The Man From UNCLE: What Happens When James Bond Comes Out of the Cold and Into TV

We are in the midst of our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series this month. In the mid-1960s, westerns were still the most popular show on television with rural sitcoms coming on the scene. Crime shows still had their fair share of air time, but spy shows were non-existent. With the end of the Cold War, Bond movies, and books like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, these types of thrillers were bound to hit the small screen. From 1964-1968, The Man from UNCLE took us behind the scenes to observe the dangerous life of special agents.

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Beginning on Tuesday nights on NBC, the show was produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The creator, Norman Felton, asked Ian Fleming to act as a consultant. (Some sources list Felton as the sole creator; some credit Sam Rolfe as a co-creator.) The book The James Bond Films mentions that Fleming suggested two characters: Napoleon Solo and April Dancer. Napoleon Solo became one of the main characters on The Man from UNCLE, and we will learn more about April Dancer later. Solo was also a villain in the movie Goldfinger. Originally titled “Solo,image of ” the popularity of the film led to a title change in the television show to The Man from Uncle.

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Solo (Robert Vaughn), being an American, was set up in a partnership with a Russian, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). The duo would take on multinational secret intelligence work under UNCLE, The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. They sometimes worked with Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) who headed up an English organization. They frequently went up against THRUSH. We never learned who was part of THRUSH or what their goals were, apart from taking over the world of, course.

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David McCallum

Solo was supposed to be the typical ladies’ man, with Kuryakin being the intelligent, funny, and loyal partner, but McCallum turned into an instant celebrity. Hysterical fans attended promotional appearances and magazines gave he and his wife Jill Ireland little peace and quiet. One article I read discussed an incident in Baton Rouge, LA when McCallum was locked in a bathroom so the police could clear out the screaming women. When he was supposed to do a spot in a Macy’s store in New York, police had to disperse 15,000 screaming women who made it too dangerous for him to appear and did “a colossal amount of damage” to the store.

Solo and Kuryakin accessed their secret headquarters through a tailor’s shop, Del Floria’s.

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In an interesting twist, the creators decided to feature an “innocent character,”–a Joe Doe or Jane Smith who the viewers could identify with—in every episode.

The theme music was created by Jerry Goldsmith, changing slightly each season as new composers came on board, eight in all.

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With the exception of one show, the episodes were titled “The ______ Affair.” Every year at least one two-part show was aired. The pair of shows became theatrical films released in Europe. Additional footage was added to the movies. Some of these films were later seen on American television and include To Trap a Spy (1964), The Spy with My Face (1965), One Spy Too Many (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1967), and How to Steal the World (1968), among others.

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Although stuntmen were hired for the two leads, they also did their own stunts. Typically, the actor and stuntman did each stunt, and the final version combined the best of them. However, McCallum tried to avoid heights, and Vaughn disliked water scenes.

Like Get Smart, the recurring characters were a small group, and guest stars were necessary for each episode. Both high-profile and up-and-coming actors were eager to appear on the show. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy can be seen together in “The Project Strigas Affair” two years before they starred on Star Trek. Other actors who appeared include Judy Carne, Joan Collins, Yvonne Craig, Broderick Crawford, Robert Culp, Chad Everett, Barbara Feldon, Anne Francis, Werner Klemperer, Janet Leigh, June Lockhart, Jack Lord, Ricardo Montalban, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Kurt Russell, Sonny and Cher, and Telly Savalas.

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Of course, spies need technological gadgets to get a leg up on the competition. Some of their communication devices included a security badge and a business card. They could also communicate with a portable satellite disguised as a cigarette case or fountain pen.

Like all good crime fighters, the duo needed a car, and theirs was a Piranha Coupe, based on the Chevrolet Corvair.

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Weapons were also a necessity in their line of work. The UNCLE Special was a semi-automatic weapon which was useful except at night when THRUSH had access to a “sniperscope” which allowed the villains to shoot in total darkness.

The gadgets, props, and clothing for the show were so popular that they are exhibited in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The CIA also exhibits some of the show’s items.

Season 1 was a great success even though partway through the season, the show moved from Tuesdays to Mondays. With season 2 came more “tongue-in-cheek” dialogue, and the series switched from black and white to full color. Athough the show was moved to Friday nights, its popularity continued.

