If you’re under the age of 50, it’s possible you aren’t even aware that Guy Ritchie’s new Cold War spy thriller The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is another Hollywood reboot. Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a Mad Men-era secret agent who becomes reluctant partners with Armie Hammer’s Soviet superspy after a rogue organization threatens the world with a live nuke.
But Robert Vaughn was the original Napoleon Solo, an American 007 in the age of Kennedy. For four seasons beginning in 1964, he teamed with David McCallum’s Ilya Kuryakin and helped the secret United Network Command for Law and Enforcement organization thwart evildoers named with Bond-like acronymns like T.H.R.U.S.H. Riding the wave of Bond mania, the show became an instant hit for NBC before flaming out nearly as quickly, but it left a mark on the culture — and certainly on Vaughn’s career. Now 82, Vaughn had been nominated for an Oscar in The Young Philadelphians and appeared in The Magnificent Seven, but playing Solo made him a household name. He would go on to a steady career, with popular highlights that included reuniting with his Magnificent Seven costar Steve McQueen in Bullitt and playing the villainous corporate titan in Superman III.
If you think the new U.N.C.L.E. gives off the vibe of a more playful Bond film — one of the Roger Moore’s installments, perhaps — well, you’re right. And Vaughn, who recently appeared in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, explains that the original show was conceived in much the same way, with Ian Fleming’s blessing. Fifty years later, the proud grandfather is still plenty pleased with his days as an international man of mystery.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: U.N.C.L.E. made you famous, but where were you in your career when you signed on to play Napoleon Solo?
ROBERT VAUGHN: I was a working actor, but I wasn’t a negotiating actor. By that I mean, I got the job and I went down and did the job. I couldn’t ask for first-class tickets. I couldn’t ask for outstanding housing. I couldn’t do anything of that nature. But it all changed with Napoleon Solo.
The first James Bond film was 1962, Dr. No., and your show started in the fall of ‘64. Obviously, there was some pop-culture cross-pollinating there. How was the show pitched to you?
Well, I’ll tell you how it came about. I was doing a television series called The Lieutenant, about the Marine Corps. Gary Lockwood was the star, and I played his commanding officer, Raymond Rambridge. We were filming one afternoon and I got a note saying there’d be a script for me at the artists’ entrance of MGM. The name of the script was Solo, and Norman Felton, who was the producer of Dr. Kildare and The Eleventh Hour — and a friend of Ian Fleming’s incidentally — wanted me to meet him at 9 o’clock the following morning after I read the script. Well, I was unmarried at the time, and so was Gary, so we just went out on the town, went up and down the Sunset Strip. We had a few drinks, and hooked up with a few ladies and I didn’t get home until about 5 o’clock in the morning. And my wake-up call was 6:30. So basically I read the script on the way to the studio at red lights. So I got there and I went to see Mr. Felton. He said, “What do you think?” I said, “Well, it looks to me like it’s James Bond for television.” He said, “Shhh, don’t say that, don’t say that.”
You hinted at it… but Ian Fleming had some input, yes?
Ian Fleming and Norman Felton were friends. U.N.C.L.E. was basically a tongue-in-cheek Bond. It wasn’t quite as serious and dramatic as Bond, nor did we have the budget for that.
The pilot was titled Napoleon Solo. When did it change from that to The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
I’m not quite sure. The pilot was filmed under the title of Solo. Incidentally we started filming on my birthday, which was Nov. 22, which was the day Kennedy was killed. It was a very hard beginning for the pilot.
I can’t even imagine how surreal that must have been.
Well, after three or four days of trying to shoot the pilot, we just shut down and waited until the funeral was over.
Was the Soviet character played by David McCallum always a major part of the idea or did that evolve?
Kuryakin was in the [original] script as a very tiny part. I think he only had three lines or something like that. Eventually, of course, he evolved into an equal costar of the show. He became the blond Beatle for early teenage girls. Which was fine with me; I had a lot less work. [Laughs]
Watching you play Solo, it looks like great fun. What did you love about the character?
Felton said to me, “My suggestion to you is, whatever you think works for women for you, use that on the screen.” Well, I’m not sure if I know what works for women. If I did, I’d never be acting — I’d be out working women all the time. [Laughs] Anyway, that was kind of the thrust of the thing: Give it your own sense of humor, and whatever you think makes women attracted to you, do that. So that’s what I tried to do, basically.
TV today is so sliced and diced that if a show gets 3 million viewers, it can actually be a hit. But back in the ’60s, 20-25 million people watched some of the primetime shows. How did that fame change your life, if it did?
It did, very much so. Almost within the first month, I notice cars being parked in front of where I lived on Mulholland Drive. There were girls waiting to take a gander at my mug, I guess. That just continued to expand until the show became No. 1 — it was actually only one week that it was No. 1 in the country, when it beat out Bonanza and McHale’s Navy and a bunch of other shows. But then the producers, and NBC, and Chevrolet, and MGM all got together, and they decided they wanted to do some variation on The Green Hornet or Batman or something like that, and the show went away from being smart and clever in the way of Bond. It became silly.
It became more campy, right?
Too campy. It went off the air. And we didn’t even know. One Friday afternoon, this was the last show we were shooting, and we absolutely astounded, because we had just been No. 1 in the Nielsen’s. But that’s how television goes, at least in those days.
Did the cast push back against those changes?
There was definitely push back from David McCallum and myself. We kept saying, “This is silly.” It had always been semi-serious, semi-comedic, but it was never supposed to be silly, like Batman or The Green Hornet. Those were successful shows, in terms of marketing, but I thought it was the demise of Napoleon Solo.
The show seemed to be even more popular in the U.K., then and now.
Well, there was a reason for that. We did two-hour shows. One hour and then the second half of the show would air the following week. MGM designed these shows so they could splice together a two-hour movie that could be released as a feature film around the world. And the additions to the feature films was they always had bare-breasted women, which of course we didn’t have on television. And they were literately outgrossing the Bond films in London and places like that, with 90 percent less budget.
For several years, there was talk to resurrect these characters and this style of spy movie for the big screen. Have you been following those beats along the way?
Every couple of years, I would get a call from Warner Bros. usually saying, “Would you be interested in doing a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? And my answer was, “Of course.” But it never did happen until recently.
Did you have any conversations about being part of this one?
No. Just the question was [routinely] posed, “Would you be interested?” And the answer was always, “Yes.”
You know, one of the stars of the new film — in fact, the star who plays Napoleon Solo is Henry Cavill, who also plays—
Exactly. You have that franchise in common.
I thought that bode very well.