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The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — A Cautionary Tale, Part 1

3,989 words

UncleCrop [1]Part 1 of 2


On August 14th, Warner Bros. will release its big-screen adaptation of a television series most moviegoers under the age of 60 have never even heard of: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (NBC, 1964-1968). The present article is devoted to the original series, which is a gold mine for New Right pop cultural commentary. Simultaneously crypto-Marxist, crypto-anti-Marxist, and crypto-anti-Semitic, this quintessential ’60s cultural artifact is also ultra-cool, ultra-bad, and (as the foregoing trio of anti’s implies) just ultra-confused.

Act One: “The Bastard Spawn of Ian Fleming”

Hard to believe so few remember it now, because in its day U.N.C.L.E. was a big thing. The first TV show, in fact, to develop a cult following while it was still on the air, U.N.C.L.E. spawned eight feature films (released 1964-1968) which made more money than the Bond films in some parts of the world, a spin-off (the ludicrous Girl From U.N.C.L.E., 1966-1967), 24 paperback novels, comic books, a magazine, a clothing line, several record albums, and so many toys a book [2] had to be published a few years ago to catalog them all.

2 One of the many toys from U.N.C.L.E. [3]

Public appearances by series co-star David McCallum caused literal riots. The most memorable of these occurred on February 5, 1966 when 15,000 teenaged girls showed up to see McCallum make an appearance at New York’s Macy’s on 34th Street. When employees panicked and abruptly cancelled the event, the ensuing melee sent several to the hospital. One dejected 13-year-old told the Times, “I’m going to Gimbels from now on.”

When the Beatles arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1966 (to make one of their final live concert appearances) their first request was to meet series star Robert Vaughn — since U.N.C.L.E. was their favorite TV show. (It was even bigger in the U.K., where the first few U.N.C.L.E. feature films set box office records.) U.N.C.L.E. was also the favorite show of William S. Burroughs.

3 The Beatles meet the Man From U.N.C.L.E. [4]

The story of U.N.C.L.E.’s success, and of how it came about at all, is arguably more entertaining than the series itself. If you know anything at all about the series, you will have heard that it was supposed to be “James Bond on television” (not quite accurate, as we shall see), and a major part of the ’60s “spy craze.” But U.N.C.L.E. was the only Bond knock off in which Bond creator Ian Fleming actually had a hand.

After the success of his first one or two novels in the 1950s, Fleming very soon began thinking about bringing Bond either to the big screen or the small screen. He was involved in various efforts to do so throughout the decade. In 1954, the year Casino Royale (the first Bond novel) was published in the U.S., a TV adaptation appeared on a CBS anthology series. Barry Nelson played an Americanized “Jimmy” Bond. It was quickly forgotten (and should remain so). Two years later Fleming sold the film rights to the same novel for a mere $6,000 (these rights changed hands a few times and eventually led to the 1967 Casino Royale, a lavish, misfired “spoof,” and then finally to Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond, the smashing 2006 Casino Royale).

In 1959, Fleming collaborated with producer Kevin McClory and playwright Jack Whittingham on several treatments and screenplays under the tentative title James Bond of the Secret Service. The result is an oft-told tale for Bond fans (and the subject of a recent book, The Battle for Bond [5]: when nothing came of the project, Fleming adapted the story into the novel Thunderball (published in 1961). Unfortunately, he . . . um . . . forgot to give any credit (or money) to McClory and Whittingham, even though much of the story was their invention. (Devising plots was not Fleming’s forte, a point to which I will return later.) This included the villain: Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion). McClory and Whittingham promptly filed suit — and Fleming promptly had his first heart attack. (The second — in 1964 — would kill him.)

As a result of the suit, McClory won the film rights to Thunderball — an awkward situation, since Fleming had already sold them to Albert R. Broccoli and Herschel “Harry” Saltzman, who would release their first Bond film, Dr. No, in 1962. (And the rest, as they say, is history . . .) McClory was also awarded ownership of the Blofeld character and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The reason why both subsequently appear in six of the first seven Bond films is that Broccoli and Saltzman literally leased the properties from McClory for a period of 10 years. In the ’70s, however, McClory declined to extend the lease, as he was now out to make his own, competing Bond film based on the original treatments he wrote with Fleming.

