A Concise History of

‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’

May 14, 1963: Sam Rolfe presented Norman Felton with the first complete version of his format for the proposed Solo TV series —“The man's name is Napoleon Solo. He operates out of Section II (Operations and Enforcement) of an organization named U.N.C.L.E.”

After finishing his producer's chores on the 1962-63 season of The Eleventh Hour (filmed, as Solo would be, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios by Felton's company, Arena Productions), Rolfe agreed to expand the Solo format Felton had been working on for several months. Expand he did: Solo would work for U.N.C.L.E., a vast, international secret agency, clandestinely headquartered behind a block of crumbling Manhattan brownstones near the United Nations building, headed by the "lean, dry, somewhat pedantic" Mr. Allison—and engaged in deadly battle with the "ingenious, well financed, highly scientific band of men and women working under the aegis of Thrush."

It was a very large backdrop for an idea Felton had simply ad libbed at a business breakfast in October 1962. Pressed for a new series idea by an executive of the J. Walter Thompson ad agency, Felton responded with an elaborate description of a mysterious man engaged in highly confidential missions of global import. The ad man was fascinated and urged a collaboration with Ian Fleming (even though Felton had just rejected Fleming's book Thrilling Cities as the basis for a TV series). Within a week, Felton and Fleming were introduced in a New York hotel room and left to create TV's next big hit.

After three days of sightseeing, dining and procrastinating, Fleming named the mystery man Napoleon Solo, dashed off a dozen one-line plots and went home to England. Felton was left to flesh out the characters and develop a background for the stories. Nevertheless, it was Fleming who had the spy-story expertise and the name value, thanks to James Bond's recent, explosive success, and much was made of his connection with the project. Too much, in fact; Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, producers of the Bond movies, took a decidedly dim view of Fleming's “creation” of a rival spy series.

Throughout the spring of 1963, Arena negotiated for Fleming's services as series consultant and writer of story outlines. But under relentless pressure from Saltzman and Broccoli, increasingly ill with heart disease, and facing the dreaded plagiarism suit brought by producer Kevin McClory over his contribution to the writing of Thunderball, Fleming decided to withdraw completely from Solo. No amount of persuasion could change his mind, and on June 26, 1963, at his London home, Fleming handed Felton a paper giving up all his rights in any TV series featuring a character named Napoleon Solo (in exchange for the token sum of one pound). Fourteen months later, Fleming's second heart attack killed him just six weeks before the premiere of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Based on Fleming's participation and their relationship with Felton (an award-winning producer during television's “golden age” of drama before heading MGM's TV division), NBC was prepared to put Solo on the air without a pilot. Fleming's withdrawal, however, gave the network executives pause. They were still interested, but now Solo would have to submit a pilot like any other series.

Rolfe (a highly regarded movie and TV script writer who also created Have Gun, Will Travel) quickly expanded his format and story outline into a shooting script while Felton searched for the right actor to play Solo. He considered several leading-man types before offering the part to Robert Vaughn, who was already working for him playing Gary Lockwood's Marine Corps CO in The Lieutenant. Respected stage and screen actor Will Kuluva was cast as Mr. (no first name) Allison, U.N.C.L.E.'s Number 1 of Section I. And a sidekick Rolfe really hadn't given much thought to was played by a young Scottish actor recently relocated to Hollywood named David McCallum. To emphasize the international scope of his U.N.C.L.E. organization, Rolfe decided this supporting character should be Russian and named him Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin.

The pilot, titled “The Vulcan Affair,” was filmed in November (production was interrupted when news of President Kennedy's assassination reached the studio) and demonstrated much but not all that would make the series so distinctive. Every episode's title was an “Affair”; all four acts opened with an amusing subtitle that excerpted the dialogue or commented on the plot, and ended with a freeze frame that quickly defocused into a blur; transition between scenes was an eye-catching zip pan across a screen of flashing lights rather than the customary dissolve.

Viewers were introduced to U.N.C.L.E.'s secret headquarters in a terrific opening sequence (much commented on by TV critics reviewing the premiere). An assault force from Thrush enters Del Floria's Tailor Shop, a basement-level store in the middle of that block of brownstones. They quickly gas the proprietor, trip a hidden switch on his pressing machine, twist the coat hook on the wall of the dressing booth and open a secret door into the reception area of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, an early '60s ultra-modern edifice replete with chemically activated security badges, automatic sliding doors, long steel corridors, a distinctive two-toned alarm siren and Napoleon Solo stationed behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass that cracks into a striated spider web when hit by the last surviving invader's bullets (the cracking glass was such a great visual it became the first season's opening title sequence).

