1964: U.N.C.L.E.’s Soviet history in-joke

For much of The Project Strigas Affair, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) wears a disguise that appears to resemble…

Next month marks the 55th anniversary of The Project Strigas Affair, the ninth episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It’s mostly known today for being the first time William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy acted together.

However, it’s also an example of an in-joke, albeit one that many members of the audience might not catch.

For much of the story, U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) wears a disguise consisting of a black wig, fake mustache and wire rim glasses.

It’s part of an elaborate con to ensnare a diplomat (Werner Klemperer), whose government is plotting to get the United States and Soviet Union to declare war on each other.

…Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky

Students of Soviet history might recognize the disguise. That’s because the disguised Illya appears to resemble Leon Trotsky, a Russian revolutionary who had a falling out with Stalin. Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City in 1940.

Kuryakin was U.N.C.L.E.’s resident Russian operative. The U.N.C.L.E. series treated the agent’s nationality very gently. This was the 1960s, after all, and the Cold War was on.

The show mostly had subtle references (“Suddenly I feel very Russian,” he says as he parks near a Long Island party held by rich people in the first-season episode The Love Affair.)

Illya’s disguise for The Project Strigas Affair, assuming it really was an intentional in-joke, falls into this category. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was escapist entertainment, first and foremost. But the Kuryakin disguise shows there’s a bit more at work.

Leonard Nimoy dies at 83, dabbled in spy entertainment

Leonard Nimoy with his future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Leonard Nimoy with his future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Leonard Nimoy, best known for playing Spock on Star Trek but who also dabbled in spy entertainment, has died today at 83, according to an obituary in THE NEW YORK TIMES.

A brief excerpt:

His wife, Susan Bay Nimoy, confirmed his death, saying the cause was end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Mr. Nimoy announced last year that he had the disease, which he attributed to years of smoking, a habit he had given up three decades earlier. He had been hospitalized earlier in the week

Nimoy’s greatest fame was as Spock. He first played the role in an unsold 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Pike. A second pilot, with William Shatner as Capt. James Kirk, did sell and a series aired on NBC for three seasons. Much later, Star Trek was revived for theatrical movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation, a syndicated series set decades after the original. Nimoy’s Spock showed up at one time or another in some of the films and the later series.

Still, he appeared in spy shows as well. He and Shatner were in a 1964 episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Project Strigas Affair. Shatner was an “innocent” recruited by Napoleon Solo as part of a complicated plot. Nimoy was a secondary villain.

Nimoy also replaced Martin Landau on Mission: Impossible for that show’s fourth and fifth seasons. Nimoy played Paris, a magician and master of disguise. Executives at Paramount forced out Landau, who never signed a long-term contact and who had previously won salary raises in negotiations.

Landau was was popular as disguise expert Rollin Hand and the departure also cost M:I of the services of his then-wife, Barbara Bain. As a result, Nimoy came aboard as the show’s ratings slipped. He left before the series changed to a format where the Impossible Missions Force battled only organized crime in the final two seasons.

UPDATE: Leonard Nimoy was active on Twitter. This is his last Tweet:

UPDATE II (7 p.m.): MeTV, the U.S. cable channel of classic television shows, is showing a lot of episodes of shows where Nimoy was the guest star. On Sunday at 10 p.m., it will show The Project Strigas Affair episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., followed by one of Nimoy’s appearances on Mission: Impossible (“The Hostage) at 11 p.m., followed by an episode of Get Smart (The Dead Spy Scrawls) with Nimoy. For more details, CLICK HERE.

49th anniversary of the first Shatner-Nimoy pairing

Napoleon Solo has to steady an "innocent" who's had too much to drink

Solo helps an “innocent” who’s had too much to drink

This month marks the 49th anniversary of the first pairing of actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. On Nov. 24, 1964, two years before Star Trek, Shatner was the featured guest star on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with Nimoy as a supporting player.

The episode was The Project Strigas Affair, in which U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) are assigned to bring down a leading diplomat of an unnamed nation that’s causing major friction between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

Strigas is one of the highlights of the show’s first season, and not for being the answer to a Shatner-Nimoy trivia question. Strigas is almost like a blueprint for Mission: Impossible (which also didn’t debut until 1966); the viewer is only given teases of the Solo-Kuryakin plan. The U.N.C.L.E. operatives also have to improvise to keep the scheme on course.

Shatner gets the primary guest star billing because he’s the “innocent” of the story, a man who departed a high-paying corporate job to start his own pest-extermination business. U.N.C.L.E. utilizes the man’s background as part of the plan. Nimoy is the deputy of the targeted diplomat (Werner Klemperer).

Shatner and Nimoy actually don’t have that many scenes together. One occurs during a party where Shatner’s Michael Donfield is supposed to be a little tipsy (and talkative, to further the trap) but may have gotten into his part too much.

A disguised Illya about to spring the trap

A disguised Illya helps to entice the target of the affair

Strigas (short for “strike gas,” the supposed name of a secret operation) was the first of 11 Man episodes directed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best directors to work on the series. Based on Strigas, it’s easy to see why Sargent was brought back repeatedly. Sargent would helm U.N.C.L.E. episodes into the third season.

Finally, the episode has what seems to be an amusing in-joke. McCallum’s Kuryakin spends much of the episode disguised as a young Leon Trotsky. While Kuryakin was Russian (and U.N.C.L.E. an international organization), the show was always careful to keep the references low key.

To long-time U.N.C.L.E. fans, this is old hat. But with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie now in production, The Project Strigas Affair is an episode potential new fans should check out.

Season one episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on

The Project Strigas Affair entry on IMDB.COM

Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves dies

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that Peter Graves, star of the both the original Mission: Impossible series and its 1980s revival, was found dead at his California home, apparently from natural causes.

Graves, the brother of Gunsmoke star James Arness, was brought into M:I starting with the show’s second season. The show never explained why Graves’s Jim Phelps replaced Steven Hill’s Dan Briggs as the leader of the Impossible Missions Force. In any case, for the next six years, Graves (as well as Greg Morris) would be a constant in a show that went through a lot of turmoil and cast changes, with the likes of Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Leonard Nimoy, Lesley Warren, Sam Elliott and Peter Lupus (who was replaced for a time before returning) coming in and out as regulars.

Obituaries for Graves will also prominently mention his work on Airplane! but because this is a spy entertainment-focused blog, we had to include this montage on YouTube of opening titles from the original show. It keeps repeating the theme to get in more clips of episodes than the typical opening of an M:I installment:

And here’s a titles sequence from the 1988-90 revival to show Jim Phelps lighting the fuse.

UPDATE: The New York Times has now published a longer obituary. You can view it by CLICKING RIGHT HERE.