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Season 3 added a campy element, a la the Batman and The Monkees craze, against the stars’ wishes. The ratings decreased and the show never attained the same quality and ratings again. It was renewed for a fourth season but cancelled partway through when there was no increase in viewership.

Although the show was only extremely popular for two years, it garnered eight Emmy nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, including a win for David McCallum as best star in 1966.

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Of course, like all popular shows from the 1960s, a tv movie was made a few years later and a big-screen remake came decades later.

The Return of the Man from UNCLE: The Fifteen Years Later Affair was seen on CBS, not NBC, in 1983 with both Vaughn and McCallum reprising their roles. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that although THRUSH was obliterated with the arrest of its leader, he has now escaped from prison. Rather than stick with the chemistry of the two leads, the tv movie pairs each lead with a younger agent.

In 2015, Guy Ritchie’s big-screen The Man from UNCLE was set in the 1960s featuring Solo (Henry Cavill), Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), and Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). The trio must work together in a joint mission to stop an evil organization from using Gaby’s father’s expertise in science to build a nuclear bomb. All the while, they don’t totally trust each other, and secretly put their own country’s agendas first. As far as reboots go, the film was actually a good rendition of the original show.

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Of course, there was no limit to the merchandising in connection with the show. Several comic books based on the series were published, as well as two dozen novels. In addition to membership cards, viewers could show their love

for the show with board games, action figures, model kits, lunch boxes, and toy guns.

I did promise to get back to April Dancer. Halfway through The Man from UNCLE series, the network released a spin-off, The Girl from UNCLE starring Stefanie Powers as April Dancer. Not as popular as the original, it was cancelled after one season.

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Dancer works with British agent Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Leo G. Carroll appeared as Mr. Waverly in this series also. Luckily Powers was fluent in several languages, because Dancer often went undercover with a foreign accent.

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Unfortunately, Dancer reeled in the bad guys, but Slate was the one who got to kill them. However, April did get some cool gadgets such as a perfume atomizer that sprayed gas and exploding jewelry.

This show also used Goldsmith’s theme music in an arrangement by Dave Grusin.

Both The Girl from UNCLE and The Man from UNCLE are available on DVD.

Although The Man from UNCLE was only hugely popular for two years and The Girl from UNCLE never attained a fan base, the shows ’ concept spawned a huge pop culture obsession. At one point, more than 10,000 letters a week were delivered to the network. The show sparked an interest in spy shows that would pave the way for future shows such as Mission Impossible; The Wild, Wild West; I Spy; and Get Smart. Like The Man from UNCLE, each of these shows would result in reboot big-screen movies in later decades, as well as a large output of memorabilia.

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It’s interesting that this show feels dated now with the current technology, yet Get Smart continues to be a hit. I think the humor and campiness of Get Smart keeps it relevant which is ironic, because that is what basically brought about the end of The Man from UNCLE. Despite its current non-relevancy, it was an important part of pop culture and deserves to be celebrated for its cult status in the mid-sixties and the realistic portrayal of spies to generations of viewers.

Trick or Treat???

Tomorrow night is Halloween, and many of you will see ghosts flitting around your neighborhood asking for candy.  If you want to watch ghosts flitting around your television screen, I have some shows for you to consider. To save you some time, I’ll let you know which ones are boo-ring and which are hauntingly good.

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Topper (1953)

This show was based on several stories by Thorne Smith and a movie starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young from 1937. When Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife Henrietta (Lee Patrick) move into their house, Topper becomes aware of three more residents, George and Marian Kerby (real husband and wife Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffries) and a St. Bernard named Neil who tried to save them in a skiing accident during an avalanche. One of the ongoing jokes in the show is that Neil is always drinking alcohol left around the house after getting hooked on the brandy he carried around his neck. The complication is that they are all ghosts, and only Topper can see and hear them.

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Most of the humor comes from their interaction with other people like salesmen or society snobs. Scripts were full of word play and clever dialogue. They would intervene in activities Topper was involved with like his weekly bridge game.  Once he wrote a check for $5 which they changed to $5000. Topper was a bit cheap even though he was VP of the National Security Bank. The ghosts were full of mischief, and we liked them for their fun “spirit.” Being dead, they were fearless.

