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

by Kathleen Crighton

Originally published in Epi-Log Journal, issue 13, February 1994
Used with permision from author

Sam Rolfe, whom Robert Vaughn called "the real man from U.N.C.L.E.," had a career in television spanning 40 years. He was a writer, creator, or producer for shows as diverse as Have Gun Will Travel and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Rolfe developed the U.N.C.L.E. series from ideas suggested by Norman Felton and Ian Fleming. His last major project was the miniseries On Wings of Eagles; he also wrote episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Rolfe died July 10, 1993, at the age of 69. Kathleen Crighton interviewed Rolfe for Epi-Log Journal at a fan convention in Chicago a few months before he died. In the course of the interview, he spoke of his plans for the future of U.N.C.L.E.--a future now in limbo as a result of his death.

Are you amazed that the show has endured as long as it has?

It isn't so much that the show has endured but that the technology has changed so much that it has endured. Let's face it. If it weren't for the fact that cable came along and just needed to be filled...I can turn on the television set here or anywhere in this country, and I swear to you, three times a week at least I'll see my name up there on something. A lot of the stuff I've forgotten. It would have been dead normally, years ago. It's still up there.

I guess we thought in '68 we'd never see U.N.C.L.E. again after it went off the air.

All the network shows died and that was the end of them. [Cable] has created a whole new business with the old shows. Nothing will ever be destroyed again.

I just put in my new VCR at home. It can tape 181 channels. And I was surprised to find that about 25 or 26 of them already are full. You can see what's coming down the line.

Do you have a favorite episode?

The pilot. Hands down. "The Vulcan Affair." The original 70-minute version which never saw the air is really my total favorite. Even the cut-down version, I think, is the best episode of the series for me.

When you were working with the networks back in the '60s, were there things you couldn't do, censorship restrictions?

You could do nothing in those days. There wasn't a script on which I didn't get a call from what we called the censors and what they called Program Practices, where they wouldn't go through and give me 20 items on them and we talked about them. Some of them were so absurd.

Can you give an example?

This one sticks in my mind more than others. I don't know why, because there were more outrageous ones I recall. But we had this [episode] about this fellow who could turn on the animals so they'd turn on you--your pet would turn on you.

"The Bow Wow Affair"?

Yeah. And we had this little old lady who was in the hospital, and she's got a little piece of sticking plaster [on her chest], and when they question her she says, "Well, I'm afraid this will ruin my sex appeal," which was kind of meant to be a funny remark. And they said, "You can't say that."

"I can't say what?"

"You can't say sex appeal."

"Sex appeal is a dirty word?"

"No, but it has implications."

I went round and round with them for an hour. I said to myself, "What am I, a grown person, doing talking to another grown person, having a discussion whether you can say 'sex appeal' on television?" That was typical of the sort of things we got into.

Wasn't there another thing in that episode, with Pat Harrington Jr. saying the dogs can't marry anyone they wish, instead of saying "breed"?

It went round and round and round. They would hit you with unexpected things. They would find me saying something about religion and it had nothing to do it. You had to reach way beyond the beyond to figure out where they got that. I always figured it was like they were making themselves a job. They were creating the position for themselves.

But everyone had that problem. I had it on Have Gun my very first show and every show ever subsequently. In these latter years it's fallen off a lot, but they still come in. They're much more apologetic today, but in those days they had to.

I've seen a few episodes of L.A. Law where I just sat there with my mouth open...

Very little they'll stop you from doing today, but in those days they would stop you endlessly. It was maddening to work with them. I used to try to figure, is there any way--sometimes you can use that stunt which we hate to talk about, which is to stick in things that were so obviously heavy, to get them to take it out so they would let us keep something else we wanted to keep.

Distract them.

Play their game. Say "OK, Look, I gave you those two, this one I'm going to keep." Because they really had the power to take it out. There was no resort except to call the president of the network and say, "Stop them." And that's pretty hard to do.

They also looked at the film, to see if there was anything they wanted you to take out. And they found things all the time.

You mentioned the development of the show became a synergy, with the writers and the actors developing the characters and so on.

