Robert Vaughn and David McCallum vault back into espionage action in an all-new update of one of the 60s' most beloved TV series.
By Lee Goldberg
His features are sharp, hawklike. His voice has a smooth, measured crispness which underscores his confident demeanor and hints at his capacity for violence. Clad in a black tuxedo, oozing the urbane sophistication that has become his trademark, he eyes his poker hand and considers his options.
And that's when his pen rings.
Startled, he looks up from his hand and faces the curious stares of the men around the table. His pen rings again.
"A new battery in my pacemaker," he says with a smile, excusing himself from the table. He strides to a dark corner, pulls the pen from his pocket, and whispers into it. "Open channel D."
"Ah, Mr. Solo," a voice replies. "I suppose this comes rather out of the blue."
"Yes, my pen hasn't talked to me in some time."
"We have a little job for you "
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is back in business. His mission: Stop T.H.R.U.S.H. from succeeding with its latest evil plot while helping CBS bully its rivals into crying "Uncle!"-for mercy-during the notorious May TV ratings "sweeps."
"It's terrifying to get up and suddenly find yourself back in the'60s and then look in the mirror and get back in the'80s. It's a big jump," says David McCallum who renews his partnership with Robert Vaughn, as Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo reappear in The Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The 15-Years-Later Affair.
The two-hour TV movie also stars Anthony (Harry O) Zerbe and Keenan Wynn as villains and Patrick Macnee as Sir John Rolley, the new head of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Written and produced by Michael Sloan, it may signal a new U.N.C.L.E. TV series.
"As far as CBS is concerned, though, it's only a two-hour TV movie and not a back-door pilot," says Sloan, on location with the U.N.C.L.E. crew at the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel. "But, I suppose if it gets a huge share and goes through the roof well, we've had some discussions."
But would Vaughn and McCallum return to the weekly grind?
"Yes, I would," the tuxedoed Vaughn replies, "for the simple reason that I'm tired of foreign locations, Europe, Yugoslavia, Australia and god knows where else. I'm never with my family and it would give me a chance to be with them in America. Yes I welcome the idea of a series, but this series, not any series."
McCallum would join him. "I will always play this character because I liked this character," McCallum says. "We get along very well together. Illya Kuryakin has paid more school fees than any of the other characters I've ever played. It's just a matter of whether it's possible to do a new series with the production values we used to have. It would be nice."
Sloan first mentioned an U.N.C.L.E. revival while lunching with friends during a lensing break from his series BJ and the Bear. "I said if they are going to revive old TV series, they ought to revive something which was fun, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And we all said, 'Yeah, that would be great.' It wasn't until some other time later that I thought 'Why don't I do it?'"
The idea didn't cross his mind again until BJ and the Bear had been junked and Sloan began preparing projects for his newly formed production company. Having decided on an U.N.C.L.E. remake, he didn't rush across town to MGM and discuss the rights-which would have been the "right" way to do business.
"But, I didn't do it the right way. I went to se McCallum in New York and we had lunch in the Russian Tea Room. I asked him if he would like to play Illya again. He thought about it and agreed to do it if Robert Vaughn would do it. So, I went back to L.A., had lunch with Robert, and he said he would do it if David McCallum did," Sloan explains. "So I went to NBC [which aired the original series] and they passed on the project because they were trying to get a revival of Mission Impossible off the ground. Then I went to CBS. They liked the idea and said come back to us with a storyline which makes it worthy of a revival."
And he did.
Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin have long since departed U.N.C.L.E. ranks. Solo has gone into the computer business while the enigmatic Russian has become a fashion designer.
"You would imagine that Kuryakin would be in computers and Solo, with his high-fashion sense, would be some kind of designer," Sloan says. "So what you do with U.N.C.L.E. is turn that 180 degrees around. That's what makes it U.N.C.L.E."
Neither ex-superspy is enjoying his new career; both might be lured into returning to active duty if the mission was important enough.
Then, the head of the now crippled T.H.R.U.S.H. (Zerbe) escapes from prison, revives the organization, hijacks a powerful nuclear device from the U.S. military, and holds the world hostage. He wants Solo, the man who put him away, to deliver the ransom personally.
"There's a new U.N.C.L.E. headquarters which is oak paneled as opposed to the stainless steel of the old days," Sloan says. "And you now get to it, not through a tailor shop, but by walking through a trashy novelty shop in Times Square.
"We aren't' hiding the fact that these men are 15 years older. We make a point of it as they did in Star Trek II-The Wrath of Kahn with Admiral Kirk. Both Solo and Kuryakin say, 'Are you sure we can still do this?' They're a little older, but, essentially, their characters haven't changed much."
And, Sloan promises, the show will still have that unique U.N.C.L.E. flavor.