This is the reason why Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E disappear from the Eon Productions Bond films after 1971’s Diamonds are Forever — reappearing, after years of legal battles, in McClory’s 1983 film Never Say Never Again, in which Sean Connery returned to the role of James Bond. (Trivia note: had McClory been amenable, the villain in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me would have been Blofeld — see how many parallels you can find between Blofeld and “Stromberg,” the villain the film actually wound up with.) As everyone knows by now, Blofeld and company will return in the upcoming Daniel Craig Bond film Spectre (set for release in November). How did Eon Productions nab Blofeld again? Answer: they bought the rights to the character from McClory’s estate (he died in 2006).

Norman Felton [6]

Norman Felton

In any case, given all the frustration Fleming had suffered as a result of his desire to involve himself with Hollywood, it’s surprising that he agreed to meet with TV producer Norman Felton in October 1962, to discuss collaborating on a weekly series. At the time, Felton was a big wheel in Hollywood. He was head of both MGM-TV and of his own company, Arena Productions, which launched the hit series Dr. Kildare in September 1961. Interestingly, Felton’s immediate predecessor as head of MGM-TV was Richard Maibaum, best known as the screenwriter for 13 of the Bond films. (In another odd coincidence, both Felton and Maibaum had attended the University of Iowa, where both studied in the Speech and Dramatic Arts Department — though not at the same time.)

Felton did not know Fleming’s work, though of course he had heard of it. (It was actually Felton’s agent who persuaded him to meet with Fleming, thinking something big could result.) For readers today “James Bond” equals the James Bond films. But in 1962 Bond was still very much a literary phenomenon. When Fleming and Felton met in New York City to begin what would be a series of largely aimless discussions, the cinematic James Bond was only twenty-four days old: Dr. No had premiered on October 5th in London (Fleming and Felton met on October 29th). And the film would not be seen in the U.S. until May 8, 1963.

Thus, it’s important to keep in mind two things. First, it was the literary Bond that led to this meeting. And, second, the aim of the meeting was to produce a new “Fleming creation” — not to rip off Bond. What would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was — as we shall see — created before Dr. No was ever seen in the U.S. And the pilot episode was scripted prior to the premiere of From Russia, With Love (the second Bond film), and filmed prior to its U.S. release. The breezy, “tongue in cheek” quality of U.N.C.L.E. is best compared to 1964’s Goldfinger (the third Bond film), which was not even released in the U.S. until December 1964, when U.N.C.L.E. had been airing for three months.

Thus, like the British series The Avengers and Danger Man, U.N.C.L.E. actually predates the cinematic Bond phenomenon, and it is inaccurate to label any of these series as imitating or “cashing in on” the cinematic Bond. Indeed, I would argue (though this is not the place to do it) that the ’60s “spy craze” should be understood on analogy with the “Western craze” of the 1950s, which lasted into the ’60s. In 1959 there were twenty-six Westerns airing in primetime in the U.S. market. Now, arguably without the success of Gunsmoke (which began airing in 1955) none of these shows would have been on, and it can also be said that Gunsmoke (and cinematic Westerns, of course) inspired the creation of some of these shows. But the differences between Gunsmoke and series like Rawhide, Bonanza, Maverick, and Have Gun — Will Travel were very, very great. The Avengers and U.N.C.L.E. have about as much in common with Bond as The Big Valley has with Stagecoach. “Spy-fi,” as it has come to be called, is a genre in which there are many variations, just like the Western.

When Norman Felton met Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator was a very tired man. As noted earlier, he had already suffered one heart attack, and had also become weary of James Bond, and of the legal mess he had created for himself. According to Felton, they spent a couple days together walking around New York City shooting the breeze. Felton’s attempts to direct the conversation back to the television project were usually unsuccessful. On the evening of October 30th, after a dinner party held in Fleming’s honor, Felton typed up some notes on a “spy” character — very general stuff about a man of mystery involved in international intrigue.

