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.


Gene L. Coon: More than just Star Trek

Poster for The Killers, a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Poster for The Killers (1964), a pre-Star Trek credit for Gene L. Coon

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

For the purposes of this post, we’re stretching the definition of “unsung.” Gene L. Coon was a major figure for the original Star Trek series (where he was producer for part of the first and second seasons) and he’s mostly remembered for that.

However, the writer-producer performed work in other genres. That included 1960s spy shows, serving as a producer for some episodes of The Wild Wild West and It Takes a Thief. He also wrote episodes of war dramas and westerns.

Coon also did the script for the 1964 version of The Killers, with a cast headed by Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and Ronald Reagan. The crew included composer John Williams.

The Killers was intended by Universal to be a made-for-television movie. What producer-director Don Siegel delivered was deemed to be too violent for the small screen. So The Killers got a theatrical release instead.

Coon had a reputation as a hard worker. He had an admirer in director Ralph Senensky. Here’s what Senensky said about Coon in a reply to a post about an episode of The Wild Wild West titled The Night of the Druid’s Blood:

I think Gene Coon is one of the unsung heroes of television. Both on this series and later on STAR TREK his work (and he was a rewriting machine) set a standard that elevated both series to levels that were seldom reached after his departure.

Coon produced only six episodes of The Wild Wild West near the end of that show’s first season (1965-66). The following television season, he joined Star Trek as producer, working under creator-executive producer Gene Roddenberry. Coon’s main task was to secure and produce a steady stream of scripts.

Coon’s major contributions included the Klingons and co-writing Space Seed, the episode that introduced Ricardo Montalban’s Khan character. Khan would be brought back twice (once with Montalban and once with Benedict Cumberbatch) as villains in Star Trek movies.

Put another way, Coon’s contributions had an impact on Trek productions long after he first made them.

The writer-producer continued into Trek’s second season but departed. He ended up at Universal’s television operation. However, he did some moonlighting, writing some Trek scripts under the pen name Lee Cronin.

One of them, Spock’s Brain, in which Spock’s brain is taken from him, still generates groans from Trek fans decades later. Well, everyone has an off day and the writing conditions (doing it on the side while working full-time at Universal) weren’t ideal.

Gene L. Coon died of cancer on July 8, 1973, just 49 years old. His final writing credit was for an episode of The Streets of San Francisco titled Death and the Favored Few. That show aired in March 1974.

Robert Drasnin, spy TV composer, dies

Robert Drasnin (1927-2015)

Robert Drasnin (1927-2015)

Robert Drasnin, a composer whose work included episodes of 1960s spy series, died May 13 at 87, according to AN ANNOUNCEMENT BY DIONYSUS RECORDS.

Drasin scored eight episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. during the second and third seasons, with the music repeated in episodes without original scores. He also scored Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West. With the latter, Drasnin specifically composed music for the third episode, “The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth,” the first appearance of Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn). Drasnin’s short theme for the character would be in other episodes featuring the show’s arch villain.

Here’s an excerpt from the Dionysus Records obituary:

Bob is now mostly known for his two masterpiece exotica albums, Voodoo and Voodoo 2, but those are only two highlights in a long and multifaceted career as a player, composer, executive, and teacher.

He joined the Musicians Union at the age of 14 upon being hired to play in the Canteen Kids big band on Hoagy Carmichael’s radio show. He first made his way as a player through the forties, playing alto saxophone and clarinet with a great many big bands, including Les Brown, Freddie Slack, Tommy Dorsey, and others. He studied composition and conducting at UCLA, joined a bebop era Red Norvo Quintet (with whom he recorded), and evolved into a film/tv composer and also a very well regarded sideman (on clarinet and alto saxophone).

As a television composer, he was prolific. Twilight Zone, Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, Man From U.N.C.L.E. all boasted great Drasnin scores, and such giants as Johnny Mandel and Jerry Goldsmith considered him an equal. Rightfully.

In September 2014, fans in the Los Angeles area gathered for The Golden Anniversary Affair, celebrating U.N.C.L.E.’s 50th anniversary. A highlight was a band playing music from the series. Frank Abe, who attended, posted this video of the band playing a piece of Drasnin’s first U.N.C.L.E. score for The Foxes and Hounds Affair.