"The trick is keeping the danger. Then, you throw in some humor and wry lines. I think the mistakes they made in the series' last year was that it became to cute and jokey."
Vaughn agrees. "This is a very good script, probably the best script we've ever had for an U.N.C.L.E. show. It's a return to the type of thing we did during our first season-doing James Bond on television. We became far too silly during the fourth season."
Vaughn is called away by director Ray Austin, a veteran of Space:1999 and The Prisoner, for a scene with British actor Simon (Brideshead Revisited) Williams.
Vaughn, in his black tuxedo, sits in a chair and faces Williams, who plays a Broadway actor.
"Was that a T.H.R.U.S.H. agent you just talked to?"
Solo eyes Williams coolly. "T.H.R.U.S.H. agents are the worst terrorists you can imagine. They have this bomb. They need you to bring the world to its knees. Your father died working on H957. As long as that bomb is in T.H.R.U.S.H.'s hands, he will have died for nothing "
And while shooting continues, Sloan sneaks away to an empty room and talks about his teenage addiction to the superspy series.
"When I was about 19-years-old, I had this great idea for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. script called 'The Gunpowder Plot Affair.'" He grins, amused by the memory. "I had this descendant of Guy Fawkes ready to blow up the House of Parliament. I wrote 43 pages but never did a thing with it. Now, all these years later, I find myself doing a Man from U.N.C.L.E. In fact, there are two lines in this movie from that old script.
"Yeah, I loved this series when I was a kid," he says, "I always liked it and I love it now."
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. premiered in September 1964 and became an immediate hit. The name Napoleon Solo was borrowed from a James Bond novel, Goldfinger, with Ian Fleming's consent. The series co-starred the late Leo (North by Northwest) G. Carroll as U.N.C.L.E. chief Mr. Waverly and later spawned several movies (actually episode compilations). There was also a short-lived spin-off, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., starring Stephanie Powers and Noel Harrison.
The revival, budgeted at $2.2 million, uses Las Vegas and Los Angeles locations to represent the story's domestic and foreign locales. "There's a bit during a car chase in Vegas where we suggest a James Bond character, played by George Lazenby (who portrayed 007 in On Her Majesty's Secret Service), helps Solo out. We're not saying he's James Bond, but he's a great looking guy in a white tuxedo driving a silver Astin-Martin with a license plate which reads 'JB'. But, we're not saying who it is."
He laughs. "The funny thing is when we shot that scene, all three guys who ever played James Bond in films were all playing the role somewhere in the word."
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may or may not be the last revival Michael Sloan undertakes.
"There's a play of mine, a thriller called Underground, which opens in the West End of London this year and stars Raymond Burr," he notes. "And we've had some discussions about bringing Perry Mason back. I don't want to be known as the 'Revival King,' but having one last case would be fun. It's his idea, really, not mine.
"There's also some talk about doing an Avengers movie. There were discussions about it a few years ago but the deal fell through, due to problems with the script I believe. Patrick would love to do it; he and I talked about the project and I may approach CBS with the idea. Maybe we can get all four of the girls back, from Honor Blackman to Joanna Lumley. Patrick would love to do a definitive, two-hour movie. I don't know. We'll see."
Sloan has worked on The Hardy Boys, Harry O and Quincy and was "peripherally involved in Battlestar Galactica. I wrote some scripts at the beginning and then I worked on a short-lived series called Sword of Justice. I thought Battlestar was good, much better than the critics gave it credit for being. It was a huge undertaking, at the time, to do that kind of series and not make it look like cardboard. I thought it was a terrific show. I guess Galactica 1980 was pushing it a little, but the series' original concept-the robots chasing the fleeing humans-worked great."
While Vaughn works in the cramped Biltmore Hotel room, McCallum relaxes in his motor-home/dressing room in the parking lot, dressed as a Polish telephone lineman.
He's asked if he was somewhat reluctant to return to a role he last played 15 years ago. "I don't think in those terms, of escaping or coming back," he replies. "Working is working and if it's a good script and a good part and the right time, then it's a pleasure."
How does he feel about the recent trend towards more vintage series remakes on television? "I don't feel anything about trends in television. They call me in, I act the part to the best of my ability, they give me a check, and I go home. I don't worry about trends in television. And now you're writing all that down as if I just came out and said it. That's the problem with interviews. I had never even considered the subject. You are totally distorting my life by doing this. I don't mean to be difficult, but I wouldn't say anything about trends. That's the problem with interviews."
McCallum asks an U.N.C.L.E. crew member when the stunt, wherein Kuryakin is supposed to repel down the side of the building, will occur.
"I wanted to do the stunt, but they wouldn't let me," he says.