The next morning, he showed the notes to Fleming, who liked them, and then suggested out of the blue that the character be called “Napoleon Solo.” Felton was not entirely thrilled by this and tactfully asked why. “Well, Solo is a good name,” Fleming replied, “and Napoleon just sounds good with it.” This was coming, of course, from the creator of characters with names like Julius No, Honey Rider, Auric Goldfinger, Pussy Galore, Guntram Shatterhand, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Tiffany Case, and Francisco Scaramanga. He had a knack for names. And “Napoleon Solo” undeniably has the “Fleming touch”: cool, weird, and knowing it. What he failed to tell Felton, however, was that “Mr. Solo” (without “Napoleon”) was the name of a minor character, a hood who gets bumped off, in Goldfinger. This would be the source of future trouble.

Then, dramatically, Fleming produced a stack of eleven Western Union telegram blanks on which he had written notes about Napoleon Solo, the night before. (Fleming explained that he could find no stationery in his hotel room.) His notes also contained very general allusions to international intrigue, but also some very specific indications about Solo. Fleming was famous for his detailed descriptions of Bond’s taste in all manner of things, right down to the type of cotton his shirts were made from and the brand of marmalade he favored. (See my essay “The Importance of James Bond [7].” Among other things, Fleming’s Solo collected gold coins and bandannas. He had a pet bird he talked to regularly, which Fleming envisioned as “useful for getting over plot problems.” One imagines something like the following — coming, say, after a cliffhanger at the end of Act Three:




Solo is standing by the bird cage, wearing the same clothes we saw him in last night.


(talking to bird)

I guess you’re wondering how I got all this marmalade on me, Tweety. . .

(he drops a few seeds into the cage)

. . . Well, things looked pretty dicey when I was caught in the embrace of that giant squid. But thankfully out of the corner of my eye I spotted Dr. Lobo’s breakfast tray . . .

And so on.

solowithbird [8]Felton had already suggested to Fleming that their main character might be Canadian, rather than American (a point I will return to shortly). Fleming worked that in, specifying that Solo had served in a Canadian Highland regiment. Solo would also have a mysterious boss, referred to only as “He.” And He had a secretary, with whom Solo (of course) would flirt. Her name was April Dancer. In fact the names “Napoleon Solo” and “April Dancer” were the only elements from Fleming’s notes that found their way into what became The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

April Dancer became The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (not the secretary to “He”), though she had to wait until 1966. There were also a few Bondian elements in Fleming’s notes (Solo wears blue suits with a white shirt and black tie — no mention of whether the tie is knitted, however — and drives a vintage car.) But the general impression is that Fleming was trying to create a character distinctively different from Bond. That few of his original ideas were retained for U.N.C.L.E. is not exactly a lost opportunity: the ideas weren’t that good.

Felton knew he didn’t have that much when he parted company with Fleming on October 31st. But he also knew that without Fleming’s name there would be no series — and he was anxious to produce an escapist program, having had enough of drama for the moment. Less than a month later he synthesized his own notes with Fleming’s, producing a short document titled “Basic Material Pertinent to a New One Hour Television Series [entitled] SOLO. Assembled by: Ian Fleming and Norman Felton.” And then the negotiations began between Felton’s agents and MGM-TV, with the idea of bringing Solo to NBC, with sponsorship by the Ford Motor Co. This dragged on until March 1963, when NBC agreed that it would buy the Solo series without a pilot — a rarity — based upon Fleming’s promised participation.

Act Two: “Have Modified-P-38-With-Attachments — Will Travel”

Sam Rolfe with David McCallum [9]

Sam Rolfe with David McCallum

Then the pressure was really on, as Felton’s experience in New York had taught him that he couldn’t rely on Fleming. The enthusiasm and commitment simply weren’t there. Faced with the necessity of producing a more detailed outline for Solo, Felton turned to Sam Rolfe, who was at that time producer of Felton’s series The Eleventh Hour, which concerned a psychiatrist. (Intended as the psychiatric equivalent to Dr. Kildare, The Eleventh Hour was not nearly as successful, lasting only two seasons on NBC, from 1962-1964.)

Rolfe was co-creator of the highly-successful Western series Have Gun — Will Travel, which ran on CBS from 1957 to 1963. It concerned the adventures of a freelance “knight without armor,” Palladin (played by Richard Boone), who was conceived as a debonair, stylish, larger than life hero. The series had a whimsical tone, but involved Palladin in credible adventures. (It also had a racist tone — by today’s standards — with two recurring Asian characters named Hey Boy and Hey Girl, who played a kind of slanty-eyed Stepin Fetchit function for Boone’s Palladin.)

