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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



When Rolfe wrote the prospectus and series pilot, he created a detailed character sketch of Napoleon Solo, but Illya Kuryakin was a vague figure, a minor character in the original plan. Solo was first conceived as a Canadian, later as an American who had served in the Korean War. He had been married at nineteen, but his wife was killed shortly afterward in a car accident. He had an apartment decorated with nautical items overlooking the East River. He also owned a 30-foot sailboat. Aside from the military service (mentioned in the first-season episode "The Secret Sceptre Affair," when he comes to the aid of his former commanding officer), very little of this detail survived to the actual series.

Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin was Russian. He was supposed to live in a small apartment and keep a record collection under his bed, but neither of these details were ever shown in the series, either. Beyond that sketchy description, David McCallum was left pretty much on his own to develop the character. He decided to make Illya a mysterious figure, telling an interviewer at the time, "No one knows what Illya Kuryakin does when he goes home at night."

Alexander Waverly didn't even exist when the pilot was first shot. The original head of U.N.C.L.E., Mr. Allison, was described as a pedantic man in his fifties. Leo G. Carroll was much older--in his seventies, in fact--when he took the role of Waverly. Carroll had played the Professor, the head of the unnamed espionage agency in North by Northwest. That character and Waverly are so similar that one could almost imagine they are one and the same.

Did Vaughn and McCallum also have film roles they might have drawn on in developing the characters of Solo and Kuryakin? In 1958, Vaughn appeared in The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman and was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor. He played a dissolute young man named Chet, whose family had annulled his marriage to a girl he loved. We see Chet at a dance, decked out in a white dinner jacket and making witty repartee with his buddy, played by Newman. It's easy to make a connection here between Chet and the debonair Napoleon Solo exchanging bon mots with his Russian partner. Ironically, Chet later becomes an alcoholic and is accused of murdering his rich and nasty uncle (!).

McCallum played a British naval officer named Eric Ashley-Pitt in the 1962 movie The Great Escape. Ashley-Pitt is clever and resourceful, like Kuryakin. As the POWs plot to dig a tunnel out of their prison, they worry about how to get rid of the dirt they dig. Ashley-Pitt comes up with an ingenious scheme to stuff the dirt in their pockets and scatter it about the exercise yard. Later, after the POWs escape from the camp, he flees on a German train, disguising himself as a German citizen in a suit and wire-rim glasses. Kuryakin is portrayed as a master of disguises, particularly in the first-season episodes of U.N.C.L.E. Finally, Ashley-Pitt sets up a diversion in the railway station to help his friends escape. He makes a gallant sacrificial run down the station platform and is shot to death by the Germans--just the sort of thing Illya Kuryakin would do. Aside from the minor detail that Ashley-Pitt gets killed and Kuryakin never does, it's easy to see the seeds of Kuryakin in this character from the World War II movie.

In later series such as Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey, the off-duty experiences of the characters are as fully developed as their roles at work, reflecting the reality that people do bring their private lives to work with them. But U.N.C.L.E.--intentionally--is virtually devoid of any information about the principal characters' lives. We pick up bits and pieces, some contradictory, scattered throughout the course of the show.

In the first-season episode, "The Green Opal Affair," Solo tells the "innocent" his grandfather was a country lawyer. Kuryakin says at the end that according to Solo's dossier, one grandfather was an ambassador and the other was an admiral. Solo replies mysteriously, "Maybe it was another grandfather--or an uncle."

Was Solo really married at one time? In "Mad, Mad Tea Party" he tells the innocent, a bride-to-be who's not sure she really wants to go through with this, "Some people get nervous before their weddings--so I'm told."

At any rate, we do know that Solo's primary off-duty hobby is women. (On-duty, too, come to think about it.) He gets the girl even when we see him only in the first and last scene, as in "The Galatea Affair." We learn in the first-season episode "The Terbuf Affair" that Solo had a serious love affair with a woman named Clara Richards which ended seven years earlier when she grew tired of playing second fiddle to U.N.C.L.E. in his life. And he is supposed to have a continuing relationship with a cold, cold THRUSH agent in a Corvette named Angelique. We meet her only once, in "The Deadly Games Affair." Angelique would just as soon kill Solo as kiss him.

