Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s 30th anniversary

David McCallum, left, and Robert Vaughn

David McCallum, left, and Robert Vaughn during filming of The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

You can’t keep a good man down. So it was for former U.N.C.L.E. spies Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who made a one-time return 30 years ago.

The intrepid agents, again played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, were back after a 15-year absence. This time they appeared in a made-for-television movie broadcast in April 1983 on CBS, instead of NBC, home of the original 1964-68 series.

It was a mixed homecoming. Return’s script, penned by executive producer Michael Sloan, recycled the plot of Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film. Thrush steals two nuclear bombs from a U.S. military aircraft. Thrush operative Janus (Geoffrey Lewis) boasts that the criminal organization is now “a nuclear power.” Yawn. Thrush was much more ambitious in the old days.

The show had been sold to NBC as “James Bond for television.” Sloan & Co. took the idea literally, hiring one-time 007 George Lazenby to play “JB,” who happens to drive as Aston Martin DB5. JB helps Solo, who has just been recalled to active duty for U.N.C.L.E., get out of a jam in Las Vegas.

The original U.N.C.L.E. had been filmed no further out that about 30 miles from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s studio in Culver City, California. Return was really filmed in and around Las Vegas, with the desert nearby substituting for Libya, where Thrush chieftain Justin Sepheran (Anthony Zerbe) has established his headquarters.

Vaughn and McCallum, being old pros, make the best of the material they’re given, especially when they appear together. That’s not often, as it turns out. After being reunited, they pursue the affair from different angles. Solo has to put up with skeptical U.N.C.L.E. agent Kowalski (Tom Mason), who complains out loud about new U.N.C.L.E. chief Sir John Raleigh (Patrick Macnee) bringing back two aging ex-operatives.
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Sloan did end up bringing in two crew members of the original series: composer Gerald Fried, who worked on the second through fourth seasons, and director of photography Fred Koenekamp, who had photographed 90 U.N.C.L.E. episodes from 1964 through 1967. Also on the crew was Robert Short, listed as a technical adviser. He and Danny Biederman had attempted to put together an U.N.C.L.E. feature film. Their project eventually was rejected in favor of Sloan’s TV movie.

In the end, the April 5, 1983 broadcast produced respectable ratings but CBS passed on committing to a new U.N.C.L.E. series. Despite many attempts, Return remains the last official U.N.C.L.E. production.

For a more detailed review, CLICK HERE.

How Hollywood still doesn’t get U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: misunderstood in Hollywood

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: misunderstood in Hollywood

Scott Z. Burns, who wrote a script for a proposed movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., seems really proud that he based the plot off the real-life Palomares 1966 crash of a B-52 plane with atomic bombs.

There was one bomb that wasn’t recovered initially. It was “laying on the floor of the Mediterranean and no one could find it and so it was the race to find it that was what our episode was about,” Burns told Collider.com IN AN INTERVIEW. The scribe said he thought “it “was going to be really, really cool and I’m bummed we didn’t get to do it.”

The thing was the crash happened Jan. 17, 1966, less than a month after Thunderball, the fourth James Bond movie, debuted. Thunderball centered on the theft of two atomic bombs from a NATO aircraft. When the Palomares incident occurred, comparisons to Thunderball were made then and since SUCH AS THIS 2012 STORY on the BBC’s Web site or THIS POST on the Web site of The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

Put another way, Burns, who was working for director Steven Soderbergh (who ditched the project in late 2011), wasn’t exactly examining fresh ground. Especially considering the last official U.N.C.L.E. production, 1983’s The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television movie, concerned how a resurgent Thrush (the villainous organization that opposed U.N.C.L.E. in the show) stole, you guessed it, two atomic bombs from a U.S. military plane.

What’s wrong with that? Wasn’t The Man From U.N.C.L.E. sold to NBC as “James Bond for television”? True enough, but if you take the time to actually watch the show, you’ll see some technology that still hasn’t been invented: a near limitless power source held in reserve in case Earth is ever invaded (The Double Affair); a vaporizer (The Arabian Affair); a mind-reading machine (The Foxes and Hounds Affair); and a serum that accelerates the healing process (The Girls of Nazarone Affair). And that’s just off the top of our head.

But U.N.C.L.E. was different than Bond in more than gadgets. The dynamic was noticeably different, in part, because Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) interacted with “innocents,” or stand-ins for the television audience. Some times, it was deliberate (recruiting a former girlfriend of the villain in the pilot episode), other times “innocents” got drawn into the story by dumb luck.

