Monday, 22 September 2014

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Turns 50

It will be 50 years ago tonight that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. debuted on NBC. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proved to be a veritable phenomenon, easily the biggest television fad of the Sixties outside of Batman. It was also historic as the first American show in the spy craze of the Sixties. In fact, it would largely be responsible for inspiring further spy shows on American television, to the point that it was hard to find a night of the week when there weren't spies on the small screen.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. centred on two agents for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (the U.N.C.L.E. of the title): charming, sophisticated Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and quiet, intellectual Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum). The two reported to Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. (played by Leo G. Carroll).  Although they battled other opponents in the course of the show, U.N.C.L.E.'s primary opposition came in the form of the criminal organisation THRUSH, a group bent on world domination.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began in the mind of television producer Norman Felton. It was in 1961 that Mr. Felton had enormous success with Dr. Kildare. For his next show Mr. Felton looked to the spy films of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, in particular the director's recent hit North by Northwest (1959). Eventually Norman Felton decided that the time was right for a new kind of hero beyond the various cowboys, detectives, doctors, and lawyers who had filled American television screens up to that time. Quite simply, America was ready for spies.

While The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would take inspiration from Hitchcock's espionage films, the works of Ian Fleming would lead to the TV show after a fashion.  At the time the Ashley-Famous talent agency represented Norman Felton and his company Arena Productions. The agency had decided to consider Ian Fleming's travel book Thrilling Cities as possible inspiration for a TV series. In Thrilling Cities Mr. Fleming examined thirteen different cities that he had visited. The head of the Ashley-Famous, Ted Ashley, brought the book to the attention of Norman Felton and arranged a meeting between Mr. Felton and representatives of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and the Ford Motor Company. Ultimately Norman Felton did not think Thrilling Cities would make for a very good television show, and instead interested them in his idea for a tongue in cheek spy series. It was Jack Ball of J. Walter Thompson who brought up Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, of which Norman Felton had heard, but with which he was not familiar. It was Mr. Ball who suggested to Norman Felton that he try to develop his new spy show with Ian Fleming.

Norman Felton met with Ian Fleming and ultimately Ian Fleming developed a few ideas regarding the series. It was Mr. Fleming who provided the show's hero with his name, Napoleon Solo, although his character of Solo would differ a good deal from that which eventually emerged on the small screen. Like James Bond, Napoleon Solo would flirt with his superior's secretary, who was named "April Dancer". While the secretary "April Dancer" would ultimately not appear on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the name would be used for a character related to the show (as detailed below). In the end this would be the only real work Ian Fleming would get to do on what would become The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Eon Productions, the producers of the Bond movies, objected to Mr. Fleming's involvement with the prospective TV show and he had to leave the project.

To further develop the prospective TV show Norman Felton then brought in Sam Rolfe, the co-creator of the critically acclaimed Western Have Gun-Will Travel who had written for such series as Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone. Mr. Rolfe jettisoned most of Ian Fleming's ideas, instead drawing upon an old idea he had for a show entitled St. George and the Dragon. It was Sam Rolfe who created the international organisation known as U.N.C.L.E. and the character of Napoleon Solo's partner Illya Kuryakin. He also created the original head of U.N.C.LE., Mr. Allison. In the original pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Mr. Allison was played by Will Kuluva. After viewing the original pilot an NBC executive suggested to Norman Felton that he cut one of the secondary actors whose name started with a "K". Norman Felton thought the executive meant Will Kuluva, who was then dismissed from the series. Sam Rolfe then created a new head of U.N.C.L.E., Alexander Waverly, who was played by Leo G. Carroll. Mr. Carroll had previously played another spymaster, The Professor, in the film North by Northwest. Will Kuluva's scenes were then re-shot with Mr. Carroll as Alexander Waverly. As it turned out, NBC did not want Will Kuluva cut from the show, but instead Illya Kuryakin, a move that would have been a big mistake given the role Illya Kuryakin would play in the show's success.

Leo G. Carroll would not be the only thing that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would inherit from North by Northwest. The plot of North by Northwest involved an ordinary person who becomes involved with spies. Norman Felton then proposed that each week feature an innocent person who would become entangled in the adventures of Napoleon Solo. Over the course of the show's run actors from Pat Crowley to William Shatner to Shari Lewis played "innocents" in episodes of the show.

