We are in the midst of our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series this month. In the mid-1960s, westerns were still the most popular show on television with rural sitcoms coming on the scene. Crime shows still had their fair share of air time, but spy shows were non-existent. With the end of the Cold War, Bond movies, and books like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, these types of thrillers were bound to hit the small screen. From 1964-1968, The Man from UNCLE took us behind the scenes to observe the dangerous life of special agents.
Beginning on Tuesday nights on NBC, the show was produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The creator, Norman Felton, asked Ian Fleming to act as a consultant. (Some sources list Felton as the sole creator; some credit Sam Rolfe as a co-creator.) The book The James Bond Films mentions that Fleming suggested two characters: Napoleon Solo and April Dancer. Napoleon Solo became one of the main characters on The Man from UNCLE, and we will learn more about April Dancer later. Solo was also a villain in the movie Goldfinger. Originally titled “Solo,image of ” the popularity of the film led to a title change in the television show to The Man from Uncle.
Solo (Robert Vaughn), being an American, was set up in a partnership with a Russian, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). The duo would take on multinational secret intelligence work under UNCLE, The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. They sometimes worked with Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) who headed up an English organization. They frequently went up against THRUSH. We never learned who was part of THRUSH or what their goals were, apart from taking over the world of, course.
Solo was supposed to be the typical ladies’ man, with Kuryakin being the intelligent, funny, and loyal partner, but McCallum turned into an instant celebrity. Hysterical fans attended promotional appearances and magazines gave he and his wife Jill Ireland little peace and quiet. One article I read discussed an incident in Baton Rouge, LA when McCallum was locked in a bathroom so the police could clear out the screaming women. When he was supposed to do a spot in a Macy’s store in New York, police had to disperse 15,000 screaming women who made it too dangerous for him to appear and did “a colossal amount of damage” to the store.
Solo and Kuryakin accessed their secret headquarters through a tailor’s shop, Del Floria’s.
In an interesting twist, the creators decided to feature an “innocent character,”–a Joe Doe or Jane Smith who the viewers could identify with—in every episode.
The theme music was created by Jerry Goldsmith, changing slightly each season as new composers came on board, eight in all.
With the exception of one show, the episodes were titled “The ______ Affair.” Every year at least one two-part show was aired. The pair of shows became theatrical films released in Europe. Additional footage was added to the movies. Some of these films were later seen on American television and include To Trap a Spy (1964), The Spy with My Face (1965), One Spy Too Many (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1967), and How to Steal the World (1968), among others.
Although stuntmen were hired for the two leads, they also did their own stunts. Typically, the actor and stuntman did each stunt, and the final version combined the best of them. However, McCallum tried to avoid heights, and Vaughn disliked water scenes.
Like Get Smart, the recurring characters were a small group, and guest stars were necessary for each episode. Both high-profile and up-and-coming actors were eager to appear on the show. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy can be seen together in “The Project Strigas Affair” two years before they starred on Star Trek. Other actors who appeared include Judy Carne, Joan Collins, Yvonne Craig, Broderick Crawford, Robert Culp, Chad Everett, Barbara Feldon, Anne Francis, Werner Klemperer, Janet Leigh, June Lockhart, Jack Lord, Ricardo Montalban, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Kurt Russell, Sonny and Cher, and Telly Savalas.
Of course, spies need technological gadgets to get a leg up on the competition. Some of their communication devices included a security badge and a business card. They could also communicate with a portable satellite disguised as a cigarette case or fountain pen.
Like all good crime fighters, the duo needed a car, and theirs was a Piranha Coupe, based on the Chevrolet Corvair.
Weapons were also a necessity in their line of work. The UNCLE Special was a semi-automatic weapon which was useful except at night when THRUSH had access to a “sniperscope” which allowed the villains to shoot in total darkness.
The gadgets, props, and clothing for the show were so popular that they are exhibited in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The CIA also exhibits some of the show’s items.
Season 1 was a great success even though partway through the season, the show moved from Tuesdays to Mondays. With season 2 came more “tongue-in-cheek” dialogue, and the series switched from black and white to full color. Athough the show was moved to Friday nights, its popularity continued.
Season 3 added a campy element, a la the Batman and The Monkees craze, against the stars’ wishes. The ratings decreased and the show never attained the same quality and ratings again. It was renewed for a fourth season but cancelled partway through when there was no increase in viewership.
Although the show was only extremely popular for two years, it garnered eight Emmy nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, including a win for David McCallum as best star in 1966.
Of course, like all popular shows from the 1960s, a tv movie was made a few years later and a big-screen remake came decades later.
The Return of the Man from UNCLE: The Fifteen Years Later Affair was seen on CBS, not NBC, in 1983 with both Vaughn and McCallum reprising their roles. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that although THRUSH was obliterated with the arrest of its leader, he has now escaped from prison. Rather than stick with the chemistry of the two leads, the tv movie pairs each lead with a younger agent.
In 2015, Guy Ritchie’s big-screen The Man from UNCLE was set in the 1960s featuring Solo (Henry Cavill), Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), and Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). The trio must work together in a joint mission to stop an evil organization from using Gaby’s father’s expertise in science to build a nuclear bomb. All the while, they don’t totally trust each other, and secretly put their own country’s agendas first. As far as reboots go, the film was actually a good rendition of the original show.
Of course, there was no limit to the merchandising in connection with the show. Several comic books based on the series were published, as well as two dozen novels. In addition to membership cards, viewers could show their love
for the show with board games, action figures, model kits, lunch boxes, and toy guns.
I did promise to get back to April Dancer. Halfway through The Man from UNCLE series, the network released a spin-off, The Girl from UNCLE starring Stefanie Powers as April Dancer. Not as popular as the original, it was cancelled after one season.
Dancer works with British agent Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Leo G. Carroll appeared as Mr. Waverly in this series also. Luckily Powers was fluent in several languages, because Dancer often went undercover with a foreign accent.
Unfortunately, Dancer reeled in the bad guys, but Slate was the one who got to kill them. However, April did get some cool gadgets such as a perfume atomizer that sprayed gas and exploding jewelry.
This show also used Goldsmith’s theme music in an arrangement by Dave Grusin.
Both The Girl from UNCLE and The Man from UNCLE are available on DVD.
Although The Man from UNCLE was only hugely popular for two years and The Girl from UNCLE never attained a fan base, the shows ’ concept spawned a huge pop culture obsession. At one point, more than 10,000 letters a week were delivered to the network. The show sparked an interest in spy shows that would pave the way for future shows such as Mission Impossible; The Wild, Wild West; I Spy; and Get Smart. Like The Man from UNCLE, each of these shows would result in reboot big-screen movies in later decades, as well as a large output of memorabilia.
It’s interesting that this show feels dated now with the current technology, yet Get Smart continues to be a hit. I think the humor and campiness of Get Smart keeps it relevant which is ironic, because that is what basically brought about the end of The Man from UNCLE. Despite its current non-relevancy, it was an important part of pop culture and deserves to be celebrated for its cult status in the mid-sixties and the realistic portrayal of spies to generations of viewers.