Sunday, August 16, 2015

Nostalgia Theater: Declassifying The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

With the big budget movie adaptation currently in theaters (and a mostly entertaining film, at that), I thought what better time to look back at the original TV show of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Airing from 1964 to 1968, the stylish spy skein was put into development in 1962, just as the staggering global success of the James Bond movie series was beginning. But rather than seem like a mercenary clone, U.N.C.L.E. had the imprimatur of credibility after 007 creator Ian Fleming was asked by producer Norman Felton to help develop a show in the vein of Hitchcock's North By Northwest.

Fleming's key contribution was the main character, Napoleon Solo, which led to the show's original title, Ian Fleming's Solo. However, a lawsuit from the Bond movie producers over a similar name in Goldfinger led to the settlement that the TV folks could keep Napoleon, but had to change the title. With Fleming unable to continue on past that, writer Sam Rolfe took over, coming up with U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), as well as Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin, who would become just as integral as Solo.

The resultant effort -- now Fleming-free but bearing the snazzy new title The Man From U.N.C.L.E. -- starred Robert Vaughn as Solo and David McCallum as Kuryakin, and featuring Leo G. Carroll as prim-and-proper Waverly, their British handler in the titular spy organization. Premiering on NBC in September of 1964, the show was an instant hit thanks to the fun storylines and chemistry between the stars. Here's the first season intro, with some helpful background exposition from the main characters, all offered up in glorious black-and-white (they'd switch to color in later seasons):


The pairing of Solo and Kuryakin as partners and friends was a strong statement of the potential for international collaboration during the midst of the Cold War. Each week, the two would try to take down rival spy agency THRUSH (with every episode title featuring the word "affair" in the title -- i.e. "The Vulcan Affair" or "The Double Affair"). By the time The Man From U.N.C.L.E. finished its run in 1968, it racked up 105 episodes, and even briefly spawned a spin-off entitled The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., starring Stefanie Powers, that aired for one season during the main show's third year:


Of course, the end of the show wasn't the end of the road. The TV movie Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. (subtitled "The Fifteen Years Later Affair") aired on CBS (previous home of rival spy series Mission: Impossible) in 1983, and brought Vaughn and McCallum in from the cold. Carroll had passed away during the interim, so his role was assumed by Patrick MacNee (of yet another '60s spy show, The Avengers). Also of note, the movie featured a cameo by one-and-done Bond George Lazenby as a spy with the initials "J.B.":


While the telefilm was the last time Vaughn and McCallum would reprise iconic roles, they'd play off their U.N.C.L.E. association one final time in a 1986 episode of The A-Team (the last season of which featured Vaughn as a regular) entitled "The Say Uncle Affair." Leveraging our familiarity with the actors, the episode guest-stars McCallum as a Russian former colleague of Vaughn's Hunt Stockwell, with the twist this time that McCallum betrays Vaughn. I guess in the bellicose "Evil Empire" era of the Reagan '80s, even Napoleleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin couldn't be friends anymore.


It's a little jarring when you consider what a huge success it was during its heyday, but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has largely faded from public consciousness in the decades since. Development on a feature adaptation began in the early '90s, but it took more than twenty years for those efforts to finally materialize with the film currently playing in theaters. And while the show may be forgotten by the public, its readily available to be rediscovered on home vid, and its legacy is secure thanks to how much of an influence it had and continues to have on the espionage genre.

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