as rival villains in The Foxes and Hound Affair.

Vincent Price and Patricia Medina as rival villains in The Foxes and Hounds Affair.

The Foxes and Hounds Affair: A breezy episode that aired early in the show’s second season. The new movie’s tone is supposed to be similar to the second season and Foxes and Hounds is one of the season’s better entries.

U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush are both after a mind-reading machine. That’s pretty fantastic, but no more so than what can be seen in a Marvel Studios film of the 21st century. Both Solo and Kuryakin get chances to shine. We also see that Waverly is perfectly capable of being cold blooded. On top of everything else, Vincent Price is a very good villain who has to watch his back for attacks from a rival in Thrush (Patricia Medina).

The Concrete Overcoat Affair: This two-part episode was edited into a movie for international audiences called The Spy in the Green Hat. Thrush has another ambitious plan that U.N.C.L.E. is trying to foil. But some retired gangsters end up becoming involved and act as a wild card.

This ran during the third season, when the drama-humor balance got out of whack in favor of humor. This Joseph Sargent-directed story reins that in to an extent. There’s also a good scene early in Part II where Solo wants to go save Kuryakin but Waverly disapproves. The U.N.C.L.E. chief relents, but only reluctantly. It’s an unusual moment of drama in a season where that was in short supply.

The Test Tube Killer Affair: In the fourth season, new producer Anthony Spinner wanted to dial the humor way back. This episode, early in the season, is one of the better entries produced by Spinner.

Christopher Jones, center, one of Thrush's

Christopher Jones, center, as Greg Martin, in The Test Tube Killer Affair.

Thrush’s Dr. Stoller (Paul Lukas) has been raising young men from childhood to be the perfect killing machines, able to turn their emotions on and off as needed. Stoller’s prize pupil, Greg Martin (Christopher Jones), has been chosen to blow up a dam in Greece. It’s strictly an exercise and the dam has no strategic importance but many will die if Martin succeeds.

Meanwhile, the young killer is highly intelligent — intelligent enough where it appears Solo and Kuryakin may have met their match. The episode has a less-than-happy ending, something not common on the show.

Robert Vaughn dies at 83

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

Robert Vaughn, star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series, died today at 83, according to an obituary at Deadline: Hollywood.

The actor died after battle with acute leukemia, according to the entertainment news website.

Vaughn had plenty of roles over a long career, including The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Bullitt (1968). He remained active in recent years, including a U.K. stage production of 12 Angry Men.

Still, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which ran from September 1964 to January 1968 on NBC, made Vaughn a star. He played Napoleon Solo, a character created by Norman Felton and Ian Fleming. Solo was an enforcement agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, an international agency. U.N.C.L.E., which was developed fully by writer-producer Sam Rolfe, was a post-Cold War series airing in the midst of the Cold War.

Vaughn’s Solo had similarities to Fleming’s James Bond. Both were womanizers and sophisticated in the ways of the world. But Solo worked with a Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). In the Bond film series, the notion wouldn’t occur until 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.

Solo also had more of a moral code than Bond. Part of the format called for Solo to interact with “innocents,” ordinary people either recruited to help U.N.C.L.E. or who stumbled into the action. As a result, Solo had to look out for the innocents, which made his character different than 007.

In the final episode of the series, Vaughn had one of his best scenes as he confronted the conspirators of a plot to take over the world. That was a familiar plot of escapist 1960s spy entertainment. Yet, in that scene, Vaughn played it entirely seriously, giving the proceedings a gravitas they might ordinarily lack.

Years after the series, Vaughn had a lengthy interview with the Archive of American television. Here’s a clip where he discussed U.N.C.L.E.

In real life, Vaughn was an intellectual. He studied for his Ph.D while U.N.C.L.E. was in production. Vaughn, an opponent of the Vietnam war, debated the subject with William F. Buckley on the latter’s Firing Line series. Buckley introduced Vaughn as “a professional actor.” However, Vaughn was thoroughly prepared and the debate (on Buckley’s home turf) was judged a draw.

Post-U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn tended to play villains, such as the politician he portrayed in Bullitt. He did get to reprise the Solo role in the 1983 television movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. He indicated he’d be willing to play a cameo role in the 2015 film version directed by Guy Ritchie. But he was never approached.

Vaughn died 11 days short of what would have been his 84th birthday.

We’ll have a more detailed “appreciation” post tomorrow.

This month’s ‘other’ Ian Fleming anniversary

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming

Earlier this month, Oct. 5, was Global James Bond Day, celebrating the 54th anniversary of the original U.K. premiere of Dr. No.

Today, Oct. 29, is the 54th anniversary of another Ian Fleming-related annivesary: When the James Bond author first met television producer Norman Felton in New York.

The results, eventually, would be The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. However, those meetings, which lasted into Oct. 31, 1962, according to Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. Timeline website, don’t get much attention.

