The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s 55th anniversary

Familiar third-season publicity still for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Adapted and updated from a Sept. 22, 2014 post

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted 55 years ago today with the telecast of The Vulcan Affair on NBC.

The series had false starts. First Ian Fleming was a participant, then after several months he wasn’t, bowing out to pressure from Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Then there was threatened legal action from Eon Productions stemming from the show’s original title, Solo.

In turn, the series got a new title and the legal problems went away. The makers of Goldfinger did make one change in their film. A gangster named Solo died the most spectacular death among hoodlums invited to Goldfginer’s Kentucky stud farm, a change from earlier drafts and from Fleming’s original novel. (Adrian Turner’s 1998 book on Goldfinger details the changes in the movie’s script.)

Rough Start

Nor did U.N.C.L.E. get off to an easy start. Airing on Tuesday nights, it was up against The Red Skeleton Show on CBS, which nearly led to cancellation before a mid-season switch to Monday nights.

But the audience discovered the series, eventually ensuring a renewal for a second season for 1965-66, which would be its highest-rated campaign.

Executive Producer Norman Felton (1913-2012) faced other challenges.

His developer-producer Sam Rolfe (1924-1993) departed after the first season and things weren’t quite the same, certainly not as consistent.

Various other producers — David Victor, Boris Ingster and Anthony Spinner among them — put their own stamp on the show with varying degrees of success. Major contributions were made by writers such as Alan Caillou (who arguably shaped the Illya Kuryakin character), Dean Hargrove and Peter Allan Fields.

Time Takes Its Toll

Few of the creative personnel are still with us. In the five years since the show’s 50th anniversary, time has taken its toll. Frequent U.N.C.L.E. director Joseph Sargent died in December 2014, three months after the anniversary. Star Robert Vaughn died in 2016. Fred Koenekamp, who work as director of photography on U.N.C.L.E. got him movie jobs, passed away in 2017. Peter Allan Fields died earlier this year at 84.

Dean Hargrove

There are still survivors. David McCallum just celebrated his 86th birthday. Dean Hargrove, 81, in a long interview in March with the Writer’s Guild Foundation provided some insights into the show. He acknowledged it put him on the map, setting up a long and successful career as a TV writer-producer.

The franchise is in limbo. A 2015 movie based on the series wasn’t a financial success. There was talk of trying to get a sequel going but there’s no sign much is happening.

Hargrove, in the interview this year, said studio Warner Bros. may have simply waited too long to do a movie version.

All of that is a story for another day. For now, happy anniversary, U.N.C.L.E.