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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


Jon Heitland is the author of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Book (St. Martin's Press, 1987) and a longtime fan. He lives in Iowa Falls, Iowa. He spoke with Kathleen Crighton about the series in this interview for Epi-Log Journal:

What do you think the high points of U.N.C.L.E. were, and what were some of the low points?

Most people agree that the first season was the best of the four, and most people attribute that to Sam Rolfe's influence. He was the one who actually created the whole format. Even though he wasn't there to create the series idea, he fleshed it out. When he produced the first season, naturally there was a direct carryover from writer to producer which you didn't have in the later seasons. Later producers, I think, had a different idea of what the series should be, and that just didn't go over as well as the Sam Rolfe approach. Plus, it's a natural tendency for a new producer to change a show, even if it's doing well, so they can put their own stamp on it. They get credit and not just pass on credit to the person before them. That's what happened, and it didn't always result in a change for the better.

What do you think were some of the best things they did?

One thing that made the first season so good is the writing. I think Sam Rolfe had a lot to do with the writing, even though he didn't write episodes himself [except the pilot]. Writers reported directly to him, and he kept them on track. I think the first season stuck to that original approach of involving an innocent person in the episode so the audience could vicariously identify with someone, whereas the later seasons seemed to get away from that. They did have guest stars, but [the character had] some bizarre, exotic occupation, not something like the housewife in "The Vulcan Affair," or a secretary on her lunch hour in "The Deadly Decoy Affair." That was an essential element in Rolfe's original idea that was abandoned later: the idea of an innocent, everyday person just like you and me suddenly being swept up into the world of international espionage. That was lost later on, and that wasn't good.

They did a lot of good things. I think the gadgetry was one of the outstanding things of the series, and there were a lot more gadgets in the first season than in later seasons. When we did see gadgets in later seasons, they were some ridiculous thing. I think the technology was an important element of the show.

What were your favorite episodes?

"Mad, Mad Tea Party" by far, simply because it was well written. It's got six story lines going at once, which always makes an episode more interesting. I liked it because it showed a lot of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. That was my favorite part of the series. It's like Star Trek fans who often like the Enterprise as a character, almost like a distant crew member. They think of the ship as a character in the series. I think of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters as a very intriguing part of the series. And the whole organization I find very fascinating. "The Never-Never Affair" is a good one. "The Brain Killer Affair" is one of my favorites--one reason is because I own one of the props from it.

Which one?

The Brain Killer machine. Another one I own is the torture rack from "The Gurnius Affair." If you come to Iowa, I'll torture you!

What do you think were some of the real stinkers? Not only episodes, but things they did.

The worst thing they did was try to be like Batman. They had to get silly. I think they read too many articles about themselves. That's my personal theory. When U.N.C.L.E. first got popular, all the magazine articles wanted to analyze the show: Why is it popular? They kept calling it "a spoof of James Bond." Well, Man from U.N.C.L.E. did not start out as a spoof. A spoof is a parody, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. was not parodying James Bond. It was trying to be James Bond on television. Get Smart! was a parody of Man from U.N.C.L.E., taking something serious and poking fun at it. But that isn't what U.N.C.L.E. was doing to James Bond. But when the articles said that's they were doing, I think the producers read their own press and said, "Yeah, that's what we're doing. We should have more humor and more comedy and more silliness." And that's not what the show was all about. It was an action-adventure series with humor to relieve the tension. Instead, they started doing less action-adventure and more, not just humor, but comedy with no heroes--slapstick. There's a difference between humor and comedy.

There's a lot of humor in Bond, but that wasn't the whole point.

I think there's a fine distinction there they just didn't see, and they went in the wrong direction. They tried to bring it back in the fourth season. You know, third season ratings were so bad. Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was canceled, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. barely hung on for a fourth season. They knew they had to do something, so they got real serious.

And that was too drastic?

Yeah. The pendulum swung back too far the other way. If you look at those fourth-season episodes, they're pretty grim.

Yes. Especially that last one, "The Seven Wonders of the World Affair."

Yes, that's a very grim one. "Summit Five Affair" I always thought was a very depressing episode. There's really no lightness at all in them, and that isn't what the first season was all about either. Yes, first season was more serious as opposed to the silly third season, but [first season] was certainly a dramatic, light action-adventure series. That's the way I have characterized it.

There are some real U.N.C.L.E. purists like Bob Short, who is probably the premier U.N.C.L.E. fan--he's been an U.N.C.L.E. fan as long as we all were, since we were in junior high. Bob owns the U.N.C.L.E. car, he owns Waverly's desk, he owns the initial guns, he has a lot of props. He was the technical advisor on Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. He would say that there is only one season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the first season. He doesn't even count the other ones. He won't even talk about Girl from U.N.C.L.E. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ended that first season. Everything that followed was really just an imitation of itself. But that's going a little too far. He makes a good point, [which is] that is what the series really was about, and everything after that was trying to get back to that.

There are younger fans who weren't around in the '60s, who started watching it when it was on CBN. What does somebody see in this show today who didn't grow up in that era?

If you would plot everyone's age, everyone you could call an U.N.C.L.E. fan, and you drew a chart of their ages, you'd have a very sharp bell curve, with most people falling in about a four-year age span--people who were in junior high, early high school when the show came on and was so popular. That just seemed to be the age it appealed to, for some reason. I'm not a psychologist, I can't explain why, but there are very few people older than that and very few people younger than that.

Most fans, I think, are between 38 and 42, which is kind of strange when you think about it. Star Trek appeals to all ages. So it is surprising that there are younger people who saw it on CBN and got hooked on it. And I'm aware of a ten-year-old girl who lives near me who's an U.N.C.L.E. fan from watching it on cable. And I'm even aware of a couple of people who got hooked on it by finding an U.N.C.L.E. paperback in their high school library--never saw an episode. But they're the exception. Most people by far were in that adolescent period of their lives when this really cool show came along and changed their lives.

I've been an U.N.C.L.E. fan for ten years now. I've been to every Spycon. I probably have corresponded with or met more U.N.C.L.E. fans than anybody else. I have 750 people on my computer list, so I think I know what I'm talking about. This is a generality. It's not 100% true, but I would say at least 90% true, that 90% of the female U.N.C.L.E. fans also followed David McCallum's non-U.N.C.L.E. career and are just as interested in David McCallum the actor as they are in Illya Kuryakin the character. And I think it's fair to say that if David McCallum had never been on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., they would not be Man from U.N.C.L.E. fans. They'd be David McCallum fans. So it's a sex appeal thing. Nothing wrong with that. But their primary interest in the series is his involvement with it. That carries over into all his movies and plays and things.

You can also say about the male fans that 90% or more are also James Bond fans. The male fans do not follow David McCallum's other career; the female fans are not James Bond fans. The two differences coincide, they're fine. Both groups are at the conventions, and there's no animosity, just different approaches. I think the men like U.N.C.L.E. because of its action-adventure--that's why they like James Bond--whereas the women like David McCallum. I hope that doesn't offend anybody, but that's just my observation from knowing a lot of U.N.C.L.E. fans.

I'm not criticizing women for liking the show because of David McCallum. That's fine. But that is their prime reason. They don't really care if there are shootouts and things like the men prefer.

You're a lawyer. What do people say when they find out about your interest in U.N.C.L.E.?

When people find out about my hobby, people I work with and associate with here, they say, "Gee, why do you like that show so much?" I have never come up with a good, concise answer. It's like, why do you like chocolate ice cream? You just do.