Obituary: Sam Rolfe

Samuel Harris Rolfe, writer, producer: born New York City 18 February 1924; married (one son, one daughter); died 10 July 1993.

SAM ROLFE was an Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose greatest success was achieved in television as writer/producer of such durable series as The Man From UNCLE and Have Gun - Will Travel.

The son of a bookbinder, Rolfe served in the US Army during the Second World War. When he was discharged in 1945 he first studied engineering and then advertising under the GI Bill. After working as a railroad labourer and as a dance instructor, he wrote, on spec, a script for 'radio's outstanding theatre of thrills', Suspense. Soon he was writing for such rival shows as The Adventures of Sam Spade and Dick Powell's Richard Diamond, Private Detective. When movies beckoned, Rolfe put his wartime experience into screenplays for Target Zero (1955), Bombers B-52 (1957) and the Alan Ladd vehicle The McConnell Story (1955), which paid tribute to a true-life flying ace, Capt Joseph O'Connell. The treacle of June Allyson's by now stereotyped Plucky All-American Wife performance was somewhat leavened by Rolfe's touches of humour.

He also demonstrated a flair for westerns. In The Naked Spur (1952) James Stewart played a farmer who, cheated out of his land during the Civil War, turned bounty hunter to earn the money to buy it back. Rolfe's powerful screenplay (with Harold Jack Bloom) earned an Academy Award nomination. Another western, Pillars of the Sky (1956), earned praise for its compassionate treatment of American Indians.

For his next western, Rolfe turned to television. He and Herb Meadow created and wrote Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-63). It starred Richard Boone as 'Paladin', who, like the James Stewart character in The Naked Spur, was a bounty hunter. The black-clad, chess-playing Paladin, when not renting out his trigger-finger, lived in an ornate San Francisco hotel suite, enjoying the choicest food, cigars and women. Variety wrote: 'The script steers clear of cliches and wastes no motion.'

Rolfe's next triumph was The Man From UNCLE (1964). The producer Norman Felton had commissioned Ian Fleming to invent a new television secret agent. Fleming came up with Napoleon Solo, a Canadian who collected US gold coins and bandanas, drove a souped-up vintage car and owned a pet bird to which he talked. After Cubby Broccoli, producer of the Bond films, forbade Fleming to work in television, Rolfe was asked to write a prospectus for the series. He set to it with a will, changing everything about Solo except his name, and creating the characters of Mr Waverly, UNCLE's chief, and the enigmatic Russian Illya Kuryakin. The prospectus's 80 pages also included no less than 30 story ideas, which so impressed Fleming that he tried to buy some of them to use in his Bond books. Rolfe produced the first season of UNCLE, and did much of the writing.

This time Variety was less than enthusiastic, calling the show 'inadequate and inept' and complaining that 'You couldn't tell whether they were playing it for satire or for real.' This failed to trouble the public, who kept UNCLE on the air for four seasons. Indeed, its success inspired a flock of copycat shows. The detective series Burke's Law was revamped as Amos Burke, Secret Agent, and viewers were also bombarded by Mission Impossible, I Spy, Get Smart (a spoof of UNCLE), Honey West (a female secret agent) and The Wild Wild West (frontier secret agents of the 1870s). One of the UNCLE shows of 1966 even included a scene in which Kuryakin (David McCallum) sat in front of a television set watching the spin-off series The Girl from UNCLE

Rolfe's last assignment was the script of On Wings of Eagles (1986), a five-hour mini-series that dramatised the efforts of Ross Perot (Richard Crenna, without a Texan drawl or bat ears) to rescue, in 1978, two of his executives from imprisonment in Iran. As Perot never stops reminding the world, this commando operation was successfully accomplished, thanks to the courage and resourcefulness of its leader, Col Arthur 'Bull' Simmons (Burt Lancaster). A real Sam Rolfe hero.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone