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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



U.N.C.L.E. wasn't enormously popular at first. From its debut in September 1964, the Nielsen ratings were only so-so. Its first time slot was Tuesday nights at 8:30 Eastern time, opposite the immensely popular Red Skelton Show on CBS. The show was floundering, and NBC decided to move it to Monday nights at eight, beginning in January 1965. It didn't do well at this time, either, so the show's publicist launched a promotional campaign to boost ratings. For several weeks, Vaughn and McCallum spent their weekends on the road, making public appearances in key Nielsen cities and taping promotional spots at local television stations--after a full week's shooting schedule. At the same time, it was noticed that the show was developing a following among college students. The Nielsen ratings failed to reflect this trend because college dormitories were not included in its surveys of television viewers. Word of mouth began to have an effect, too, as viewers told their friends about this great new show with the two cool spies and lots of adventure and humor.

Perhaps the biggest boost of all for the series was David McCallum's surprising transformation into a national sex symbol. Originally, Illya Kuryakin was to have been a minor character in the series, and in fact McCallum was signed for only seven of the first 13 episodes. He doesn't appear at all in such first-season episodes as "The Iowa-Scuba Affair," "The Dove Affair," and "The Yellow Scarf Affair," and makes only minor appearances in such episodes as "The Neptune Affair," "The Green Opal Affair," and "The Finny Foot Affair." But female U.N.C.L.E. fans couldn't get enough of him. With a black turtleneck and pants to accent his longish blond hair, McCallum turned the mysterious Illya Kuryakin into the top TV star of the season. He soon found himself mobbed like a rock star every time he made a public appearance, with teenage girls screaming and fighting furiously to get a piece of his clothing or a lock of his hair. Vaughn, too, was swamped when he made public appearances, but it was McCallum who drew feeding frenzies.

Female viewers had definite ideas of just what sort of person Illya Kuryakin must be, and they let the producers know in no uncertain terms what behavior was acceptable and what was not. In "The Bow-Wow Affair," the first episode in which Illya carries the show, he becomes involved with a relative of Waverly's, Alice Baldwin. In one scene, she asks him to kiss her, and he replies, "If you insist," whereupon she kisses him. A few minutes later, he kisses her back. This one scene drew a firestorm of angry fan mail. Illya, it seemed, was not supposed to kiss girls--at least, that's what his fans said. Perhaps it was this particular girl they objected to. From the moment she first meets Illya, it's obvious that she has the IQ of a gnat:

ILLYA: My name is Illya Kuryakin.

ALICE: And I'll bet you're the only man around here who can make that statement honestly.

ILLYA: So I believe. Lester Baldwin?

ALICE: No. He's my uncle.

In any case, we never see Illya pursuing a girl after that, although some do pursue him. He seems to show an interest in a girl named Tavia (possibly Russian?) in the mid-second-season "Birds and the Bees Affair," but that episode was silly enough that fans probably didn't notice.

By the beginning of the second season, U.N.C.L.E. was a certified hit. The show moved to Friday nights at ten, a time slot which is more likely to kill than promote most shows. But U.N.C.L.E. thrived. One could hardly pick up a newspaper without reading some reference to the show. Ministers even mentioned it in their sermons. The series was parodied by other shows, ranging from the situation comedy Please Don't Eat the Daisies (which starred Patricia Crowley, who played the suburban housewife in the U.N.C.L.E. pilot) to the British spy series The Avengers. Vaughn and McCallum did guest shots on variety shows and were interviewed by dozens of publications.

The show was merchandised to the hilt. Toy U.N.C.L.E. guns and cars were big hits. There were U.N.C.L.E. dolls, board games, comic books, magazines, paperback novels, and record albums.

After the first two U.N.C.L.E. feature films were made from single episodes with additional footage, future movies were created from two-part episodes. Thus the two-part "The Alexander the Greater Affair," which opened the second season, became One Spy Too Many in its theatrical release. "The Bridge of Lions Affair," also in the second season, became One of Our Spies Is Missing. "The Concrete Overcoat Affair," a third-season two-parter, became The Spy in the Green Hat. "The Five Daughters Affair" became The Karate Killers. In the fourth season, "The Prince of Darkness Affair" became The Helicopter Spies. The series finale, "The Seven Wonders of the World Affair," became How to Steal the World.

In the middle of U.N.C.L.E.'s second season, a television version of the comic book Batman debuted to much media hoopla. The chief premise of Batman the television series was that it was "camp," which Webster's defines as "something so outrageously artificial, affected, inappropriate, or out-of-date as to be considered amusing." The show immediately began stealing U.N.C.L.E.'s thunder and soon reached the fad proportions U.N.C.L.E. had achieved the previous season.

The response of U.N.C.L.E.'s producers was to jump on the bandwagon. In retrospect, it's doubtful that anything could have revived the show to its former fad proportions; a fad, by definition, is short-lived. But turning an action-adventure show with humorous overtones into a silly parody of itself was a recipe for disaster, and the show began sliding into the dismal swamp of the Nielsen ratings. In the third season it was still on Friday nights, but moved from 10:00 to 8:30 pm. Not all third-season episodes fell into the "camp" category, but there were enough of them to drive away many loyal fans.

In the fourth season, it was recognized that drastic measures would have to be taken to save the show. A new producer was brought in, and the shows returned to a serious tone--perhaps too serious. It was moved to yet another time slot, Mondays at 8:00. In all, U.N.C.L.E. had five different time slots in its three-and-a-half-year run.

Internally, there were changes going on as well. Vaughn was working on a PhD in mass communications at the University of Southern California and getting more and more interested in politics, particularly in regard to the Vietnam war. He eventually received his doctorate, writing his dissertation on the Hollywood blacklisting that took place during the McCarthy era. In the meantime, McCallum went through a messy divorce and remarried shortly thereafter. By the time the show was canceled, it's fair to say that both stars had other things on their minds.

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.