Opening title sequence from the seventh episode of U.N.C.L.E.'s first season, “The Giuoco Piano Affair” (November 10, 1964), featuring Jerry Goldsmith's original theme.
On September 22, 1964--precisely 50 years ago today--NBC-TV introduced a new weekly spy-adventure series titled The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It starred Robert Vaughn as American Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as his Russian partner, Illya Kuryakin, who made up a troubleshooting team in the employ of an international espionage agency known by the acronym U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Veteran English actor Leo G. Carroll played their organization’s head, Alexander Waverly. By the time this program went off the air on January 15, 1968, 105 episodes had been broadcast (in both black-and-white and, later, color). U.N.C.L.E. would win the 1966 Golden Globe Award for Best TV Show (and be nominated for a stack of Emmy Awards), spin off another short-lived serial (Stefanie Powers’ The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) as well as a succession of feature films, and generate associated merchandise such as children’s lunch boxes, board games, toy weapons, and tie-in novels. In addition, the series would become an enduring pop-culture reference point. For instance, as Wikipedia notes, the Promenade directory on the 1990s TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine listed “Del Floria’s Tailor Shop” among its offerings, recalling one of the secret entrances to U.N.C.L.E.’s New York City headquarters.
Although Sam Rolfe and Norman Felton are credited as the show’s co-creators, British naval intelligence agent-turned-author Ian Fleming--yes, the man who gave us James Bond--also had a hand in its conception. In fact, Ian Fleming’s Solo was originally bandied about as the show’s title. But a Web site called Read the Spirit synopsizes the “unforeseen problems … that doomed the plan to personally involve Fleming in the series.
Among these problems: Fleming was near the end of his life, trying to recover from a heart attack. In the recollections of the U.N.C.L.E. creative team included [as “extras” in a 2008 complete series DVD release of the show], Fleming was difficult to corner for specific materials. In one remembrance included in the DVD set, Fleming is described as only wanting to walk around New York City (part of his physical recovery program) and talk endlessly about his own life and experiences. While fun, it didn’t accomplish a lot of solid work.(Right) A 1966 Man from U.N.C.L.E. metal lunch box
What’s fascinating about these U.N.C.L.E. crew memories is the way they depict an Ian Fleming obviously weaving together important strands of his own life’s reflections.
One bit of Fleming’s “weaving” got him into serious trouble. He played a role in naming the lead character “Napoleon Solo” and thought the entire series should revolve around him. Unfortunately, just before Christmas 1964, the movie Goldfinger was due to be released in the U.S. and the TV producers of U.N.C.L.E. discovered that “Solo” also was the name of an American mob boss who joins forces with [conniving gold magnate Auric] Goldfinger. This Solo is not only an evil fellow, but he meets an evil end at the hands of Oddjob--crushed inside a car. …
The TV producers were horrified. The whole thing became entangled in a lawsuit. The series name was changed to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And Ian Fleming quickly retreated from working with the TV team, signing away any creative ideas he had shared with them. Sadly, by August 12, 1964, Fleming was dead.
Other obstacles faced the series in its debut year. “Airing on Tuesday nights,” The HMSS Weblog recalls, “it was up against The Red Skeleton Show on CBS, which nearly led to cancellation before a mid-season switch to Monday nights.” Furthermore, critics offered mixed opinions of the show. In 1987’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Book: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic, Jon Heitland explains:
The reviewers did not know quite what to make of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The reviewer for TV Guide had apparently viewed the pilot and “The Double Affair,” and hated the show … He criticized both the writing and the casting. After this first review, TV Guide received many letters stating that he had missed the point, including a letter from a nine-year-old fan of the show stating, “I think you are a T.H.R.U.S.H. member trying to kill everyone who works on U.N.C.L.E. I also think you are trying to kill me by writing those boring articles for TV Guide.” The letter was from David Rolfe, Sam Rolfe’s son.(T.H.R.U.S.H. was, of course, U.N.C.L.E.’s world-conquering adversary, a body that, as Napoleon Solo once declares, “believes in the two-party system--the masters and the slaves.”)
Fortunately, NBC did not give up on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. simply because a few columnists panned it. Ed Tracey of The Daily Kos remembers that the show went on to receive “critical success in its first season (1964-1965), and during its second season (1965-1966, which is when I started watching) briefly reached #1 in the ratings (ahead of Bonanza, Bewitched, and The Dick Van Dyke Show) with a 50-share rating: unbelievable in this 500-channel era. And its second season theme music was scored by Lalo Schifrin, the best version during the life of the show, in my opinion.”
By Season 2 Rolfe had left as the program’s producer, and U.N.C.L.E. took on a more tongue-in-cheek tone. Viewers seemed to respond well to that change. So did humorists. As Heitland writes, “The final indicator of the success of the series was the number of times The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was parodied. Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin, and U.N.C.L.E. became household words. The title lent itself readily to parody, and thus very early on Mad magazine ran its spoof of the show, titled ‘The Man from A.U.N.T.I.E.’ … The best U.N.C.L.E. parody, however, occurred on the ‘Say Uncle’ episode of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. The episode features cameo appearances by both Vaughn and McCallum, and the story concerned the children mistaking their father for a secret agent. The episode featured a tailor shop (although Felton declined to allow the use of Del Floria’s, to preserve the mystique--B&C Tailor shop, another set seen in [1966’s] “The Dippy Blonde Affair” was used instead) and the U.N.C.L.E. theme music, and the twin children even wore U.N.C.L.E. sweatshirts.”
A short but dramatic clip from this series’ pilot, “The Vulcan Affair,” guest starring Patricia Crowley.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. unquestionably benefited from its association (no matter how troubled) with Fleming and the concurrent box-office success of the Bond films (three of which were brought to the silver screen during U.N.C.L.E.’s four-season run). It also profited from its pair of telegenic leads, its often outlandish gadgetry, its quirky plots, its throng of alluring female guest stars, and its era’s real-life news about Cold War tensions and global surveillance tactics. However, by 1966 the U.S. TV schedule was thick with agents of intrigue (in such dramas as Blue Light, Amos Burke, Secret Agent, The Baron, and I Spy), all hoping to win over the same audience U.N.C.L.E. had worked to build. Combined with U.N.C.L.E.’s increasing shift toward campiness and self-parody--allegedly, the result of its effort to duplicate the success then being enjoyed by a new ABC series, Batman--The Man from U.N.C.L.E. suffered a ratings drop from which it couldn’t recover, even by restoring some of its seriousness. The show was axed midway through its fourth season.
By then, though, U.N.C.L.E. had already earned itself a prominent place in the history of American television.
A reunion movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair--in which Vaughn and McCallum reprised their familiar roles--was shown on CBS-TV in April 1983. (You can watch a preview here.) A new theatrical film based on the series, starring Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, and Hugh Grant, is scheduled for release in August 2015. And this coming weekend, September 26 and 27, will bring to Los Angeles a 50th anniversary celebration of U.N.C.L.E.’s 1964 TV premiere, open to only 100 fans hoping to “gather and share their memories and their love of this classic series.”
Clearly, U.N.C.L.E. touched a nerve--and continues to do so.
READ MORE: The Fans from U.N.C.L.E.