The UNCLE Files
Starlog, May 1983
The Return of the Men From U.N.C.L.E.
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
"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 see 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."
"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 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."
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.
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..
"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."
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.
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.
Many of the iconic props were re-imagined for this update, including the famous U.N.C.L.E. special.Click here for more about the U.N.C.L.E gadgets.
“You’ve been in this position before?” “Frequently.” “Oh, well, how did you get out of it then?” “I carried an explosive charge in my watch.” “Where do you carry it now?” “In my shoe.” “What did they change it for?” “Progress.”
Spies were all the rage back in 1983: while Roger Moore was bumbling through his latest 007 escapade, Octopussy, veteran Bond actor Sean Connery returned to the franchise that made him a household name (and that he had also retired from — twice) in the independently-produced James Bond outing, Never Say Never Again. There was also some sort of a Cold War thing going on at the time, too — but the reports on that are completely unfounded.
Even in the world of a made-for-television movie like The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair, the very essence of all things spydom was alive and kicking — not so much in the form of the much-needed small screen return of U.N.C.L.E. graduates Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, but in the guise of yet another James Bond alumni (the only other one that was around at that point, in fact), George Lazenby. And, while the cameo appearance of a tuxedo-clad, gadget-ridden Aston Martin-driving character of a fellow spy known only as “J.B.” is as close as you can get to it without saying it, The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair somehow managed to (unofficially) merge these two marvels and gave the oft-ignored Lazenby a chance to say “Ha-ha!” — if only for a moment.
Back to the real topic at hand: The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair marked (for fans, at least) the long-awaited reunion of Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (McCallum) in an exciting (by early ’80s television standards) yet decidedly Bond-esque adventure into the perils of a pending nuclear holocaust. Let me set the stage here: the very dear head of U.N.C.L.E. in New York, Alexander Waverly (played in the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series by the very dear Leo G. Carroll) has recently passed on. His replacement, Sir John Raleigh (The Avengers star Patrick Macnee — who appeared in another James Bond adventure, A View To A Kill, two years later) has just arrived and is trying to get the hang of things. Unfortunately, Sir John has his hands full on his first day: the ultra-evil conglomerate organization THRUSH has recently reassembled and has just stolen a really huge and deadly neo-nuclear device of gigantically huge epic proportions (does that sink in at all?).
The new THRUSH is comprised of a venerable assortment of familiar faces from TV and film alike: Anthony Zerbe (later in License To Kill) hams it up as the somewhat flamboyant super villain (who comes complete with an ascot; frequent Clint Eastwood co-star Geoffrey Lewis as Janus (a name that nobody is able to pronounce correctly); Swamp Thing actor Dick Durock plays a henchman named Guiedo; John Harkins as Alexi Kemp, whose hair always seems to be bunched up and over to his left side; and the casting director even managed to wrangle up nearly-deceased Keenan Wynn just to look, well, old.
With THRUSH’s ransom demands consisting of delivery by ex-U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (none of the current U.N.C.L.E. agents have the style or sophistication necessary to save the world, you see), Sir John has no alternative but to reenlist the present-day computer salesman (we first see Solo at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, sporting the frilliest tux this side of Liberace’s wardrobe and acting like he’s a certain British secret agent whose name I will no longer mention). Knowing full well that he’s been out of the game far too long to go at it alone, Solo requests that his former partner Illya join him — which is all fine and dandy except that Illya quit working for U.N.C.L.E. some years back after being betrayed by a double agent by the name of Janus and has no intention of returning (Illya’s present occupation is that of a fashion designer — of course, Illya always did have a way with the women). Of course, as the predictable-but-fun story progresses, Solo and Illya reunite to save the world.
One thing that I had frequently heard from various U.N.C.L.E. fans over the years is that The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair wasn’t all that great — and that the reunion of Solo and Illya was a bit of a letdown in as writer Michael Sloan (who created both The Equalizer and The Master) wrote his script more in vein with the dreaded third season of the cult classic series. Sadly, that is true.
But Sloan’s biggest mistake is that he didn’t pair-up the aging duo with each other and instead joined them with new (younger) characters: Solo treks across the world to Hoover Damn with hotshot U.N.C.L.E. agent Kowalski (Tom Mason), while Illya is teamed with a British actor (Simon Williams) who figures into THRUSH’s plans since he may or may not know how to arm the nuclear device they’ve stolen. Now, despite the aforementioned no-nos, the charm of the original series is still there (as is the show’s heart and humor). In fact, the addition of the new characters (no matter how annoying or trivial they may be) brings a breath of fresh air to the movie.
CBS/Paramount brings us The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair on DVD via a wonderful transfer that is very clear and crisp looking. Presented in its original standard television aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the TV movie looks like it could have been filmed just recently — and only the fashions, automobiles, hairstyles, music, Las Vegas backgrounds and perhaps even the actors will make one realize that it was not. Sound-wise, The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair is given a glorious English Mono Stereo treatment. No Subtitles are provided (frown) but Closed Captioning is available en Ingles.
In terms of special features, though, the disc lets us down: the only main feature-related bonus bit is a television Trailer (1:45). But, all in all, The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair is a fun — if campy — reunion flick.
And then there’s the acting: imagine, if you will, walking into a buffet where nothing but ham is served — roast ham, boiled ham, ham soup, ham salad, and even ham pudding — and you pretty much have The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair. For the most part, the hammy acting is reserved for the bad guys (Anthony Zerbe in particular — as he always seems to do), but the great big special “WTF Television Acting Award Of 1983″ definitely goes out to series star Robert Vaughn, who somehow went from a television Connery in the ’60s to a boob tube Moore in the ’80s (with all due respect aimed at both Moore and Vaughn). I don’t know if it happened in the ’70s or the ’80s, but somewhere along the line, Robert Vaughn stopped acting like Napoleon Solo and started behaving like plain ol’ Robert Vaughn.
At least you can always count on David McCallum to keep his tongue in his cheek (check out NCIS sometime if you doubt me).
By Luigi Bastardo aka Adam Becvar from Blogcritics.org
THE RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
-FIFTEEN YEARS LATER AFFAIR-