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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


When The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was at the peak of its popularity during the second season, it seemed only logical to capitalize on that popularity by introducing a spinoff series. Unfortunately, "logical" is a word that never comes to mind when viewing The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. Be that as it may, the premise of a show about the adventures of a female U.N.C.L.E. agent was basically a good one. The show itself was, alas, a product of its times and should be viewed in that context.

The pilot of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. made its debut February 25, 1966 on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in a special episode titled "The Moonglow Affair." Norman Felton picked the name April Dancer from Ian Fleming's original notes for a television spy series; Fleming had used the name for the secretary to Napoleon Solo's boss. The actress selected to play Dancer in the pilot was Mary Ann Mobley, a former Miss America from Mississippi.

Dancer was assigned a partner, a character named Mark Slate. Norman Fell played Slate in the pilot. Slate was supposed to be over 40 years old, which was the official age for retirement from field work for U.N.C.L.E. enforcement agents. Dancer was 24, new to field work, and U.N.C.L.E.'s first female enforcement agent. Waverly assigns Slate to "break in" Dancer to field work; we are told he also broke in Napoleon Solo. At their first meeting with Waverly, Dancer raises the issue of Slate's age, but Waverly pretends to ignore her. At the end of the episode, when Waverly sees how well the two work as a team, he agrees to let them continue as partners. Waverly tells Slate there must be a typographical error in his personnel files because they say he is over 40 and advises Slate to correct it.

Although the pilot received favorable ratings, the younger woman-older man pairing was dropped in the final version of the series. Girl, it was decided, would aim to attract a young, hip audience. Mary Ann Mobley, with her soft Southern accent and deferential portrayal of April Dancer, was dropped in favor of Stefanie Powers as a mod '60s April--a change which reflected the rapidly changing styles of the period. With her long red hair and slender build, Powers typified the hip, trendy look that was coming into fashion. Powers' April Dancer wore bright-colored miniskirts, go-go boots, and berets.

As for Mark Slate, the producers realized that by making him a fortyish father figure to April Dancer, they were missing a golden opportunity to cash in on young female viewers. Fell was out. Noel Harrison, son of Rex Harrison, was hired to play Slate. Harrison was British--it was very trendy to be British in the heyday of the Beatles--and had a singing career. His Slate adopted a Carnaby Street look, wearing such popular fashions as corduroy suits, turtlenecks, and jaunty hats.

If a young April Dancer was to work with a young Mark Slate, would they be romantically involved? The show made it clear from the start that, although the two liked each other well enough, theirs was more a brother-sister relationship. This freed them to flirt with different characters who turned up in the episodes, but like Solo and Kuryakin, neither had a steady love interest.

A third character was brought in, a young man named Randy Kovacks. Kovacks was supposed to be an eager teenager who hung around U.N.C.L.E. headquarters and helped out from time to time--sort of a student intern. Randy Kirby, the son of Durward Kirby, got the part. The character never caught on, however, and Kovacks was dropped after 13 episodes.

Leo G. Carroll appeared in the series as Alexander Waverly, continuing his role as head of U.N.C.L.E. for both shows. David Victor produced the pilot episode and went on to be supervising producer of the series. Douglas Benton was the producer; it was he who hired Powers and Harrison. Norman Felton was executive producer for both Man and Girl.

The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. made its debut as a weekly series on September 13, 1966, at the beginning of the third season of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It ran on Tuesday nights at 7:30 Eastern time on NBC, and had 29 episodes. The first episode was called "The Dog-Gone Affair." It featured as a principal character a dachshund named Putzi. (One wonders how the producers got this name past the watchful eye of the NBC censors.) Aside from a few niggling details--such as how April Dancer could carry a dog with fleas in her arms on a plane and get past customs officials in another country without being stopped--the episode was fairly straightforward. It's one of the few in the series that are.

Perhaps the best-known episode of Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is "The Mother Muffin Affair," which featured Boris Karloff as a guest star. Karloff played the villain, Mother Muffin, in drag. He's wonderful in the role of an ugly old bag in long skirts and furs, more than a little dotty and very, very evil.

In the hope of increasing audience interest, two episodes were designed as "crossovers" between Man and Girl. "Mother Muffin" was one, which featured Napoleon Solo working with April Dancer. The other, which ran on Man, paired Illya Kuryakin and Mark Slate. Called "The Galatea Affair," it's popular today for the appearance of guest star Joan Collins in a dual role as Rosy Shlagenheimer, a barroom floozy, and Baroness Bibi de Chasseur, an elegant lady whom Rosy must impersonate.

Unfortunately, most of the episodes of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. were truly dreadful. Comedy overran adventure and drowned any sense of suspense. April Dancer had to be rescued, usually by Mark Slate, from more perils than Pauline. Two favorite plot lines were to get April to impersonate someone else and to rescue her from being forced to marry some oaf. We rarely saw her get herself out of a situation by her own wits, overcome a bad guy in hand-to-hand combat, or actually act like she knew how to use a gun. In reality (but then, this show bore no resemblance to reality), you had to wonder how a bimbo like the April Dancer we saw in the show ever got through her basic training with U.N.C.L.E., much less kept her job.

We can partially forgive the producers for their old-fashioned sexist attitudes on the grounds that, gosh darn, this was the '60s and those attitudes were pretty common then. But viewers who watched April Dancer mince across their television screens could switch to ABC and see Emma Peel in her leather jumpsuit, karate chopping the bad guys on The Avengers, during that same period.

Camp was the rage, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was camp to the hilt. Boris Karloff in drag as Mother Muffin was certainly camp. Dancer and Slate paraded the latest fashions and teased one another. Sure, the bad guys were evil, but they were hardly threatening. In a show this silly, viewers knew there wouldn't be any chance of characters they cared about getting killed.

Fans of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. today, when they're not blaming Batman for dragging their favorite show down, blast The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. for carrying over that influence of silliness into the parent show. The 1966-67 television season--the third for Man, the only one for Girl--is one that most U.N.C.L.E. fans would prefer to forget.

Mercifully, Girl was canceled after the one season, and Man returned to the serious action-adventure of its original premise. Stefanie Powers went on to do more successful programs in television, including Hart to Hart. Noel Harrison returned to his musical career, winning an Academy Award for his song "The Windmills of Your Mind," the theme of the movie The Thomas Crown Affair.