The pilot also introduced Felton's idea of always involving an “innocent,” an everyday, ordinary person accidentally (or sometimes deliberately) snatched from his or her humdrum life into an unforgettable adventure. Patricia Crowley played the role in the pilot, a housewife who attended college with Thrush chieftain Andrew Vulcan (played by Fritz Weaver). Solo uses her to get close enough to Vulcan to thwart the Thrush plot to take over a newly independent African nation.

The pilot did not include the two gadgets most associated with the show: the famous U.N.C.L.E. gun, an automatic pistol with built-in noise and flash suppressor that became a carbine by adding a long barrel with silencer, telescopic sight, collapsible stock and extended magazine; and the U.N.C.L.E. pocket communicator, the two-way radio disguised in a cigarette case that gave off that wonderfully odd alternating tone signal. Those were built after the show sold. (Solo did carry a small, nondescript transceiver in the pilot, but he did not use the soon to be famous phrase, “Open channel D.”)

NBC bought it, of course, even without Fleming, though his name continued to surface in connection with the series. A New York Times TV column of Jan. 26, 1964, referred in passing to Fleming's involvement in Solo's creation. Saltzman and Broccoli were livid to see Solo still promoted as a Fleming character and threatened to file suit over the name, claiming it was stolen from “Goldfinger,” which was soon to start shooting. And indeed there is a “Mr. Solo,” a Mafia boss no less, in Fleming's novel and in the movie (U.N.C.L.E. fans can still get a cheap thrill from Goldfinger's casual introduction, “Mr. Solo, Mr. Bond”).  He's obviously not Napoleon Solo, and Fleming had either forgotten or didn't care that he'd already used the surname for this minor character. Saltzman and Broccoli, however, cared a lot about their increasingly popular Bond movies. Eventually, their lawyers and MGM's agreed that Napoleon could keep his name but the show's title would have to change.

Leery of further problems, the studio began looking at other aspects of the show and decided “Thrush” sounded an awful lot like “SMERSH,” so it also had to go. The frustrated Felton and Rolfe compiled a list of ludicrous alternatives (Squid, Maggot, “Dooom” with three O’s) and briefly settled on Wasp before winning their point and retaining Thrush.

However, the series still needed a new title. U.N.C.L.E. was the obvious choice but NBC considered that “too cryptic.” And Felton was informed by a studio lawyer that, having saved his hero's and enemy's names, he now could not use “U.N.C.L.E.” because it violated a New York law against commercial exploitation of the United Nations. Felton and Rolfe protested that U.N.C.L.E. was merely an amusing code name that didn't stand for anything, though if the first two letters implied a UN connection so much the better for the show's international flavor. But the legal department insisted on a real name clearly unconnected with the United Nations. Rolfe and Felton were forced to come up with something to fit the acronym and, they thought, satisfy a few legal nitpickers. They soon arrived at an appropriately exotic name, but Felton balked when the lawyers then wanted it looped into the pilot's soundtrack. Instead he had an ingenious notion that proved to be one of the many elements that gave the show its mystique.

It's common practice in the closing credits of TV programs to thank real organizations for any technical assistance. Felton's own Dr. Kildare thanked the American Medical Association. So that no one would actually have to say this name he thought was so silly (though in fact it was eventually used in dialogue in a number of shows), Felton proposed spelling it out in a facetious title card. The lawyers reluctantly agreed, and that's why the closing titles of every episode included the straight-faced pronouncement, “We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible” (although the name is forever misquoted by leaving out “and”).

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was finally accepted as a title, something else Felton didn't care for at first (“The Man From” had been used in previous movie and TV titles but U.N.C.L.E.'s success made it popular phrasing for years). Will Kuluva bowed out and veteran actor Leo G. Carroll was cast as the head of U.N.C.L.E., re-christened Alexander Waverly and now “tweedy and absent-minded” rather than “dry and pedantic.” Rolfe signed on as producer and the show went into production in June for its fall premiere.

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1964 at 8:30 p.m. (EDT), “The Vulcan Affair” (with Carroll replacing Kuluva in scenes shot and inserted a few weeks earlier) was broadcast to little reaction. Most critics liked the opening invasion sequence but thought the show went downhill from there. Opposite ABC's McHale's Navy and the popular Red Skelton Hour on CBS, U.N.C.L.E. ran third in the timeslot and continued to do so week after week, in spite of (or maybe because of) smartly produced, cleverly written stories the likes of which American television viewers had seldom seen.

Though the series seemed doomed, NBC had more faith in U.N.C.L.E. than in two mediocre Monday night sitcoms. They were dispatched and on Jan. 11, 1965, U.N.C.L.E. began airing Mondays at 8. In this timeslot, with somewhat weaker opposition—Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and I've Got a Secret—and growing word of mouth (which Felton attributes to the college crowd discovering the show over Christmas vacation), the show slowly caught on. By spring, U.N.C.L.E. was a hit; by summer it was all the rage.

