I thought I might tell you a little about the man we lost.
I met Norman in the early 1990s, when he was already retired and advanced in age. So, I can’t tell you much about how he was as a producer, although I’ve read through literally hundreds of his memos and interviewed dozens of people. They all, without exception, say he was fair, loyal and determined and they came back to work for him again and again.
He was also kind, socially-minded, and highly principled.
I’m not sure many fans know of how Norman’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchild were brutally murdered in Detroit in 1982. You can read about it here and here.
I first heard the story from Doug Benton, the very courtly and now also deceased producer of GFU. What was really noteworthy was not the horrible murders, nor the manhunt for the killers that lasted years nor even the trial when the killers were convicted and nearly sentenced to the death penalty. It was that Norman and his wife, Aline, who were fervently against the death penalty, pleaded before the court for the murderers to be sentenced to life instead. Norman said that their deaths wouldn’t bring his daughter back and he didn’t believe in killing for revenge. Benton told me that he’d met only two saints in his life, “…and Norman is one of them.”
Norman and Aline were also against nuclear proliferation and great supporters of media education. Indeed, I knew Norman two ways: not only through MFU but also because he funded folks I knew running media literacy projects in California. When I finished my Ph.D., that summer, I visited Norman and gave him a bound copy of my dissertation. He asked what I wanted to do next. I told him I wanted to work with the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers U, designing media literacy curriculum. He asked how much I would need. I said about $12,000 to pay my salary for a year or two. He gave us over five times that much.
Once I asked Norman what his politics were. He said to me, “Did you ever hear of John Reed?” I did. He is the only American buried in the Kremlin [Warren Beatty played him in “Reds.”] Norman said, well, he belonged to the John Reed Society in college. Many years later, when he and I were standing on the deck of a very wealthy and exclusive Malibu beach club in the midst of a media literacy charity event, Norman leaned over to me and impishly whispered, “This is where the revolution begins.” It made me laugh out loud. I wasn’t surprised to see him out protesting the War in Iraq even when he was well past 90. You want to know why there’s a Russian hero in MFU? Or why Robert Vaughn was allowed to publicly protest the Vietnam War without much professional fallout? That’s why.
When Aline developed Alzeimer’s and died in the mid-1990s, Norman was beside himself. He went into a deep depression and his friends, George Lehr among them, worried about him. But two things happened. First, Norman got out of the senior citizen home where he’d been living and moved to Woodland Hills with an old friend, Denise Aubuchon, the widow of Jacques [remember "The Terbuf Affair"?] . The second was that George brought Norman to our Spy Con and he reconnected with many fans. This made him happy. He even joked about the x-rated zines he’d seen [and yes, I believe he knew about slash too] and encouraged us all to keep writing.
Even during the run of MFU, Norman cared about us, his young audiences. It’s because of him that the agents stopped smoking after first season, that the cigarette holder communicator was changed to a pen. It was his idea to have sleep darts and he wrote reams of memos reminding writers and directors to substitute darts for bullets whenever they could. When I asked him if he was concerned about TV violence, Norman nodded and said, “And I still am.”
When I first began to interview him, he expressed amazement that, of all his programs, it was MFU that had survived and endured. He pointed out all the socially-conscious shows he’d created, like Dr. Kildare, The Eleventh Hour, and Teacher, Teacher. But I told him that his ideas and politics were embedded in MFU and that he’d influenced younger audiences, not through those other shows, but through U.N.C.L.E. Eventually, he accepted that idea and it made him content.
Norman also encouraged the fandom right from the start. The archive at the University of Iowa is filled with folders containing letters from young fans. Many folks I know today as adults wrote Norman as children. And he wrote back. He provided financial support in the early days of U.N.C.L.E HQ and even donated several items for fan auctions. If you wrote to him in the 1980s or 1990s, he would send you a souvenir --- U.N.C.L.E. clippings or PR memorabilia. He also sent out bits of actual film. I have a strip of 35 mm color footage from “To Trap a Spy.” Eventually, of course, he ran out of stuff, but many of these items are scattered around fandom.
In creating U.N.C.L.E. and forging a relationship with us, the fans, he was innovative and way ahead of his time. In my book, I argue that U.N.C.L.E. was the Ur-text of fandom and we can thank Norman for that. Even before Gene Roddenberry, Norman engaged with the fans.
Finally, the Norman I knew was an absolute gentleman, and admittedly, a little old-fashioned. He felt bad about GFU because he remembered that, at the time, he was so half-hearted about a female protagonist in action/adventure. He said he hated to hear the corporate execs say leering things about what might happen to the character. Decades later, with Buffy and others on television, he said he could see how it should have worked and he was sorry for being so short-sighted.
Norman became hard of hearing and so, in his later years, I couldn’t talk to him over the phone. I last visited him in 2007 and by then, he was growing frail and losing concentration and focus. This is the first year he’s not around to receive my flowers on his birthday. But I did dedicate my book to him, one of the important people in my life, who influenced so much my past, present and future.
Happy Birthday, Norman Felton. You will be remembered.