The original script set it up, and the actor fleshed it out. And then everybody, all the writers who came after that, didn't alter that, they had a component to that. So if you're talking about who was doing the shaping, it was the actors and the original script, the original concept. Then everybody else came and shaped themselves to what was there. They didn't change that. As a matter of fact, the changes that came in later years, I think, came not so much from the writers as from the actors themselves. When they started to get looser and looser, [they] lost their sense of purpose--for me. I have to qualify all of these things, because maybe for other people they didn't.

It seemed like the show lost its sense of direction after you left.

For me it did.

Is there a particular reason why you did leave?

I always left shows. I love to create a show, shape it up. The first year is where you shape it, you find your strengths, your weaknesses, get rid of your weaknesses, develop strengths, find some new points for it. But if it's still there at the end of the year, now you've established it. From that point on, it's like laying brick to keep it going--I would have thought. Somehow it didn't work out on U.N.C.L.E. It didn't continue to lay brick. But I like new challenges, something different to do. And since I was always in demand, there was no problem coming up with something new next.

When you left U.N.C.L.E., where did you go?

Actually, I had already done four shows--a lot. What I did, frankly, was...What happened was my wife rolled over in bed one morning and said, "Sam, you know, we've got a lot of royalties coming in. We should do something with the money." I said, "What?" She said, "Let's go someplace new." So we picked up the whole family and moved to London for close to a year. We took a house in London and watched some of the shows on television, and [I] did some writing for myself and other people over there. But mostly I just sort of had a new life experience with my family. I put the kids in the American school in London. Went down to the Serpentine every morning and bought a newspaper and sat down in Hyde Park and read my newspaper and then came back and started working.

Sounds like a time of renewal for you.

It was really more of saying, enough pressure, what am I about? Is there something I want to do now? But again, if you think of me as not a person who comes out saying, "I have a message for the world," it wasn't as if I came back and said, "Well, I'm now going to take a whole new direction of my life." It was simply, "Well, it's time to go back to work."

It seemed like after you left the series, they kept tinkering with it. Every year it was, "Let's do something different. Let's try something new."

I don't know what they did. I can only tell you, I've always felt U.N.C.L.E. was a show that needed a particular kind of a mind to direct it. You needed somebody that could do drama and then also lay humor into it but could sense when the humor had to be stopped and when you had to make the drama take over. And you could talk forever about it, but unless you walk in with that instinct, you're not going to get it. And I think that some of the people that followed me didn't have an instinct for it. So they got silly with it. They'd be saying, "Oh, I know what it is--just winking at the audience, and being comical. We've got the gadgets, let's let the gadgets at 'em." They never sat down, they didn't really grasp the drama--that you had to have the dramatic spine. I think there was one episode with Robert Culp that I remember we did--

"The Shark Affair"?

Yeah. Now, we didn't do the "human" person well. We made her a little bit too funny. But the Robert Culp affair was quite moving at the end. I can still say that, for some reason, that was a moving ending on that one. Culp went down with the ship. But the woman in it, and the stuff we did with her, got too broad and too comical. Now the problem with the people who followed me was, that was the sort of thing they would do. They would just do that broad comical bit. Robert Culp, if they had done it, would have been a broad, comical character. And that was not what this was supposed to be. It was supposed to be a little realer.

Something got lost in the translation of your original conception.

They didn't have that instinct. I don't know anything else to say. I could feel it when the show was going on. If I had to analyze it, I could probably think through the right answer. But the old time moguls...Harry Cohn, who was uncouth as hell, [when] they used to say, "How do I know if a picture's good or not?", Harry Cohn would say, "My ass tell me." It means, "Get up." You feel the need to walk out of the picture. I guess I have the same kind of behind, because I can sense when this sort of thing is right or wrong. I just knew it.

The whole national culture was changing so rapidly right in the mid-'60s, with the whole business of the Vietnam War and the impact of that. Suddenly we were going from people who were pretty normal looking, ordinary people, to these wild hippie types dressed crazy and thinking crazy and doing crazy things. Was the culture just changing so fast that they had to change the show?

That's the only thing they did wrong, see. They started to be current, and you can't do the style. If you're doing television, look out for the styles. Watch out for "This year they're wearing sideburns, so your actors are going to wear sideburns," because sure as hell, two years down the pike, they're going to look like yesterday's news. If you can find that sort of mid-ground, that Brooks Brothers kind of, it-doesn't-go-out-of-fashion look, do it. They tried to be "with it," the people that followed me, and lost sight again of what it was all about.