Here it must be pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was not inspired by the success of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. Dr. No premiered in the United Kingdom on 5 October 1962 and would not premiere in the United States until May 1963. Development on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began in the autumn of 1962, so that the film's success played little role in the creation of the show. That having been said, once the show was on the air there can be no doubt that the success of the Bond movies helped The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a good deal.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. debuted at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Central on Tuesday, 22 September 1964 to mixed reviews. Writing in TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory panned the show. In the review for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in Variety the complaint was made about "The fact that you couldn't tell if they were playing it for satire or for real." In The Hollywood Reporter Bill Ornstein offered a much more positive review, and drew comparisons to the Saturday matinee serials of old. While critics were mixed in their reviews of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the audience seemed to be staying away from it in droves. The initial ratings for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were extremely low. In fact, the ratings were so low that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. did not appear on NBC's preliminary schedule for the 1965-1966 fall season issued in December 1964 .

Fortunately a number of factors would lead to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. becoming not only an hit, but an outright phenomenon. Among these was a publicity campaign launched by the producers of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in order to save the show. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were sent on an extensive tour of twenty four American cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans, and St. Louis. Promotional spots were even filmed for local stations, often using familiar landmarks in the stations' viewing areas.

Another factor in the transformation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from a low rated show into a smash hit may well have been the premiere of the third James Bond movie, Goldfinger, in the United States in December 1964. Goldfinger proved to be the most successful Bond movie up to that time and helped spur the growing spy craze in the United States. For Americans hungry for more adventures featuring spies it would have been natural for them to turn to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on NBC.

While the publicity campaign to save The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the success of Goldfinger played their roles in saving the show, it could well have been NBC moving it to a new time slot that helped turn it into a hit more than anything else . In its original time slot The Man from U.N.C.L.E. aired opposite two high rated shows: The Red Skelton Hour on CBS and McHale's Navy on ABC. Indeed, The Red Skelton Hour ranked #6 in the ratings for the 1964-1965 season. Effective 11 January 1965 NBC moved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Monday night at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 PM Central where its only real competition was on CBS (the high rated To Tell a Secret and The Andy Griffith Show). In the new time slot not only did The Man from U.N.C.L.E. get better ratings. It became a smash hit. Indeed, by the end of January The Man from U.N.C.L.E. drew in 20 million viewers each week.

Ultimately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became the biggest television fad of the Sixties besides Batman (which would debut two years later).  Much of the show's popularity centred not on Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo, but instead on David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. Kuryakin was initially meant to be a minor character on the show, only helping out Solo from time to time. As it turned out, however, Kuryakin proved popular with teenage girls and young women, so that he was very quickly promoted to Solo's full time partner. Eventually Illya Kuryakin would become so popular that, according to an article in The Boston Globe, David McCallum received more fan mail than any actor in the history of MGM.

Given the success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. there should be no surprise that there was a ton of merchandise related to the show. Gilbert made action figures of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Aurora issued model kits based on the show. Thermos put out a Man from U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox. There were also trading cards, board games, arcade games, and much more. There was even a series of novels written by  David McDaniel (it was there that it was revealed that THRUSH stood for the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity).

In addition to the various merchandise, there were The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature films. These films were not original movies based on the TV show like the 1966 Batman movie, but instead episodes with new footage added. And while the first season episodes aired on television in black and white, the feature film versions were shown in colour. Both  To Trap a Spy (based on the pilot episode "The Vulcan Affair") and The Spy with My Face (based on "The Double Affair") were released in the United States, although later Man from U.N.C.L.E. films would be only be released abroad due to complaints from theatre goers paying for something that they felt they had already seen. The other Man from U.N.C.L.E. films were: One of Our Spies is Missing (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), The Karate Killers (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1968), and How to Steal the World (1968).

The success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would even lead to a spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. The backdoor pilot for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was the second season Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Moonglow Affair", which  featured Mary Ann Mobley as agent April Dancer (as mentioned earlier, a name created by Ian Fleming) and Norman Fell as her older partner Mark Slate. The lead roles would be recast for the regular series, with Stefanie Powers cast as April Dancer and Noel Harrison (considerably younger than Norman Fell) cast as Mark Slate. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was not well received by either critics or viewers and left the air after only a single season.

