Text from letters about Ian Fleming’s U.N.C.L.E. involvement

Ian Fleming during filming of From Frussia With Love in 1963
Ian Fleming during filming of From Russia With Love in 1963

Compiled by Bill Koenig

Ian Fleming was involved with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series from October 1962 until he signed away his rights in June 1963 for the price of 1 British pound.

What follows are the contents of key correspondence related to the James Bond author’s U.N.C.L.E. activity. A Bond collector shared photocopies of the letters.

June 7, 1963: Fleming is under pressure from 007 producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to withdraw from the project. Production is underway for the second Bond film, From Russia With Love.

Meanwhile, Norman Felton, U.N.C.L.E.’s executive producer, has hired writer-producer Sam Rolfe to develop the basic ideas that Felton and Fleming had conceived during their initial October 1962 meetings. Rolfe has devised an entire organization where Napoleon Solo works.

Felton sends Fleming a copy of what Rolfe has developed. There’s a cover letter that goes into some detail. Words inside asterisk marks were underlined in the original letter. Felton wanted to emphasize these words in the letter.

At the end, Felton makes a reference to how Fleming wrote his original U.N.C.L.E. ideas on 11 Western Union telegraph blanks.

Dear Ian:
Quite a lot of thought has gone into the MR. SOLO project since we shook hands one autumn in Manhattan. The attached material is the result to date.

You may be interested to know that, having come to certain conclusions, I enlisted the help of a talented man who is one of the top producers in television, formerly an outstanding television writer, Sam Rolfe. It was fortunate indeed that he became as interested as I, for a result I had someone with whom I could try out basic ideas, and who in turn could help enhance them.

In the latter part of the material, which deals with the characterization of Napoleon Solo, you will discover that those elements which you set down during our New York visit have been retained. However, the concept for a base of operations consisting of a small office with more or less a couple of rooms has been changed to a more extensive setup.

As you once remarked, although we will be concerned with Napoleon Solo as a principal running character, in order to show he is not a superman, there should be an indication that there are other men in the group who work parallel to him. Therefore an organization has been built to allow this to be fully developed. We will use only as much of it as we need at any given time in our plays. If it appears extremely complete, indeed, it is *that*…but I believe it will be of value on a series where we expect to run for a long period of time, with many, many episodes. It will give us scope and variety whenever we need it, although as I have said, in many stories we may use very little of it. *This* is its virtue. Complex, but used sparingly.

In my opinion almost all of our stories we will do little more than “touch base” at a portion of the unusual headquarters in Manhattan, following which we will quickly move to other areas of the world.

I’d like to think that we can maintain a realistic base against which the most bizarre occurrences can be precipitated; also that Solo will be involved in stories which will take us to glamorous and unusual places, but at the same time will involve him with ordinary people, some of whom live humdrum lives…

And so it is that a woman, a young mother living in Dubuque, Iowa or near Epsom Downs in England…a young woman whose husband is a clerk and who has two children whom she has to pack off to school in the morning will be visited by Solo. She will be the only one who can assist him on a venture. She will be taken into confidence, although of course not told *everything*, and in the few hours in which she is free and before she has to pick up her children to bring them home from school, she will be swept away from her humdrum surroundings into an adventure that she’ll always remember.

The attached material is for your review. At the time of writing no one but Mr. Rolfe or I has seen it. Things network-wise are moving fast, however, and I will probably have to give out *some* if not all of the flavor of the series. *But* we *can* make changes, and I want the benefit of having your suggestions. Write them in the margin of the paper, on a telegraph blank or a paper towel and send them along. We are very excited, indeed, in terms of MR. SOLO.

Cordially yours,

Norman Felton

In late June 1963, Fleming cries U.N.C.L.E. and gives into pressure from Broccoli and Saltzman. He signs away his rights in the television project.

Norman Felton lends this letter dated July 8, 1963:

Dear Ian:
May I thank you for meeting with me when I was in England recently. It was deeply appreciated in view of all of the pressures on you at that time. I am hoping, incidentally, that your move to the country has worked out satisfactorily.

Your new book, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, is delightful. I am hoping that things will calm down for you in the months to come so that in due time you will be able to develop another novel to give further pleasure to your many readers throughout the world.

They tell me that there are some islands in the Pacific where one can get away from it all. They are slightly radioactive, but for anyone with the spirit of adventure, this should be no problem.

Warm regards,

Norman Felton.

Fleming responds with a letter dated July 16, 1963:

My near Norman,

Very many thanks for your letter and it was very pleasant to see you over here although briefly and so frustratingly for you.

Your Pacific islands sound very enticing, it would certainly be nice to see some sun as ever since you charming Americans started your long range weather forecasting we have had nothing but rain. You might ask them to lay off.

With best regards and I do hope Solo gets off the pad in due course.

Yours ever,
Ian

Norman Felton in the 1960s.
Norman Felton in the 1960s.