If you remember during that period, Bob Vaughn was opposed to the Vietnam War. And Bob Vaughn, while he didn't go out and attack the Vietnam War, he was doing a doctorate at night, working on this sort of situation, what he had to say about it. And Bob was very good, for unlike a lot of actors who carry their personal life onto the stages, he never brought it out to work. As a matter of fact, when he would be interviewed about Man from U.N.C.L.E. and they would start to ask him about his activity, he'd say, "Look. You're here to talk about the show, we talk about the show. You want to talk about the other thing, make another appointment and we'll talk someplace off the set." So we kept the show clean. That was my response, mine and [Norman Felton's]. And he never let them push anything into the show about his own personal feelings or what he was doing. I think it's very good, because I think that's a professional thing to do.

I read so many times in interviews that the actors were always very professional about what they did...


...that they were easy to work with.

They were there on time. They never made demands. You gave them the script, they would shoot that script. When you're working this fast, you always want to get a good script. I used to say to them, "Look, I don't expect you to be great actors when I give you a good script. The script will carry you. I expect you to be a great actor when I give you a bad script. That's where we need everything you've got to put into it." That's the way it worked.

Talking about what you expect and you don't get, there was one show where I wanted to kill the director. I thought he did such a bad job of directing it. I had to bury it. What you did when you buried a show, you usually made it your Christmas or Thanksgiving show, in other words, no exposure. And I threw this show out. It turned out to be one of the most popular shows we ever did. I've never forgotten that. That was with Elsa Lanchester. And dummies.

"The Brain Killer Affair."

Which was an absurd one. I was always trying to bury that one. And we got more letters and reaction from people who loved that show. Sometimes made me wonder if I knew my show.

I guess people saw something in there that you didn't. They saw the humor in it.

They saw the humor and thought that's what we were really trying to do. And frankly, that was not what we were trying to do. It was supposed to be a straighter show than it came out to be. This is what can happen sometimes when your director doesn't really understand the material. He was playing it straight. He didn't know he was making it comedy.

That's just the way it came across. That was one you thought was one of your bombs, and it wasn't.

It was anything but.

Jon Heitland mentioned in his book that there were three writers in the first season of U.N.C.L.E. who he felt, maybe from talking to you, really were good: Peter Allan Fields, Alan Caillou, and Dean Hargrove. Where are they now?

ROLFE: Peter Allan Fields is now one of the producers of Deep Space Nine. Alan Caillou, I don't know what happened to him. Dean Hargrove is now a big executive producer with Freddie Silverman at CBS. He does Perry Mason, Matlock, Jake and the Fatman. He's still alive and very, very active. Very successful. And I think Peter Fields is very successful. Alan Caillou, I don't know where he is or if he's still alive. He was the oldest of us all.

I'd found some of his books in some of the secondhand bookstores.

He was a very good writer for me. He had a good mind for this kind of thing. He was one of the writers who could really do this.

He'd actually been in the business, in espionage, hadn't he?

Yeah, he had a background that was made for this. But he could also write this kind of story.

Who owns the rights to U.N.C.L.E. now?

Turner owns half of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Having bought the Metro library, Turner has now taken over Metro's ownership. Arena Productions is the partner who owns the other half. Arena Productions is Norman Felton's company.

Arena Productions still exists?

Well, Norman still exists. Arena Productions is really moribund. But Norman still exists and owns that Arena end. Now, Norman is not up to doing it himself, and he'll tell you that, because I keep saying, Norman, I want you involved, and Norman says, no, I really would like to see you do it and do it well. So I'm really carrying the ball for Norman here. What I want to do is update it and do three to five movie of the week or cable movies or something with the format. Because I have to update the format, I have to change things. The problem is Turner, which is not that interested right now in making these pictures themselves. In order to make any deals with Turner, which is a basically cable network, they want to get the film at some point so they can run it on their cable.

But they're doing a lot of original productions.

I know, but not this kind of work. Because of that, we are stuck trying to get somebody who really wants to make it and can just show it and make their money back and a little more, and before Turner gets control of showing it. And it's difficult to do. In this area I'm talking about the business rather than making a picture. But this is something I don't even understand that well except I know that's the problem.

So when they did Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. it was MGM and Felton?

That was different. MGM let Universal do it on a license fee.

Michael Sloan came in.

Sloan was the guy who had the heft at Universal, and they let him do it. If I'd had the heft, I'd have backed a truck over him.