Sadly the success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would not last. While the show did very well in its second season (it ranked #13 for the year in the ratings), it faltered in its third season. Much of this may have been due to a shift in tone in the series. For its first two seasons, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a serious adventure series, albeit one with fantastic adventures and one played with tongue deftly in cheek. With its third season, however, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shifted to entire episodes that were played purely for laughs. Many have blamed The Girl from U.N.C.L.E for the change in tone of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., although this does not appear to have been the case. A few purely humorous episodes began to creep into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. late in its second season. And while The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. began its single season as a somewhat serious, if tongue in cheek spy show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. started off its third season almost immediately with episodes containing a good deal of comedic content.

It is difficult to say why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shifted from a tongue in cheek adventure show to outright (and often poorly done) comedy is hard to say,  but it could well  have been due to the success of the TV show Batman. Batman debuted in January 1966 on ABC and soon proved to be a phenomenon in its own right. Batman had a deliberately camp style, playing the adventures of the Dynamic Duo for laughs. With Batman a huge success, it seems possible that NBC decided to emulate its success by incorporating a large dose of comedy into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If that was the case, their plan backfired. What worked so well for Batman (which is considered a classic to this day) did not work so well for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  It is perhaps significant that just as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. went "camp" it began losing viewers in droves.

In an effort to save The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the show was returned to a more serious tone for its fourth season. It also returned to Monday night after spending its past two seasons on Friday night Unfortunately it would not be enough to save the show. Its ratings did not improve and it was cancelled at mid-season. The last original Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode aired on 15 January 1968.

Fortunately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would not disappear from television screens forever. The show went immediately into syndication where it would have some success. Over the years the show has aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network (the forerunner of the Family Channel), TBS, and the  American Life TV Network. It is currently airing on ME-TV. On 21 August 2008 the entire run of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was released on DVD.

The continued success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would lead to a reunion television movie in 1983. The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen-Years-Later Affair aired on CBS on 5 April 1983 and reunited Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. Leo G. Carroll having died, the new head of U.N.C.L.E. was Sir John Raleigh played by Patrick Macnee (best known as John Steed on another hit Sixties spy show, The Avengers). 

Although it only lasted three and a half seasons, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would prove to be one of the most influential shows of the Sixties. Alongside the James Bond movies it was largely responsible for spurring the spy craze on American television during the decade. In 1964 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the only spy show on the air. By 1966 the network schedules were filled with espionage series, including both original American series and British imports (such as The Avengers). What is more, spies would figure in episodes of sitcoms ranging from Gilligan's Island to The Monkees. The impact of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would even go beyond television. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was directly responsible for inspiring the Marvel Comics feature "Nick Fury, Agent of  S.H.I.E.L.D.", first published in Strange Tales #135 (August 1965).  S.H.I.E.L.D. would soon become an integral part of the Marvel Universe and would even inspire its own TV show (Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D. currently on ABC).

The spy craze started by the Bond movies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would last until around 1967 when it finally came to an end. In the years during which the spy craze lasted, however, it produced such shows as Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, and Mission: Impossible. While many of these shows might have made it to the air had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never debuted, it seems likely that they might not have survived had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. not proven successful.

It must also be pointed out that the style of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would have a lasting impact on American television. Part of the series' style was in its transitions between scenes, in which a whip pan was used to simulate someone rapidly moving through a bunch of pictures. These transitions were imitated on other series, most notably Batman (in which a spinning transition with the Bat-symbol was used). The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was also one of the first series to identify its settings with superimposed captions. For instance, there might be a shot of the United States Capital and the caption would read "Somewhere in Washington D. C." This device has been used on many series since, one of the most recent being The X-Files (which not only identified the place, but the time of day as well).

Fifty years later The Man from U.N.C.L.E. continues to be popular. In fact, a feature film based on the show, starring  Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill, is set to be released next year. Much of its continued success may be due to its place in television history. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the first hit espionage show on American television and one that started the whole cycle towards spy shows on the networks in the Sixties. It also became a phenomenon in its own right, with a ton of merchandising associated with the show. In fact, it was probably the second largest television fad of the Sixties, surpassed only by Batman. Of course, its continued popularity is also likely due to the fact that it was a well done show. During its first two seasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a well written adventure series with tongue in cheek humour. It was also a very stylish show, its episodes having the look of a feature film. Indeed, the show was so novel and so unique when it debuted that many critics did not know quite what to make of it.  Even today, fifty years after its debut, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains as fresh and as original as ever.

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