“It’s hard to find our show sometimes, Illya.”
UPDATE: The 1980s section, corrects name of network to Christian Broadcasting Network. CBN changed its name to Family Channel name after it showed U.N.C.L.E.
Also, readers (one is a comment below, the other was on Facebook) have mentioned the following: The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair, a 1986 A-Team episode with U.N.C.L.E. memes (Robert Vaughn was a regular in that show’s final season and David McCallum was the episode’s guest star) as well as a Dec. 31, 1989-Jan. 1, 1990 U.N.C.L.E. marathon on TNT.
While we’re at it, Turner Classic Movies a few years ago had a daylong marathon of the eight U.N.C.L.E. movies, with the first beginning at 6 a.m. eastern time. TCM still occasionally shows them.
With the news that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is going to be shown by MeTV in the U.S. starting next month, here’s a review of the show’s odd history after it ended its 1964-68 run on NBC.
This is by no means a definitive history. But it gives you an idea how a series that once was very popular had trouble finding an audience after its first run. The show made stars of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, even to the point where the Beatles wanted to meet Vaughn in 1966. But later, it was as if the show disappeared.
Meanwhile, other series that were on at the time, such as Mission: Impossible and The Wild Wild West, were much easier to find on local television stations. And, of course, the original Star Trek (which shared many of the same guest stars as U.N.C.L.E.) became a broad pop culture event while in syndication.
Circa 1968-1969: For a period, U.N.C.L.E. could be seen in syndication. An Indianapolis independent station showed U.N.C.L.E. (Both Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) Monday through Friday in an afternoon time slot.
However, this did not last that long. In general, there was a concern about violence on television and this perhaps affected U.N.C.L.E. For whatever reason, U.N.C.L.E. soon became virtually invisible.
1970s: The best chance to see U.N.C.L.E. was when one of the eight “movies” — re-edited from series episodes — popped up on local television. In the `1970s, I caught To Trap a Spy (an expanded version of the series pilot) on a local television station. CBS even showed The Spy With My Face, an expanded version of the first-season episode The Double Affair, on the CBS Late Movie. At the time, CBS didn’t have its own viable late-night show and was content to show movies starting at 11:30 p.m. eastern time.
1980s: In the early 1980s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which made the series in association with producer Norman Felton’s Arena Productions, dusted off U.N.C.L.E. The studio made a renewed syndication push. The original MGM logs at the end of episodes were removed and new ones added.
In 1985, the Christian Broadcasting Network — controlled by tele-evangelist Pat Robertson — showed The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at 11 p.m. eastern time in the U.S. But for the CBN debut,the channel skipped over the entire black-and-white first season. Its first telecast was The Arabian Affair from the second season.
By the spring or summer of 1986, CBN showed all but four episodes: the two-part Alexander the Greater Affair and The Very Important Zombie Affair from the second season and The Abominable Snowman Affair from the third. The latter two weren’t shown, reportedly because of their un-Christian content (voodoo with Very Important Zombie, depictions of Eastern religions in Snowman). As for Alexander the Greater, it turned out nobody could find it. More about that shortly.
Meanwhile, there were changes behind the scenes. Television mogul Ted Turner bought MGM, primarily to gain control of its film library, including classic films such as Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur. But Turner borrowed heavily for the purchase. So he sold the studio, while keeping the film library — which also included U.N.C.L.E.
Thus, in 1988, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was part of TNT’s Saturday morning (and later Saturday afternoon) programming. TNT telecast Very Important Zombie and Abominable Snowman shortly thereafter.
1990s: By the mid-1990s, U.N.C.L.E. shows up in the early-morning hours of Tuesday (technically part of its Monday schedule). In 1999, a Turner employee finds Alexander the Greater. The two-part story was telecast July 4, 2000, the last U.N.C.L.E. telecast on the cable network. In the interim, Turner has sold out to Time Warner, whose Warner Bros. now controls the show.
NBC had never rerun Alexander the Greater. So the TNT telecast was the first time the television version had been seen since September 1965. Until then, only the movie version, One Spy Too Many, had been available.
In 1999, TV Land had a “spy week” promotion in connection with the second Austin Powers movie. Four episodes each of The Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. are shown on separate nights, along with series such as It Takes a Thief and The Avengers. For Man, four first-season episodes are telecast. (Girl only ran one season, making selection easier.) TNT, around the same time, showed some episodes of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. in connection with the birthday of star Stefanie Powers.
21st century: Both The Man and Girl From U.N.C.L.E. have shown up on other cable channels but don’t enjoy a lot of visibility.
In 2007, the series is released on DVD, initially by Time-Life. The original MGM logo at the end of episodes was restored. Within a few years, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and the eight U.N.C.L.E. movies are released by Warner Archive, the manufactured-on-demand arm of Warner Bros.
MeTV picking up The Man From U.N.C.L.E. comes just ahead of the show’s 50th anniversary as well as a movie version of the show coming in January.
Filed under: The Other Spies | Tagged: A movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?, Austin Powers, CBS, David McCallum, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MeTV, NBC, Norman Felton, Pat Robertson, Robert Vaughn, Ted Turner, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Other Spies, TV Land, TV spy shows, Warner Bros. | 7 Comments »