The Man From UNCLE: What Happens When James Bond Comes Out of the Cold and Into TV

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.

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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.

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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.

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David McCallum

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

In Memory of Adam West

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Adam West was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington.  He just passed away this summer on June 9. His father farmed and his mother gave up her career as an opera singer and concert pianist.  Like all kids, he had a collection of comic books including Batman. When his parents divorced, he moved to Seattle with his mother. He attended Whitman College in Washington and graduated with a BS in literature. He was drafted into the Army and became an announcer on the American Forces Network television.

After his service career, he became a milkman until he moved to Hawaii to pursue a career in television. In 1959, he took on his stage name of Adam West and moved to Hollywood with his wife and children. He quickly became an actor and appeared in 33 television shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, Tales of West Fargo, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, and Bewitched.

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In 1966, William Dozier, producer for a new show about Batman decided to cast West over Lyle Waggoner after seeing him as a James Bond-type character in a Nestle Quik commercial. DC Comics described Batman as 6’2” and that was West’s height.

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When the series ended, he and Burt Ward found themselves typecast as Batman and Robin.  He did a series of appearances about the Batman character while pursuing a movie career. He ended his career with 49 movies to his credit.

He appeared in 78 television shows after Batman ended including The Big Valley, Emergency, Alice, Police Woman, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Murphy Brown, Diagnosis Murder, News Radio, Drew Carey, King of Queens, and 30 Rock.

After 1990, he apparently embraced his Batman character and appeared on numerous television shows as himself or Batman. When asked about this, he said, “I think it evolved. I learned a long time ago that because people love Batman, I should too. I learned that I shouldn’t resent it even though it prevented me from getting other roles. I really had to become fond of Batman in order to deal with it. I embraced it.”

In 1957, he and his first wife Billie divorced.  He married  dancer Frisbie Dawson in 1957 and divorced in 1962. In 1970, he married Marcelle, and they were together until his death.  He had two children with each of his wives and two stepchildren.

In 1994, he wrote an autobiography Back to the Batcave. In 2012, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

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West loved outdoor activities and had a lot of hobbies including fishing, sailing, hiking, skiing, golfing, riding motorcycles, swimming, surfing, dancing, traveling, as well as spending time with his family, listening to classic rock, reading, and watching movies.

West died after a short battle with leukemia at age 88. The next week, LA shined the bat signal on city hall to honor him.

While West certainly had a full and varied career despite his typecasting from Batman, I would like to spend some time looking at the series that gave him his fame. Typically, I am not really into super heroes, but I loved this show when I was younger and still get a kick out of watching the campy comedy. I can still hear the narrator saying, “Same bat time, same bat channel.” The show was canceled not only because of low ratings but also because the special effects and lighting had tremendous costs.  When ABC dropped it, they tried to find another network to take it over.  They had no offers, so they dismantled the set. Two weeks later, NBC offered to pick up the show, but decided it was too expensive to start from scratch.

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In the 1960s, Ed Graham Productions received the rights to the comic strip Batman and intended to produce an adventure show similar to Superman or The Lone Ranger. ABC was thinking about a prime time show so DC Comics bought back the rights and sold them to 20th Century Fox. 20th Century gave it to William Dozier to produce.  Dozier had never read comic books and felt that the show should take a campy, pop-art approach. The show was originally an hour-long series, but with only half-hour time slots available, it was changed to a bi-weekly half-hour show.

The concept of the show was that millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson lead a double life in Gotham City.  When they move a shelf in their library and slide down the bat pole to the bat cave, they become Batman and Robin.  Only their butler Alfred is aware of their real identity. Police Commissioner Gordon calls them on the batphone, often referring to them as the dynamic duo. They usually hop in their bat mobile and speed to city hall to learn what villain is up to no good in their city.

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Adam West took the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward was Robin/Dick Grayson. Other cast members included Alan Napier as Alfred the Butler, Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, Stafford Repp as Chief O’Hara, Madge Blake as Aunt Harriet, and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.

My favorite villians included Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Cat Woman, in love with Batman but not willing to give up her criminal life; Burgess Meredith as Penguin always carrying an umbrella; Frank Gorshin as The Riddler leaving riddles for clues; Vincent Price as Egghead a bald-headed genius who loves eggs; Cesar Romero as the Joker who leaves jokes for clues; and Victor Buono as King Tut when evil and Professor William McElroy as his non-evil personality.

The show aired twice a week on back-to-back nights. The first episode would set up the situation and end with the dynamic duo in some dangerous situation. Batman and Robin would get their assignment from the Commissioner and then, using a series of clues, try to figure out who the villain is and then how to defeat them. At some point, there was always a fistfight with the villain’s entourage at which time the villain typically escaped. During the fight, words would pop up on the screen like POW, BAM, ZONK, BOOM. Then the crime fighters would go to look for them at which point the dangerous and perhaps deadly situation occurred and the next episode would summarize what happened on the previous episode before defeating the bad guys for good. They often used inventions like shark repellant bat spray to aid them in their search.