In any event, Solo and Kuryakin had to try to defeat the villain *and* look out for the “innocents.” That element alone changed the dynamic significantly compared with James Bond’s film universe. In addition, Napoleon Solo, while sharing Bond’s appreciation for the ladies, also had a moral streak Bond didn’t seem to exhibit.

Perhaps the best example was the show’s final episode, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair Part II. A former U.N.C.L.E. official believes the world is inevitably headed for ruin unless the “right” people take over. Kingsley (Barry Sullivan) has access to a gas that will make people obedient (there’s that tech that hasn’t been invented yet). This way, “my way,” as Kingsley says, the never-ending battle between evil and good will be settled permanently for good.

Solo is offered a chance to join Kingsley but instead sharply criticizes Kingsley and his lieutenants, the “wonders” of the title. “In your world, Kingsley, there’ll be no wonder,” Solo says in what is one of Robert Vaughn’s best acting moments in the series. It’s a bit of gravitas in a story that was padded out for a two-part length so it could be released internationally as a movie.

You wouldn’t get much of this vibe from comments that Soderbergh and Burns made about U.N.C.L.E. while they were involved in the aborted movie. All too often, U.N.C.L.E. is viewed in Hollywood as a way to do an alternate James Bond.

To a degree that’s understandable. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot and was the first-season producer, died two decades ago. Norman Felton, the long-retired executive producer, died last year at age 99. There are few people left in Hollywood who even remember the show much, much less know what made it tick.

Until evidence surfaces to the contrary, it’s clear Hollywood simply doesn’t get U.N.C.L.E.

Happy 80th birthday, Robert Vaughn

Happy birthday, Mr. Solo

For people of a certain age, it’s doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., turns 80 on Nov. 22.

The 1964-68 spy series was just one stop on a long, and still continuing, career.

He’s the last surviving actor of those who portrayed the title characters in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. He picked up a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1959’s The Young Philadelphians, holding his own in a veteran cast. He was twice nominated for an Emmy in political-related drams and received one playing a thinly veiled version of H.R. Haldeman in the 1977 mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors. And he’s played more than his share of oily and/or villainous businessmen and/or politcians, thanks to 1968’s Bullitt.

Still, when he shows up at collectible shows, he’s more than often or not autographing stills of himself as Napoleon Solo, the television spy with a name courtesy of 007 creator Ian Fleming and developed by Sam Rolfe under the supervision of executive producer Norman Felton. For those who weren’t there during its run on NBC, U.N.C.L.E. really was a big deal.

The production values may look cheap compared to modern-day television. The series did all of its filming within about a 30-mile radius of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Culver City, California, studios. None of that matters. Vaughn established a U.S. beachhead for 1960s spy entertainment beginning in the fall of 1964. U.N.C.L.E. was pitched as “James Bond for television” but it successfully developed its own spin on the genre. Other fondly remembered shows followed, starting in the fall of 1965.

Vaughn had help, of course. His co-star, David McCallum, became popular in his own right. Early episodes were directed by the likes of Richard Donner and Joseph Sargent, who’d go on to direct feature films. Writers including Alan Caillou, Dean Hargrove and Peter Allan Fields spun tales that hold up today, despite the modest production budgets.

Still, it was up to Vaughn to sell everybody on all this. And sell it he did. Vaughn last played the character in the 1983 television movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But he remains tied to Solo. So happy birthday, Mr. Vaughn.

Happy 79th birthday, David McCallum

David McCallum, left, in all of his U.N.C.L.E. glory as Illya Kuryakin

For many actors, there are periods of few jobs. David McCallum, who turns 79 on Sept. 19, always seems to keep working.

It has been almost 30 years since he last played U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin (in the 1983 television movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), but McCallum never seems to lack for work over a long career. In fact, his current gig, in a supporting role on NCIS, has lasted more than twice as long as his turn as Kuryakin (1964-68 excluding the 1983 TV movie).

The Scotsman transcended the “sidekick” role. There were other sidekicks on TV shows whose popularity rivaled or even exceeded that of the lead character (Rowdy Yates on Rawhide or Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip come to mind). But McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin went a step further.

McCallum appeared, in character, as host of Hullabaloo, introducing musical acts and dodging assassination attempts by enemy agents. At the end, two women “agents” get him in handcuffs, arousing an, er, interesting reaction among women McCallum fans.

