HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Before the original "Star Trek", before "The Avengers" with John Steed and Emma Peel, the hour-long adult dramatic TV series that stoked my kid-blood in the flames of fanaticism was "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."  How intense was my devotion to it?  I'll put it this way--it was 1964, and this show gave me roughly the same kind of supercharged excitement as Beatlemania.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, a 10-disc DVD set from Warner Home Video, features all 29 of the original black-and-white episodes that had all of us "Unckies" (a nickname given to fans of the show which I made up just now) glued to our sets week after week. 

For that brief, exciting period of time, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum ("N.C.I.S.") seemed like just about the coolest guys on TV.  To me, anyway.  Vaughn was in his best shape ever and could actually act--his "Napoleon Solo" isn't only cool, tough, quick with the one-liners, and irresistible to women, but he's a nice guy who shows real emotion and even gets noticeably scared when he's in a tight situation. 

McCallum's blond, somewhat more reserved Russian agent, "Illya Kuryakin", was the perfect foil for Solo.  I could never quite decide which one of them I wanted to be the most.  I think female fans at the time leaned toward the cuter, more sensitive Illya, although both Vaughn and McCallum hosted the teen music show "Hullabaloo" on separate occasions. 

(A beaming Vaughn crooned the more traditional "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad" as his opening number, surrounded by Vegas-type dancing girls, while a pensive, black-turtlenecked McCallum talk-sang his way through "Agent Double-O-Soul.")

The show itself was a wildly popular international hit and one of the first spy series on television, spawning several imitators and one classic spoof, "Get Smart!" 

At that age I wasn't allowed to watch James Bond movies yet.  Heck, there were only three of them anyway--the third, GOLDFINGER, came out shortly after "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." premiered.  So this was my mainline to the world of cool secret agent stuff, which was all the rage at the time.  It was even conceived with some input from Bond creator Ian Fleming, who featured a character named "Solo" in GOLDFINGER.  (U.N.C.L.E.'s main nemesis, "THRUSH", is inspired by SPECTRE of the Bond universe.)

As enforcement agents of U.N.C.L.E. ("United Network Command for Law and Enforcement"), a secret multinational good-guy organization, Solo and Kuryakin solve "political and legal" problems around the globe--ones which are appropriately scaled down to television size just as their thrilling exploits and action-packed adventures are small-screen facsimiles of 007's.

Even their headquarters, hidden behind a tailor shop in New York City, is cool, with all the modern technology (modern then, anyway, but now charmingly retro), I.D. badges, and gorgeous female agents who all seem to have something going on the side with Napoleon Solo. 

As the droll and unflappable U.N.C.L.E. chief Mr. Waverly, Leo G. Carroll pretty much carries over his similar role from Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST and plays it just as well.  (I love the scene where Mr. Waverly orders Solo to report any attempts on his life--"unless," he adds dryly, "they're successful.")

The stories vary wildly from relatively mundane, meat-and-potatoes domestic spy stuff, as in the premiere episode "The Vulcan Affair" with Fritz Weaver and Patricia Crowley, to tales with elements of the lurid sci-fi flicks of the 50s--"The Deadly Games Affair", for example, is about no less than the resurrection of Adolph Hitler by mad scientist Dr. Volp (Alexander Scourby) in his basement laboratory, with the help of a complete blood transfusion from the bound Napoleon Solo!

"The Girls of Nazarone Affair", one of my favorites from season one, features a secret formula designed to instantly heal gunshot wounds and other injuries, which is sought after by enigmatic THRUSH agent Dr. Egret (Marian McCargo) and her deadly blondes (including an up-and-coming Sharon Tate).    

At other times, our heroes engage in Bond-like "invade the impregnable fortress" efforts which, as in "The Iowa-Scuba Affair", are economically achieved with the deft use of very limited sets.  The agents' globetrotting adventures ("The King of Knaves Affair", "The Terbuf Affair", et al.) are similarly confined to the studio backlot and augmented by stock footage. 

The many gadgets which seemed so cutting edge in 1964 are still retro fun, such as the clunky transistor-radio-sized communicators (into which Solo intones the familiar "Open channel D"), a cigarette-case insta-camera, room-sized computers with data cards, and some sleek-looking weaponry that the luckier kids got toy versions of for Christmas.  (I had a camera that turned into a German Luger.)

