The Man From U.N.C.L.E. debuted on September 22, 1964. It was the first American spy series and is, to this day, one of the best ever. It was television’s first international phenomenon, too – years before Star Trek and Dark shadows. The series was developed by Sam Rolfe as a kind of American answer to James Bond and though it ran for four seasons, the first comes as close to being perfect as anything that comes to mind.
When Thrush invaded the secret headquarters of U.N.C.L.E. (hidden behind Del Floria’s Tailor Shop) in the series pilot, The Vulcan Affair, America was introduced to its own James Bond – in the form of Napoleon Solo. As played by Robert Vaughn, Solo was suave, debonair, resourceful, good in a fight (or in a banter-off) and far too good looking for his own good (seriously, he had women falling for all the time).
In the same episode, we also met Mr. Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), the head of U.N.CL.E. and, in passing, Ilya Kuryakin (U.N.C.L.E. was a truly international agency – outside all governments with a mission to protect the world, from itself if need be). The Vulcan Affair was a reworking of a pilot that called Solo, so the introduction of Kuryakin (David McCallum) was neatly folded into the ever so slightly tweaked series premiere and would become an equal to Solo long before the first season ended.
Carroll’s Waverly was the kind of boss who could make it a pleasure to go to work – as long as you were doing the job well. He was quite capable of withering glare that would the sternest nun and perfected The Raised Eyebrow of Bemusement/Disapproval years before Star Trek’s Mr. Spock.
Adding Kuryakin was a stroke of genius – it played to positive effect against the Cold War to see an American and Russian working together – and becoming genuine friends. The pairing also worked because of the contrasts within it: Vaughn was tall and darkly handsome, McCallum was shorter, more wiry and very blonde; Solo was the dashing lady’s man; Kuryakin was more intellectual and a source of arcane knowledge – both were good and armed and unarmed combat and weren’t above a bit of good-natured banter, and friendly competition.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was also a great mix of humor and drama, occasionally being far wittier than shows on television at the time (and spawned a series of twenty-three original novels).
Affair rewatching the first season – remarkable for, among other things, being first time William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy worked on a TV episode together (The Project Strigas Affair) and including Yvonne Craig (Batman), Elsa Lanchester (Bride of Frankenstein) and Robert Culp (I Spy, Greatest American Hero), among others as guest stars – I’ve decided to look at the series premiere and The Bow Wow Affair as episodes that feature each of the series stars.
In the series premiere, The Vulcan Affair (every episode was The Something Something Affair), U.N.C.L.E. HQ is invaded in an attempt to keep the organization from assassinating the premier of Western Natumba, Ashumen (Ivan Dixon) while visiting an energy plant run by Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver) who, not coincidentally, is the Thrush commander of the Easter US.
Based on intelligence gleaned by Waverly and Kuryakin, Solo recruits housewife and Elaine May Donaldson (Patricia Crowley) because, back in college, she and Vulcan had dated. She is to pretend to the widow of a very rich man and see what she can learn about Vulcan’s plans. To say that things go pear shaped is an understatement.
The Vulcan Affair establishes Solo as a capable agent who pays attention to detail and is a good judge of character. It’s easy to see that he could have carried a series solo.
In The Bow Wow Affair, Quentin Baldwin (Carroll), a cousin of Waverly’s, contacts Waverly for help after finding a Gypsy ceremonial knife stuck through the pajamas that were laid out for him the night before. This warning was an attempt to scare Baldwin into selling his shares in Andrum Industries to Andre Delgrovia (Paul Lambert) for a pittance. As a personal favor, Waverly agrees to help.
Solo is nursing a sprained knee and so Kuryakin has to go it alone – arriving at Baldwin’s home just as a fortune-teller named Delilah Devro (Antoinette Bower) is forecasting danger and death in the Baldwin home. Sure enough, after she leaves and everyone turns in, Baldwin killed by his guard dog (a really beautiful boxer).
Following that, Baldwin’s daughter, Alice (Susan Oliver) receives a phone call demanded that she sell the shares to Delgrovia, but she claims to have sold them to Kuryakin – prompting more potential danger.
Despite its ominous warnings and unusual deaths, The Bow Wow Affair is actually one of the funnier U.N.C.L.E. episodes – and one that is filled with some intriguing homages. The episode opens with Delgrovia approaching the Baldwin mansion wearing a very Dracula cloak and swarming up a wall to gain access to Baldwin’s bedroom to leave his very pointed warning.
In his efforts to thwart the Gypsies, Kuryakin seeks aid from the best dog person in America, Guido Panzini (Pat Harrington Jr., One Day at a Time). Harrington’s appearance could be seen as a stereotype if it weren’t for the fact that he really knows his stuff and provides Kuryakin with exactly what he needs to work things out.
The Bow Wow Affair spotlights Kuryakin’s unique knowledge and ability to assess and compensate for potential problems. He also shows a willingness to seek expert aid when his knowledge is not applicable. He also gets the girl – though she actually has to work for it (him being more taciturn than Solo).
In the majority of episodes, though, Solo and Kuryakin work together and by the time we reach The Secret Sceptre Affair, We get to see how their friendship, and dedication to their partners, has evolved to the point that Solo goes back for Kuryakin when he’s captured. The episode is one of the more convoluted and does a nifty job of making us believe one character is a villain when that is absolutely not the case. Double-crosses and unforeseen betrayals? You bet!
It’s worth noting that despite its budget, U.N.C.L.E. occasionally came up with some good gadgets (the show’s communicators are both small and shinier than Star Trek’s).
Season One of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was shot in black and white at a time when color was coming in in a big way (the show would go to color the next year), but frankly, as much of the show’s atmosphere was created in its noir influences as in the Bond movies (fact, Executive Producer Norman Felton had planned to work with Ian Fleming on developing the show, but circumstances wouldn’t allow – the only thing Fleming came up with turned out to be the name Napoleon Solo).
There have been a lot of spy shows since The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but very few have displayed comparable wit, charm and general intelligence its first season. The show’s first season set consists of the season’s twenty-nine episodes. It’s well worth checking out.
Final Grade: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – Season One: A+