It’s the 60’s and I was in high school, living in Florida at the time, right down the road from the missile sites. We all thought that we’d go up in atomic smoke when the Cuban Missile crisis hit and missile launches made our whole school shake. Our English class read books on post-atomic America, seriously discussed the possibility of WW III and everybody, even the girls, belonged to some type of rocket club. In fact, there were so many homemade missiles thudding on the beach that it’s a miracle that none of us got hurt. Spies, Sputnik, the cold war, James Bond and international intrigue were on everybody’s mind – even more so because we were a military family living in a town full of military, scientists and technicians all dedicated to getting that damn missile up there and beating the Ruskies.
One night, I turned on TV. I’d read somewhere, probably in TV Guide, about a new spy show. It was amusing but nothing special until the last frame when a pale blond god, in the form of David McCallum showed up for about two minutes in the last frame. I was hooked. I watched the show religiously afterwards and was upset when David McCallum, aka Illya, didn’t get more screen time. I was bored with the smooth Solo character; suave “old” guys like Robert Vaughn didn’t interest me at all. But Illya – mysterious, cool, smart, beautiful in a way that I never imagined a man could be beautiful rang every bell in my underage body. Apparently he did the same for a whole host of other teenagers because he became enormously popular – in fact, you can almost see the weekly increase in his popularly as the show gave him more and more screen time. I was a fan, and what a fan! My best friend in high school and I formed a fan club and sent away for whatever we could get our hands on about McCallum. If I couldn't have him, I wanted to be him or, as a second best, be his partner. I knew that I would be a better secret agent than Solo and the bit of gender switching didn't bother me at all. I bought every fan magazine that I could get my hands on, made up scrapbooks, and wrote stories (OK – lots and lots of stories. Mary Sue wasn’t invented yesterday, you know). I made up organization charts for U.N.C.L.E. , had fantasies about being an U.N.C.L.E. agent and fixated so much on Illya that it’s a miracle I wasn’t imprinted forever with an image of the desirable male as unobtainable, blonde, mysterious, foreign and very very smart.
Oh wait. I was. Francis Crawford of the Lymond Chronicles comes to mind.
But life moved on and I moved with it, getting into other things, not having a TV for years and just never imaging that the series would be re-released. The couple of remakes weren’t very good and I just assumed that my teenage crush had been on something not very good. I assumed that it wouldn’t have held up well. After all, very little TV does. For me, the best was always The Avengers (with Secret Agent in second place and a whole host of other shows milling around in no special order).
So I was surprised when several of the episodes of the first season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. reached the level of sophistication, wit, flat-out action, and a dead-pan, slightly surreal atmosphere that so-often marked John Steed's and Miss Emma Peel's delightful adventures. The special effects are laughable, even cheesy, by today’s standards and Solo’s character still doesn’t do much for me but overall, the episodes are a delight to watch. The show took a while to find its balance; the first two episodes are pretty humdrum but I held out for the Illya sightings. In that, I was not disappointed.
U.N.C.L.E.’s main adversary was Thrush, a criminal organization bent on world domination. Their resources were endless and their ability to attract a motley assortment of the mean, the nasty, the pathological and the beautiful (to give Solo somebody to romance about every other episode) never faltered, no matter how many times they failed (probably about 23 time per season). But they persevered. Hope sprang ever eternal in their nefarious plans or at least it did for three and a half seasons.
As Napoleon Solo aptly put it, "Thrush believes in the two-party system: the masters and the slaves." Although often on first name basis with Thrush agents, and not above trading witty banters with the opposing force, or Solo romancing the beautiful spy of the week, our intrepid heroes didn’t hesitate to blast away at the villains at the drop of a hat. The show was violent, although not gruesome. There were no camera shots lingering on dismembered bodies and no visible blood. When it came to the killing, the tone was light, but agents got shot dead (which must have been a boon for dozens of grade B actors – dead this week, a guest spot next week). Again, Solo put it best about Thrush's ruthlessness when he stated "Thrush kills people like people kill flies."
The show would open with the jazzy tunes of Jerry Goldsmith as the camera followed Solo and Kuryakin into a cramped, basement-level tailor shop and through a primitive, dark changing room. With a push of a coat hook, they entered the fabulous offices of U.N.C.L.E. There was always some witty banter with the receptionist before our twosome would report to Mr. Waverly and the adventure of the week. Throughout the M-G-M back lot "New York," U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush agents pop in and out of unlikely holes, and false-fronts, and anonymous delivery vans and city taxis like jack-in-the-boxes, battling each other with impunity on the oblivious streets of Manhattan, or “India” or “the Caribbean” or the high seas. The perfect portal to this veiled world of mayhem was the series' most ingenious audience hook: an ordinary person, often a woman or a Mr. Nobody from nowhere.
