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

by Kathleen Crighton

Originally published in Epi-Log Journal, issue 12, January 1994
Used with permision from author


Jon Heitland, author of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Book, believes most U.N.C.L.E. fans today who have been fans from the beginning are all about the same age--which would put them roughly in junior high school when the series first came on the air. I know he's right in my case: I was thirteen and in the eighth grade when my best friend, Elizabeth Tomlin, told me, "Ya gotta see this show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Especially Illya--he's so cute." So I sat down to watch my first U.N.C.L.E. episode on March 1, 1965. It was "The See-Paris-and-Die Affair." I was hooked immediately, and from that day forward I watched faithfully every week. I read the magazine articles. I bought the paperback books and the record albums. I could recite the second-season episodes in order and tell you who were the guest stars in each. But by the time the third season rolled around, the series had started to slide. Batman was now the "in" show, and U.N.C.L.E. had followed suit by going campy. As things got really awful, I started missing some episodes. In all fairness, I was fifteen by then and starting to have other things to do on Friday nights. I came back for some of the fourth-season episodes, and I remember reading with sadness the announcement of its cancellation in TV Guide. I watched the two-part last episode, and it was sort of like attending the funeral of an old friend who had been ill for a long time.

And that was pretty much the end of it--or so I thought. In the mid-1980s, when the Christian Broadcasting Network started showing U.N.C.L.E. again, I started videotaping the late-night episodes. Unfortunately, I picked up on the series again as CBN was rerunning what I called the "stoopid" episodes. By the time I hit "The King of Diamonds Affair," I began to wonder just what it was I had seen in this series when I was thirteen years old. I decided U.N.C.L.E. must be just one of those childhood things I had outgrown and went back to watching Miami Vice on Friday nights at ten--U.N.C.L.E.'s old time slot on NBC.

Late in 1991, I discovered that a man named Jon Heitland had written a book about the history of my childhood favorite, and I gave it to myself for Christmas. Suddenly I was hooked again, and I started scrambling to find episodes on TNT and on professional tape. Over the course of the following year, I discovered a small but dedicated cadre of U.N.C.L.E. fans still existed. I attended a fan convention in Chicago and got to meet and interview the author of the book that, well, changed my life all over again.

Early adolescence--that time when most of us present-day U.N.C.L.E. fans got hooked--must be the most vulnerable time of a young person's life. You're not a kid anymore, but you're not an adult, either. You're looking for heroes you can count on no matter what. You look to your heroes for clues about what you should think, how you should act, what you should do. And for many of us who fit into that searching category somewhere between 1964 and 1968, U.N.C.L.E. was where we found our clues.

Cindy Walker, longtime U.N.C.L.E. fan and college professor, told me she asks her students in her scriptwriting courses what TV shows they liked best when they were in junior high. What shows did they act out with their friends in the back yard? Today's college students are quick to respond--at least, the men are. Male college students tell her they liked The A-Team. Women students bury their faces in their hands, but under pressure they admit they really loved Charlie's Angels. Action and adventure. Heroes and heroines. Role models for the junior high generation.

So: what did I learn about life from U.N.C.L.E.? A few niceties about courtesy between men and women--'60s-style, that is. In junior high, boys slam doors in girls' faces. In the world of U.N.C.L.E., men hold doors open for women--even women THRUSH agents.

The importance of education, for another. U.N.C.L.E. was chock full of women physicists and biochemists (OK, there were a fair number of bimbos, too), and Illya Kuryakin had a PhD from the Sorbonne. I wonder how many kids were inspired to stay in school and even to study science as a result of the influence of fictional characters like Illya Kuryakin and Mr. Spock? And our parents thought we were rotting our minds by watching TV!

U.N.C.L.E. was chock full of literary allusions, too, and how many action-adventure series can make that claim? Kuryakin quoted from a poem called "To His Coy Mistress" in "The Bow-Wow Affair." Five years later, I wrote a paper on that poem in freshman honors English at college. In "The Gazebo in the Maze Affair," when the nasty Squire Partridge kidnaps Kuryakin in order to lure Solo into a trap, he sends Solo the mysterious message, "Oh, to be in England/Now that Illya's there"--a paraphrase of Robert Browning's "Home Thoughts, from Abroad." Later, in "The Mother Muffin Affair," The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. would quote the same poem correctly: "...now that April's there." Girl also quoted Robert Herrick's poem "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time": "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/Old time is still a-flyin'/And this same flower that smiles today/Tomorrow will be dyin'."

U.N.C.L.E. even helped its fans expand their vocabularies. In one episode, Solo asked a salesclerk if she had a particular item in "puce." I had to look it up in the dictionary. (You don't know, either? It's a dark red.)

Many U.N.C.L.E. fans developed an interest in Russian culture as a result of their exposure to the character of Illya Kuryakin and ended up studying Russian language and literature. One wonders what beneficial effect Kuryakin had in softening American attitudes towards people from the Soviet Union in the Cold War era.

And on a personal note, I realized with some degree of horror that I ended up dating more than one Illya Kuryakin in my time! In retrospect, I urge anyone with the same inclination to stay away from the moody, mysterious type. At least you know what a Napoleon Solo has on his mind!

I grew up to be a journalist. Not a spy. But when I think about it, in many ways my career as a journalist has resembled that of an U.N.C.L.E. agent. I do research on new subjects for just about every article I write. Think of our men from U.N.C.L.E. infiltrating an industry and posing as experts on subjects they know virtually nothing about! I ask questions and get leads from each interview I do--much as our U.N.C.L.E. agents unraveled mysteries by talking to people. Finding a close-knit group of U.N.C.L.E. fans after reading a single book took a fair amount of journalistic skill: fans of 30-year-old TV shows don't exactly advertise their whereabouts in the Yellow Pages. The abilities involved in tracking down a story are not that much different from those an U.N.C.L.E. agent uses to solve a mystery. Fortunately, I've never needed to use a gun in the course of my work!

Most of all, U.N.C.L.E. reinforced in me a strong sense of justice, an urgency for the triumph of good over evil. U.N.C.L.E. showed us that being on the side of right has nothing to do with national borders or political philosophies. It's a question of knowing innately what's right and what's wrong and sticking by what we believe, no matter what.

One scene from an U.N.C.L.E. episode has stuck with me all my life. It's in "The Foxes and Hounds Affair," an episode perhaps best remembered for Vincent Price's exploding handkerchief. Throughout the episode, we know it's an exploding handkerchief, and we know his THRUSH rival has a bad cold...we just wait for that final scene when he offers the handkerchief to his rival, and we're not disappointed. But that's not what I remember. I remember the scene where Solo, Kuryakin, and the timid innocent, Mimi Doolittle (Julie Sommars) are imprisoned by THRUSH. Solo and Kuryakin are trying to persuade her to flirt with the guard so they can overpower him, and she wails that she just doesn't know how. Kuryakin takes her aside, looks sternly into her eyes, and tells her, "Inexperience is not inability, young lady, and you can do anything that you believe you can do." With that one line, he sent a generation of young women on their way into the world to accomplish far greater things than learning to flirt.

Part I: Introduction
Part II: The Birth of U.N.C.L.E.
Part III: The U.N.C.L.E. Organization
Part IV: Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin and Alexander Waverly
Part V: Evolution of a Hit Series
Part VI: Guest Stars
Part VII: The U.N.C.L.E. Sets
Part VIII: The Four Seasons
Part IX: Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.