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.

Do We Have Reservations? Yes We Do.

February has finally arrived.   Some of us are getting a bit tired of winter, so this is a popular month for travel to a warmer destination.  If you aren’t able to physically get away, stay home and watch the February Sweeps, the only time you’re guaranteed new episodes of your favorite show for a month straight.  This week I decided to look at sitcoms set in hotels or resorts.  I did not discuss Fantasy Island or The Love Boat because I thought we could talk about them another time.

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Based on the length of many of these shows, the hotel business is a tough one to be successful in. Let’s look at a bunch of shows that didn’t last too long.

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Stanley was a show starring Buddy Hackett and his girlfriend played by Carol Burnett that aired in 1956. Stanley ran a newsstand in the lobby of a New York City hotel. The hotel owner was played by Paul Lynde.  The show was cancelled in March of 1957, supporting the philosophy that no news is good news.

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Happy starred George and Gracie’s son, Ronnie Burns. Ronnie was married to a woman played by Yvonne Lime and they were co-owners and managers of the Desert Palm, a ritzy resort. Included in the cast was their Uncle Charlie and the co-owner played by Doris Packer.  Happy was their son who commented on what was going on, sort of like Family Guy’s Stewie.  It was a summer entry in 1960, but 9 months later it gave birth to a cancellation which made the cast not Happy.  I don’t know why, but apparently viewers could accept a talking horse or a talking car, but not a talking baby.

Another show that began as a summer replacement was Holiday Lodge in 1961. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, two comedians from Canada, played social directors at a New York state hotel. They tried to provide entertainment but always ran into trouble, including being taken off the air after a few episodes.

The Bill Dana Show was interestingly based on the character Jose Jiminez developed by Dana for the Steve Allen Show and later brought to the Danny Thomas Show.  In 1963 The Bill Dana Show portrayed Jiminez as a bellhop at the New York City Park Central Hotel and the show centered on him trying to get used to life outside Mexico. Often his dream sequences took him into bizarre situations.  The most interesting fact about this show might be that the house detective was played by Don Adams who went on to star in Get Smart. Jimeniz’s dream became a nightmare when the show was cancelled after 42 episodes.

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One of the most controversial shows to air on television in the 1970s was Hot L Baltimore debuting in the fall of 1975.  Many stations refused to air the show because it was lewd and racy.  Norman Lear, the producer behind All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons developed the concept based on a play. The cast was made up of a desk clerk, his girlfriend, the manager, a hooker, an unemployed waitress, a dying man, a gay couple, and an eccentric woman. After four months, the waitress was not the only one unemployed because the show was done.

The Last Resort was developed by MTM in 1979, the company that created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis. The resort, set in the Catskills in upper New York, included a bunch of college students working their way through school. It featured a stereotyped crew including the brilliant premed student, a bookworm, a snob, an overweight clumsy guy, the pastry chef who left her wealthy husband to pursue her career, a Japanese chef, and a maitre’d who ran the place like a drill sergeant. It was cancelled after three episodes. Retooled, it came back in December only to be finished for good in March when the last resort of The Last Resort was no more.

Checking In must be in the running for the shortest show to appear on television. In 1980, Marla Gibbs, playing Florence the maid on The Jeffersons, got her own show, transferring to a hotel in New York City where she was the head housekeeper. She answered to a snobby manager played by Larry Linville who would later become Frank Burns on M*A*S*H. The rest of the cast included an assistant, a house detective, a maintenance supervisor, and a bellboy. After several weeks, the hotel was shut down and Florence went back to working for The Jeffersons.

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The Golden Girls was one of the most beloved shows in television, but I’m guessing few people remember The Golden Palace which debuted in 1992.  After Dorothy got married, the other three characters decide to invest in a hotel in Miami. Only two employees are left at the hotel:  a manager and a chef. After 24 shows, no one was left at the hotel.

In 1999 Payne, a remake of the British show Fawlty Towers hit the air.  Set in a California inn, Whispering Pines, the hotel was owned by Royal Payne and his wife Constance.  It went on the air in March.  At the end of April, the network ended its Payne by taking two aspirins and cancelling the show.