They get drawn into the weekly adventure, playing a pivotal role in unmasking the villain of the week. While spy films had often utilized such a plot device, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. made it a central theme of its show, placing the audience surrogate (mememee) squarely in the middle of the action - something the Bond films and other TV spy series never did. Bond is essentially a Superman agent, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, women, clothes, and combat, who can always save the day, and rarely, if ever, with the need of assistance from another person. He’s also a lot more sexually predatory while UNCLE’s agents played the sex angle with a light hand. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. subverts that, often making the case that the competent agents (who would, sadly, become more cartoon like as the series progressed) absolutely needed the aid of "the innocent" to pull off their various operations.
This theme fit well with the producers' choices of actors to play the leads here. Vaughn and McCallum, certainly not as physically prepossessing as Sean Connery, seem like more down to earth, believable spies, if you will (until the gradual outlandishness of the series defeated that feeling). Their physical capabilities, while never in question, certainly aren't infallible. They're just as much "thinking" spies as "shooting" spies, and as such, more open to utilizing someone else's talents to complete their mission. This, along with "the innocent" often being a woman who finds a certain kind of liberation and newfound freedom after working with the U.N.C.L.E. agents, were additional departures from the conventions of most mid-60's TV. They weren't feminist; all the romantic slock with Solo's character prevented that but they were, shall we say - proto-femnist.
As the show's popularity increased, however, the stories began to tip toward silliness. Still, season two continued to increase Kuryakin's presence in the show's storylines, as it was by this point readily apparent that McCallum was a breakout star. For his part, McCallum didn't use this newfound spotlight to oversell his character; his Kuryakin is just as humorous and mysterious as the character was in the previous season (even if the situations he and his co-star were being placed in were becoming increasingly absurd). My favorite episode from season two was "The Discotheque Affair," which has Kuryakin going undercover as an ultra-hip bass player (dig those shades and turtleneck!).
Illya Kuryakin, International Man of Mystery
Then came season three where the show had definitely jumped the shark. This season is more or less universally acknowledged as the period in the show's run where the show’s balance teetered undeniably into the silly and over-the-top.
The truncated season four seems like an attempt to right the ship. But while the element of danger returns with these episodes and the overall tone is clearly much more even, the backpedaling wasn't enough to save the show (and the competing spinoff The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. probably didn't help), making the fourth season the last of the series.
Perhaps the biggest keys to the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., however, were its two stars. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum made a great team, and it is the personalities of their characters-whether they're appearing together or separate during an episode-that really make the show compelling. However, I personally think that it was McCallum’s Kuryakin that gave the show its edge. We got a more mysterious but every bit as capable operative. The writers gave him a wry, deadpan sense of humor; to the point that oftentimes it's hard to predict what he's going to say in a given situation. And while both actors clearly understand the tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings, McCallum gave Kuryakin a subtly mischievous smile that sold this self-awareness really well.
It’s also worth noting the contribution of Leo G. Carroll as Mr. Waverly, who, as Vaughn rightly asserts in the supplements, brings real class to the show. His perpetual seriousness (although he gets his own little moments of levity now and again) kept the show grounded, and Mr. Waverly ultimately becomes a key steadying presence of U.N.C.L.E..
Robert Vaughn's character did nothing for me then and that has not changed. I realize that he's a good actor but the smug, "suave" Solo is simply not something that I find interesting nor is it a character that has held up very well. 60’s sexism is as dated as the hairdos and makeup of the women actors. But David McCallum, as Illya, has held up well - he underplayed the part and the writers probably found him the more interesting character of the two. The first two episodes - before the Illya character began to take off - are pretty boring. In fact, I fast forwarded until I got to the Illya bits and did that in other episodes where there was too much Solo (boring and dated). But as his character began to come more to the fore, the series really improved and it's worth waiting for his dry comments and delicious smiles. That part has not changed in 40+ years,
'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' boasted a series of high profile guest stars eclipsed only by the dazzling array of talent to be found on display in the 'Batman' TV series. Among them were such notables as Vincent Price, Angela Lansbury, Ricardo Montalban, Martin Landau, Joan Collins, Slim Pickens, Carroll O'Connor, Kurt Russell, Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, Sonny and Cher and Joan Crawford. One of the more intriguing pairings came in ‘The Project Strigas Affair’ which starred William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, two years before they stood shoulder to shoulder on the bridge of 'Star Trek’s' USS Enterprise.
‘Uncle’ was yet another window into the mood of a bright breezy and optimistic decade now forever lost to us. It was simple fun, produced in a more colorful clear-cut time where right and wrong was still clearly defined, and heroes had a moral code. Responsibility and moral commitment were preferable to unchecked power and absolute greed. Loyalty, courage and ethics were more important than winning the battle at any cost. The result – especially the first season - was a classic series of imagination and atmosphere.
I wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement without whose assistance this review would not be possible.