By Wesley Britton
A Dream Deferred
For decades now, U.N.C.L.E. fans have both hoped for and dreaded the idea that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. might finally come to the big screen. Most hope lasted while the show's principal architect, Sam Rolfe, was still alive and planning new U.N.C.L.E. projects. But Rolfe died July 10, 1993, at the age of 69. As a result, any future re-make would not include the writer Kathleen Crighton dubbed “The Real Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
While Rolfe was still with us, one interesting U.N.C.L.E. concept had his blessing. In 1980, writer/producer Danny Beiderman and Oscar-winning special effects artist Robert Short approached MGM with a proposal for a new U.N.C.L.E. feature film. Signed on to the project were series alumni Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, composer Gerald Fried, and cinematographer Fred Koenekamp. Sam Rolfe supported the project. In the treatment, Laura Antonelli was slated to play "Serena," a character brought back from the original series. Bond veteran's Jane Seymour and designer Ken Adam were scheduled to participate.
But MGM dropped the feature film idea saying, despite the interest in the new Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the men from U.N.C.L.E. could not compete with James Bond. Beiderman’s script was then considered for a TV film, but Michael Sloane’s team won the contract instead.
So what might have been? Here, Bob Short and Danny Beiderman share the plans and storyline that never came to the screen.
Assembling the Team
According to Bob Short, part of the planning was considering what actors might be interested in the project. They included “Jane Seymour (the innocent—a character type in every U.N.C.L.E. episode), Klaus Kinski (the villain) and Cloris Leachman (Mrs. Allison). We had talked to each of their reps. or agents and had gotten solid interest from all the cast. No papers were signed because that would have only happened once the studio had committed. By the way, Mrs. Allison was the wife of Mr. Allison from the Solo pilot.” (Alison was replaced by Leo G. Carroll’s Mr. Waverly after this pilot was produced.)
Short added: “Unlike the cast we had personal one on one meetings with
the proposed crew personnel. They had all personally agreed to do the project
after Danny and I presented them with our ideas as to how we saw the movie.
Ken Adam (noted for his Bond production design work) was going to combine elements
of first season HQ with the fourth season hallways and give it his own "spin".
Fred Koenekamp (director of photography) was on board for the movie and we had
some great conversations while filming "Return of the Man from UNCLE"
about what could have been done on the feature film. We also had Gerald Fried
(original MFU music composer) on
board to do the music. Jerry Goldsmith was asked but he did not want to revisit UNCLE. I'm the one who suggested to Mike Sloan that Fried be considered for "Return". A mixed blessing because I think he could have done a much more memorable score for it than how it turned out. Boris Segal had (Director of Prince of Darkness Affair) agreed to direct but was killed only weeks later in a helicopter accident.”
“When Boris was killed,” Short recalls, “we approached several more directors and Peter Hyams was very excited about doing the film but wanted Tom Selleck to play Solo. Things cooled between Hyams and us after that. By the way our agent at the time wanted the current governor of California to play Solo. See how weird this stuff gets.”
What would have happened had Beiderman and Short's story come to either the large or small screen? In Beiderman's words, the proposed film might have been the reunion that revived the series. “Unlike the `Return of...’ TV movie and many revivals, we did not have Solo and Illya retired, old and slow, or doing something else in their lives. They were still top UNCLE agents working out of the Manhattan HQ and, no, Solo had not become head of the organization. They were portrayed as the dashing field agents they always were. Both Robert Vaughn and David McCallum had agreed to reprise their roles for this movie, and we determined that they were certainly young enough and fit enough at that time to play their original characters as they always had."
According to Beiderman, the tone of the film would have been a mixture of the best of the four seasons of the series. "The key, significant element about the script--and what made this feature revival different from the series, in terms of updating--was that, now that it had been over a decade since their last affair (`7 Wonders'), THRUSH had apparently disappeared from the scene. U.N.C.L.E. had defeated them on all fronts during the '60s and '70s and, while there had never been a final battle between U.N.C.L.E. and THRUSH, THRUSH just seemed to have vanished."
