The Man From U.N.C.L.E. turns 45

Forty-five years ago — Sept. 22, 1964 — a show debuted that had been pitched to NBC executives as “James Bond for television.”

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. turned out to be more than that. It ushered in an era where spies would be welcomed into U.S. living rooms and not just be seen on movie screens. The opening moments of the pilot/first episode, seen in the first couple of minutes of this video, were certainly eye-catching and enhanced by Jerry Goldsmith’s score:

The show featured a dashing wordly hero, Napoleon Solo. Ian Fleming, during a very brief period when he was involved with the project, had helped name him. Fleming quickly dropped out, at least in part because he didn’t want to anger Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the producers who were turning his James Bond novels into movies. Norman Felton, the producer overseeing U.N.C.L.E., and Sam Rolfe, the writer-producer who Felton chose to write the pilot, would come up with their own take on the spy genre.

While it had some Bondian elements, U.N.C.L.E. would have significant differences:

1. It was the utopian spy show. U.N.C.L.E. was a multi-national organization, whose agents were the best that many countries had to offer. It was a post-Cold War series produced in the middle of the Cold War. The best example of that? Namely:

2. Illya Kuryakin a sympathetic Russian character. Kuryakin was seen only fleetingly in the U.N.C.L.E. pilot, The Vulcan Affair. Nevertheless, it was clear that Felton and Rolfe had bigger plans in the future. Robert Vaughn, in a short presention to advertisers and network executives said that Kuryakin (and the actor who played him, David McCallum) “is an interesting young man — you’ll see him often.” NBC wasn’t that keen on Kuryakin and wanted him out. Felton & Co. instead dumped actor Will Kuluva, who had played U.N.C.L.E. boss Mr. Allison, and had him replaced with Leo G. Carroll as Alexander Waverly. When NBC discovered what had happened, it was too late. (The Kuluva scenes were refilmed with Carroll before the episode aired.)

Bear this in mind. U.N.C.L.E. premiered 23 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly went to war. The show often kept Kuryakin’s “Russian-ness” under wraps, but not entirely. In one first-season episode, he’s shown in the U.S.S.R. in a military uniform. In another, he and Solo are driving up to a large mansion. “Suddenly, I feel very Russian,” Kuryakin says. Put another way: director Lewis Gilbert boasted during the making of the 007 film The Spy Who Loved Me how that film featured a sympathetic Russian character. It only took 007’s producers 13 years to catch up to U.N.C.L.E. in that regard.

3. U.N.C.L.E. spies had to be different from Bond because they mixed more with “ordinary” people.

Rolfe in his pilot script established the use of an “innocent” — a character intended as a surrogate for the audience. In Rolfe’s pilot story, it was a housewife who had a close relationship with Andrew Vulcan, a leader of the criminal organization Thrush. Solo and Kuryakin, simply by interacting with the “innocents,” had to act differently than Bond and show different emotions. In the series, the “innocents” are a mixed bunch. A goofy third-season episode, The Matternhorn Affair, has an innocent (Bill Dana) who’s supposed to be funny but instead has the audience rooting for him to get killed.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was like a nova. Its popularity shone brightly but then burned out. By January 1968, it’d be off the air.

But U.N.C.L.E. paved the way for a full fledged spy invasion of U.S. TV screens. A year after its debut, NBC brought out I Spy (a more serious, Cold War-grounded spy drama) and Get Smart, the spy parody created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry while CBS introduced The Wild, Wild West where the spy and cowboy genres mixed. In 1966, CBS went to the well again, with Mission: Impossible.

What’s more, this decade has been quite good for U.N.C.L.E. fans. The entire series is available on DVD with extensive extras. Four volumes of U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack music are available from Film Score Monthly, produced by film and TV music expert Jon Burlingame. There hasn’t been an U.N.C.L.E. movie but having seen what’s happened to Mission: Impossible (Jim Phelps turned into a villain in the 1996 film), The Wild, Wild West (turned into a very uneven 1999 film) and I Spy (turned into a goofy 2002 comedy), that may not be a bad thing.

In any event, happy anniversary, U.N.C.L.E. and Messrs Solo and Kuryakin.

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