One charming aspect of these plots is how often Solo and Kuryakin engage the help of civilians who serve as our vicarious surrogates, including the delightful Sue Ane Langdon in "The Shark Affair", the aforementioned Patricia Crowley as an adventurous housewife, and McCallum's then-wife Jill Ireland (the future Mrs. Charles Bronson) reluctantly joining in the action in "The Quadripartite Affair." 

The first season features a wonderful array of other guest stars and character actors: Tura Satana, James Doohan, Kurt Russell, Luciana Paluzzi, Susan Oliver, Slim Pickens, William Marshall, Ivan Dixon, Anne Francis, Richard Anderson, Robert Culp, Brooke Bundy, Carroll O'Connor, Joan O'Brien, Sharon Farrell, Senta Berger, Jennifer Billingsley, Harold Gould, Michelle Carey, Peggy Ann Garner, Sheila MacRae, Woodrow Parfrey, Narda Onyx, Bill Hickman, Gene Roth, Henry Jones, Jeremy Slate, Marta Kristen, and Ricardo Montalban.

Also appearing: June Lockhart, Arlene Martel, Madlyn Rhue, Michael Forest, Rex Holman, Joanna Moore, Ken Murray, Madge Blake, Richard Haydn, Peter Haskell, Lee Meriwether, Pat Harrington Jr., Reggie Nalder, Antoinette Bower, Malachi Throne, Lloyd Bochner, Alfred Ryder,  Elsa Lanchester, Yvonne Craig, Nancy Kovack, Glenn Corbett, Gavin MacLeod, Richard Kiel, Karen Sharpe, Lilyan Chauvin, Barbara Feldon, Caesar Romero, Eddie Albert, Antony Carbone, George Sanders, Jeanette Nolan, Bonnie Franklin, Martin Balsam, and Barbara Shelley.

"Star Trek" stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both appear in "The Project Strigas Affair." Meg Wyllie, who was one of the large-domed, effeminate aliens in the Trek pilot "The Cage", plays a comical landlady in "The Shark Affair."

Another favorite episode, "The Double Affair", in which a Thrush agent is transformed through plastic surgery into a dead ringer for Solo, was one of several episodes pasted together into makeshift movies (with new footage added) for theatrical release--in this case resulting in the movie-length adventure THE SPY WITH MY FACE.  Some of the directors involved with the series include Richard Donner, Marc Daniels, Vincent McEveety, Joseph Sargent, and John Newland.

I quit watching the show when it switched to color as most TV shows were doing in the mid-60s, because those garish pastels suddenly made it look cheap and chintzy rather than sleek and noirish.  The scripts gradually seemed to follow suit after the colorful campiness of the Adam West "Batman" series became so popular.  (To make things worse, the original opening titles sequence was dropped and the theme music badly altered to resemble that of "Mission: Impossible.")

But THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON contains everything I loved about the show in pure, undiluted form--from that classic opening (a shadowy figure in a corridor fires his pistol at Solo as he stands behind a web-cracking pane of bulletproof glass), to that brassy Jerry Goldsmith theme that always got my heart racing, to all the little production flourishes (swish pans, freeze-frame/dissolve transitions) and modern sensibilities that made the show seem fresh and hip for its time.

Buy it at the
Street date: Aug. 4, 2015
While stills are in color, DVD episodes are in black-and-white

(Original full screen format, Dolby English mono sound, English subtitles, paper episode guide insert, no extras)


The Vulcan Affair
The Iowa-Scuba Affair
The Quadripartite Affair

The Shark Affair
The Deadly Games Affair
The Green Opal Affair

The Giuoco Piano Affair
The Double Affair
The Project Strigas Affair

The Finny Foot Affair
The Neptune Affair
The Dove Affair

The King of Knaves Affair
The Terbuf Affair
The Deadly Decoy Affair

The Fiddlesticks Affair
The Yellow Scarf Affair
The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair

The Secret Sceptre Affair
The Bow-Wow Affair
The Four-Steps Affair

The See-Paris-And-Die Affair
The Brain-Killer Affair
The Hong Kong Shilling Affair

The Never-Never Affair
The Love Affair
The Gazebo in the Maze Affair

The Girls of Nazarone Affair
The Odd Man Affair

Read our review of Season Two


1 comment:

robert short said...

Loved the review. Please join your fellow UNCLE fans at the UNCLE Inner Circle FB group.