55th anniversary of the end of U.N.C.L.E. (and ’60s spymania)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)

The symbolism of a 1965 TV Guide ad for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came true little more than two years later. (Picture from the For Your Eyes Only Web site)

Originally published Dec. 28, 2012. 

Jan. 15 marks the 55th anniversary of the end of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It was also a sign that 1960s spymania was drawing to a close.

Ratings for U.N.C.L.E. faltered badly in the fall of 1967, where it aired on Monday nights. It was up against Gunsmoke on CBS — a show that itself had been canceled briefly during the spring of ’67 but got a reprieve thanks to CBS chief William Paley. Instead of oblivion, Gunsmoke was moved from Saturday to Monday.

Earlier, Norman Felton, U.N.C.L.E.’s executive producer, decided some retooling was in order for the show’s fourth season. He brought in Anthony Spinner, who often wrote for Quinn Martin-produced shows, as producer.

Spinner had also written a first-season U.N.C.L.E. episode and summoned a couple of first-season writers, Jack Turley and Robert E. Thompson, to do some scripts. Spinner also had been associate producer on the first season of QM’s The Invader series. He hired Sutton Roley, who had worked as a director on The Invaders, as an U.N.C.L.E. director

Also in the fold was Dean Hargrove, who supplied two first-season scripts but had his biggest impact in the second season, when U.N.C.L.E. had its best ratings. Hargrove was off doing other things during the third season, although he did one of the best scripts for The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. during 1966-67.

Hargrove, however, quickly learned the Spinner-produced U.N.C.L.E. was different. In a 2007 interview on the U.N.C.L.E. DVD set, Hargrove said Spinner was of “the Quinn Martin school of melodrama.”

Spinner wanted a more serious take on the show compared with the previous season, which included a dancing ape. Hargrove, adept at weaving (relatively subtle) humor into his stories, chafed under Spinner. The producer instructed his writers that U.N.C.L.E. should be closer to James Bond than Get Smart.

The more serious take also extended to the show’s music, as documented in liner notes by journalist Jon Burlingame for U.N.C.L.E. soundtracks released between 2004 and 2007 and the FOR YOUR EYES ONLY U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE.

Matt Dillon, right, and sidekick Festus got new life at U.N.C.L.E.'s expense.

Matt Dillon (James Arness), right, and sidekick Festus (Ken Curtis) got new life at U.N.C.L.E.’s expense.

Gerald Fried, the show’s most frequent composer, had a score rejected. Also jettisoned was a new Fried arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music. A more serious-sounding version was arranged by Robert Armbruster, the music director of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Most of the fourth season’s scores would be composed by Richard Shores. Fried did one fourth-season score, which sounded similar to the more serious style of Shores.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, however, weren’t a match for a resurgent Matt Dillon on CBS. NBC canceled U.N.C.L.E. A final two-part story, The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, aired Jan. 8 and 15, 1968.

U.N.C.L.E. wouldn’t be the only spy casualty.

NBC canceled I Spy, with its last new episode appearing April 15, 1968. Within 18 months of U.N.C.L.E.’s demise, The Wild Wild West was canceled by CBS (its final new episode aired aired April 4, 1969 although CBS did show fourth-season reruns in the summer of 1970). The last episode of The Avengers was produced, appearing in the U.S. on April 21, 1969.

NBC also canceled Get Smart after the 1968-69 season but CBS picked up the spy comedy for 1969-70. Mission: Impossible managed to stay on CBS until 1973 but shifted away from spy storylines its last two seasons as the IMF opposed “the Syndicate.” (i.e. organized crime or the Mafia)

Nor were spy movies exempt. Dean Martin’s last Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew, debuted in U.S. theaters in late 1968. Despite a promise in the end titles that Helm would be back in The Ravagers, the film series was done.

Even the James Bond series, the engine of the ’60s spy craze, was having a crisis in early 1968. Star Sean Connery was gone and producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman pondered their next move. James Bond would return but things weren’t quite the same.

2 Responses

  1. An efficient retrospective of how the “𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝒕𝒊𝒎𝒆𝒔, 𝒕𝒉𝒆𝒚 𝒘𝒆𝒓𝒆 𝒂-𝒄𝒉𝒂𝒏𝒈𝒊𝒏𝒈.” In the day though, many weren’t aware of behind the scenes. Unprepared for a fateful Monday evening, the stark indignation was “Laugh-In” replacing such a beloved Series. While the actors were ready to move on. It was said (*) in terms of somber moments and finality. How the Crew felt similar to the emotion suggested by one the last scenes of the last episodes, with “Waverly” watching the white casket loaded onto the private jet. In an interview, David McCallum said he was never officially informed of the cancelation. Original fans who’ve survived to this day, are fortunate and grateful for the MFU lasting three and a half years, due to dedication, innovation and extraordinary talent of everyone involved. Just one of those lasting memories!

    Spy Command, Thank You for writing a Man from UNCLE article!!

    • Jon Heitland

  2. There’s a sequel of sorts to this:
    When Laugh-In premiered the next Monday, they started off with the party sequence, one of the show’s trademarks.
    Dick Martin and Judy Carne are sitting at the bar, and Martin is saying that he learned what he knows about women from his father’s brother: “That makes me the Man from Uncle!”
    Dick and Judy walk away from the bar, and the bartender turns to face the camera – and it’s Leo G. Carroll, who takes a pen out of his pocket and speaks into it:
    “Mr. Kuryakin! Come quickly – I’ve found THRUSH headquarters!”
    Later in the hour, Leo G. becomes one of the first cameo stars to look into the camera and say, almost defiantly:
    “Sock it to ME?!!!”

    There were occasional references throughout the first Laugh-In season :
    I think it was Leonard Nimoy who asked quizzically:
    “Is it too late to bring back The Man From UNCLE?”

    Those were the days (?) …

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