However, "U.N.C.L.E. was still needed on the world scene, of course, to battle all other manner of criminal masterminds and global threats." But then, as U.N.C.L.E. came under attack and was nearly destroyed, "Solo and Illya discovered that THRUSH is very much alive and well, and is now able to eradicate U.N.C.L.E. once and for all. THRUSH had spent the past decade using financial and economic means--in conjunction with advanced computer technology--to buy out key multinational conglomerates around the world. Rather than building exotic earthquake machines and killer robots, THRUSH took over quietly and out-of-sight. Solo and Illya discover, too late, that THRUSH now does rule the world. With their organization nearly dead, the agents must do what they can to stop THRUSH.”
Instead of this, we got the Michael Sloane project for CBS. According to Bob Short, “Though I like Mike Sloan, I can't tell you how frustrating it was to work on RMFU knowing I could not correct everything that was inaccurate. As Ray Austin, the director, would say to me on the set `Relax Bob, take a deep breath, this is the NEW UNCLE.’ To which I would respond `"Yeah, but they still would NOT wear the badges outside UNCLE HQ and Thrush would never have disbanded.’ Oh, well.”
Ironically, several years after this project ended, a comic book company bought the script and adapted it for a projected series. After the company broke up and no issues were published, Beiderman acquired the art. Along with 400 other items from his collection (including the original coat-hook from Del Floria’s tailor shop), two pages of this art were displayed at venues from CIA headquarters to the International Spy Museum to the Queen Mary as part of Beiderman’s “Spy-Fi” exhibit. (For more on the attempted comic version of the story, see “A Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West and I Spy: Meet Mark Ellis” posted at WWW.Spywise.net.)
Even more ironically, the unfilmed MFU story resulted in an unexpected project. As reported in my Spy Television (Praeger, 2004), MGM producer Leonard Goldberg read the U.N.C.L.E. script and liked the idea. He hired Beiderman and Short to work on his new series, Gavilan. In this 1982-1983 NBC outing, Robert Gavilan played a semi-cynical ex-CIA operative who now worked as an inventor and consultant for the De Witt Oceanography Institute. Adding to the star power of the series, former Avenger Patrick Macnee played the conniving travel agent and sometime actor Milo Bently who shared Gavilan’s Malibu beach house as well as his adventures. One episode Beiderman co-wrote had inside references to both U.N.C.L.E. and The Avengers. "With Patrick Macnee in the series, it behooved me to make references to The Avengers. The title of the episode was `The Proteus Affair,’ and I'm sure you can see an U.N.C.L.E. connection right there."
Robert Short, too, has stayed connected with film spies. “I've worked on half a dozen projects that have tried to bring UNCLE back (including Sloan's and the Warner Bros. feature attempts). The bottom line is that after Sam Rolfe left UNCLE and a new team took over, even the original series couldn't get it right.”
He reports of one unique outgrowth of the “Return” movie. “The shoulder holsters I designed for The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. were the first to be made with ballistic ripstop nylon. As a trade off for manufacturing the prototypes at a reduced cost, I allowed them to sell copies of the holsters. The company which is now out of business ended up selling the UNCLE shoulder holsters exclusively to US security agencies because of their ground breaking design."
Will there ever be a new U.N.C.L.E.? Short believes, “Some day I'm sure it will come back in some form or another but it will be DIFFERENT and all we can hope for is that it will be good. If I was to do it today I would offer it to Richard Donner or Joe Sargent to direct. Without either of these directors I don't know if you could recapture the feel of the original show.”
Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of three books on espionage for Praeger Publishers. His fourth book, The Encyclopedia of TV Spies, will be issued from Bear Manor Media late in 2008. Many of his articles about U.N.C.L.E. and other TV spies are posted at WWW.Spywise.net