I am planning to see the cinematic version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. this weekend, but I am not planning on enjoying it very much.
Although I had long heard of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I never saw an episode until last fall. It can be seen on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. EST on the retro cable station Me TV following Columbo (which I promise to write about one of these days). I don’t what made me tune in, but now I can’t get enough. To give you an idea of how much I have come to like watching those two shows back to back, I have been doing something I thought I would never do — not watching ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.
For the uninitiated, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the brainchild of Norman Felton, who was inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and movies. Indeed, Felton tried to collaborate with Fleming on this project without success. Undeterred, Felton carried on and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted on NBC on September 22, 1964.
The show starred Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo), David McCallum (Illya Kuryakin), and Leo G. Carroll (Alexander Waverly). U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command of Law Enforcement, an international spy agency in which the United States and Britain joined forces with the Soviet Union to fight the evil T.H.R.U.S.H. Although it was never revealed during the series what the T.H.R.U.S.H. acronym meant, it is believed it stands for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity. Whatever T.H.R.U.S.H. stood for, it was a novel concept to have an American and a Soviet agent fighting side by side at the height of the Cold War. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would remain on the air for three and a half seasons until its cancellation in January 1968.
Originally intended as a starring vehicle for Vaughn, the brief presence of McCallum in the pilot episode was enough to send female fans into a frenzy, compelling the show’s producers to make Vaughn and McCallum a tandem. Although Vaughn retained top billing, McCallum was more popular. Indeed, there was a time in the mid-1960s when McCallum was described as “the fifth Beatle” or “the blond Beatle.” Perhaps The Men From U.N.C.L.E., would have been a more apt title, but it wouldn’t have sounded nearly as cool.
The seriesbecame a TV sensation. It was so popular that it even spawned a spin-off called The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. starring Stefanie Powers, Noel Harrison, and Carroll pulling double duty as Waverly. Unfortunately, Powers’ April Dancer had nothing on Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers and the series was cancelled after one season.
The failure of The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. demonstrated that the key to the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the chemistry between Vaughn and McCallum. Vaughn’s Solo was suave, sophisticated, and at ease in all situations while McCallum’s Kuryakin was more brooding, darker, with a dry sense of humor. Consider this exchange from the Season 2 episode “The Waverly Ring Affair” after Kuryakin has rescued Solo from a certain fiery death:
Solo: Where were you all this time?
Kuryakin: Trying to read your smoke signals. They’re even more illegible than your handwriting.
Although the two would get on each other’s case and the U.S.-Soviet schism would occasionally rear its ugly head, it was clear there was a deep respect between the two men.
Nearly half a century since The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was canceled, both Vaughn and McCallum are alive, well and still acting in their early 80s. In recent years, Vaughn has spent most of his time in the U.K. working on stage and on the small screen while McCallum has become known to a new generation of viewers as Dr. “Ducky” Mallard on the long running CBS show N.C.I.S.
As such it boggles the mind as to why Guy Ritchie, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay for the big screen version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., didn’t see fit to invite Vaughn or McCallum to make a cameo (Carroll, who played the British section chief Alexander Waverly, died in 1972). Even if they had turned down the opportunity, as McCallum indicated he would have, Ritchie still should have approached them as a matter of courtesy and respect.
The cinematic adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stars Henry Cavill as Solo, Armie Hammer as Kuryakin, and Hugh Grant as Waverly. Cavill and Hammer are best known for playing Superman in The Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger in the disastrous 2013 remake of the TV series, respectively. Hugh Grant is, of course, best known for a misspent evening on Sunset Boulevard. It is interesting to see Grant, who will turn 55 next month, now being cast in older man roles.
Cavill was actually the third actor cast as Solo. The role originally went to George Clooney, but he had to back out of the role due to a back injury. He would be replaced by Tom Cruise, but he eventually decided to do another installment of Mission: Impossible. I’m glad he backed out. It’s bad enough Cruise has already ruined one great TV series.
It has been said that the big screen version will focus on how Solo and Kuryakin became partners. In the TV series, their partnership has been long forged and neither man is given any biography to speak of. For his part, McCallum has viewed a screening of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.and has praised Ritchie and Hammer and proclaimed that he has “completely fallen in love” with the female lead Alicia Vikander.
I’m sure the film will be full of fight and chase scenes, scantily clad women and CGI. If one watches enough episodes of the original series, it is clear that they are using the same set whether the episode is based in South America or in Alaska. The special effects are primitive and the fight scenes utilize stunt doubles who scarcely resemble Vaughn or McCallum. Yet if given the choice, I’ll take the real men from U.N.C.L.E. every time.
Aside from the chemistry between Vaughn and McCallum there is also a who’s who of actors who appeared on the show. Many of them made these appearances before achieving greater fame. These include but are not limited to Robert Culp, a very young Kurt Russell, Carroll O’Connor, Lee Meriwether, NFL superstar Rosey Grier, Gavin McLeod, Richard Kiel, Rip Torn, Cesar Romero, Martin Balsam, Barbara Feldon (before she was cast as Agent 99 on another ’60s TV spy classic Get Smart) and Jill Ireland (who was married to McCallum at the time).
But a couple of guest appearances stand out. When I watched the introduction of the Season 1 episode “The Project Strigas Affair,” it featured a pre-Star Trek William Shatner as a scientific genius. What I wasn’t expecting was the appearance of Leonard Nimoy as a bumbling Russian diplomat. When my roommate and I saw Shatner and Nimoy together on screen, we had our minds blown. This episode also offered something for fans of Hogan’s Heroes with an appearance by Colonel Klink himself, Werner Klemperer.
The other guest appearance that stands out does so for far sadder reasons. The Season 1 episode “The Girls of Nazarone Affair”featured Sharon Tate playing one of several female T.H.R.U.S.H. agents after a potion that enables one to recover from serious injuries in an instant. On a couple of occasions, Tate and the other female T.H.R.U.S.H. agents overpower Solo and Kuryakin, although they don’t seem to mind this terribly. A little over four years after this episode aired, Tate, her unborn child, and three other people were murdered by the Manson Family. Many years later, Vaughn would remember Tate as the “the most beautiful girl that ever appeared on the show” and, for good measure, “dumbfoundingly attractive.” Watching this episode is a painful reminder of what could have been.
But The Man from U.N.C.L.E. brings more smiles than frowns. Its enduring appeal rests with Vaughn and McCallum. Although their characters came from worlds apart, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are every bit as iconic and inseparable as the Lone Ranger and Tonto and Batman and Robin.
From where I sit the bar has been set very high this weekend. I doubt the movie will meet my expectations. But even if it doesn’t it isn’t such a bad thing. If movie viewers like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., then perhaps they will be left wanting more. In which case, they might tune in on Sunday night at 10 p.m.