Ian Fleming Publications, for example, doesn’t mention the meetings in its detailed ONLINE TIMELIME OF FLEMING’S LIFE. Ironically, IFP’s 2013 007 continuation novel by William Boyd was titled Solo, the original title for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Fleming was bullied by James Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman from exiting the project. You can read some of the correspondence involved by CLICKING HERE. Fleming sold his interest in U.N.C.L.E. for the princely sum of 1 British pound.

Meanwhile, U.N.C.L.E. fans downplay Fleming’s involvement. Yes, some say, he named Napoleon Solo, but so what? And, to be fair, others did the heavy lifting on U.N.C.L.E.

On the other hand, Fleming’s involvement, however limited, had attracted NBC’s interest.

Had Fleming remained on the show, the network was willing to commit to a series without a pilot. After Fleming’s departure, a pilot would be necessary. Still, by that time a lot of energy and time had been invested. It wasn’t just dropped after Fleming’s exit.

Title page to pilot for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. when the title was still Solo.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. originally was to have been billed Ian Fleming’s Solo.

Thus, ironically, Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. involvement isn’t celebrated by either the Bond and U.N.C.L.E. sides. On the U.N.C.L.E. side, the narrative (understandably) plays up the contributions of Felton and Sam Rolfe, the writer of the U.N.C.L.E. pilot who produced the first season of the show.

It didn’t help that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (where U.N.C.L.E. was produced) put out a press release denying had been involved (even though he was). No doubt that was the result of threatened legal action from Eon Productions. Lawyers for Eon had sent a cease and desist letter in early 1964 claiming the character Napoleon Solo infringed on the production company’s rights to Goldfinger, which included a gangster named Solo.

Also, Felton, on advice of his attorneys, declined to write up notes about his meetings with the 007 author for Fleming biographer John Pearson concerning U.N.C.L.E. (Read Text of Letters About Ian Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. Involvement for more details.)

Still, an anniversary is an anniversary. In this case, it’s an anniversary of an event (the Fleming-Felton meetings) that helped lead to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Meanwhile, here’s a shameless plug. If you want to read more about the subject, this blog’s editor has an article in MI6 Confidential No. 37. For more information about the issue (which includes an article about 007 film production designer Peter Lamont), CLICK HERE. 

A peek behind U.N.C.L.E.’s visual effects

RISE, a visual effects studio, has released a video showing some of its work on 2015’s movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The film opened in 1963 Berlin. RISE’s video shows how that era was recreated for the movie. Stars Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander mix with green screens and models.

In the sequence, CIA agent Napoleon Solo moves to get Gaby, daughter of a nuclear scientist, out of East Berlin, with KGB operative Illya Kuryakin.

The video RISE released shows how even a relatively modest production (U.N.C.L.E.’s production budget was a reported $75 million) utilizes visual effects. In this case, it’s trying to disguise that visual effects are even being used. RISE has also worked on Marvel Studios movies.

The video is embedded below. Thanks to Robert Short of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Inner Circle page on Facebook for the heads up.

RISE REEL – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from RISE on Vimeo.

1960s U.N.C.L.E. novel cited in New Yorker commentary

David McDaniel's The Dagger Affair

David McDaniel’s The Dagger Affair

This blog doesn’t do politics. However, a political commentary in The New Yorker does utilize spy fiction to make its case about the U.S. presidential election. Specifically, it cites The Dagger Affair, one of the 1960s Ace paperback novels based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series.

The novel was written by David McDaniel, who came up with an origin for Thrush, the villainous organization opposed by U.N.C.L.E.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, while not referencing The Dagger Affair nor McDaniel by name, uses the novel’s plot to illustrate the commentary about the election.

Here’s the key excerpt, which is the first (long) paragraph of the essay.

Somewhere in a paperback novel from the nineteen-sixties inspired, or willed into existence, by the “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” television series, the brave men of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement find themselves actually sharing lunch with old enemies as they make a temporary alliance with the evil forces of THRUSH (the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity—really) in order to defeat an outsider dangerous to both. They have joined forces, despite a century of enmity and countless encounters involving rogue agents and femmes fatales, because together they recognize that both sides—indeed, mankind itself—are threatened by a mad nihilist. (If a twelve-year-old’s memory serves, the nihilist, a super-scientist, has built a machine that negates energy itself.) Everything else, they agree, comes second to this threat. They make a toast, and a truce, to coöperate until the nihilist is defeated.

It should be noted that McDaniel’s novel isn’t canon. In the 1964-68 series, Thrush was just Thrush. However, many U.N.C.L.E. fans have adopted McDaniel’s version. The writer linked Thrush to Professor Moriarty, arch-foe of Sherlock Holmes. But Thrush as an acronym exists only in the Ace paperbacks, not on the show.

The main point of The New Yorker article concerns the relationship between Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the Republican nominees for president and vice president. If you want to check it out, CLICK HERE.