Vaughn and McCallum Hit It Big by Not Taking Show Seriously

The stars of The Man From UNCLE –Robert Vaughn and David McCallum—have become the idols of the teenage set.
A recent fan magazine survey placed Vaughn at the top of the list of personalities readers wanted to hear more about. McCallum is mobbed whenever he sets foot outside of Los Angeles. Generally, Vaughn seems to appeal to a slightly older age group than McCallum.
Between takes of the UNCLE show I was following—“The Children’s Day Affair”—Vaughn and McCallum discussed this phenomenon dispassionately with me, almost as if it were happening to someone else.
This is characteristic of both men—an impassive sort of objectivity. It doesn’t add up to the same kind of personality, however. With McCallum, it masks a shyness and inner orientation. With Vaughn, it reflects a cold blooded sort of pragmatism that will probably, one day, project him into a role in politics.
Vaughn came as a star
McCallum, 31, is a Scotsman who has been associated with the British theater since his early teens. He came to the attention of American film makers in two made in Europe American films: “The Great Escape” and “Freud.” George Stevens brought him to this country to play Judas in “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
McCallum (Illya Kuryakin) was signed for a 40 second role in the pilot film of “The Man From UNCLE,” and built it—by aggressiveness, imagination and adulation from the teenage television audience—into an equal partnership with Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo.
Vaughn came to UNCLE as the star. An academy award winner for a supporting role in “The Young Philadelphians,” he left a going TV series “The Lieutenant” to make the UNCLE pilot. (“I would have left anyway,” he says. “They told me I’d be playing a lead and it turned out to be some sort of character part.”)
Both McCallum and Vaughn are three dimensional persons with deep interests outside their television work—McCallum in his home and family (he has three children), his music (he’s a trained oboist whose father is a symphony conductor) and in seeking a satisfying meaning in his life and the world about him.
Vaughn, 33, is immersed in practical politics and higher education. A bachelor, he is studying at the University of Southern California for his doctorate in theater arts while moving in the highest circles of California politics. He may enter politics seriously when UNCLE has had its run—depending on how much money he has been able to put aside and the demand for his services when that time comes.
Meanwhile, their lives—five days a week—are filled, literally, with UNCLE They are usually on the set by 7:30 a.m. and likely to be there until 7:30 at night. Weekends are frequently spent in making personal appearances in cities where UNCLE’s rating needs hyping.
Allowed Freedom
McCallum told me:
“There is a time for everything in entertainment, and now happened to be the time for this show. It’s genre is action that is very improbable but still possible. We comment on things that in the real world might be very profound.
“But we’re allowed a great deal of freedom in making this comment, because we do it with humor. When you strip it down, what we’re doing is instructing school children in evil. But we’ll get away with it because we’re funny.
“Actually, it’s one of my favorites. The premise of putting young children through a school to teach them how to be villains is pretty good.”
Vaughn generally agrees with his partner’s assessment of the show.
“It has evolved considerably,” he said, “since we made the pilot. It started out like the Bond pictures. Now it’s almost a kinetic satire of that sort of film. Its audience really began to build when we stopped taking ourselves too seriously.”
They’re Getting Rich
Contrary to frequent reports, no friction seemed to be evident between Vaughn and McCallum. Both are professionals, doing a job in their own style—and are beginning to make a great deal of money. (“I could not afford to go to a ball game last year,” says McCallum, “but next year I’m going to buy two box seats. This must surely be the symbol of my success.”)
Says Vaughn: “David’s part in UNCLE built steadily as a result of fan reaction to the bit he played in the first few episodes. Believe me, his importance grew to the delight of everybody around here—and especially mine, because now I don’t have to work so hard.”
This sort of feeling actually pervades the entire UNCLE cast. One of the character actors told me:
“This is a fun show to do. I’ve worked on several others that imitate it. Some of them take themselves pretty seriously. Here they don’t.”
One factor that helps to build this feeling is the conviction throughout the company that the producers have assembled the best crew in Hollywood. This is particularly true of the cinematographers, Fred Koenecamp and Till Gabbani. The producers admit freely that these craftsmen save them thousands of dollars each week.
Gabbani, a small garrulous man, is a creative genius with a camera. He has evolved a rig that enables him to move with an action shot without using a dolly. This lends a great deal of reality to UNCLE shots.
In a fight, Gabbani’s camera often takes the blows. Instead of using background film while shooting actors in a stationary car, the cars on UNCLE really move—with Gabbani straddling the hood and filming through the windshield with his hand-held camera.
This is not to say there aren’t differences of opinion on the UNCLE team. There are many, and they are often stormy. But they are discussed and compromised in the style of professionals.
For example, during filming of “The Children’s Day Affair,” a request came from one of UNCLE’s sponsors for the two stars to do a scene on film that could be shown at a sales convention.
It was full of industry inside jokes and names the actors didn’t know. It was pretty corny stuff, but Vaughn shrugged and said he’d do it. McCallum, however, was outraged and refused to do the scene until the material was rewritten into some semblance of credibility.
