We Really Want to Hear from “U.N.C.L.E.” Fans Who May Know More about This Connection
Bond fans aren’t necessarily “U.N.C.L.E.” fans—and vice versa. But late 2008 represented a big Bond milestone: the second successful Daniel Craig interpretation of a more serious James Bond (arguably closer to Ian Fleming’s vision of Bond). AND, late 2008 was also a watershed for “U.N.C.L.E.” fans.
A silver suitcase-shaped gift-set of all “U.N.C.L.E.” episodes and hours of extras now is available. I managed to preview these hours of DVD extras, which opened up a whole new connection with our James Bond Bible study project.
How does Ian Fleming’s Bond Relate to “U.N.C.L.E.”?
TV producer Norman Felton developed the concept behind the hit TV series, originally hoping to make a direct connection with Ian Fleming’s huge Bond success. He invited Fleming to New York City and planned for a pilot that might have been called Ian Fleming’s Solo or perhaps Mr. Solo. (One of the earlier versions of this pilot with the Solo title is included in the new DVD set.)
There were some unforeseen problems, however, that doomed the plan to personally involve Fleming in the series, long term. Among these problems: Fleming was near the end of his life, trying to recover from a heart attack. In the recollections of the “U.N.C.L.E.” creative team included in the new DVD “extras,” Fleming was difficult to corner for specific materials. In one remembrance included in the DVD set, Fleming is described as only wanting to walk around New York City (part of his physical recovery program) and talk endlessly about his own life and experiences. While fun, it didn’t accomplish a lot of solid work.
What’s fascinating about these “U.N.C.L.E.” crew memories is the way they depict an Ian Fleming obviously weaving together important strands of his own life’s reflections.
One bit of Fleming’s “weaving” got him into serious trouble. He played a role in naming the lead character “Napoleon Solo” and thought the entire series should revolve around him. Unfortunately, just before Christmas 1964, the movie Goldfinger was due to be released in the U.S. and the TV producers of “U.N.C.L.E.” discovered that “Solo” also was the name of an American mob boss who joins forces with Goldfinger. This Solo is not only an evil fellow, but he meets an evil end at the hands of Oddjob—crushed inside a car. (For more on the “Solo” name and Fleming’s involvement, see the “Fans” section below.)
The TV producers were horrified. The whole thing became entangled in a lawsuit. The series name was changed to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And, Ian Fleming quickly retreated from working with the TV team, signing away any creative ideas he had shared with them. Sadly, by August 12, 1964, Fleming was dead.
What Clues are in the “U.N.C.L.E.” DVD Extras?
Some of these clues are described above. But there’s more.
In these “extras” in the new DVD release, there’s a tantalizing, incomplete image of a memo that Fleming wrote early in the creative planning with the TV producers. One member of the TV team recalls that Fleming had an odd habit of making notes on blank telegram forms. Perhaps this was because he was visiting New York and was staying in a hotel where such scrap paper was handy.
In any case, one of the documentaries included in the DVD “extras,” there’s a portion of one of these telegram forms shown very briefly on screen. Stopping the image on the screen and making out as many words as possible, we can tell that Fleming seemed to be extending the spiritual reflections in his original Bond novels into his concept for the TV series.
What Fleming was describing was completely different than what viewers eventually saw on television.
Here’s part of what he wrote:
He called for the series to be a kind of “Pilgrim’s Progress”—a dramatic series that would examine “the successes and failures…that beset an ordinary man’s life.” Fleming wrote that, in this new series, action wasn’t as important as this deep struggle in “Mr. Solo’s” life—so much so that “the plot will be secondary,” he wrote.
If this seemed too close to an ordinary person’s life, Fleming argued, then it is at least accurate of a real spy’s life: “This is in fact the way life is for spies, detectives, Fuller Brush men.”
What a remarkable memo!
Why Is Bond Still Going Strong and “U.N.C.L.E.” Crashed?
“U.N.C.L.E.” fans know this sad story by heart, but here’s the brief background: The producers of “U.N.C.L.E.” launched the series as a brilliantly written, quickly paced television spy series. There were moments of comic relief even in the opening season. One trademark of the series was the inclusion of at least one “innocent” character in each storyline. Of course, that’s also the Alfred Hitchcock formula, which Hitchcock rode to worldwide popularity from the silent era into the 1970s: an innocent person at peril intensifies the suspense.
So, the 1964 opening season was a sophisticated production that became hugely popular with viewers, especially younger viewers. At one point, the series attained No. 1 hit status on network television. The Russian colleague of Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin, quickly attained rock star status in that bubbly 1960s era of celebrity. The actors playing Solo and Kuryakin, at one point, were receiving 70,000 letters a month!
But, the creative team at the helm of the series changed and a disastrous decision was made to push the series further toward an outright spoof of the spy genre. Hollywood had already started producing popular movie spoofs of spies and the TV series followed the trend. After a time, it was clear that this change was destroying the hit formula of the original series—the whole project spiraled downwards and was canceled. Only four seasons were produced (and not even all of the fourth season was finished) before the plug was pulled.
You can read a far more detailed overview in the Wiki page for the series.
Is There Still an “U.N.C.L.E.” Fan Base?
Darned right! The fans are a bit older now. If you were 14 in ‘64, well, you can do the math. You’re likely in the prime of your 50s right now if you were a die-hard fan during the series’ original run.
We’ve heard from a very active fan, journalist Bill Koenig, who wrote a piece involving Fleming and “U.N.C.L.E.” for the James Bond site: Her Majesty’s Secret Service / The Essential James Bond.
Bill’s piece appears on a sub-section of this larger Bond site about “Other Spies.” His story starts out with an overview of a cache of “U.N.C.L.E.” papers in Iowa—but you’ll quickly spot the relevant section about the naming of Napoleon Solo. Thanks, this is intriguing stuff, Bill!
For U.N.C.L.E. Fans Who May Want to Read Further
Bill sent along a couple of other very helpful links. First, here’s another general fan page with some intriguing links, including newer stories written about the characters. Within that site, here’s a sub-page in which Bill has spun some new U.N.C.L.E. tales well worth a look. If you’re not familiar with this style of fiction, written to keep the characters alive, then a bit of reading in these pages may inspire you to sit down at your computer keyboard and start writing about your own favorite fictional characters.
Another extensive fan site is manfromuncle.org.
Is there anyone out there who may know more about these Fleming, Bond and “U.N.C.L.E.” connections? We’re interested to know more!