Sam Rolfe

d. July 10, 1993

Just as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the first TV series I paid more than casual attention to, Sam Rolfe, the show’s creator and producer, was the first behind-the-scenes name I came to know. It’s not a reach to say I’m publishing FYEO almost 30 years later because U.N.C.L.E. grabbed me like nothing before it and precious little since.

Sam Rolfe died on July 10 after suffering a heart attack while he was playing tennis. He was 69. Rolfe broke into writing in the waning days of radio drama and quickly excelled. His first screenplay, “The Naked Spur,” a 1953 Jimmy Stewart western, brought him an Oscar nomination. As television took off, he began writing for the prestigious dramatic series of the day, then created, with Herb Meadow, Have Gun Will Travel. That show, starring Richard Boone as Paladin, the black-clad, high-priced and high-living gun for hire, was a huge success, running from 1957 to 1963.

But Rolfe moved on, from series to network to studio, always looking for interesting new projects. In 1962 he was at MGM, where Norman Felton’s company, Arena Productions, was filming Dr. Kildare and The Eleventh Hour. Rolfe was producing The Eleventh Hour, a psychiatric series, when Felton brought in a project NBC and several big ad agencies were excited about because James Bond author Ian Fleming was supposed to be the creator. Fleming, however, had contributed only a few amorphous plots and the hero’s name — Napoleon Solo.

With nothing but that name and a concept about an undercover agent who gets involved with an everyday, ordinary person each week, Felton asked Rolfe to develop a real format for the series. And Rolfe ran with it, dramatically expanding the idea with U.N.C.L.E., the global organization set up to “maintain political and legal order anywhere in the world”; its antithesis, Thrush (the “ruthless band of renegades who want to rule the world”); brooding, mysterious Illya Kuryakin (a Russian sidekick!); and Mr. Waverly, absent-minded U.N.C.L.E. chief. When Fleming dropped out, Rolfe wrote the pilot and produced the first season, guiding the show to its creative and then its popular peak. Then he moved on again, unfortunately leaving U.N.C.L.E. in less capable hands.

Rolfe also decided he’d gotten a raw deal by accepting a “developed by” credit on U.N.C.L.E. instead of being listed as the creator, and for a time the show became a sore subject with him. But after some Writers Guild arbitration, he received a percentage of the series and in recent years he reportedly was very pleased by the show’s enduring popularity.

Much like Gene Roddenberry with Star Trek, Rolfe couldn’t top himself after U.N.C.L.E. He ventured back into the intrigue-with-a-wink area in 1972 with The Delphi Bureau, a series doomed by its every-third-week appearances and scripts that never lived up to the promise of its amusing pilot. Rolfe adapted Donald Hamilton’s spy character Matt Helm for TV in 1975 but the producers insisted on turning Helm into a private eye in a pointless show. Rolfe took one last stab with “Enigma,” a 1977 pilot that didn’t sell. Other series — Dundee and the Culhane, a 1967 western; The Manhunter, about a Depression-era bounty hunter; Kaz, with Ron Leibman as a jailhouse lawyer — only lasted a season. But Have Gun and U.N.C.L.E. secured his place in the TV pantheon. And for an amusing final twist, Rolfe’s last script was an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Originally published in For Your Eyes Only #31.