Archive for the ‘Robert Vaughn’ Category

DVD review: ‘Return of the Man from UNCLE’ is an ’80s trip

March 4, 2009

Man from UNCLE fans who eagerly bought the original series on DVD now have one last chaser for their almost full glass: a 1983 reunion TV movie called The Return of the Man from UNCLE (aka The Fifteen Years Later Affair).

Where UNCLE originally was a product of the groovy ’60s, and a spy obsession sparked by the James Bond craze, this effort is so distinctly ’80s that you half-expect Cyndi Lauper to pop up and be-bop. It’s also very much a TV movie-of-the-week product, using cheap location shoots in Nevada to pass for globe-hopping intrigue, and offering Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace as the ultimate in exotic gambling destinations.

Then there’s the supporting cast, a virtual who’s who of  overly familiar TV character actors and borderline stars, but with a few nice touches. Having The Avengers’ Patrick Macnee take over for the late Leo G. Carroll as UNCLE chief is a winner, and there’s a cheeky cameo by one-time Bond George Lazenby playing “JB,” who helps out in a pinch.

As for Anthony Zerbe, Keenan Wynn and Geoffrey Lewis, all have seen better days.

Of course, what really matters is seeing Robert Vaughn and David McCallum again as UNCLE agents and partners Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively. The latter hardly seems to have aged — and still hasn’t, as seen on CSI. But Vaughn has passed the point of passing as a tough spy guy, and when the two are brought out of retirement to tangle with THRUSH over a nuke threat that feels very Austin Powers, only McCallum seems truly up to the rough stuff (though Vaughn still looks spiffy in a tux).

If you can forgive this film for its low-budget stretch — and believe me, I do — it’s fairly entertaining in a good-try nostalgic way, showing you can go home again, provided it’s only 15 years later and not closer to 20. (Indiana Jones fans, take note.) The only real drawback is that, after going to great lengths to reunite Solo and Kuryakin, the story sends them on different paths, so they rarely spend screen time together.

I also miss Jerry Goldsmith’s music from the original series, which provided one of the best TV soundtrack albums ever.

Oh well — you can’t have everything. But for UNCLE fans, this Return DVD from Paramount is a reasonably satisfying swan song for a show that never measured up to the Bond films by any means, but was a welcome diversion in the realm of on-a-budget prime-time TV. And Vaughn and McCallum, then and now, are a duo worth celebrating.

Cry ‘UNCLE’ on Nov. 27

November 8, 2007

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!”