Four years before Have Gun — Will Travel, Rolfe had scored an Oscar nomination for his first screenplay, written for The Naked Spur, a Western starring James Stewart. An interesting footnote: Rolfe co-wrote The Naked Spur with Harold Jack Bloom, who would later contribute a script to U.N.C.L.E., and be credited with “additional story material” for the 1967 Bond film You Only Live Twice, making him the only writer — aside from Ian Fleming — to have been involved with both Bond and U.N.C.L.E.

Felton gave Rolfe his twelve-page sketch of Solo and essentially left him free to develop it as he saw fit. Now, only a couple of years earlier Rolfe had penned an unproduced pilot script for a proposed series titled The Dragons and St. George. A kind of modernized Arthurian romance, the hero was one Mark St. George, a freelance troubleshooter not unlike Simon Templar (The Saint) — and more than a little like Rolfe’s Palladin. He was assisted by his German shepherd, Merlin, and by a mysterious blond man named Lance Mordred. Mordred had been mangled in an accident some years earlier, and his body rebuilt from various donors. Mysteriously, from each of these he had acquired a special skill (e.g., because a Parisian chef had donated a metatarsal arch, Lance was an expert in the preparation of haute cuisine — no kidding!). The “dragons” of the title were the various villains St. George encountered each week.

Quite a lot of this went into Rolfe’s revision of Solo. He tossed out almost every bit of characterization Fleming and Felton had given Napoleon Solo, and essentially gave Mark St. George a name change. Lance Mordred became Illya Kuryakin, Solo’s sometime partner — though the ridiculous business about his being made of spare parts was jettisoned. The dog was also dropped, but Rolfe retained another item in St. George’s arsenal: a modified Walther P-38 which could fire full auto, and accept various attachments such as a shoulder stock and telescopic sight. Finally, “the dragons” were to become an evil organization that Solo would fight on a regular basis — but more about them shortly.

The biggest change Rolfe made to his original conception was to give Solo/St. George a regular employer. This was U.N.C.L.E. — an acronym, of course, but originally the letters stood for nothing (Rolfe wanted to keep it mysterious). U.N.C.L.E. was conceived as an international spy organization, with agents of all nationalities working for the welfare of the entire world. Sort of like if the U.N. had its own spy agency, with cool gadgets. And Rolfe intended the “U.N.” in “U.N.C.L.E.” to invite speculation that the two were connected. In Rolfe’s lengthy “prospectus” for what would become The Man From U.N.C.L.E., he gives a detailed description of the organization and its headquarters.

Rolfe envisioned U.N.C.L.E. HQ as located a few blocks from the U.N. building in New York, somewhere in the East 40s. It occupied one entire city block, and was concealed behind a row of brownstones. At one end of the block was a newer, whitestone building which actually housed an office plainly marked as belonging to U.N.C.L.E. Here some nobody sat behind a desk, ready to inform inquirers of U.N.C.L.E.’s mission, making it out to seem like something along the lines of UNICEF. Rolfe seemed to be taking inspiration here from Fleming’s description in Thunderball of the “cover office” for S.P.E.C.T.R.E.: F.I.R.C.O., the Fraternité International de la Résistance Contre l’Oppression, an organization that claims to assist resistance movements around the world. U.N.C.L.E. is not, therefore, a secret organization — but its real activities are most definitely secret. Hence what lies behind the brownstones.

At the middle of the block is Del Floria’s Tailor Shop (originally called Giovanni’s in Rolfe’s notes). This is the “agent’s entrance” to U.N.C.L.E. HQ. If the elderly tailor recognizes you as an agent, you are escorted into a fitting booth. He flips a concealed switch beside his pressing machine, you twist the coat hook in the fitting booth and the back wall of the booth opens to reveal the admissions room of U.N.C.L.E. HQ. There, depending upon your security clearance, you will receive either a white, yellow, green, or red badge. But the receptionist (always a pretty girl) must attach it to your lapel herself. A chemical on her fingers reacts with a chemical on the badge, without which reaction the badge would set off every alarm in the place as soon as you walked through the first sliding, mechanical steel door.