In mid-1965, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a pop-culture phenomenon, right up there with James Bond, the Beatles and Marvel Comics. Certainly it was the hottest thing on TV and the first series to gather a rabid cult following, long before Star Trek, Dark Shadows and lesser shows gained fandoms. Vaughn and McCallum were soon causing Beatles-like riots wherever they made personal appearances. Press coverage exploded, and the two actors found their lives dissected every month in the movie fanmags (before the ascendance of weekly supermarket tabloids). McCallum especially was a favorite in teen magazines alongside the latest rock stars.

Merchandisers started churning out torrents of U.N.C.L.E. toys, games, clothes, trading cards and countless other paraphernalia. Long-running series of paperback novels, comic books and pulp magazines began publishing. MGM sent out thousands of cards identifying the bearer as an U.N.C.L.E. agent, and backed a fan club called the U.N.C.L.E. Inner Circle.

Strangest of all, the United Nations—despite Felton's title card disowning the connection—fielded hundreds of apparently serious requests to become U.N.C.L.E. trainees.

The show was poised to enter its second season on a tidal wave of popularity, but a number of changes were in store that ultimately worked against the series. Surprised by its late-in-the-season explosion in popularity, NBC had not planned to renew U.N.C.L.E. and gave away its Monday timeslot. The series had to be moved to Fridays at 10 p.m., a ridiculous time for a show with such a largely youthful audience (although U.N.C.L.E. was then so popular it stayed in the Nielsen top 20, and often in the top 10, throughout its second season).

The series switched to color, along with virtually all of the network's prime-time schedule as NBC started calling itself “the full color network” (not necessarily a good move to those of us who appreciated the show's crisp black-and-white cinematography). Illya Kuryakin had become such a sensation that he and Solo would be presented as a team for the rest of the series' run, an amazing leap for a character who didn't even appear in several early episodes and had only a few scenes in others. And the cigarette case communicator was soon replaced by the better remembered but far less believable fountain pen.

Many of the show's unique touches remained—the act titles, the flash pan, the sexy female announcer (that was cartoon voice-artist June Foray gushing, “We'll return to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. following station identification”). A major change was the story opening with a teaser before the main titles, which were reduced to just the credits over the world map, dropping the bullet-proof glass sequence.

The biggest and most damaging changes were behind the scenes. Sam Rolfe departed for new projects and his shoes proved impossible to fill. Felton called in David Victor, who had been producing Dr. Kildare, and they made a fateful decision: in the second season everything about U.N.C.L.E. would be amusing. And depending on who wrote them, some episodes were very amusing, entertaining, fast-paced, clever, light, breezy romps. But they were not the first-season U.N.C.L.E.s we knew and loved, shows that so deftly balanced improbability with plausibility. The one truly outstanding new contribution in the second season was the music composed by Gerald Fried and Robert Drasnin, innovative, jazz-based scores unlike any written for television before or since.

Victor soon moved up to supervising producer for all of Arena's series and Mort Abrahams stepped in to produce some more clever, amusing episodes. He in turn was replaced by Boris Ingster, a 30-year veteran screenwriter and director. Under Ingster, the show's humor spun out of control and any attempt to keep one foot in the real world went out the window.

U.N.C.L.E. and other shows that traded in tongue-in-cheek humor with their adventure were badly influenced by the huge and immediate success of Batman following its premiere in January 1966. Networks pressured producers to emulate the preposterous “camp” approach that seemed to work so well for the caped crusader. So U.N.C.L.E.'s later second-season episodes featured farcical adventures with a Thrush agent who thinks he's Dracula and plans to unleash his trained bats on the world, and Solo being trailed through Manhattan by a cigar-store wooden Indian. And that, unfortunately, was only the beginning.

One of the better episodes that spring also portended things to come. On Feb. 25, NBC aired “The Moonglow Affair,” a story that sidelined Solo and Kuryakin in the teaser, forcing Waverly to team a rookie female agent named April Dancer (played by Mary Ann Mobley) with a slightly over-the-hill veteran named Mark Slate (Norman Fell). NBC started asking for a spin-off the moment they realized U.N.C.L.E. was a smash, so “Moonglow” was produced as the pilot for a “Lady from U.N.C.L.E.” series. “April Dancer” was, in fact, another Ian Fleming creation; that was the name he gave Solo's secretary in his sketchy outline for the show.

