Obituary: Sam Rolfe
Monday 26 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.
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