And what about Kuryakin? Legend has it that in the early days of shooting, McCallum forgot to remove his wedding ring for the part of Kuryakin. Fans spotted the ring and began to write in, asking if Kuryakin was married. McCallum played along with the joke, continuing to wear the ring until mid-1966, early in the filming of the third season, when his marriage to Jill Ireland ended. After that, we never see Kuryakin wear the ring again, even after McCallum's remarriage in 1967 shortly before the series ended.

In the first-season episode "The Bow-Wow Affair," Kuryakin goes to the hospital to interview a woman who has been attacked by her dog. The woman, who is older than Kuryakin and not particularly attractive, flirts with him. She asks him point-blank, "Young man, are you married?" He responds by paraphrasing Andrew Marvell's 17th-century poem "To His Coy Mistress": "Had I but world enough and time..." This seems to be a "no," but it's sufficiently vague enough to be a "yes." In any case, it delights the older woman. (CBN cut this scene from the version it broadcast, possibly to make room for more advertisements. TNT restored it when it began running the episodes.)

At various times, Kuryakin is said to be from Kiev, holder of a PhD from the Sorbonne, a member of the Russian navy, and a graduate of U.N.C.L.E.'s training school, class of '56. Considering that the time involved in getting bachelor's, master's, and PhD degrees can easily run ten years, one wonders just how old Kuryakin must be to have accomplished all this.

Waverly is married, although we never see his wife or even learn her name. (They must not see a lot of each other, because he never seems to go home from work.) The mysterious intruder in the first-season "Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair" turns out to be his wife's brother. In the first-season "Bow-Wow Affair," Waverly sends Kuryakin to guard his cousin, Lester Baldwin, and Baldwin's niece, Alice. In a later episode, we are treated to pictures of Waverly's nephew.

These confusing, often conflicting tidbits of the agents' lives were both deliberate and accidental. In the beginning, the vagueness of the agents' backgrounds was intended to make them more mysterious and pique viewers' curiosity. In later seasons, conflicting information arose simply from the sloppy attention to detail that came about as a result of the continuing parade of producers, each eager to place his own stamp on the series.

This much we can pick up of the general character of Solo, Kuryakin, and Waverly: Solo is the personable agent, the one who recruits most of the innocents. He makes acquaintances easily, knows just when to smile, and is an expert at flirting with women. He is the risk-taker, the intuitive one.

Kuryakin is the quiet agent, the tinkerer, the scientist, the intellectual. He figures out how things work, defuses bombs, gets the nasty, smelly jobs. He is both amused and disdainful of his partner's preoccupation with women. Kuryakin is the one in the black turtleneck, climbing a brick wall with a rope, while Solo is inside the mansion at the formal dance, natty in his tuxedo.

Waverly is the absent-minded professor, favoring tweed suits and a briar pipe. He is formal, addressing everyone but close friends by their courtesy titles and last names. (In one early episode he addresses Kuryakin as Illya, but we never see him step out of character again.) He sits beside the control panel 24 hours a day, it seems, waiting for his agents to call in, unless he decides to surprise them and turn up on an assignment himself. One of his favorite lines seems to be, "What do you suggest?"

Waverly is supposed to be a tough, hardnosed boss, one who knows he's probably sending his agents out to certain death every week, but more often he comes across as a lovable old grandfather. In "The Vulcan Affair," Solo kills an intruder to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. Waverly chastises Solo--appropriately--for not keeping the man alive so they could interrogate him. Solo and Waverly very nearly have an argument during a transatlantic communication in the first-season "Dove Affair": Waverly is brusque, Solo is exasperated.

But by the third season, Waverly seems to have mellowed. Perhaps it was felt the viewers preferred him that way. In "The Concrete Overcoat Affair," Solo objects when he learns Kuryakin has been sent to the Caribbean on a suicide mission. Waverly reprimands Solo sharply for questioning his authority, then allows Solo to go to his partner's rescue. As Solo dashes off for the airport, Waverly walks down the hall, muttering to himself, "Alexander Waverly, sentimental grandmother of the year." In "The Matterhorn Affair," also third season, Solo and Kuryakin come into the office after blowing an assignment and getting their contact killed. Rather than chewing them out, Waverly merely shrugs, "Fortunes of war." Everyone should be so lucky as to have a boss like this when they mess things up.

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.