NBC bought The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (again possibly influenced by Batman; if that show could air two top-rated episodes every week, why not two U.N.C.L.E.s?). But the network insisted on cast changes. Stefanie Powers took the April Dancer role, and Mark Slate was played by unknown singer-actor Noel Harrison, son of famous stage and film star Rex Harrison. Leo G. Carroll now appeared on both shows as Mr. Waverly.

Girl aired Tuesdays at 7:30 beginning Sept. 13, 1966, and was a disaster from beginning to end. No one had a clue to the direction the series should take and scripts wandered alarmingly between farcical comedy and insipid melodrama, with the “camp” curse usually prevailing. Powers' portrayal of April was generally haughty and obnoxious. Slate had shaggy hair and mod clothes, the producers apparently hoping he would somehow emerge a Carnaby Street Kuryakin.

Man returned for a third season Sept. 16, now airing Fridays at 8:30. Camp not only continued but grew in shows that were, for viewers who had been with the series since the first season, truly painful to watch. Ridiculous gadgets, ludicrous plots and cheap production values reigned. The top-level guest stars of the first two years were replaced by less expensive second-string actors, comics such as Shelley Berman, Jan Murray and Bill Dana, and gimmick-casting with the likes of Sonny and Cher. The series reached its nadir with something called “The My Friend The Gorilla Affair” in which the supporting cast consisted of a female Tarzan in a leopard skin and a man in an ape suit.

Not too surprisingly, the ratings dropped. Girl was cancelled and Man was in danger but won a fourth-season renewal. NBC returned the show to Mondays at 8. Felton sent Ingster and the campy approach packing. Anthony Spinner, who had written a mildly interesting first-season episode, was named producer and charged with returning the show to international adventure and suspense with humorous overtones. The season opened on Sept. 11, 1967, with “The Summit-Five Affair” revisiting some of Rolfe's elaborate U.N.C.L.E. lore in a plot to destroy the organization at a meeting between Waverly and the other four men who made up the Policy department of Section I. The episodes that followed were exciting, fast-moving, globe-girdling adventures, but were oddly lacking in humor (and fourth-season writers for some reason were unable to smoothly introduce the “innocent” into their stories). Spinner's U.N.C.L.E. was obviously influenced by Mission: Impossible, which had premiered in September 1966 and, with its quiet suspense and dense plots, had become a critics' darling and a big Emmy winner, badly showing up U.N.C.L.E.'s campy approach to spy adventure.

While longtime fans were relieved that Solo and Kuryakin were no longer engaged in sheer buffoonery, a virtually humorless U.N.C.L.E. still wasn't quite right. Casual viewers must have been confused by the abrupt switch from broad humor to grim-faced melodrama. Though the show had thrived in the Monday timeslot in 1965, CBS now had the top-ten rated Gunsmoke on Mondays and U.N.C.L.E. was killed in the Nielsens. The show had not been helped by the many changes in timeslots and tone (U.N.C.L.E. changed directions more than any TV series ever produced, from fairly straight adventure in its first months, to tongue-in-cheek adventure, then to light-hearted humorous adventure, then farcical, campy comedy, then back to straight adventure). After filming 16 episodes, the series was on production hiatus in November when NBC announced it would not pick up the show for the rest of the season. This time, U.N.C.L.E. failed to win the reprieve that three years earlier saved it from an ignominious mid-season cancellation.

On Jan. 15, 1968, NBC aired the second half of “The Seven Wonders of the World Affair” and after three-and-a-half years and 105 episodes (plus 29 Girl adventures), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. vanished into TV history.  Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In premiered in the timeslot the following week and Leo G. Carroll appeared long enough to become one of the first people to utter the immortal phrase, “Sock it to me.” The spy trend U.N.C.L.E. had done so much to create was ending and the TV cycle turned to other things.

But U.N.C.L.E. kept its devoted fans all these years and to the audience at large it's one of those fondly remembered '60s series cherished by the TV generation. A revival was rumored all through the '70s but a few half-hearted attempts came to nothing until 1983 when, at the height of a new trend for old TV show reunions, CBS (not NBC) aired the made-for-TV movie, “The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” It was a woefully misbegotten effort that failed utterly to recreate any memorable aspect of the series (neither Felton nor Rolfe were involved in the production). The film's pin-headed subtitle, “The Fifteen Years Later Affair,” says it all.

But 30 years later, a feature film version is in pre-production, 44 episodes have been released on video, the paperbacks have been reissued, new comic books are planned, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. lives on.

[As the last paragraph indicates, this story was written in 1994 as part of the liner notes for a proposed U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack that was never produced. Since then, a feature film has been more or less in perpetual pre-production, the entire series is available on DVD, and no less than four original soundtrack albums have been released.]