All of that was a chance to get some extra work. On The Man From U.N.C.L.E., McCallum, by all accounts, was a true professional. Also, the actor made the best with lines like this one: “No man is free who works for a living. But I’m available.”

The Kuryakin character was created by Sam Rolfe, who scripted the pilot episode of the series and was producer of the show’s first season. But much of the character was developed by writer Alan Caillou in four key episodes: The Quadripartite Affair and The Guioco Piano Affair (the first significant use of the Kuryakin character); The Terbuf Affair (which actually revealed background about Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo); and The Bow-Wow Affair (the first Kuryakin-centric story, which included the “no man is free” line). It didn’t hurt that star Vaughn was concurrently pursuing a PhD and didn’t mind the occasional break from the grind of filming.

McCallum has had his share of tough times. His first marriage to actress Jill Ireland ended in divorce and an adoptive son died of an accidental drug overdose. And the Illya Kuryakin has been a mixed blessing AS DESCRIBED IN A 1998 NEW YORK TIMES STORY.

Still, McCallum keeps working. He can even enjoy the occasional in-joke about his former life as U.N.C.L.E.’s ace Russian operative:

Separated at birth? U.N.C.L.E. and 007 guns

Albert R. Broccoli, from the available evidence, couldn’t stand The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In his autobiography, the 007 film producer called the 1964-68 television show “a straight steal from (Ian) Fleming’s use of acronyms like SMERSH and SPECTRE.” (Page 199, When the Snow Melts).

The U.N.C.L.E. Special in its fully assembled glory


For a short time, Bond creator Ian Fleming was involved in development, his main contribution was the hero’s name of Napoleon Solo. Of course, there was a gangster called Mr. Solo in Goldfinger, so Eon Productions attempted to prevent the show (originally titled Solo) from going into production. The whole matter was settled out of court, though Cubby may have gotten a bit of revenge. Goldfinger’s script was changed in its latter drafts so that Mr. Solo was crushed in a Lincoln Continental after not wanting to participate in Goldfinger’s scheme.

Still, Broccoli’s animosity might not have prevented Eon from, eh, borrowing from U.N.C.L.E.

One of the iconic props of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the U.N.C.L.E. Special, a Walther P38 (initially a Mauser) handgun with a sight, shoulder stock, barrel attachments and an extended magazine. People who barely watched an episode still came away impressed by the U.N.C.L.E. Special.

Mr. Bond, we think we've seen that gun somewhere before...


Flash forward a quarter-century to 1989’s Licence to Kill. One of its signature gadgets was a “signature gun,” supplied by Q to a 007-gone-rogue (Timothy Dalton). It consisted of a gun disguised as a camera which was added a sight, a shoulder stock and gunbarrel attachments. It didn’t have an extended magazine but it had a “palm reader” that ensured nobody other than Bond fired it.

And it looked….an awfully lot like a fully assembled U.N.C.L.E. Special.

Now, to be fair, a long time had passed since The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was first on the air (although the 1983 television film The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. included a Robert Short-designed new U.N.C.L.E. Special). And Cubby Broccoli, in what would be his last 007 film as a credited producer (he would “present” 1995’s GoldenEye but not have a producer credit) had a lot on his mind beyond what the art department was cooking up for props. Still, the resemblance is there regardless. (CLICK HERE to see a larger photo of the Licence to Kill signature gun.)

Questionable clothing choices by 007 and other heroes

Being a hero is tough. You have to save the world, or an important part of it. People are trying to kill you. And when you develop a large following, your wardrobe gets critiqued.

Still, when heroes, including James Bond, make questionable clothing choices, people notice. This list is by no means a comprehensive list and it’s definitely subjective. With that in mind, here we go:

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Q is in disbelief about 007’s choice of neckwear.

1. James Bond’s pink power tie (Diamonds Are Forever). When 007’s popularity peaked in the mid-1960s, the Bond image was that of Saville Row suits. Anthony Sinclair, who made Sean Connery’s suits for the film series produced by Eon Productions, even became a minor celebrity and was interviewed by newsmen (a clip of one of those interviews appears on the John Cork-directed documentary Inside Dr. No).

At the start of the 1970s, the world was changing in all sorts of ways. That included how men, 007 included, dresssed. The first hint of this was in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond (Sean Connery) is trying to find captured billionaire Willard Whyte and investigates a house out in the desert near Las Vegas. He wears a white suit (two-piece as opposed to the three-piece white suit Steve Martin would wear a few years later), presumably because of the heat. And he wears a wide, pink power tie.

