Synopsis by Hal Erickson
Though not the first of TV's international-espionage series, NBC's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was one of the most successful -- and, by virtue of its September 22, 1964, debut date, the first series of its kind to directly benefit from the popularity of the earliest James Bond films starring Sean Connery. Indeed, series producer Norman Felton had approached Bond creator Ian Fleming to help with the development of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but when the producers of the Bond films found this out, they obliged Fleming to withdraw from the project (as it turned out, Fleming died before the NBC series ever saw the light of day). The series was originally titled Solo, in honor of its protagonist, American secret agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn). The story goes that the James Bond movie producers nixed this as well, citing the fact that one of the secondary villains in the 1964 Bond flick Goldfinger was also named Solo. However, one suspects that producer Felton decided on the title change when it became clear that "his" Solo wasn't going to be the "solo" star of the series: sharing billing with Vaughn was David McCallum as Russian-born spy Illya Kuryakin, who had initially been conceived as a minor character but whose importance grew apace as filming on the first season progressed. Both Illya and Napoleon Solo worked for the top-secret organization U.N.C.L.E., which stood for The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. (Although entirely fictional, U.N.C.L.E. was given a special "acknowledgement" at the end of each episode, with the series' producers puckishly declaring that "without [U.N.C.L.E.]'s assistance this program would not be possible.") The headquarters for this international counterespionage agency were located in New York City, just behind a dry-cleaning shop (Della Floria's) which served as the agency's cover. Taking their orders from their superior officer Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), armed with the latest in Bond-like gadgetry and weaponry, and maintaining communication with the home office by way of a tiny radio disguised as a fountain pen ("Open Channel D"), Solo and Illya traveled all over the world to fight the good fight against a wide variety of colorful villains, most of whom were in the employ of the international crime-and-terrorism organization THRUSH. After a lukewarm start in a Tuesday-evening slot, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. enjoyed a huge ratings surge when it moved to Mondays halfway through season one. The first 29 hour-long episodes, filmed in black-and-white, were fairly straightforward and serious, albeit with a slyly satirical undercurrent. In many of the earliest episodes, the U.N.C.L.E. agents would enlist the aid of an "average citizen" to do battle against the forces of THRUSH. Not surprisingly, a number of these "civilians" were attractive young ladies, though there were a few middle-aged spinsters and gormless young men in the mixture as well. The series switched to color and a Friday-night slot for its second season, at which time the plots became less sober and more humorous, and many of the "normal" people temporarily engaged to help the good guys were decidedly on the eccentric side. The influence of the campy adventure series Batman pervaded The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s third season, with the villains more flamboyant and the plots more outrageous than ever. (Also this season, the series spawned a spin-off, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., which was often so over the top that it looked like a spoof of a spoof!) Suffering from ever-diminishing ratings, Man From U.N.C.L.E. dropped its campiness and radically lowered its laugh quotient for its fourth season, reverting to the seriousness and (comparative) realism of the series' first season. Also, in keeping up to date with recent real-life developments in the world of espionage, the U.N.C.L.E. headquarters were totally redesigned and equipped with the latest of computer technology. Unfortunately, the series' viewership had dropped to an all-time low, and on January 15, 1968, it was canceled, replaced by NBC's new comedy-variety series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. For the theatrical-movie market, a number of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes were combined and/or expanded into ersatz feature films, bearing such titles as To Trap a Spy, The Spy With My Face, One Spy Too Many, One of Our Spies Is Missing, The Spy in the Green Hat, The Karate Killers, The Helicopter Spies, and How to Steal the World. And in 1983, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were reunited in the made-for-TV movie The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Fifteen Years Later.