"The Man From U.N.C.L.E." on TV and at the Movies

Herbie J Pilato

The "U.N.C.L.E." cast (from left): Leo G. Carroll, Robert Vaughn, David McCallum[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

The 1960s were many different things for many different people.

For pop-culture enthusiasts, specifically, those who love film and television, it was the era of sci-fi/fantasy, escapism comedy, and super-spydom.

Sean Connery was knocking 'em dead (sometimes, literally!) on the big screen as British secret agent James Bond 007.

It was only a matter of time before American television, specifically, picked up the pace and replicated the genre, which it ultimately did so with shows like The Avengers (a British import airing on ABC, and starring Patrick McNee and Diana Rigg, who would later star in the Bond film, Her Majesty's Secret Service, with George Lazenby briefly replacing Connery), Honey West (with Anne Forbidden Planet Francis), The Wild Wild West (with Robert Conrad in a spy-western hybrid, Peter Gunn (with Craig Stevens in more of a very stylized detective series), Get Smart (which went for laughs with Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in a spy-com!), and It Takes a Thief (with Robert Wagner), among many others.

But it's TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that stands out from the secret-agent pack.

This series, which originally aired on NBC from 1964 to 1968), starred Robert Vaughn as American agent Napoleon Solo, and David McCallum (later of NCIS fame) as his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin, with co-star Leo G. Carroll as their supervising spy, Mr. Alexander Waverly (Wagner played Alexander Munday on It Takes a Thief).

As one of the more popular spy shows of '60s TV, Man eventually inspired a sequel, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., which starred Stefanie Powers (who later starred with Wagner on Hart to Hart), and a TV-reunion movie (in 1983 with Vaughn, McCallum, and Lazenby!).

As fate would have it (and the network near demanded it), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was created by Ian Fleming, author of the original Bond novels that inspired movies like Dr. No, Thunderball, etc.

But then came 2015 and the all-new feature film adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Though his film was inventively set in the 1960s, the response at the box office and from the critics was not good. According to journalist Nicholas Barber at BBC.com, "The opening of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a delight. Set in 1963, it introduces a suave CIA agent named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), who has been assigned to spirit a pretty German mechanic, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), out of East Berlin. Unfortunately for him, the KGB’s Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) has other ideas, so the two spies are soon chasing each other around the city, taking it in turns to outwit each other, and driving so close to each other that their boxy East German cars are dancing cheek-to-cheek. Combining the immaculate style of an early Bond movie with the shadowy urban landscape of The Third Man, it’s graceful, witty, and breathlessly entertaining. The annoying thing is that the rest of the film is nowhere near as good."

In short, the big-screen Man remake cried U.N.C.L.E., and simply couldn't - and still can't - compare to the original small-screen series.

To wit: acclaimed writer-producer-director John Scheinfeld is a loyal U.N.C.L.E.-fan. As he concludes in the book, Dashing, Daring and Debonair: TV's Top Male Icons of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, "There is nothing secret about how famous Robert Vaughn and David McCallum became playing Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin - an American and a Russian, working together as secret agents, proving that humanity could overcome politics. This working relationship really captures the hopeful, optimistic spirit of the 1960s and engages viewers in a unique way. While other series were played strictly for laughs (Get Smart) or drama (Secret Agent), or drama with jaunty good humor (I Spy), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had tongue firmly planted in cheek. This made it not only fun but seriously cool."

Comments / 2

Published by

Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

More from Herbie J Pilato

Comments / 0