One of the typical plots happened when Henrietta was in the hospital.  Marion wants to celebrate her birthday with their old friends.  She sends invitations to them from Topper. Topper has no idea people are coming.  The women all make a fuss over him being alone with his wife in the hospital and the party is a bit wild compared to the ones Topper and Henrietta usually host. Of course, Henrietta gets out of the hospital early and arrives with the party in full swing.

Wires, ectoplasm, and the stopping and starting of cameras were used to bring the ghosts to life.

One fact I found surprising was that eleven of the first year’s episodes were written by composer Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer.

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The show began in 1953 with R.J. Reynolds as the sponsor for its Camel cigarettes. The cast was required to smoke in every episode.  In 1955 it was picked up by Standard Brands and moved to ABC.  The next year General Foods sponsored it on NBC where it was cancelled in 1957 after a total of 78 episodes. The show hasn’t aged well because the special effects seem unsophisticated and obvious today. Even so, I would list this as a treat. 

 

 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968)

Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange), a widow, decides to move to Schooner Bay where she can focus on her writing career and raising her family, which consists of Jonathan (Harlen Carraher), Candy (Kellie Flanagan), and a dog Scruffy. She rents the house from Claymore Gregg (Charles Nelson Reilly). The house, Gull Cottage, functioned as another character in the show.  Below on the left is how it appeared in the show; on the right is the show today. The house was actually in Santa Barbara, California nowhere near the water.  We also get to know Noorie Coolidge (Dabbs Greer) who owns the local lobster restaurant.

Carolyn plans to bring in a housekeeper Martha (Reta Shaw), but she doesn’t plan on another household guest, Captain Gregg (Edward Mulhare) (Claymore’s uncle), who lived in the house in the 1800s. Captain Gregg falls in love with Carolyn; he also develops a special relationship with the kids.

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The show was based on a book by R.A. Dick from 1945 and a movie starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison from 1947. The special effects were impressive for the 1960s. When Gregg and came and went, the actors all had to freeze.  Strings and wires were everywhere to help with the other magic parts of the film.

In an interview with Flanagan about her time on the show, she said every show took a week to produce.  She enjoyed her experiences with the series saying that the cast had great actors, “Hope Lange was extremely sweet and kind; Reta was a delight, and Charles Nelson Reilly was hilarious” and it was a happy set to work on.

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The show debuted on NBC where it played the first year. The critics liked it, and Hope Lange received two Emmys for lead actress in a comedy. However, the first year it was up against My Three Sons and Lawrence Welk. The show moved to ABC for a second season but lost its ratings battle to Family Affair. Definitely a treat.

 

The Ghost Busters (1975)

Basically, this was a slap-stick comedy reprising the roles of Corporal Agarn and Sergeant O’Rourke from F-Troop as paranormal detectives.  Larry Storch is Eddie Spencer, Forest Tucker is Kong, and Bob Burns is their assistant and chauffeur Tracy, who just happens to be a gorilla. The team battles ghosts of legendary fiends like Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Werewolf.

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An unseen boss, Zero, would give them their assignment and then the tape would explode.  Their headquarters was a run-down office and they had to use a pay phone nearby. Every week they were taken to the same castle to defeat a new foe. They always used their Dematerializer to send the specters back to the “great beyond.” Somehow, they convinced Jim Backus to guest star in one of the episodes.

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Burns was hired because the producers decided it would be cheaper to hire an actor who already had a gorilla suit. Burns is best known for Bob’s Basement, where he displays his Hollywood science fiction and horror collectibles.  Seen on Saturday mornings, the show produced by Filmation only lasted for 15 episodes.   Definitely a trick. 

 

Jennifer Slept Here (1983)

The premise of this show is that famous actress Jennifer Farrell (Ann Jillian) was chasing down an ice cream truck in 1963 when it backed up and accidentally ran her over. George Elliot (Brandon Maggart) was the lawyer who handled her affairs after she died.  He decided to buy her home for his wife (Georgia Engel).

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What the parents don’t realize is that Jennifer still lives here, and only their son Joey (John Navin Jr.) can see and communicate with her. The show was sexy because Jennifer was a Marilyn Monroe type and silly because she acted like a second mother to Joey. The series was told mainly from a 13-year-old’s point of view.

