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.

Advertisements

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.