TCM schedules To Trap a Spy for June 13

Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Vaughn in To Trap  a Spy

Luciana Paluzzi and Robert Vaughn in To Trap a Spy

Turner Classics Movie has scheduled a prime time showing ON JUNE 13 at 10:15 p.m. New York time of To Trap a Spy, the movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s pilot episode.

The production has an unusual history.

The U.N.C.L.E. pilot was filmed in color. During production in late 1963, there was an internal debate within the production team whether U.N.C.L.E. agent Solo’s first name should be Napoleon. (Academic Cynthia W. Walker has written about this subject IN HER BOOK ABOUT THE SERIES.)

In the actual pilot, originally titled Solo, Robert Vaughn’s character is only called Solo. In the pilot, as originally filmed, the end titles said, “Starring Robert Vaughn as Solo.”

According to a timeline researched and compiled by Craig Henderson, additional footage was filmed March 31 through April 2, 1964, to turn the pilot into a feature film. The footage includes Luciana Paluzzi playing a femme fatale named Angela. Her character is very similar to the Fiona Volpe character she’d play a year later in Thunderball, the fourth James Bond film.

In that footage, Solo introduces himself to Angela as “Napoleon Solo.” Evidently, by the spring of 1964, the internal debate about the agent’s name had been settled in favor of the moniker bestowed upon him by Ian Fleming, the creator of 007.

In the end, Solo becomes a series, but under the title The Man From U.N.C.L.E. To Trap a Spy initially is shown in international markets, but with U.N.C.L.E.’s popularity, it is shown in the United States in 1966 as part of a double feature with The Spy With My Face, another movie based on an U.N.C.L.E. episode with additional footage.

U.N.C.L.E.’s executive producer, Norman Felton, was nothing if not thrifty. A tamer version of the Luciana Paluzzi footage shows up in a first-season episode that aired in the spring of 1965 called The Four-Steps Affair. It also includes some of the extra footage used in The Spy With My Face.

Another curiosity: in To Trap a Spy, the name of the villainous organization is changed from “Thrush” to “Wasp.” If you watch closely, you can see the actors saying “Thrush” with “Wasp” on the audio track. To Trap a Spy also includes the original U.N.C.L.E. boss, Will Kuluva as Mr. Allison. With the pilot, scenes were reshot with Leo G. Carroll playing Mr. Waverly, Solo’s new superior.

Regardless, To Trap a Spy is the first “official” U.N.C.L.E. movie. TCM has shown the film previously, but usually nowhere near prime-time.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s comic book sensibility

"It's a memo from Stan Lee, sir."

“It’s a memo from Stan Lee, sir.”

MeTV on April 26 is scheduled to show The Foxes and Hounds Affair, a second-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that’s one of the best of the series, that includes Vincent Price as a villain.

It also has a whopper of a “McGuffin” at the center of the story — a mind-reading device which, if it falls into the wrong hands, will cause all sorts of problems.

Of course, mind-reading machines didn’t exist then (1965) or now. U.N.C.L.E., during its 1964-68 run, embraced comic book-style science fiction concepts, giving its stories, on occasion, a taste of the fantastic. Here are some other examples.

Project Earthsave (The Double Affair/The Spy With My Face): The possibility that Earth might be invaded “from beyond the stars” was real enough that major nations funded something called Project Earthsave.

It’s apparently an energy source to use against aliens (it’s not explained in detail). Something that powerful, of course, is bound to interest villains.

Regenerating serum (The Girls of Nazarone Affair): A professor, who died under mysterious circumstances, invented a serum which causes the body to regenerate from even the most severe injuries or wounds.

The serum has fallen into the hands of villainous organization Thrush. It tests the serum on one of its operatives, race driver Nazarone, by shooting her with machine guns. She survives.

Regeneration is one of the powers of Marvel Comics character Wolverine (who didn’t make his debut until an early 1970s Hulk comic book). With the serum, you could have an army of Wolverines (minus the claws, of course). However, something Thrush didn’t foresee comes into play.

Vaporizer (The Arabian Affair): Thrush is developing a vaporizer that disintegrates items or people. In the pre-credits sequence, it’s tested on an unfortunate Arab man. So the Thrush scientists involved with the project wear special white outfits, similar to the radiation suits worn by Dr. No and his men.

