Mad for all things espionage, I was hooked on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” as a kid.
Sure, so were thousands of other boys and girls.
But this was as far as it gets from Hollywood - in my native Iran - where “U.N.C.L.E.,” a drama about an multinational organization of secret agents who battle crime around the globe, was a big hit in the late-‘70s, long after it had gone off the air here.
The suspenseful-yet-ironic series, just released in its entirety in a mondo 41-disc DVD set by Time Life, has been broadcast in more than 60 countries since its first run. (The collection costs $249.95 and is currently available only via mail order. Information: 1-800-950-7887 or www.manfromuncledvd.com.)
“U.N.C.L.E.” starred Robert Vaughn as American super-agent Napoleon Solo, an exceptionally suave, flirtatious ladies man, and Scottish-born David McCallum as the introverted, intense, Russian operative Illya Kuryakin. This dynamic duo was shepherded by Leo G. Carroll, who played their Brit boss, Alexander Waverly.
The “U.N.C.L.E.” saga began in the fall of 1962, when producer Norman Felton asked Ian Fleming to help him launch a James Bond-like show for TV. Fleming, who soon quit the project because of other commitments, came up with Solo’s name and the show’s basic concept. (Incidentally, there is a criminal named “Mr. Solo” in Fleming’s “Goldfinger.”)
It was producer Sam Rolfe who coined the name “U.N.C.L.E.,” which he explains on one of the DVD set’s many extra features, was inspired by the concepts of the U.N. and Uncle Sam. It was only later, when an NBC executive asked him to explain what the acronym meant, that he came up with that goofy name, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
Originally titled “Solo,” the show initially had only one hero - Vaughn’s Solo. But McCallum, who started with a small, recurring role, proved so popular with viewers, his character evolved.
McCallum, 74, who in the series sported a blond, Beatlesesque haircut, said the show appealed to younger viewers because it featured law-enforcement officers who weren’t a bunch of squares.
The show was also a welcome break for viewers who were wary of the excesses of the Cold War, worn out by events from McCarthyism to the Vietnam War, in McCallum’s opinion. He said the idea of pairing an American and a Russian was daring.
There’s great chemistry between McCallum and Vaughn, who recently starred in the BBC dramedy “Hustle.”
“The initial premise was that, each week, we would take a pretty girl, a civilian, and put her in the spy situation,” McCallum said.
In “Solo,” the show’s pilot (which never aired), Solo takes a hausfrau from New England and transforms her into a sexy femme fatale. He uses her as a “honey trap” to nab a criminal who had been her high school sweetheart.
“It was a truly groundbreaking show,” says University of Southern California film and media scholar Leo Braudy. He said the show, which debuted Sept. 22, 1964, on NBC, is considered to be the first spy series on America TV. It anticipated countless others, including “Mission: Impossible” and “Get Smart.”
Braudy, who grew up in West Philly, points out that “U.N.C.L.E.” eschewed the rampant jingoism of the time. The villains here do not represent nations, but are what Braudy calls “megalomaniacal criminals and terrorists” who belong to a secret cabal of evildoers named Thrush. They have no allegiance to a faith or ideology, but are “motivated by (the) greed for money and power.”
For all its accomplishments, “U.N.C.L.E.” abruptly ended in the middle of its fourth season. McCallum has maintained he was floored when he found out - from the Los Angles Times - about the cancellation. “I’m still waiting for somebody to call me up and tell me, `Hey, we’re not doing `U.N.C.L.E.’ anymore,’” he quipped.
In his opinion, “U.N.C.L.E.” went off the rails in its third season, when, in a desperate attempt to copy the success of the spoof “Batman,” the show became a farce.
“We went to sillier plots, and that’s why it failed,” says McCallum, who currently stars as Donald “Ducky” Mallard on CBS’ “NCIS.”
That’s one theory. Here’s another: “U.N.C.L.E.” was simply too cool for television.