It should be noted that Felton was born in England and emigrated to the United States.

In the months after Fleming exits U.N.C.L.E., the author and Felton and their attorneys exchange letters. The publicity for the Solo television project no longer mentions Fleming. But 007’s creator keeps getting referred to in trade publications and the like. All concerned want this to be avoided in the future.

In February 1964, Sam Rolfe was hired as producer of the series, according to Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. Timeline website.

There’s no date on the press release quoted below, but it reads as if it were put out at the same time as Rolfe’s hiring. The press release presents U.N.C.L.E. as solely the work of Felton and Rolfe.

Also, interestingly, the press release mentions David McCallum but de-emphasizes how the character he would play, Illya Kuryakin, is a Russian.

Sam Rolfe has been signed to produced Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Television’s new hour adventure series, presently titled “U.N.C.L.E.,” formerly known as “SOLO,” it was announced today by MGM Studio Head Robert M. Weitman. Rolfe will work with Norman Felton, executive producer of the series, which will premiere on the NBC television network next Fall.

Couple with the announcement, Weitman issued the following statement:

“There have been, from time to time, references in the press to the effect that Ian Fleming is the creator of, or associated with this MGM-TV series. The series is based upon an original idea of Norman Felton’s and was developed into a pilot script by Sam Rolfe. Neither Mr. Fleming nor the James Bond books are involved in the production of this television series.” (emphasis added)

“U.N.C.L.E.” is being produced by MGM-TV in associated with Arena Productions, Inc. and NBC.

Central star of the series is Robert Vaughn, currently starring with Gary Lockwood in MGM-TV’s “The Lieutenant,” also on NBC. In “U.N.C.L.E.,” Vaughn is cast as an American undercover agent in an international organization which combats crime.

Appearing as regulars with him will be Will Kuluva as Mr. Allison, chief in U.N.C.L.E., and David McCallum as Illya, a co-worker in the struggle against the criminal elements. (emphasis added)

However, a law firm representing the 007 producers send this cease-and-desist letter dated Feb. 19, 1964. It is addressed to Norman Felton, MGM, Ashley-Steiner (a talent agency) and NBC.

Re: Proposed Television Series – “MR. SOLO” – Ian Fleming

Gentlemen:

We are instructed to advise you to cease and desist immediately from further use of the name and character “SOLO”, “NAPOLEON SOLO” and “MR. SOLO” and the name “Ian Fleming” in connection with a proposed television series.

As you know, the mentioned name and character form part of “GOLDFINGER”, a novel by Ian Fleming comprising a part of the James Bond series of novels, which is now being made into a motion picture. Our client owns all rights thereto, all motion picture rights to the works upon which the motion picture is based and exclusion options to acquire all television rights to the works and characters therein. Neither Ian Fleming, nor anyone else, has any right to assign, license, deal with, use or authorize the use of any part of or character in any of these works for any television program.

We should appreciate your prompt advice that you intend to comply with our requesting, failing which we have been instructed to institute appropriate proceedings.

Very truly yours,
Graubard & Moskovitz

Eventually, the name of the television series becomes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but Napoleon Solo remains the lead character. The Illya Kuryakin character grows in importance as the first season unfolds.

Ian Fleming dies on Aug. 12, 1964 at the age of 56. The following year, MGM is approached whether Felton could discuss Fleming for a proposed biography. The Life of Ian Fleming was published with the byline of John Pearson. But when Felton was approached, two people were to do the project.

On July 26, 1965, Felton writes the following letter to an MGM executive in England. Again, the portions contained in asterisk marks were underlined and represent Felton’s emphasis:

July 26, 1965
Mr. Lawrence P. Bachmann,
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer,
British Studios Ltd.,
Borehamwood,
Herts,
England

Dear Larry:

Thank you so much for your nice letter of July 9th regarding Ian Fleming and the biography by Leonard Russell and John Pearson.

Just as I was about to set down what appeared to me interesting comments concerning our meetings, I had a session with my attorneys, and mentioned it to them, only to find them quite negative. As you know, we had some problems in connection with a television series, whereupon Ian decided to withdraw before we really even “got going.” The producers of the James Bond pictures later became a little nervous concerning any infringement of their motion picture rights. Actually, there does not seem to be *any problem at all* now. Nevertheless, my attorneys emphatically suggested to me that would not be wise for me to put down any notes concerning my meetings, social or otherwise, with Ian Fleming to be printed in a book as you suggest.

Naturally this is disappointing to me, too, but I have no alternative but to go along with their opinion.

Things seem to be going along rather well here, although very frankly, I have more to do than I care to engage in. My contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ends next June, and although they are pressing for a new one, I’m inclined to wait a little bit…maybe until next Spring, because I’d like to take a little bit of a rest from the pressures. If Aline and I are able to next summer, we will make a trip to Europe, and we hope that at that time we will be able to get together to have dinner with you and Jean.

Warm regards from us both,
Norman Felton