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U.N.C.L.E. background and historydivider

by Kathleen Crighton

Originally published in Epi-Log Journal, issue 12, January 1994
Used with permision from author



After The Man from U.N.C.L.E. disappeared from network television in 1968, it made the rounds in syndication. Norman Felton made an early attempt to bring it back, and Sam Rolfe tried with a script for a two-hour TV movie in 1977. Two U.N.C.L.E. fans, Danny Beiderman and Bob Short, launched a serious effort to do a return movie, lining up a number of people to work on the project. They did not contact Vaughn and McCallum, however, to ascertain their interest. Their efforts were halted when they learned that television producer Michael Sloan had gotten the go-ahead from MGM to do a "return" movie with Universal. Sloan had taken the opposite tack from Beiderman and Short, contacting Vaughn and McCallum first thing.

Sloan served as executive producer and writer of Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. He hired Short to serve as technical advisor on the two-hour TV movie. It ran as a CBS Tuesday Night Movie on April 5, 1983.

Leo G. Carroll had died in 1972. The role of the head of U.N.C.L.E. was taken over by Patrick Macnee, best known to American audiences as John Steed in The Avengers. He played the role of Sir John Raleigh much like Steed. Interestingly enough, the director Sloan picked for Return was Ray Austin, who had worked on The Avengers as well.

Vaughn and McCallum were both around fifty by then, but they looked much as they had in the television series. They had appeared in numerous films and TV shows over the intervening years, but neither had ever found other roles with which they were so closely identified as Solo and Kuryakin.

What happened to the world of U.N.C.L.E. in the past fifteen years? In Sloan's vision, Solo has gone off to sell computers and gamble, while Kuryakin is a popular fashion designer. When Solo returns to the site of Del Floria's tailor shop, there's a new owner who has no earthly idea why he is so interested in the back wall of the dressing booth. A taxi driver suggests that Solo really wants to go to a novelty shop, which we in fact never see, but it gets him into the new U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. There are newer computers, and Raleigh's very British-decorated office has much more warmth than Waverly's spartan one from the '60s.

Just like its parent, Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never shot a single scene in New York City. Shooting was done in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and at Hoover Dam. The casino scenes were shot at Caesar's Palace.

Prior to shooting Return, Sloan watched some third-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes but never looked at any from the first season. Fans of the show felt this omission hindered the final product. Return has more of the feel of a James Bond movie than an episode of U.N.C.L.E.--in fact, it even pays tribute to Bond in a silly chase scene where a mysterious figure named "JB," played by George Lazenby (who was Bond in one film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service), helps Solo and a defecting ballerina flee the bad guys. There's even a climactic scene where one character must defuse a bomb that's ticking down to nothing, similar to the climactic scene at Fort Knox in Goldfinger.

It seemed woefully out of character that Illya Kuryakin, with his background in science and mathematics, would become a fashion designer. Or that the clever and resourceful Napoleon Solo could have run himself so deeply into debt at the gaming tables. All in all, fans of the series felt the TV movie was only so-so. One wonders how a revival done by Sam Rolfe would have turned out.

The Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. won its time slot in the ratings that night, but it failed to recoup the $2 million plus it cost to make. Rolfe cited its failure to make money as a hindrance to putting together future U.N.C.L.E. projects.

Nonetheless, Return sparked renewed interest in the show and probably influenced CBN to begin showing the old episodes on cable, and for that we can be grateful. The conservative Christian-oriented network had a tendency to severely edit the old episodes, perhaps to remove violent or suggestive scenes or just to make room for more advertisements. As a result, some scenes in the episodes don't make a lot of sense. Turner, while doing some editing to make room for commercials, has done a better job of preserving the sense of the episodes. The professional tapes, of course, are the best of all; in general their quality is excellent. We can only hope to see more of them.

Part I: Introduction
Part II: The Birth of U.N.C.L.E.
Part III: The U.N.C.L.E. Organization
Part IV: Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin and Alexander Waverly
Part V: Evolution of a Hit Series
Part VI: Guest Stars
Part VII: The U.N.C.L.E. Sets
Part VIII: The Four Seasons
Part IX: Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.