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.

Photo: booktrib.com

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.

Photo: filmandfurniture.com

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.

Photo: ebay.com
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.

Photo: filmandfurniture.com

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.

Photo: imdb.com

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.

Photo: imdb.com

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.

Photo: theunclefiles.com

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.

Photo: tvguide.com

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.

Photo: mtv.com

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.

Photo: filmandfurniture.com

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.

Photo: worthpoint.com

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.

Photo: sixtiescity.net

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.

Photo: business.facebook.com

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.

Photo: oldies.com

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.

“Time to Get Things Started”

John Lennon said, “Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”  That is especially true when looking at our two television shows today.  We are going to explore two shows that mixed reality and fantasy, or humanity and puppets more accurately.  Madame’s Place and The Muppets are both what they now call a mockumentary. Both shows featured a puppet hosting a late-night tv show, interacting with humans.  On Madame’s Place, Madame was the only non-human, while The Muppets blended muppets and humans throughout the show. We’ll also take a quick peek at the men behind the fantasy: Wayland Flowers and Jim Henson.

Madame’s Place debuted in 1982 while The Muppets began in 2015, 33 years apart.  Both shows lasted one season and featured celebrities interacting with the characters.  Both Madame and Miss Piggy had Jay Leno on their show. Both shows also went beyond the professional lives of their stars, featuring their personal lives as well.

Madame’s Place

madame9

Madame lived in a large mansion. All 51 episodes included her three-person staff:  Bernadette Van Gilder (Susan Tolsky) who was her secretary; Walter Pinkerton (Johnny Haymer) who was an ex-boxer, now butler; and her niece Sara Joy Pitts (Judy Landers) who was a bit of a dumb blonde.   A young Corey Feldman appeared in half the shows as Buzzy St. James, the next-door neighbor boy.

madame4

Madame clad herself in feathers and sequins. Madame was never described as politically correct, and she did not mince words with her staff or her nightly guests. She always had a witty comeback.

Some of the guests on her show included Frankie Avalon, Joyce Brothers, Scatman Crothers, Phyllis Diller, Eva Gabor, George Gobel, Arsenio Hall, Pee-Wee Herman, Jay Leno, Anthony Newley, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, John Schneider, William Shatner, Toni Tenille, Betty White, and Fred Willard.

I was surprised to learn that Wayland Flowers was actually born Wayland Parrott Flowers in Georgia in 1939.  He passed away in 1988 in California from cancer. He always performed with Madame, and their first break happened when they were cast on The Andy Williams Show in the mid-1960s.  They appeared on Laugh-In, The Hollywood Squares, and The Mike Douglas Show, as well as four years on Solid Gold.

wayland

Flowers once said that Madame had a mind of her own, and sometimes what she said shocked him.

If you wish to see Madame in action, there are several youtube videos of her. Madame’s Place s0le13 is an episode where Madame holds a contest to determine her next (and 7th) husband.

The Muppets

Like Madame’s Place, The Muppets showed life on a late-night talk show.  The gang is all here. Kermit and Miss Piggy have ended their relationship, but it is obvious they still have feelings for each other.  The show is Up Late with Miss Piggy. Before the show went live, Kermit always said, “Time to get things started.”

Kermit is the executive producer; his best friend, Fozzy Bear, is the co-host; Gonzo is the head writer with fellow writers Rizzo the Rat and Pepe the King Prawn; Scooter is in charge of talent, Bobo is the stage manager; Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are the prop handlers; Uncle Deadly is in charge of Miss Piggy’s wardrobe; Sam the Eagle is in charge of the network’s Standards and Practices; Denise, another Pig, and Kermit’s current girlfriend, is in charge of marketing; the house band is the Electric Mayhem; and we’re not totally sure what the Swedish Chef actually does. Rowlf the Dog owns a bar across the street and many of the characters retire there after the show to talk about the evening’s performances.

The show mixes humans and muppets.  For example, Fozzy is dating a human girl, and her parents don’t approve.

The show cleverly made fun of a lot of the late-night shows. Some of the guests who came to dish with Piggy included Christina Applegate, Elizabeth Banks, Jason Bateman, Jere Burns, Kristen Chenoweth, Laurence Fishburn, Josh Groban, Joan Jett, Mindy Kaling, Jay Leno, Willie Nelson, and Reese Witherspoon.

The show was cancelled after one year.  A lot of people complained about The Muppets living as adults in adult situations.  This was unfair criticism because the Muppets began as a show aimed at adults.

Jim Henson was born in Mississippi in 1936 and died in New York in 1990. He began creating puppets in high school.  While at the University of Maryland, he created a show starring Kermit among other now-unknown puppets called Sam and Friends, an adult show.  The show appeared in television in the Washington, DC area from 1955-1961.The puppets lip-synched popular songs and acted in sketches spoofing television shows.  Henson founded Muppets, Inc. in 1958. The Muppets then appeared on late night talk shows.

henson

In 1969, the Muppets moved to Sesame Street where they became famous. The Muppet Show was on television from 1976-81, and the crew made several movies including The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.

muppets3

In the 1980s, Disney became involved with the Muppets and several television shows occurred (The Jim Henson Hour in 1989 and Muppets Tonight from 1996-98), along with a couple more movies. In 2004, Disney acquired all rights to the Muppets and made additional movies.

I’m not sure why neither of these shows made it to year two.  Maybe people just couldn’t accept the interaction of puppets and humans.  With The Muppets, I think some people who would have liked the show assumed it was for kids while people who assumed it was for kids were unhappy it was an adult show.

I found both shows a lot of fun.  They didn’t take themselves or celebrities too seriously. Another show I fell in love with that put kids’ characters into modern situations was the New Looney Tunes, but that’s a show we’ll explore in detail in a future blog.

 

I could not find an author for the following quote:  “It’s not reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” I don’t know about you, but in watching the news and reading newspapers (ok, almost no one reads newspapers anymore), I find reality is not a fun place to dwell in.  I will happily add a bit of fantasy.  It seems to produce a lot of great one-liners.

Piggy: I’m telling you this because we’re friends: we are no longer friends.

********************************************************************

Fozzie: I knew you wouldn’t approve it so I went over your head.
Kermit: I’m the boss.
Fozzie: Oh that’s right. So I went behind your back.

********************************************************************************

Cousin Charlie: Well, if you need me I’ll be in my dressing room practicing my collection of one-liners.
Madame: Well, be sure to do a good job darling. They’re all in your face.
*********************************************************************************

Madame: These are my Summer Diamonds. Some are diamonds, some are not.