This was the only mild display of temperament I saw in my entire week with the UNCLE group. It also pointed up a major personality difference in the two men from UNCLE
Comedy Is Frosting on Cake in Make-up of UNCLE Shows
Filming was completed precisely on schedule for “The Children’s Day Affair” segment of “The Man From UNCLE” that I had followed step by step through its production. The show came in “on budget” and on schedule. Everyone involved thought it was a good one.
This isn’t necessarily simple self-delusion or wishful thinking. When a show comes off the production line that doesn’t look too good, the producers will hold it for the end of the season “after we’ve built our ratings.” “The Children’s Day Affair” was hustled into processing so it could go on the air as quickly as possible.
There was a great deal of work still to be done after filming had been completed. Each day the “good” film went to an editor, who was breaking it down by scene. When a group of scenes had been processed, he assembled them into a sequence.
Shows Are 48 Minutes
About 10 days after the end of filming, the editors had assembled a complete play, running anywhere from five to ten minutes over the 48 minutes allowed for the story in the 60 minute format. (The rest of the time is taken up with commercials, credits, titles, teasers and previews.)
“The first assembly,” producer Mort Abrams told me, “used to be called a rough cut. Now, it’s a director’s cut. He screens it and makes any changes he wants. Then he turns it over to the producer and what happens after that is up to him.”
Can the film editor change the intended tone or direction of the film by the way he cuts it?
“Not really. He can improve it technically, of course, by his skill in editing. But the director can almost force an editor to cut a scene in a certain way by the manner in which he films it.”
An UNCLE episode normally exposes about six times as much film as appears in the completed print. (“We don’t cut out the bad,” says Abrams. “We cut in the good.”) By contrast, a motion picture producer is likely to expose 30 to 40 times as much film as he will finally use.
Once the UNCLE show has been cut and edited to size, it goes out for laboratory work—optical effects, sound effects, dissolves and titles.
While this is going on, a composer is also at work writing background music. He first reads the script. Then he views a rough cut with a stop watch, marking sections that should have music behind them. Then he knows exactly what he has to write—37 seconds of “suspense,” for example, or 23 seconds of “chase.”
The composer frequently dovetails his efforts with the sound effects people. The network then views the completed print for continuity and broadcast standards (“keep the scream down a little,” “knock out that thump when he is hit on the head,” “eliminate that reference because it’s going to offend the sponsor”).
When all of this is completed, the film is finally converted to color and a negative cut. The entire processing takes four to five weeks. Then the film is ready to be fed to the insatiable maw of network television.
The producers of UNCLE make no pretense to be other than entrepreneurs engaged in a commercial—and highly profitable—business venture. They make no obeisance to art or profundity.
Nice Fringe Benefits
If UNCLE can sustain its present success for another three of four years, it can make millionaires out of several of the people who created it. Already, a great many fringe benefits are rolling in.
UNCLE toys are a very big business. So are two UNCLE record albums. One motion picture for distribution abroad has already been made out of a two part UNCLE story, and there will be more.
(UNCLE episodes are made for about $125,000. Thus two of them, plus necessary technical costs for converting them to motion picture form, are still remarkably inexpensive when contrasted with the cost of making most theatrical films today.)
UNCLE began to succeed last season when it was moved into a Monday night time slot. This season, the producers were disappointed when NBC decided to change it again—to 10 o’clock Friday nights. The UNCLE impresarios were afraid they would lose the teenage audience because this is a dating night.
Bob Vaughn, however, told me that the tenor of his mail indicates that the show has actually changed dating habits and that thousands of youngsters are having “UNCLE dates” at home—which, if true, must be saving millions of dollars for young men throughout the nation.
At any rate, the show’s ratings have not suffered as a result of the change. They have continued to rise, particularly in the cities. UNCLE’s sophisticated brand of comedy is not yet big in rural areas, but it seems to be caching on there, too, this year—if slowly.
“We don’t consider this show a comedy,” says Abrams. “It’s really a wild adventure. We try to dress people up in different color. We do a great deal with characters—especially the heavies. And we actually have far less gimmickry than other shows that purport to be the same thing.
“Our ideal episode is constructed the way you would build a melodramatic anthology. Then we sprinkle on the comedy pecans.
“We don’t do a comedy with adventure overtones. It’s the other way around. Each story has to have a flavor of its own. And we have to keep our guys human—avoid making them caricatures.”
As I was preparing to leave the UNCLE headquarters after a week in residence, one of the show’s writers came bursting into Abram’s office.
“I’ve got a problem,” he told the producer. “I need help. I’ve got to figure out some new way of trapping Solo (the show’s star, played by Vaughn).”
“Where are we?” asked Abrams, rising immediately to the crisis.
“In a restaurant.”
Abrams mused silently, frowning in concentration. Then sudden joy suffused him.
“A phone booth,” he said triumphantly. “We’ll trap him in a phone booth. This waiter tells him there’s a call for him, see, and then locks him in. Then they suck all the air out of the booth. But Solo has this special fingernail file that’s really a drill….”
I left quietly.
The men from UNCLE were creating.