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.

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

11 new questions about the U.N.C.L.E. movie

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (Art by Paul Baack)

Henry Cavill, right, and Armie Hammer
(Art by Paul Baack)

The past month has seen a few disclosures about a planned movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to be directed by Guy Ritchie. But each new bit of information, well, just generates more questions.

In honor of Napoleon Solo’s No. 11 U.N.C.L.E. badge, here are 11 of them:

1. Like Dude, don’t some of Armie Hammer’s comments bother you? Hammer, while promoting The Lone Ranger movie, has made some comments that made long-time U.N.C.L.E. fans nervous. Hammer, who is to play Illya Kuryakin, has talked about how funny the script is. That makes fans who feel the movie might be a big-screen version of THE ORIGINAL SHOW’S THIRD SEASON where the delicate drama-humor balance got out of whack.

In the end, however, movies can only be judged by the final product. A certain James Bond actor is known for dropping f-bombs and telling off-color jokes in interviews involving grandmothers and oysters. That didn’t really affect Skyfall, the most recent 007 film.

2. What about what Henry Cavill has said about the U.N.C.L.E. movie? Cavill, slated to play Napoleon Solo, has been more circumspect. He has said the film will have “dry humor” but he’s not a slapstick guy. That tends to be reassuring to fans but the same thing applies — these are interviews and it remains to be seen what the movie will be like.

3. Who else is going to be in the movie? That’s one of the biggest unanswered questions. The only other name to surface is Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress who’s supposed to play a British agent. One key role that hasn’t been talked about publicly is Alexander Waverly, the Number One of U.N.C.L.E.’s section, a sort of first-among-equals of the international’s brain trust. Leo G. Carroll had the role in the original 1964-68 series. Not having a Waverly would be like a James Bond movie without an M.

4. What will this movie have the original show didn’t have? Since it’s a period piece set in the ’60s, it’s likely to have multiple references to the Cold War.

5. But the original show was made in the ’60s. How could it not have such references? They were there but way toned down. Occasionally, David McCallum’s Kuryakin would say things like, “I suddenly feel very Russian,” when near rich capitalists (The Love Affair in the show’s FIRST SEASON.) In The Project Strigas Affair, that same season, Kuryakin wore a disguise that made him resemble a young Leon Trotsky.

Still, the whole idea of U.N.C.L.E. was that it was a multi-national organization that fought threats transcended political boundries. Also, NBC executives were always wary of being too controversial. So you didn’t get a lot of direct, “ripped from headlines” Cold War references.

6. Why do you think there will be all these Cold War references? Hammer, in some of his interviews, has described Kuryakin as “a KGB spy.” Cavill, in another, said the movie is about “the Cold War and how American and Russian super spies join teams to fight international terrorism.”

7. Any other speculation? Look for some kind of “origin” storyline. These kinds of movies often take that route. Michael G. Wilson wanted to do an “origin of James Bond” movie in the 1980s when Roger Moore left the role and was replaced by Timothy Dalton. Wilson’s stepfather, Albert R. Broccoli, vetoed that idea but Wilson got his wish with 2006’s Casino Royale.

Finally, Hammer said this in AN INTERVIEW AT AIN’T IT COOL NEWS:

Capone: Will there be some humor tucked away in there?

AH: It’s Guy Ritchie, so it’s going to have that great aspect to it of getting dark, but also “I like watching these two guys hate each other,” and “I like watching these two guys hang out.”

That suggests at least the possibility of the “heroes meet, heroes don’t initially like each other, heroes get over their differences” story construction.

8. What about the crew besides Guy Ritchie? Again, very little information. Hammer has said the movie starts filming in August, other reports have said September. But you’d think some announcements might have been made by now.

9. Any we should look for in particular? The composer. Music is always important for a movie. Unfortunately, Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote the show’s distinctive theme, died in 2004.

Goldsmith only did three scores for the series but his music was constantly recycled in first-season episodes without an original score. That season is viewed by many fans as the best of the four and so Goldsmith’s contributions take on a bigger role that you’d guess.

Also, in the fourth season, Goldsmith’s scores were re-recorded and used partially in about half of the episodes. One episode, The Deadly Quest Affair consisted of almost all re-recorded Goldsmith music. So Goldsmith created the U.N.C.L.E. sound even if he didn’t work that much on the show.

10. Any guesses on who the composer could be? One possibility: Hans Zimmer did the scores for the two Sherlock Holemes movies starring Robert Downey Jr. that Ritchie directed. Zimmer has been busy of late. He scored 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises and this year’s Man of Steel (starring Cavill) and The Lone Ranger (with Hammer playing the title character but playing second fiddle to Johnny Depp’s Tonto).

11. The big question — is this movie a good thing or a bad thing? For fans who don’t want a movie, nothing will convince them otherwise. For fans who are intrigued, or at least hoping for the best, it remains to be seen. From the selfish standpoint of the HMSS Weblog, it provides something to write about because it doesn’t look like Bond 24 will become reality anytime soon. Plus, Ian Fleming co-created Napoleon Solo with Norman Felton.

A blog that examines William Shatner’s toupee

There’s a blog that keeps track of toupees worn by William Shatner. The most recent entry looks at the hairpiece Shatner wore in a first-season episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The author of the blog has some fun with it, carefully choosing stills from the episode (the ninth of the series, titled The Project Strigas Affair and making some amusing comments. For example, the entry includes stills of Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) removing a wig and including Shatner’s reaction.

If you’re interested, you can compare the blog entry against the episode itself, which starts like this: