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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


Norman Felton was a successful TV producer in the early '60s. His company, Arena Productions, was flying high with the success of Dr. Kildare, and he was looking for new projects to undertake. Prime-time TV was crammed with Westerns, doctor shows, and police shows. He thought the timing was right for a completely different kind of show, featuring stories of espionage and international intrigue.

In the fall of 1962 he approached Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, with a concept for a new television series based loosely on Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. After some prodding by Felton, Fleming came up with an outline for a series about a spy with certain similarities to his creation James Bond. He made a number of suggestions, including the name of the spy--Napoleon Solo. He suggested that Solo's boss would have a secretary, similar to Miss Moneypenny in the Bond series, and that her name be April Dancer.

Due to contractual problems with the producers of the James Bond movies, Fleming had to withdraw from the project, and most of his ideas had to be dropped due to their similarity to the Bond series. The name for the spy, Napoleon Solo, was retained. April Dancer was reincarnated years later as the girl from U.N.C.L.E.

Felton brought in Sam Rolfe, whose television credits as creator, producer, and writer included Have Gun Will Travel, Playhouse 90, and The Eleventh Hour. Rolfe fleshed out the character of Solo and created his partner, Illya Kuryakin, and Mr. Allison, the original head of U.N.C.L.E. Allison was later replaced with the character of Alexander Waverly. Rolfe created U.N.C.L.E. as well--an international organization devoted to maintaining order in the world yet not connected to the government of any one country.

One aspect of North by Northwest that Felton particularly liked was that an innocent character (Cary Grant) was mistaken for a spy and swept into a web of intrigue, murder, and deceit. As he and Rolfe developed the idea for the television series, they decided that the involvement of an innocent character would be an integral part of each episode, giving the television audience someone they could identify with. Through all the changes in U.N.C.L.E. in the course of its four- year run, that one element remained a constant factor--from a suburban housewife in the first episode, "The Vulcan Affair," to the various people kidnapped in the final episode, "The Seven Wonders of the World Affair."

Another aspect of U.N.C.L.E. that was instilled from the beginning was that the hero be an "average" person--not a tall, muscular figure like the heroes of so many Westerns. Indeed, all three actors selected to star in the show were under six feet tall, and none of them would have been mistaken for a bodybuilder. Although the show had the usual number of fight scenes for television in the '60s, the underlying theme was that the heroes won out through their smarts rather than their ability to beat up everybody else in the room.

"Average" persons nonetheless, Felton wanted a "Cary Grant type" to play Solo--dark, handsome, and debonair. He picked Robert Vaughn, who had been in Arena's canceled series The Lieutenant.

Rolfe came up with the idea to have a Russian agent in the organization to give it a truly international flavor. To have an American and a Russian working together at the height of the Cold War was a daring concept. David McCallum, a British actor who had come to America to film The Greatest Story Ever Told, was selected to play Illya Kuryakin.

Will Kuluva was selected to play the head of U.N.C.L.E., known only as Mr. Allison. Although his role did not survive past the pilot episode, Kuluva appeared in other roles later in the series.

The pilot, written by Rolfe, was shot in November 1963, with additional footage for the movie version shot the following April. President Kennedy was assassinated during the filming of the pilot, and work on it was halted during the period of national mourning. At that time the show was called Mr. Solo. Because of legal problems with the producers of the James Bond movies--a minor character in Goldfinger is named Solo--the title of the series was changed to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Rolfe called the pilot his favorite episode of the series--hardly surprising in light of all the work he put into it. The plot involves an industrialist named Andrew Vulcan who is negotiating to build a plant in an emerging African nation. U.N.C.L.E. believes Vulcan has ties to a criminal organization known as WASP and that he will attempt to assassinate the premier of the African nation when he visits Vulcan's plant. Solo (known only as Mr. Solo, not Napoleon, in the pilot) is sent to recruit Vulcan's college girlfriend to get close to him. The girlfriend, now a suburban housewife and mother, is transformed into a glamorous wealthy widow, and she and Solo go to Washington to track down Vulcan.

The original 70-minute version of the pilot no longer exists. When it premiered on NBC September 22, 1964, it was a one-hour black-and-white episode titled "The Vulcan Affair." A feature film in color, incorporating additional footage, was created from the pilot. It includes a subplot involving Luciana Paluzzi as a redheaded sexpot who lures an U.N.C.L.E. agent (named Dancer, interestingly enough) to his death and later tries to do the same thing with Solo. This footage later turned up in a first-season episode called "The Four-Steps Affair."

The movie version was released in theaters as To Trap a Spy in the summer of 1966. It appeared on a double bill with The Spy with My Face, a feature-length version of the first-season episode "The Double Affair," in which THRUSH uses plastic surgery to create a double of Solo. Fans who flocked to the movies expecting to see new U.N.C.L.E. stories were angered to find they had paid to see what had already run on television. Thereafter, future U.N.C.L.E. movies ran chiefly in overseas markets.

The pilot was shot both in black-and-white and in color, because Felton hoped to get the go-ahead from NBC to do the series in color. The network, however, insisted on black-and-white in order to save money, an unfortunate error in judgment. The show went to color in the second season and thereafter. Most fans of the series today agree the first-season episodes were the best of all, but because they are in black-and-white, they have been less attractive to syndicators.

By the time of the series premiere, WASP had become THRUSH (the name WASP remains in the movie version), and Kuluva's Mr. Allison had been replaced. Leo G. Carroll stepped in as Alexander Waverly, head of U.N.C.L.E., and his scenes were spliced into the pilot in place of Kuluva.

In perhaps the most fortunate miscommunication of the entire series, an NBC executive, after viewing the pilot, told Felton to get rid of the guy with the K name. Felton assumed he meant Kuluva, but the executive actually meant Kuryakin. The NBC executive didn't think American audiences would go for a Russian agent. (One wonders if this is the same NBC executive who ordered the cancellation of Star Trek a few years later.)

WASP was dropped for legal reasons and after much debate was replaced with THRUSH. In the beginning, no one knew what any of these acronyms--not even U.N.C.L.E. itself--actually stood for.

After trying several possible combinations for U.N.C.L.E., Rolfe settled on "United Network Command for Law and Enforcement." The United Nations had objected to the name U.N.C.L.E. on the grounds that people would connect the real international organization with the fictional one. In fact, many people did, even applying for jobs with the U.N. in the hope of becoming international spies. To quiet the legal eagles, Felton came up with the tag line used at the end of the credits of each episode: "We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose assistance this program would not have been possible." True...sort of. Not all viewers got the joke.

As for THRUSH, the name behind the acronym was never revealed in the series. One of the writers of the paperback U.N.C.L.E. novels, David McDaniel, came up with "The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity" in his book The Dagger Affair. It's probably as good a mouthful as any.

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.