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In Season 3, Bat Girl was added to the cast. The ratings were starting to fall so Dozier wanted to bring in a girl character to attract female viewers. Her real identity was Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s daughter.  The Commissioner never seemed to realize she was familiar to him. Because of low ratings, the show also became a once a week series in the third season.  Eartha Kitt took over the Catwoman role since Newmar was filming a movie at the time. Madge Blake’s health was failing, and her role was limited to two appearances during the last season.

The show was cancelled before the next season but it has continued to be popular in reruns. In 1966, an album was released “Batman: The Exclusive Original Soundtrack Album.” It included music by Nelson Riddle, dialogue excerpts from several of the characters in the show, as well as the Batman theme song, Batusi A Go Go, and several other tunes.

A lot of collectibles were produced during the run of the show including trading cards, Batmobile kits, coloring books, lunch boxes, board games, and View-Master reels. In 2013, Mattel designed an action figure line based on the tv characters, and several Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars have been produced. The Batmobile from the show was auctioned in 2013, selling for $4.2 million.  The huge profits from the car as well as the line of action figures prove the continuing interest in and success of this show now 50 years old.

Here are some fun facts I found about the series:

A total of 352 “Holy” words were used by Robin from “Holy Agility” to “Holy Zorro”.

Cesar Romero’s Joker laugh was created almost by accident. Shortly after being cast, Romero met with producers to discuss his role on his series. While waiting to meet with them, Romero happened to see conceptual art of Joker’s costuming. Romero felt the pictures almost looked absurd, and as a result spontaneously broke out into a playfully loud and almost manic laughter. A producer overhearing it responded by telling Romero “That’s it, that’s your Joker’s laugh!”

Burgess Meredith had not smoked in 20 years when he was cast as the Penguin. He came up with the Penguin’s distinctive squawking sound because the cigarettes were irritating his throat. Like his trademark “quack”, the Penguin’s waddling was largely a result of improvisation by Burgess Meredith, as he found it difficult to stand and walk straight while wearing the rubber padded fat suit that was part of his costuming.

Before going on the air, this show received the worst audience test scores in the history of ABC. It only went on the air because so much money had already been invested in it.

This was one of the “in” shows to appear on if you were a big name in Hollywood during the 1960s, and many top names guested on the show, including many who didn’t do much TV otherwise. Those performers who weren’t cast as guest villains could frequently be seen popping their heads out of windows to exchange a few words with Batman and Robin when the latter would be climbing up a building wall. Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood, and Cary Grant were all fans of the show, and wanted to be on it, but the producers were never able to come up with the right roles for any of them. During the run of the series, this show crossed over with The Green Hornet (1966).

The “Giant Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City” is a reverse image of St. Louis, right down to Forest Park, Fairground Park, Tower Grove Park, Lafayette Park, and Horseshoe Lake on the Illinois side, as well as the other river and road networks.

Each main villain had their own theme music.

In the first season, Burt Ward (Robin) was paid $350 per week.

Yvonne Craig has stated that she briefly did have a stunt double, but did most of her stunts herself. She actually operated the Batgirl Cycle herself as well. She was an accomplished biker at the time, and actually owned a bike.

Adam West (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Burt Ward (Dick Grayson / Robin) and  Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) are the only actors to appear in all 120 episodes of the series.

Suzanne Pleshette was one of the original choices to play Catwoman before Julie Newmar landed the role.

The show aired from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968 on ABC for 120 episodes. It was one of few TV series to be seen on 2 different nights a week: 7:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays. It remained there for a season and a half (Jan. 1966-Aug. 1967) until it was moved back once a week (Thursdays 7:30) for its final season. The episodes were generally two-parters: Wednesday’s episode was a cliffhanger, resolved in Thursday’s episode. The 1966-1967 season had 2 3-parter episodes (“The Zodiac Crimes/The Joker’s Hard Times/The Penguin Declines”[ep. #2.37-9, 1/11-12 & 18/1967] and “Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend/Penguin Sets a Trend/Penguin’s Disastrous End”[ep. #2.42-4, 1/26/, 2/1 & 2/1967]) which left cliffhangers that would be solved the following week. When the series was reduced to (mostly) one part episodes during season three, the cliffhanger death traps and threats were still used, but greatly scaled back and occurring at the middle commercial break.

The three primary cast members of The Addams Family each made appearances on Batman. Carolyn Jones played the villainess Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, and John Astin played the Riddler during the second season. Additionally, Ted Cassidy had a window cameo, appearing in his part as Lurch from The Addams Family. Interestingly, Cassidy’s cameo took place in a story involving the Penguin, with whom Jones’ character Marsha teamed up in one of the three-part stories.

In episode 7, Alfred refers to Robin as Mr. Ward, and not Mr. Grayson.

While Superheroes and the movies and television shows they appear in seem to cycle up and down throughout the decades, the popularity of the Batman television show has never wavered.  The fact that Mattel would create action figures based on the original stars almost 50 years after the show debuted says a lot about the fans and the place the show holds in their hearts.

Thank you Adam West for creating such a memorable and well-loved character.  Rest in peace.

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