7 U.N.C.L.E. HQ [10]

And so on. Rolfe poured a huge amount of imagination and detail into these notes, almost as much as Gene Roddenberry famously did for Star Trek, or Patrick McGoohan did for The Prisoner. He provided a complete layout of U.N.C.L.E.’s HQ (yes there’s more: such as the underground grotto with channel to the East River, never depicted in the series). He even created an organizational chart:

Section I: Policy and Operations

Section II: Operations and Enforcement

Section III: Enforcement and Intelligence

Section IV: Intelligence and Communications

Section V: Communication and Security

Section VI: Security and Personnel

Section VII: Propaganda and Finance

Section VIII: Camouflage and Deception

Napoleon Solo is Number One, Section Two (or “Chief Enforcement Agent”) of the New York branch. (There are five major U.N.C.L.E. branches — in New York, Caracas, Nairobi, New Delhi and Berlin — and innumerable smaller ones). His second in command and frequent partner is Illya Kurakin, whose home country is the U.S.S.R. Number One, Section One, Chief of the New York branch, is Alexander Waverly. Leo G. Carroll was cast as Waverly in the series — essentially playing the same part he had played in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959; a strong cinematic influence on U.N.C.L.E., as was Hitchcock’s 1946 film Notorious). (In the pilot the character was called “Mr. Allison” and was played by Will Kuluva.)

As mentioned earlier, Rolfe imagined Solo as fitted out with a modified Walther P-38. Thus was created the famous “U.N.C.L.E.” special with multiple attachments. Several of these were created by prop men for the series (after an earlier attempt with a Mauser proved unusable — the Mauser’s modification was backed financially by the Ideal Toy Co., which eventually marketed a toy version that made millions). The gun proved so popular with little boys that it received its own fan mail, and was the subject of more than one magazine article. And countless gadgets were created for the men from U.N.C.L.E. Rolfe envisioned the agents in continuous radio contact with HQ, and as these were the days before cell phones the prop men created concealed “communicators” disguised as cigarette cases and — most famously — a fountain pen. But all of this was yet to come.

8 The U.N.C.L.E. Gun [11]

Felton was delighted with Rolfe’s work, and in the summer of 1963 he travelled to London and showed the prospectus to Ian Fleming. Fleming was also impressed — and he shocked Felton by asking if he could buy a couple of the plot outlines Rolfe had included with his prospectus! (Fleming’s greatest difficulty in writing the Bond novels was coming up with plots.) One of these was a story that involved a secret organization, based under the ocean, firing rockets full of wheat-eating bacteria into Soviet crops. Their aim: to bring about a nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Once the two superpowers had decimated each other, they would rise from the ocean and take over. Although there’s no way to be sure, this could have been one of the plots that interested Fleming. In any case, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the plot of the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me (though not the Fleming novel from which it took its title, and only its title). (This plot outline was later developed into one of the early episodes of U.N.C.L.E., “The Neptune Affair,” broadcast December 8, 1964.)

Though their meeting had begun in this auspicious manner, Fleming then disappointed Felton by informing him that he was being pressured by Bond producers Broccoli and Saltzman not to have any involvement in the series. And, besides, he was spread a bit thin. Fleming then signed over all rights to “Napoleon Solo” to Felton for the token sum of £1. Eon Productions would later bring legal action against Felton, MGM, and NBC claiming the use of “Solo” was copyright infringement. Their case was a weak one. As noted earlier, the “Solo” of Goldfinger was a gangster (if you’ve seen the film, he’s the one Goldfinger sends off on a “pressing engagement”). But Felton et al. were eager to make the whole thing go away, so while they held firm on the use of “Napoleon Solo,” they agreed to change the title of the series. Felton wanted to call it U.N.C.L.E., as it seemed mysterious, and was incensed when someone at NBC insisted on the title The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The fact that Felton held firm on “Napoleon Solo,” though he didn’t even like the name, is an indication that he was in no hurry to dispel the idea that Fleming had something to do with the series. Indeed, the copy of Rolfe’s prospectus that he showed to Fleming and others had a cover page that read “Ian Fleming’s SOLO,” and made no reference to Rolfe at all. Furthermore, instead of offering Rolfe the “created by” credit that he really deserved, MGM-Arena offered him “developed by.” At the time, Rolfe didn’t think it made much of a difference. He later discovered that it did — financially and otherwise.