We’re told the white outfits are “inter-molecular,” which prevents the wearer from being disintegrated. That sounds similar to the “unstable molecules” devised by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used in the costumes of the Fastastic Four.

Age-reversal device (The Bridge of Lions Affair/One of Our Spies Is Missing): Another scientists has constructed a device (which includes the head of Robby the Robot from the MGM prop room) that can old men young again. As you might guess, this could cause problems if it falls into the wrong hands.

Cyborgs (The Sort-of-Do-Itself-Dreadful Affair): Part human, part machine they can really cause problems.

The Gurnius Affair
Mind-control ray (The Gurnius Affair): Thrush has invested $4 billion with some neo-Nazi types to perfect a mind-control ray.

The problem for Thrush: Nazis are prone to pursuing their own agenda, as Thrush operative Mr. Brown (Joseph Ruskin) finds out the hard way.

Happy birthday, Robert Conrad

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

Robert Conrad, right, in a publicity still with Ross Martin for The Wild Wild West

Here’s wishing a happy 80th birthday to Robert Conrad, the star of The Wild Wild West.

The show was sold as “James Bond and cowboys.” In reality, it was far more than that.

Set in the 1870s, The Wild Wild West was Jules Verne for television. The top agents of of the U.S. Secret Service, James West (Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) encountered foes including dwarf scientists (Michael Dunn’s Dr. Loveless Loveless), to 19th century cyborgs, to masterminds trying to overthrow the United States government (quite a few).

The Wild Wild West was the classic case of capturing lightning in a bottle. TV movie efforts in 1979 and 1980 as well as a theatrical move in 1999 CAME UP SHORT in recapturing the spirit of the original.

Despite that, The Wild Wild West is still fondly remembered a half century later, with Conrad’s Jim West a major reason. In 2013, the actor appeared in a salute to his career. While it covered many of Conrad’s television shows, The Wild Wild West took up a major part of the proceedings. The WWW segment begins roughly around the 15:00 mark. At around the 22:00 mark, applause begins from the audience.

Happy birthday, Mr. Conrad.

Leonard Nimoy dies at 83, dabbled in spy entertainment

Leonard Nimoy with his future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Leonard Nimoy with his future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Leonard Nimoy, best known for playing Spock on Star Trek but who also dabbled in spy entertainment, has died today at 83, according to an obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES.

A brief excerpt:

His wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, confirmed his death, saying the cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Mr. Nimoy announced last year that he had the disease, which he attributed to years of smoking, a habit he had given up three decades earlier. He had been hospitalized earlier in the week

Nimoy’s greatest fame was as Spock. He first played the role in an unsold 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Pike. A second pilot, with William Shatner as Capt. James Kirk, did sell and a series aired on NBC for three seasons. Much later, Star Trek was revived for theatrical movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation, a syndicated series set decades after the original. Nimoy’s Spock showed up at one time or another in some of the films and the later series.

Still, he appeared in spy shows as well. He and Shatner were in a 1964 episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Project Strigas Affair. Shatner was an “innocent” recruited by Napoleon Solo as part of a complicated plot. Nimoy was a secondary villain.

Nimoy also replaced Martin Landau on Mission: Impossible for that show’s fourth and fifth seasons. Nimoy played Paris, a magician and master of disguise. Executives at Paramount forced out Landau, who never signed a long-term contact and who had previously won salary raises in negotiations.

Landau was was popular as disguise expert Rollin Hand and the departure also cost M:I of the services of his then-wife, Barbara Bain. As a result, Nimoy came aboard as the show’s ratings slipped. He left before the series changed to a format where the Impossible Missions Force battled only organized crime in the final two seasons.

UPDATE: Leonard Nimoy was active on Twitter. This is his last Tweet:

UPDATE II (7 p.m.): MeTV, the U.S. cable channel of classic television shows, is showing a lot of episodes of shows where Nimoy was the guest star. On Sunday at 10 p.m., it will show The Project Strigas Affair episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., followed by one of Nimoy’s appearances on Mission: Impossible (“The Hostage) at 11 p.m., followed by an episode of Get Smart (The Dead Spy Scrawls) with Nimoy. For more details, CLICK HERE.