The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which aired on NBC from September 1964 to January 1968, has often been described as television's version of James Bond, but it was much more than that. It was, quite simply, a pop culture phenomenon. Although its ratings were initially poor early in the first season, a change in time period and cross-country promotional appearances by its stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, helped the show build a large and enthusiastic audience.
At the peak of its popularity, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was telecast in 60 countries and consistently ranked in the top ten programs on U.S. television. Eight feature-length films were made from two-part episodes and profitably released in the United States and Europe. TV Guide called it "the cult of millions." The show received 10,000 fan letters per week, and Vaughn and McCallum were mobbed by crowds of teenagers as if they were rock stars. U.N.C.L.E. was also a huge merchandising success with images of the series' stars and its distinctive logo (a man standing beside a skeletal globe) appearing on hundreds of items, from bubble gum cards to a line of adult clothing.
The show had a little something for everyone. Children took it seriously as an exciting action adventure. Teenagers enjoyed its hip, cool style, identifying with and idolizing its heroes. More mature viewers appreciated the tongue-in-cheek humor and the roman a clef references to real-life political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Eva Peron, interpreting it as a metaphor for the struggle common to all nations against the forces of greed, cruelty and aggression.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. redefined the television spy program introducing into the genre a number of fresh innovations. Notably, the show broke with espionage tradition and looked beyond the Cold War politics of the time to envision a new world order. The fictional United Network Command for Law Enforcement was multinational in makeup and international in scope, protecting and defending nations regardless of size or political persuasion. For example, a third season episode, "The Jingle Bells Affair" showed a Soviet premier visiting New York during Christmas time, touring department stores and delivering a speech on peaceful coexistence at the United Nations, twenty-two years before Mikhail Gorbachev actually made a similar trip.
The show also broke new ground in re-conceptualizing the action adventure hero. Prompted by a woman at the BBC he once met who complained that the leads in American series were all big, tall, muscular and, well, American, producer Norman Felton (Eleventh Hour; Dr. Kildare) decided to vary the formula. His series, developed with Sam Rolfe (co-creator of Have Gun, Will Travel) teamed an American agent, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) with a Soviet one, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). Each week, they were sent off on their missions (called "affairs") by their boss, Alexander Waverly, a garrulous, craggy, pipe-smoking spy master played by Leo G. Carroll.
Neither the suave Solo nor the enigmatic Kuryakin were physically impressive. They were instead intelligent, sophisticated, witty, charming, always polite and impeccably well-tailored. Sometimes they made mistakes, and often they lost the battle before they won the war.
What made U.N.C.L.E. truly appealing was the way it walked a fine line between the real and the fanciful, juxtaposing elements that were both surprisingly fantastic and humorously mundane. For example, as they battled bizarre threats to world peace like trained killer bees, radar-defeating bats, hiccup gas, suspended animation devices, and earthquake machines, the agents also worried about expense accounts, insurance policies, health plans and interdepartmental gossip.
While the series showed that heroic people had ordinary concerns, it also demonstrated that ordinary people could be heroic. During the course of each week's affair at least one civilian or "innocent" was inevitably caught up in the action. These innocents were average, everyday people--housewives, stewardesses, secretaries, librarians, school teachers, college students, tourists, even some children--people very much like those sitting in U.N.C.L.E.'s viewing audience. At the start of the story, they often complained of their boring, unexciting lives--lives to which, after all the terror and mayhem was over, they were only too happy to return.
By contrast, U.N.C.L.E.'s villains were fabulously exotic and larger than life. In addition to the usual international crime syndicates, Nazi war criminals, and power hungry dictators, U.N.C.L.E. also battled THRUSH, a secret society of mad scientists, megalomanic industrialists, and corrupt government officials who held the Nietzschean belief that because of their superior intelligence, wealth, ambition and position, they were entitled to rule the world. A number of prominent actors and actresses guest starred each week as either villains or innocents, including Joan Crawford, George Sanders, Kurt Russell, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (who appeared together pre-Star Trek in "The Project Strigas Affair") and Sonny and Cher.
The U.N.C.L.E. formula was so successful that it spawned a host of imitators, including a spin-off of its own, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. in 1966. Starring Stephanie Powers as female agent April Dancer and Noel Harrison (son of Rex) as her British sidekick, Mark Slate, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. took its cue from the wild campiness of the then-popular Batman rather than from its parent show. Although it featured many of the same elements of Man, including a specially designed gun and other advanced weaponry and the super-secret headquarters hidden behind an innocent tailor shop, Girl's plots were either absurdly implausible or downright silly and the series lasted only a year.
By its third season, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had also become infected by the trend toward camp and though the tone was readjusted to be more serious in the fourth season, viewers deserted the show in droves. Once in the top ten, the series dropped to sixty-fourth in the ratings and was canceled mid-season, to be replaced by Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.
This was not the end of U.N.C.L.E., however. Because of concerns about violence voiced by parent-teacher groups, the series was not widely syndicated and reruns did not appear until cable networks began to air them in the 1980s. Nevertheless, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was not forgotten. Nearly every spy program that appeared during the ensuing decades borrowed from its various motifs (naming spy organizations with an acronym has become a genre cliché,). The Scarecrow and Mrs. King expanded the premise of U.N.C.L.E.'s original pilot episode into an entire series, and even non-espionage programs as diverse as The A-Team and thirtysomething continued to make references to it. In 1983, Vaughn and McCallum reunited to play Solo and Kuryakin in a tv-movie, Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair.
-Cynthia W. Walker
Napoleon Solo........................................ Robert Vaughn
Illya Kuryakin........................................ David McCallum
Mr. Alexander Waverly.............................. Leo G. Carroll
Lisa Rogers (1967-1968).......................... Barbara Moore
Norman Felton, Sam H. Rolfe, Anthony Spinner, Boris Ingster
September 1964-December 1964 Tuesday 8:30-9:30
January 1965-September 1965 Monday 8:00-9:00
September 1965-September 1966 Friday 10:00-11:00 S
eptember 1966-September 1967 Friday 8:30-9:30
September 1967-January 1968 Monday 8:00-9:00
Anderson, Robert. The U.N.C.L.E. Tribute Book. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer, 1994.
Heitland, John. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
Javna, John. Cult TV. New York: St. Martin's, 1985.
Paquette, Brian, and Paul Howley. The Toys From U.N.C.L.E. Worchester, Massachusetts: Entertainment, 1990.
Worland, Rick. "The Cold War Mannerists: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and TV Espionage in the 1960s." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1994.