Pink? Yes. That wasn’t part of the ’60s Bond wardrobe. As the decade progressed, and Roger Moore was hired to take over the role, Eon’s costumers put Bond in flared trousers (even with his tux) and a greater variety of colors. Arguably, the pink tie was the start of moving away from the Anthony Sinclair suit look.

2. Napoleon Solo’s clogs (publicity stills for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) When you’re the star of a popular television series, as Robert Vaughn was during the 1964-68 run of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., you maintain a busy schedule that includes posing for publicity stills. One day, the star showed up for such a shoot wearing clogs and white socks. While he changed into his Napoleon Solo suit, he didn’t bother to change his footwear. Nobody was supposed to notice. The attention wasn’t supposed be on Solo’s feet, after all.

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Illya Kuryakin is stunned to discover Napoleon Solo is wearing clogs.

One of those shots was used in the end titles of the show in the third and fourth seasons. It was cropped before you could see the clogs. Even if the full shot was used, Vaughn’s pose was at such an angle you’d really have to look hard to spot the clogs. (It would also show up in the 1983 television movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as a photograph on the wall of Solo’s apartment. We present a thumbnail version of the full image with this post.) A second still from the shoot, though, was used for the cover of the Ace paperback The Monster Wheel Affiar. The negative was flipped so both Vaughn and David McCallum appeared to be left handed. And Vaughn’s clogs were in full view. Decades later, The Solo Clogs Affair is still something of a running joke among fans, particularly among women fans of McCallum ribbing women fans of Vaughn.

3. Steve McGarrett’s leisure suits (later Hawaii Five-O seasons). In the original Hawaii Five-O, Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett was a tough, shrewd no-nonsense leader of a Hawaiian State Police unit that dealt with crime bosses and enemy spies with equal efficiency. His wardrobe reflected that: simple, classic looking suits.

McG leisure suit

McGarrett in his preferred dark blue leisure suit

As the show progressed, and mens fashions took a turn for the worse with polyester suits, that look changed. By the 11th season, McGarrett was alternating regular suits (which didn’t look as classic as in earlier seasons) with that bane of 1970s mens fashion, the leisure suit. McGarrett wore two of them. The one he wore the most often was a very dark, Navy blue version. It was so dark a viewer could overlook it to a certain degree. But McG sometimes donned a light gray version, that exposed the flaws of the leisure suit for all to see.

In the 11th and 12th seasons of the show, McGarrett sometimes wears the leisure suits almost as he does his regular suits. In the 11th season episode The Skyline Killer (which featured excellent stunt work, staged by Beau Van Den Ecker, the show’s stunt arranger who graduated to director), Lord’s McGarrett and his stunt double wear the Navy blue leisure suit while pursuing a killer on a construction crane about 20 stories above the ground (not unlike a similar sequence in Casino Royale 27 years later). Meanwhile, in real life, one of the blue leisure suits was part of a 2008 auction.

Happy birthday No. 78, Robert Vaughn

Robert Vaughn, the original Napoleon Solo (aka The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), turned 78 today. We wish Mr. V a happy birthday. Here’s a clip from Vaughn’s final performance as Solo, the television movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. It includes the original CBS intro and the main titles. The Jerry Goldsmith theme is there, in an arrangement by Gerald Fried, who scored the most episodes of the original series:

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.

Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. out on DVD

The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the 1983 made-for-TV movie, came out on DVD this week. It wasn’t included when the original series came out on DVD in 2007. So here’s a look, starting with the main titles:

Gerald Fried, the veteran composer who did more MFU episodes than any other composer, was hired for the ’83 TV movie and did the arrangement of the Jerry Goldsmith theme. While OK, some fans aren’t happy with it. However, Mike Post was the choice at one time to be the composer for Return. Fried ended up being one one of two U.N.C.L.E. crew members on the film. (Director of photography Fred Koenekamp being the other).

The U.N.C.L.E. TV movie also featured George Lazenby (sort of) reprising his role as James Bond. It was filmed at the same time Roger Moore was going before the cameras in Octopussy and Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again. Thus, it was the only time all of the actors playing Bond were doing the role (sort of, at least) at the same time. Take a look:

Of course, it should be remembered that Ian Fleming helped (in a small way; Sam Rolfe did the heavy lifting) to create the original show.