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Compared to some of the shows, Whoopi! might have seemed successful, lasting an entire season.  Set in the Lamont Hotel in New York City, a one-hit wonder musician played by Whoopi Goldberg decides to put her money into a hotel and run it the way she sees fit.  She has an assistant from Iran, a brother who is a conservative Republican, and his girlfriend who is white but acts more African American than the black members of the hotel. Of course, these three characters give her much controversy to deal with.  The network, acting as referee, blew the whistle and cancelled the entire thing after one year.

In 2008 Do Not Disturb debuted.  If you missed it, don’t feel bad.  It debuted on Fox and featured The Inn, a hip Manhattan hotel.  The staff is not as competent as they appear to their guests. The manger is arrogant, the head of human resources is loud and tactless, the front desk clerk is an aging model who does not want to be a desk clerk or older, the reservations clerk is a famous musician wannbe, and the head of housekeeping has problems at home. The network, not wanting to disturb the viewing public, pulled the plug after three shows. Larry, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, would go on to star in Modern Family in 2009.

Before you begin to think shows about hotels are doomed, let’s check in with four successful shows that knew how to make a profit.

From 1996-2001 The Jamie Foxx Show on WB featured Jamie Foxx as a musician who moves to California to work at his aunt and uncle’s (played by Ellia English and Garett Morris) hotel, King’s Tower.  He has two co-workers played by Christopher B. Duncan and “Fancy” played by Garcelle Beauvais. He is interested in Fancy, but she doesn’t feel the same until the final two seasons when they become engaged. The show aired 100 episodes before the network finally got reservations.

Disney’s Suite Life of Zach and Cody set in the Tipton Hotel ran from 2005-2008. The twins lived in the hotel because their mother was the lounge singer.  Somewhat like Eloise at the Plaza, the boys got into mischief and interacted with other employees including the wealthy heiress London Tipton, the candy counter salesgirl Maddie Fitzpatrick, and the manger Marion Moseby.  In 2008 the show sailed off, literally, and became Suite Life on Deck running until 2011.

With 184 episodes, Newhart debuted in 1982. With its quirky cast of characters, it became a big hit. Set in Vermont, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is a writer who buys the hotel and runs it with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). Their handyman George Utley (Tom Poston) and their maid Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) make life both easier and more difficult at the inn. Later Dick becomes a local television celebrity working with Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) who marries Stephanie.  Larry, (William Sanderson) his brother Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) and his other brother Darryl (John Voldstad) are memorable characters.  Darryl and Darryl never speak until the final episode.  That finale has the best ending ever in a television series when Bob Newhart wakes up in bed, tells his wife he had a really weird dream, and we see the wife is Suzanne Pleshette, his wife Emily from The Bob Newhart Show in which he played a psychiatrist from 1972-78. This series delightfully captured the life in a small New England town until 1990.

While Newhart is hard to top, my favorite hotel sitcom is Petticoat Junction which featured the Bradley Girls from 1963-1970. Kate (Bea Benaderet) ran the hotel with her three daughters Billie Jo, (Jeannine Riley till 1965, Gunilla Hutton until 1966, and Meredith MacRae until 1970), Bobby Jo (Pat Woodell until 1965 and Lori Saunders through 1970, and Betty Jo (Linda Henning), along with her Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan). The Shady Rest is near Hooterville, so we get to know a variety of town folk including Sam Drucker who runs the general store; Floyd and Charley, who run the Cannonball train; and Steve Elliott, crop duster, who is Billie Jo’s boyfriend first but later marries Betty Jo; and we run into the Ziffels and the Douglases from the show Green Acres. It’s a charming and heart-warming show loaded with loveable but zany characters. It ran for 222 episodes, even surviving the death of Bea Benaderet, who was replaced by Janet Craig (June Lockhart), a woman doctor who moves into the hotel. The amazing Charles Lane shows up throughout the series as Homer Bedloe, a railroad employee whose sole mission is shutting down the Cannonball.

If you can’t physically travel this month, take some time and watch a season or two of Newhart or Petticoat Junction, and you can still get away and experience life in a small-town hotel.