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The show had decent ratings but went up against The Dukes of Hazard and Webster, so it was cancelled after 13 episodes, one for each year of Joey’s life. I’d classify this one as a trick. 

 

Nearly Departed (1989)

When the Dooleys (Stuart Pankin and Wendy Schaal) purchase a new home, Grant and Claire Pritchard (Eric Idle and Caroline McWilliams) area already living there since they had been the previous owners. However, they are no longer alive. With a bit of a different twist, only Grandpa (Henderson Forsythe) can see and hear them. The Dooleys have a son Derek (Jay Lambert), and the ghosts would try to help him with problems like bullies to repay the Dooleys for giving them a place to live, even though they didn’t know they were doing so.

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The critics were all over the place on this one. Joan Hanauer, a UPI feature writer, wrote “Nearly Departed is a fast, pleasant sitcom, and the Pritchards make you believe one thing you can take with you is your sense of humor.” Howard Rosenberg from the LA Times, wrote “ ‘Nearly Departed’ is a zero. A mishmash of ‘Topper’ and ‘Beetlejuice,’ the NBC comedy is worse than bad in its premier at 8:30 . . . making such worthy comic actors as Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Stuart Pankin look worse than bad in the process.”

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I guess most viewers agreed with Rosenberg because the show was gone after only six episodes.  I have to give this one a trick. 

 

 

The Haunted Hathaways (2013)

This show is a 21st century Brady Brunch without the best part:  Alice. A single mom Michelle Hathaway (Ginifer King) and her two girls, gymnast Taylor (Amber Montana) and Frankie (Breanna Yde) make the move from New York to New Orleans and open a bakery, Pie Squared.

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However, when they move into their new house, they find three ghosts who had taken up residence:  Ray Preston (Chico Benymon), a saxophone player, and his sons, well-mannered Miles (Curtis Harris) and rude and sarcastic Louie (Benjamin “Lil P-Nut” Flores Jr.). The two families learn to work together using ghostly powers and human intellect to solve problems together. This show lasted two seasons on Nickelodeon.  I would not call this a trick or a treat; it’s like the house that gives out apples, not bad but don’t go out of your way to check it out. 

 

I would recommend picking up The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or Topper DVDs to watch as you give goodies to the little goblins ringing your doorbell.  Better yet, get the original movies.  It’s always a treat to watch Cary Grant and Rex Harrison. While you are sitting around a bonfire this month, you can also read the original books and decide which version you like best.  Happy Halloween.

Stars Who Jump From the Big Screen to the Small Screen Don’t Always Land on Their Feet

While it is not uncommon for stars to transition from television to movies–think about Robin Williams, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, and Tom Hanks–it is less likely to see stars move from the big screen to the small screen.  Jane Fonda has transitioned to television in Frankie and Grace and Fred MacMurray did it with My Three Sons.  For most stars, the move has not worked out very well. Let’s look at a few stars who tried to make the conversion.

That Wonderful Guy – Jack Lemmon (1949)

Neil Hamilton (best known as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) plays Franklin Westbrook, a conceited drama critic who dislikes almost everything. Jack Lemmon plays Harold, a Midwesterner who thinks working for Westbrook will help him become worldly and give a boost to his acting career. His girlfriend is played by his real wife Cynthia Stone. The episodes revolved around his romantic and business adventures in New York City.  Perhaps Westbrook panned the show because it was cancelled after three episodes.

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Heaven for Betsy – Jack Lemmon (1952)

Three years later, Lemmon gave it another try. In this show, Lemmon plays Peter Bell, a toy store buyer. His wife Cynthia again played his wife Betsy. The series was based on a sketch “The Couple Next Door” that Lemmon and his wife played regularly on the Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, and it told about the newlyweds’ struggles in New York City. Instead of three episodes, this series lasted three months.

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Honestly Celeste – Celeste Holm (1954)

After playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Holm tried her hand at television. She plays Celeste Anders, a Minnesota college professor living in Manhattan, who is getting journalism experience working for the NY Express. Celeste wrote stories ranging from modern art to underprivileged families. She also dated the publisher’s son Bob Wallace, played by Scott McKay. After three months, she was sent back to school in Minnesota. What was most surprising about this failure was that Norman Lear (who would go on to create dozens of shows) and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) were both part of the writing staff.