He speaks highly of Sapphire and Steel, the British TV series he did recently with Joanna Lumley. "We played a couple who put things right wherever there was a tear in the fabric of time. Joanna told me there was some interest in doing a feature version of Sapphire and Steel, but I haven't heard anything about it yet. We had some marvelous scripts. I used to have a hard time explaining the show. Did you see Poltergeist? Sapphire and Steel is Poltergeist. The same sort of story."
He doesn't speak very highly of The Invisible Man, his short-lived 1975 NBC-TV series. "The Invisible Man and I had a slight difference of opinion. If you look at the pilot, it was more like The Fugitive. And when it went to series, the producers decided to make it a flip comedy," McCallum says. "We started out as The Fugitive and ended up making Topper."
On the third floor of the Biltmore, Ray Austin stands beside the camera, his arms folded across his chest.
" You're imagining things. You've been in this spy business too long." Williams says.
"Actually, I'm new at it," Vaughn, as Napoleon Solo, replies. "Again."
The scene is going smoothly until a bus passes by on the street, ruining the take.
They run through the scene again and then Austin walks over, smiling. "I watched seven hours of U.N.C.L.E. before doing this project and it's surprising that Robert hasn't changed at all. I wish I was as lucky."
Looking at Austin's credits, it's easy to see why he was chosen to do The Man from U.N.C.L.E. His works include numerous episodes of The Avengers, The New Avengers, The Saint, The Return of the Saint, UFO and Magnum, P.I..
"The Avengers has been the joy of my life," he says. "We were a family there for many years and I was with the show for seven or eight years, on and off, as a stuntman very early, then, a second unit director, and finally, as a director. It weaned me, that show."
His experience with The Avengers has come in very handy in directing U.N.C.L.E. "Everything doesn't quite work, that's U.N.C.L.E. On The Avengers, we used to lock ourselves in a room and the writers and producers would come up with ideas. We sat there once and someone said-I think it was either Dennis Spooner or Brian Clemens, the show's creator-'What the hell are we going to do?' Someone else said 'I know, let's make them two inches tall.' And Albert Fennell, one of the producers, immediately turned around and said, 'We can't do that! Four inches, maybe.' And we did it. It's the same with this show. That's why it's so much fun.
"Panache. That's what's so difficult to capture," Austin continues, "like Steed used to have. Solo sits in a crowded room, does a Sheldon Leonard impersonation on the phone, puts it down, and then goes into serious dialogue about the threat of T.H.R.U.S.H. That's U.N.C.L.E."
He rushes away to direct a scene, grabs some coffee, and then returns to talk about his experiences with Space: 1999 and UFO.
"I probably did 10 or 11 1999s. I think the show was better the first year. We had a great deal of production value in that show; no money was spared on sets. I was very surprised when we were cancelled," Austin says, adding that he was never entirely happy with the series but thought it was an improvement over UFO.
"UFO never seemed real to me," he explains. "It was theatrical as opposed to 1999, which seemed more realistic."
Austin departs to oversee filming of Robert Vaughn's last scene for the day. Afterwards, Vaughn heads back down to his motor home, eager to leave and see his family. He was originally scheduled to have the day off only to be called in to shoot at the last minute.
But, he was cheerful about it. No doubt crew members were counting their lucky stars; Vaughn's ability to assume a persona of cold, cruel villainy is well known.
"For 10 years, I played villains predominately before doing U.N.C.L.E. Once U.N.C.L.E. was over, I returned to playing villains and I have been for the last 15 years," he says, changing out of his tuxedo into his street clothes. "There's been no conscious design about it. I keep getting offered those parts. But, you can't be more villainous than trying to kill Superman in Superman III. It makes me the worst villain who ever lived. And my little boy, who is six years of age, is going to have to live that down in school everyday."
When The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled, Vaughn ignored the temptation to jump into a new series. "The first thing which happens when you do a successful series and go off the air is that everyone in town wants you to do the very same series with a different name right away," he says.
"I was pitched many, many deals by the networks and studios to do a series which would have been identical to U.N.C.L.E. But, I wanted, since I wasn't married at the time, to travel and live in Europe-which I did for six years-and do movies, which I also did. Therefore, I didn't take advantage of my hotness after U.N.C.L.E."
If the Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. is indeed the sizzler CBS hopes it will be, the door has been left wide open for Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (and CBS) to take advantage of it.
Michael Sloan has seen to that.
"They save the world and everything is fine and they are relaxing in this restaurant," he says. "In the background, as they leave, we hear a radio or TV report that 'Air Force One is still missing ' Just as they are going out, their pens ring. They open channel D and Macnee says, 'Tell me, are you doing anything for the next few days?' They look at each other and shrug. And we leave it up to the audience to decide: Do they go back to U.N.C.L.E. or not?"
It's up to you.