If you had done it, it would have been very different. It might have been successful.

We might have got some more out of them if I'd done it. But he couldn't handle the material. He screwed it up so badly, you wanted to leave town.

It was such a disappointment.

I wanted to kill him, because I think he destroyed any chance of getting that thing done for years. And even now it could be hovering over us for all I know. It was the most destructive job I ever saw one guy do. I wish these people would not take other people's material. He's supposed to be an original creator, let him create his own thing and screw it up.

So if there were a new project, it would be Turner and Arena Productions?

Turner and Arena Productions would have to make the deal. And then whoever really does it would probably have some, I don't know what. I don't know how to deal. I really can't structure it.

Sounds like you had a really good time with U.N.C.L.E.

Terrific time. It was a no-problem show. Once we got our ratings, it was a joy to come in every day. Great office staff. We had two secretaries, one who was cute as a button and not very efficient, and one who was very efficient and, you know, nice looking girl. They were two Marilyns. So I went over to the one and said, look, should we get rid of the other? I hate to get rid of Marilyn because she's such great fun and everybody loves her, she brings people into the office all the time, but you're doing all the work. And she said, "Oh, no, no, no, she makes my day!" Everybody was so happy with the setup. And the other Marilyn wasn't inefficient, she just was kind of fun. The agents would always be hanging out in our offices because the two Marilyns were always treating them so well, and I always treated them so well. We just had a great time. Everybody who came to the office enjoyed it. People would just sort of come to the office at the end of their day just to relax. I'm talking about the agents and people who wander, come in there and sit down. Someplace that was great and fun and happy. It was a good show to do. Good cast. Good everything.

It shows.

It was a happy show when I was there. If it was happy later, I don't know. Norman, the executive producer, was always fun to be with. Wry wit, very bright man.

Q: So you're still friends today.

Yeah. We don't see a lot of each other. We see each other once in awhile. We talk, especially on this subject. I called him before I came here, and we talked about this, and we're friends, yes.

As I say, when we started, I said, Norman, I want you involved. Who's going to take the title of executive producer? I want you to get into it. I like the thing he would give it. He'd stand behind me and say, "Come on, Sam, we need dash here!" "OK, dash, right!" We'd sit in the cutting room, and he had the quality of saying one or two things that would key me and I would just go. It was just great working with him. He would take care of the network for me for the most part, except he let me fight with the censors. But anything bigger, he would get into it and do it. Anything with the studio, he'd take care of.

You said he would get on the phone and yell at them for you, and then he would turn to you and say, "Did I do OK?"

Yeah. But the thing was, it really was funny how he'd do it, because he'd be at the height of everything and I'd say, oh, my God, he's really for real, and he'd grin, "How'd I do?" Just great. They were afraid of him. They'd say, "Don't get Norman blasting at you!"

Q: What other things are you working on besides the U.N.C.L.E. project?

I'm still writing. I have one script I wrote which has been optioned for a movie. Doesn't mean it'll be made. Feature film. We'll see if it does. Called Jackdaw. They're trying to get Jack Palance to play the old man in it.

He's hot right now, isn't he?

That's right. So it's a little tough to get him, but we'll see what happens.

Is this a Western?

No, not really. It's a modern-day outdoor picture, but I wouldn't call it a Western. There is a Western I just put out called The Warrior. We'll see how that goes. It's another script I wrote.

A movie?

A movie of the week, this is. Or cable, or something like that. This isn't a feature. There are a couple of other things people are talking to me about. Just got a call from the guys on Deep Space Nine to do something...

A script?

Yeah. I do occasional episodic TV. Friends call me. I don't know if I'll do this one, but maybe. I'd like to do it. Geez, the Star Trek: The Next Generation I did, I've been shocked how often it's been running.

A far place to travel, from Have Gun Will Travel to Deep Space Nine.

A lot of stuff in between. I love mysteries, I love adventure. I often thought I could write comedy, and I have done a little in the past. I just like the story, spinning the yarn.

I haven't decided what I'm going to write next. Right now I'm sort of spinning my wheels when I try to think up...because I always have a project going. I have a couple of things in the machine, but I don't feel like working on them right now, so I'm trying to think of a new project. I'd like to write a simple love story of some sort right now, simple, clean, and straightforward. That's my plans for the moment.