 

Going My Way – Gene Kelly (1962)

Bridging television and movies, Gene Kelly redid Bing Crosby’s movie from 1944 for the small screen. Kelly is Father Chuck O’Malley, a progressive priest assigned to the slums of New York. Father Fitzgibbon played by Leo G. Carroll is a cantankerous, old priest. Dick York was his boyhood pal Tom Colwell who ran the community center. Mrs. Featherstone (Nydia Westman) played the rectory housekeeper. The list of guest stars on the show was very impressive, but after a year, the network told Kelly to keep going and cancelled the show.

 

The Bing Crosby Show – Bing Crosby (1964)

I guess Bing decided if Gene Kelly could enter television with his old movie, he might also give it a try. He plays Bing Collins a former singer. He is now an electrical engineer married to Ellie (Beverly Garland) with two daughters Janice (Carol Faylen), 15, and boy crazy and Joyce (Diane Sherry), 10, who had a high IQ. It lasted one season. Not surprisingly, this series also attracted a lot of big-name guest stars including Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Joan Fontaine, and George Gobel. Apparently, Garland had a thing for engineers because she would marry aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas on My Three Sons.

 

Mickey – Mickey Rooney (1964)

Mickey plays Mickey Grady who leaves the Coast Guard to manage a posh hotel, Newport Arms in California, with his wife Nora (Emmaline Henry) and two young boys. His real son plays one of his sons on the show. Sammee Tong plays the hotel’s manager. The former supervisor has left a lot of problems for Mickey. The show was cancelled in January airing only 17 episodes.

 

One of the Boys – Mickey Rooney (1982)

After vowing never to work on television again, Rooney tried it again 18 years later. Now he plays 66-year-old Oliver Nugent, rescued from a nursing home by his grandson Adam Shields (Dana Carvey). Adam is a college student who takes him in. Adam’s roommate, Jonathan Burns (Nathan Lane) is not so happy about the situation. Oliver looks for a job and lands one singing in a restaurant. Also appearing in the cast was Scatman Crothers who sang with Oliver and had also left the nursing home.  A young Meg Ryan played Adam’s girlfriend Jane. The show debuted at 18th place in the ratings but by within a month it had dropped to 68th. Even with this cast, the show was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

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Jimmy Stewart Show – Jimmy Stewart (1971)

Jimmy Stewart jumped to the small screen with great anticipation and excitement by viewers. He  played anthropology professor Jim Howard. Howard teaches at Josiah Kessel College, started by his grandfather.  His house is full with his wife, his son Peter, Peter’s wife Wendy, and his grandson Jake. He also has a young son Teddy, who happens to be the same age as his grandson. His friend Luther Quince often stops by to eat and give advice. Jim talks to the audience during the show and wishes them love, peace, and laughter at the end of each episode. Even beloved Jimmy Stewart was unable to save this show which was cancelled after one season.

 

The Doris Day Show – Doris Day (1968)

Doris Day was the most successful actor moving from film to television. However, I think the reason she managed to keep her show on the air for five seasons was because she changed the format so often that CBS did not realize it was the same show.  In 1968, Day is Doris Martin, a widow with two kids. She moves from the city to Mill Valley, CA to live on her father’s ranch.

The second season she commutes to San Francisco after accepting a job as an executive secretary to Michael Nicholson (MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today’s Magazine. Rose Marie was Myrna Gibbons and Denver Pyle again played her father Buck Webb.

In 1970, Doris and the kids move to an apartment over an Italian restaurant run by Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell. Billy De Wolfe was her neighbor. Now Doris is writing feature stories for the magazine.

When the show returned the next fall, Doris was single and a reporter for a magazine. Her new boss was Cy Bennett (John Dehner) and she had a boyfriend Peter Lawford but later her boyfriend turned into Patrick O’Neal. There was no restaurant.

By 1973, the network caught up with all the changes and cancelled the show.

 

It was interesting that so many actors failed in television when they were such celebrated movie stars. The radio stars seemed to have better luck making the transition. Jack Benny and Burns and Allen had long-lasting and popular shows. It’s hard to imagine actors like Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, or Ben Affleck bombing on a television series today.

I think for now I will continue to choose to watch Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and Hope and Crosby’s Road movies and set aside the television DVDs these stars appeared in.