Cry ‘UNCLE’ on Nov. 27

High-concept filmmaking may be a function of this era’s corporate-controlled studios (Titanic = “Romeo and Juliet on a sinking ship”), but it also stretches back to early network TV.  In the ’60s, The Man From UNCLE was conceived, quite simply, as “James Bond for TV.” Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo seduced and sauntered in lady-killer Bond mode as a spy guy for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, with David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin as his patient and steady Felix Leiter from another country. Only thing is, as upcoming DVDs for the series show, McCallum quickly evolved into more of a co-star, because Solo didn’t go solo, as in the pilot’s first concept, when the show was even named Solo.

Due Nov. 27 as a full-series box (though the first season also is sold separately, as with Get Smart!), UNCLE’s new Time Life set has a featurette explaining these origins. Turns out Bond creator Ian Fleming was involved in UNCLE’s gestation — even suggesting the name Napoleon Solo for its hero. When Fleming dropped out, the name stuck. But when UNCLE’s creators realized Fleming had a character in his novel Goldfinger also named Solo, they backed off on calling their series that. Enter The Man From UNCLE, and enter McCallum as a charismatic young actor suddenly given co-star status.

Of course, 41 discs and four seasons of UNCLE is a lot to sit through, especially given the show’s sometimes bare-bones production values and leaden pace by today’s standards. If you caught any of TCM’s screenings this week of UNCLE “movies” (two episodes cobbled together), you know what I mean. Still, it was a cool concept for TV in the swingin’ ’60s, and Vaughn and McCallum were stellar leads — treated like rock stars when their fame crested. What’s more, Jerry Goldsmith’s music can’t be beat, and I’m lucky enough to have it on CD. This is a man who went on to win an Oscar (for The Omen) and earn 18 Oscar nominations. For UNCLE, he wrote action and love themes equally well and produced some of TV scores’ strongest melodies.

The new UNCLE set also has a featurette on the show’s many prominent guest stars, and two in particlar pop out: Bill Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, both guest-starring in the same episode, 1964’s first-season “The Project Strigas Affair.” It was their first acting together on screen, a couple of years before Star Trek. Nimoy played a bad guy, and Shatner was an innocent who got to behave spectacularly drunk in one scene. What a great excuse for him to serve up an even bigger plate of steaming hot ham than usual. But hey, I still love his heroic Captain Kirk and his brassy rejuvenation as Denny Crane.

UNCLE’s Vaughn had his Trek ties, too, having starred in short-lived series The Lieutenant for future “Great Bird of the Galaxy” Gene Roddenberry. McCallum was more of an Outer Limits man (a series also with close ties to Trek), via two superb episodes: “The Sixth Finger” and “The Form of Things Unknown.” I’ve interviewed hundreds of actors, including Shatner and Nimoy, and I can tell you they get most enthused about a meaty character “arc,” where their role has significant changes. If you know of another single TV episode with a greater character arc than McCallum had in The Sixth Finger (brutish coal miner to sudden genius to cruelly godlike being to omniscient peacenik), I’d like to hear it. And if you’re right, all right — I’ll cry “UNCLE!”


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One Response to “Cry ‘UNCLE’ on Nov. 27”

  1. edruda Says:

    I’ve seen the set and it’s a beautiful package as well. The Time Life company has given the show it’s due. I’m sure we’ll all be happy to revisit NS and IK!

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