The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.’s 45th anniversary: a spinoff fails to take off

This week is the 45th anniversary for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Its failure to find an audience — it only lasted one season — is a reminder of what can happen when creators don’t especially believe in what they’re doing.

A spinoff of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., featurng a woman agent, was the idea of NBC. The wife of a network executive had even suggested a name for such an operative: Cookie Fortune. Norman Felton, the executive producer of The Man From From U.N.C.L.E., wasn’t keen on the notion. He counterproposed having two hour-long shows each week simply called U.N.C.L.E., where agents could be mixed and matched. NBC stood firm.

Girl’s pilot aired at a second-season episode of Man called The Moonglow Affair, scripted by Dean Hargrove. Hargrove passed on using Cookie Fortune as a name; he ended up going to Ian Fleming’s list of ideas for Man and used April Dancer (envisioned by Fleming as a Miss Moneypenny type character).

In Moonglow, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) are incapacitated. April (Mary Ann Mobley) is assigned to take over the assignment, aided by a middle aged Mark Slate (Norman Fell). For the series, April was recast with Stefanie Powers and Slate was turned into a Brit in his 30s, with Noel Harrison in the role.

What happened next was a vicious cycle. By many accounts, Powers and Harrison couldn’t take the material seriously. Douglas Benton ordered scripts to take a lighter tone, figuring it would play to the strengths of Powers and Harrison. One of the crew was associate producer Max Hodge, who had written the first two Mr. Freeze stories on the 1966 Batman series.

Also, Felton & Co. weren’t comfortable having April actually fight guys (and absorb at least some punishment).
As a result, Slate’s Harrison had to take the beatings for two characters, making him look weaker. Meanwhile, ABC was importing episodes of the U.K.-produced The Avengers featuring Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Peel. April looked weak by comparison.

A light tone can work when 1) the jokes are funny and 2) the audience laughs with the hero. The problem with Girl is frequently the jokes weren’t funny and came at the expense of April Dancer and Mark Slate. Late in the season, Hargrove returned and wrote The Double-O-Nothing Affair. It was still light (Thrush villain Edward Asner’s base of operations is disguised as a used-car lot) but the jokes worked and April and Mark came across as capable and brave agents. Perhaps Hargrove had invested enough in the character of April Dancer to try to make it work.

Too little, too late. Girl was canceled in the spring of 1967 and an opportunity was lost. The show is now on DVD. Here’s a clip from what may be the worst episode of the series, The Paradise Lost Affair, in which the supposedly professionally trained April looks weak against villain Genghis Gomez VIII (Monte Landis). Warner Bros. uploaded this clip to YouTube to try to get people to buy the DVDs. Oops.

4 Responses

  1. Love ‘ The Mother Muffin Affair ‘ – but mainly because it is a great send up of The Man From U.N.C.L.E …And works that way ( contrary to regular ‘ Man ‘ episodes of the last seasons )

  2. Douglas Benton, producer of The Girl From UNCLE, had worked as associate producer of Thriller, the anthology show hosted by Boris Karloff. Joseph Calvelli, the writer of Mother Muffin, had described the title character as “Boris Karloff in drag.” That prompted Benton to send Karloff the script and the actor accepted immediately. (source: a late 1990s interview Benton did that is “recreated” with his son reading his father’s words in a commentary track on the Thriller DVDs)

  3. I know I watched the show, but cannot remember anything about it. Perhaps it’s a mental block. I think i probably wanted to like it, yet there was nothing as good as MFU in my kid world.

  4. […] September 2011 post: THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E.’S 45TH ANNIVERSARY: A SPINOFF FAILS TO TAKE OFF […]

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