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U.N.C.L.E. background and historydivider

by Kathleen Crighton

Originally published in Epi-Log Journal, issue 13, February 1994
Used with permision from author


Cindy Walker, longtime U.N.C.L.E. fan and writer, is adjunct professor of communications at Jersey City State College in Jersey City, NJ, where she teaches courses in journalism and scriptwriting. She spoke to Kathleen Crighton about the series in this interview for Epi-Log Journal:

Where did this show go wrong?

Well, Sam Rolfe left. He laid it out first and then moved on to another series. A lot of producers like to do that. They put a basis of a series down and move on to others. Usually they move on after three or four years, and Sam moved on after one and a half.

It was really at its high point in the second season. It was one of the top-rated shows. It was in the top ten for a really long time. Batman was around the same time. What they did, and I don't know why--Sam was gone by this time--they decided to make U.N.C.L.E. campy. I don't know who made this decision. But during the third season they got really screwy. To me, the absolutely worst [episode] is "My Friend the Gorilla," which I don't even look at. It really hit bottom. They went for camp. And the ratings were good in that third season.

They were? I thought they weren't.

They weren't as good as the second season, but the ratings weren't bad. But what was happening was they were slowly eroding, and no one realized it. By the end of the third season, people were starting to abandon it. And when [the producers] tried to go back to the serious stuff in the fourth season, it was too late to save it.

If you look at the ratings, I think it's a fallacy to think the show was doing poorly in the third season. I think it was still doing quite well in the ratings. I think people got so used to it being silly in the third season that when they changed in the fourth season, the general population abandoned it. I think the fans abandoned it in the third season, but I think the general population abandoned it in the fourth season. It was very serious. That last one with Barry Nelson, ["The Seven Wonders of the World Affair"], if you look at that episode, Solo and Illya never turn to each other and say anything...

Yes. There is no interaction. They're just stick figures.

Sometimes you almost see Vaughn or McCallum almost wanting to, and they have no words to say. I liked most of the episodes in the fourth season, but I don't like that one. I think it was off to a great start with the Berlin thing in the very beginning ["The Summit-Five Affair"]. But I think what happened was, they almost lurched [too far] the other way, and I don't think the audience could handle it.

The other big problem is that U.N.C.L.E. was moved around and never had the same time period for two seasons in a row. The fans followed it, but it jumped around so much. It was most popular when it was on Friday nights that second season. It was Friday nights at ten in the second season and Friday night at 8:30 in the third [Eastern time]. I used to follow the ratings as a kid, and I think the ratings were pretty decent. Fourth season it moved to Monday night. Now, Monday night is good for Murphy Brown, but it wasn't great for Man from U.N.C.L.E., and it really [dropped off]. But I remember being totally shocked when I got a Parade Magazine and they said it was canceled. So, I don't know.

What did you like best?

The fourth season is much more serious than either the first or second. I used to love the second season, and now I like the first season the most. Second season starts getting a little sillier as it goes, but probably its height was the end of first, beginning of second season. It is for most shows, but not all. Star Trek: The Next Generation took a lot longer to get started. I think you've got to go to third season before you start getting good shows for Next Generation. But most shows, like Miami Vice, hit their stride [then]. Alien Nation would have been great the second season if they had been able to make it. But the first season seems to be where you get all the bugs out. The best individual episodes will always be toward the end of the first season and into the second. And for some reason if the original producer leaves or whatever, then you start seeing a deterioration. That's why a lot of shows only last two years. They never make it to the third. And then around the fifth is another problem.

In '65, the series was so popular, you couldn't open a newspaper without seeing something about U.N.C.L.E. And then by late '67, it got canceled. How did it do such a meteoric thing? And I started thinking, what was going on in America at the time? You see in the first season episodes the men wearing tweed suits and hats, and then by '67 the characters are running around in mod clothes and weird T-shirts and pendants and miniskirts. And we had Vietnam in the middle of all of it. Did people still want to watch U.N.C.L.E.? Or had they moved on to other things?

U.N.C.L.E. almost straddles two eras. And I think in a sense that's why it holds up today, because it wasn't touched so much by the mod [era]. There are a few shows in the third season where some people are running around in go-go boots. Girl from U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, is terribly dated because of that. But Man from U.N.C.L.E. started at the end of [1964]. It wasn't until '66-'67 that this stuff really started getting going. So you're right. In the first two years, they look almost like '50s shows in their dress. And yeah, you're right, it took them a while to catch up, which I think was a mistake. They started doing the so-called "young" shows because they realized they had a younger population that they were trying to interest. But this is one case where there were older people doing the show--Norman [Felton] was probably in his late 40s--and it looked silly. They didn't know how. But in those shows where they didn't try to be mod, it was much better. But there's not many mod-hip shows, thank God, and so it holds up and we still watch it.