Monday, November 8, 2010

"Open Channel D."

Bob's your U.N.C.L.E. (Part 1)

Hello folks.  How are you, folks?  The wife and I just finished watching a Columbo episode from the 5th season starring Robert Vaughn and directed by Patrick McGoohan.  Wow, Napoleon Solo directed by John Drake, Number 6, Danger Man, Secret Agent and the Prisoner.  A pretty amazing meeting of '60s spy icons.  And what a week it has been for swinging '60s spy nostalgia.  I bought myself a toy: the complete set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Among my early obsessions in 1964 was a love for that black and white, NBC TV series.  I was hooked from the initial airing of the first show and was a fan from day one.  Like today's loons in love with Lost, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the hipster, cool show of the early '60s.  Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo was the American's identification with the James Bond-type, but for us Beatle-bred, iconoclastic teenagers, David McCallum's avant-garde Russian, Illya Kuryakin, was the one to identify with.  As I think I've mentioned before, my insistence on wearing black turtlenecks with coats and refusing to cut my hair over my ears and behind the back caused suspension at my uber-fascist high school, John A. Rowland High School in Rowland Heights, CA--the upper armpit of the City of Industry, near the garden spot community of La Puente (hmmm...can heaven exist anywhere else on earth?). 

Anyway, big fan of the show.  Stayed with it through its first, great, black and white season, although I was torn apart when the show was moved to Monday nights, which was the night that I would go into Hollywood and work on the KCOP TV Channel 13 horror program, Jeepers Creepers.  More about this later, but I do remember being in the make-up room at Channel 13 and watching the monitor being tuned to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  But I digress.  It was my involvement with Rowland High School that got me invited to the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in 1966.  I wrote for the high school newspaper and at the time there was a magazine called Scene which was primarily a teen-based publication made up of contributions from  various high school literary staffs.  The show, wishing to increase its popularity with a younger audience, invited one writer from each high school to attend a Saturday get-together on the MGM Studios lot.  The invitation included the opportunity to visit all of the sets for the show, watch a preview of the next week's unaired episode, and finally, to meet and interview stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.  This is terrific!  The only problem was that I was not the number one writer at the paper.  So the invitation went to a more credentialed lady contributor, who casually showed me the invitation she had received.  I freaked.  But my intense spy training kept it cool and unnoticeable.  Was anyone looking?  Could I club her over the head and stick her into the multi-purpose room?  Would anyone notice?  I'd seen how this was done.  It could look like an accident.  They wouldn't find her.  At least not until after lunch period.  I coolly eyed my surroundings.  But suddenly, my plot took a strange direction...she said "I can't go, do you want to?"  How fine is that line between life and death?  Amazing, really.  "Oh, thanks, yes, I'd love to."  And so the violence factor was removed.  All was well. 

Well, anyway, to make a long story longer, I got up far too early on Saturday morning and took a series of buses to Culver City to wind up at the front of the world famous Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.  Wow.  And it was all so casual.  Very relaxed.  What a time.  You probably can't see it in the photograph, but the marquee on top of the studios promotes the release of their latest mega-motion picture, Doctor Zhivago.  But I was not there for that.  I was there to enter Del Floria's Tailor Shop and travel through the halls of United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.  U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.  And we saw it all: the spinning table, the round globe, Alexander Waverly's communications center, those U.N.C.L.E. hallways.  The deep innards of that mysterious organization revealed.  A fan's delight. 

In the MGM screening room, we watched "The Foreign Legion Affair," which I expected as U.N.C.L.E. had been broadcast the night before (now on Friday evenings) and the preview for next week's show was the one we were now watching.  We are now in Season 2, all in colour, and the camp is rising considerably, while the serious espionage level is dropping.  Although I am not aware of the showbiz politics at the time, I believe this is due to the exit of original producer, Sam Rolfe, and the entrance of new producer, David Victor.  I noticed on my original U.N.C.L.E. membership cards (which you would get if you wrote NBC saying you were a fan of the show) that David Victor had replaced Sam Rolfe.  Ironically, I have kept the David Victor card in my wallet since I received it in the mid-60s.  I see that I was promoted.

So after the viewing, stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum come out and chat with the peanut gallery of writers.  Vaughn wore a Tyrolean-styled hat, which he referred to as his "weekend hat."  McCallum said he was wearing it because he didn't have his toupee on.  I don't think those two really got along very well.  I was dressed in my mock-Illya style turtleneck and coat.  McCallum looked at me with a dazed, surrealistic glance, which suggested "what the hell are you dressed like?"  I whipped out my classic Kodak and snapped the rare Access Hollywood exclusive you now see.

As I have mentioned before, although I admired Robert Vaughn for his politics (he was a Kennedy-style Democrat, and at one time was considered to run for the California Senate...but I think some spooky types may have scared him away from it), I narcissistically identified with David McCallum.  I was quite disappointed to discover that David McCallum was extremely, ultra-conservative.  In the past, I always took his side thinking how he had been wronged by his ex-wife Jill Ireland and Charles Bronson.  After all, in every episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the supposedly single Illya Kuryakin is seen wearing his wedding band.  And he and his wife, Jill, appeared in two episodes in the first season.  They were a picture-perfect couple, these two blonds who had met in England in the J. Arthur Rank period.  But as I always frequently discover, you can be surprised and you may have to rethink things.  For me, I have to find what is consistent.  It's the irregularities that disturb me.  So I'm not naive to be fooled by the performance, but in the case of David McCallum, he was closer to the spy that he portrayed in one fact: he never revealed anything about himself.  At the time, he hung out in the hip circles, released cool musical albums, appeared on Hullabaloo, acted as if he was sincerely a part of the counter-culture.  It surprised me in later interviews how conservative and socialist-paranoid he was.  Is it just the cliche of the tightwad Scotsman?  Or is it something else?  After all, the CIA has props from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in Langley.  They use the show as a recruiting tool.  "Hey kids, come to Langley!  We'll give you an exploding pen!  It's got gas!"  So it makes you question everything.  I remember accidentally running into Charles Bronson with Jill Ireland in Del Mar, CA.  They owned a timeshare in the hotel I was staying at.  Charles Bronson.  The star of those Death Wish movies directed by Michael Winner, who it's been listed was once a boyfriend of Jill Ireland.  I'm confused.  I'm petting my cats now.  Thank god they're not in show business.

Thank god I got out of this spy obsession.  For a while, I thought "what the hell is wrong with me?  U.N.C.L.E.'s the CIA."  Then on later re-thought, I considered that perhaps U.N.C.L.E. represented the United Nations or Interpol.  After all, they did show the UN building in early episodes.  And as the announcer said "U.N.C.L.E. was made up of multi-nationalities."  So perhaps this police force was more utopian than fascist.  Perhaps Thrush was closer to the CIA with its new world order agenda.

So what did we learn here?  Anything of importance?  Deep, sociological insight?  Or just pop culture?  Conspiracies and cover-up?  Or cool hairstyles and turtlenecks?  Light fiction or deeper meaning?  Life imitating art?  Didn't G. Gordon Liddy think he was the real James Bond?  Food for thought.  Be seeing you.