One of television’s most popular dramatic shows is “The Man From UNCLE.” For a week, a writer followed the production of an UNCLE episode. He reports about the crew, the cast, the stars and the whole business of putting together a serial that has sailed high into the TV orbit. This is the first of a five part series. By Joseph N. Bell.
Hollywood, Calif.—There was only a mild ripple of elation on “The
Man From UNCLE” set the October day that the Nielsen television ratings
showed UNCLE in first place for the first time.
Said Robert Vaughn, intrepid UNCLE agent: “I remember when we were 93rd.”
Said a harassed assistant director: “I’d rather be fourth. When you’re first, you have to worry about staying there.” (He got his wish a week later when the show dropped to fourth.)
Mostly the reaction was business as usual. It had to be, because the UNCLE crew is turning out the equivalent of a feature length film every two weeks. And that means work and more work—far beyond the ken of those starry eyed citizens who still regard film making as a glamorous pastime. On the contrary, it’s a weary, tough, demanding business.
Saw It Created
I spent a week following an UNCLE episode through the complete creative process, from casting and script revision to final filming and editing. This show is called “The Children’s Day Affair,” and it was seen on your TV screens last Friday night. I saw it created at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Hollywood during the week of Oct. 11-15.
The first thing that strikes a visitor to UNCLE is the frenetic immediacy of these shows. Only the script is prepared ahead of actual production, and even that sometimes comes right down to the wire.
“The Children’s Day Affair” started in mid-July, when writer Dean Hargrove—who, along with Peter Ross, does almost three-fourths of the UNCLE scripts—told a story meeting:
“Here’s a springboard that might work. How about hanging a show around a school for children being trained as THRUSH agents?” (As everyone under 18 knows, THRUSH is an organization of bad guys, deadly enemies of U.N.C.L.E.)
The group liked the idea and told Hargrove to develop it. On July 23 he came in with a 19 page outline, with occasional bits of dialog. This went to the network (NBC) for approval of the story line. When it came back OK’d, Hargrove met with producer Mort Abrams, made some refinements, ironed out some details, then was told to go ahead with a finished script.
Meanwhile, a revised outline was sent to the various production departments. Specialists there checked it to catch any insoluble production problems before they were written into the script.
In the story, for example, a sequence that involved several villains being crushed by a falling boulder was eliminated because it couldn’t be simulated without looking “terribly phony.”
The finished script was delivered on Sept. 29, less than two seeks before production was to start. A director, Sherman Marks (who had done one other UNCLE episode), was chosen, and the script distributed for “intensive production breakdown”—meaning the actual design and assembly of costumes, props, scenery and similar accouterments.
On Thursday, Oct. 11, the heads of all of the UNCLE production departments met around a conference table at MGM studios.
On a near-by sound stage, shooting was being completed on the previous UNCLE episode. The next day the filming crew would be ready for the episode under discussion. That’s how close to the chest filmed television is played these days.
Needed Toy Train
The conversation around the table sounded almost surrealistic at times. Abrams, a small, wiry man with cropped hair and an incredibly even disposition, presided.
The prop director was worried about a toy train needed in the show.
“The setup we’ve got just doesn’t look right,” he said. “We’ve found one just like the prince of Monaco has. There’s a car waiting right now to go and look at it. But it’s expensive.”
Abrams: “We’ll look at it. Let’s don’t compromise until we have to.”
Prop director: “In scene 175, can’t we knock these two guys off when the truck backs into them? We don’t need another fight, do we? We already had a karate blow earlier.”
Abrams: “How are you going to do it? We can’t even run over a stunt man?”
Prop man: “So we’ll write a scene of remorse afterward.”
Problem of Shirt
Wardrobe director: “We have an incongruous situation with David McCallum’s wardrobe. He’s been whipped in the story, but when Bob (Vaughn) finds him, he looks neat. If we fray a shirt too much, it will fall off him. And we can’t show him bare chested because his frame is too slight.”
Abrams: “Why can’t we have his shirt and coat lying nearby? Bob can get him into them.”
Wardrobe: “Okay, but he’ll have to play the rest of the show favoring his back. Don’t forget that.”
So it went for several hours. The group agonized over such decisions as the location of the driver’s side of a car in Switzerland, whether or not a knife should be used to open a box containing a bomb, and the minimum number of children that could be used to give the illusion of a full bus stopped by the side of the road. “Let’s just say the rest of them have gone to the bathroom.”)
Once a waiter serving Abrams a sandwich in the conference room poured coffee on his arm and the producer didn’t appear even to notice. A tiny portable radio with an ear attachment rested on the middle of the table; periodically one of the conferees would pick it up and plug it in his ear to check the progress of the world series.
At 1:30 p.m. a secretary poked her head in the door and said to Abrams: “Those girls have been waiting to read for Anna for over an hour.”
He got up abruptly, excused himself, said “you can finish without me. I’ve got to cast this show,” and left.