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Tags: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 50th anniversary

50 Years Later, 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E' Is Still A Hit — and Still Stirs Political Controversy

50 Years Later, 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E' Is Still A Hit — and Still Stirs Political Controversy
Actors David McCallum, left, and Robert Vaughn. (Drew/Associated Press)

John Gizzi By Wednesday, 31 December 2014 04:22 PM EST Current | Bio | Archive

One little-noticed 50th anniversary date in 2014 was that of Sept. 22. In 1964, that was the date of the premiere of NBC's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," the series that brought the secret agent craze of the mid-1960's to the small screen.

A half-century later, the super-secret spying-for-good United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) lives on among a new generation of fans who watched its four seasons and 105 episodes on YouTube.

With eight motion pictures made of past episodes of the series, Hollywood is now in the process of casting a new film version of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." with Tom Cruise originally cast as American agent Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin. (Cruise left the project in 2013. His replacement in the role of Solo is Henry Cavill). The reported release date is summer 2015.

In its heyday, U.N.C.L.E. spawned board games, novels, comic books and various imitations. A sister series, "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." came later, and the bag and container Glad was pitched by (you guessed it!) "The Man From GLAD."

As former George W. Bush White House speechwriter and "Investors Business Daily" columnist Tom McArdle recalled: "I grew up knowing who Napoleon Solo was before I knew who Napoleon Bonaparte was."

Series star and active Democrat Robert Vaughn, who played agent Solo, once recalled spending a weekend at the "Hickory Hills" (Virginia) home of friend Robert Kennedy to discuss RFK's presidential campaign in 1968. The bedrooms of the Kennedy children, he noticed, were plastered with posters of Solo and Kuryakin.

But U.N.C.L.E. also raised serious political questions over who was running the super-secret crime fighting organization and who had authority over agents of different nationalities.

Each week, fans of all ages watched the adventures of Solo (whose name was originated by James Bond's creator Ian Fleming) and Kuryakin as they battled evil operatives of varying stripes. These ranged from a Castro-like female guerrilla leader (played by Margaret Cordova) plotting to steal a U.S. jet and nuclear warhead to help her brother seize power in a Latin American country to the sinister Madame Gervais Revel (played by Anne Francis), widow of the reputed intelligence chief of France's nationalist "Secret Army" (OAS) that had tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.

U.N.C.L.E. agents even thwarted a deranged German scientist who had kept Adolf Hitler in suspended animation for 20 years and attempted to revive him.

Most of the time, however, Solo and Kuryakin dueled with THRUSH, a mysterious international crime syndicate that seemed to be a hybrid of the Mafia and the ISIS terrorists. According to novelizations of the series, THRUSH stood for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and for the Subjugation of Humanity.

Many considered the series a parable about the Cold War. Press releases about the upcoming "U.N.C.L.E." film project bill it as a movie based on the "Cold War drama" of the '60's.

But Solo and Kuryakin never took on any agents of the KGB or subversives from any Iron Curtain country. Kuryakin, some viewers assumed, was a former KGB operative who "turned." No episode verifies this or much else about the "U.N.C.L.E" agents or their British chief, Alexander Waverly (British actor Leo G. Carroll).

"U.N.C.L.E. is an organization consisting of agents of all nationalities," went the opening narration, "it's involved in maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world." Just who or what determines that "political and legal order" was never explained.

"[The Man From U.N.C.L.E.] bothered conservatives and people who took seriously constitutional questions about U.S. sovereignty," M. Stanton Evans, conservative author, lecturer, and teacher, told Newsmax. "The whole idea of agents from different countries working for an international law enforcement organizations raised a number of concerns, especially since they came from a such a hit series."

The closest that the show's writers came to hinting who was behind U.N.C.L.E was the opening scene, which featured the New York skyline and always prominently focused on the United Nations building (although U.N.C.L.E. headquarters was actually in the East 40s, with its agents' entrance in the little-noticed Del Floria's tailor shop).

"I loved the show as a kid and even own the complete series on DVD," said Hans von Spakovsky, Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "But the show was completely unrealistic in having a Russian agent as a major character at a time when the Soviet Gulag was filled with political prisoners. The complete failure of the UN and it's domination by undemocratic governments shows just how foolish the idea of a secret international organization fighting a secret crime organization such as THRUSH was at a time when the worst criminals in the world were the Communist leaders of Russia and China, not any private crime group or mob operation."

Where THRUSH and the critics of the series failed to finish off U.N.C.L.E., the third season of the series effectively did.  Known to aficionados as "the silly season," Season Three brought in David Victor succeeding Rolfe as executive producer and a battery of new writers who ratcheted up the "spy spoof" and self-parody nature of the series.

In one episode, Solo finds himself dancing with a gorilla. When the U.N.C.L.E. team apparently started to deal with communists, their job is not to stop them but to guard a Chairman Georgi Koz of a unnamed European state as he seeks to learn about capitalism by playing Santa Claus at Macy's.

Even the rock duo Sonny and Cher got into the act during "the silly season."

"We had a fight scene and I forgot to pull my punches with Bob Vaughn and flattened him," Sonny Bono recalled to this reporter in 1995 when he was a Republican U.S. Representative from California. "He wasn't very happy with me."

Fans were furious with "U.N.C.L.E" and its ratings plummeted. Nervous producers recanted, fired and replaced the writers, and the show reverted to its more sober approach to intrigue and espionage. But it was too late. On January 15, 1968, Solo, Kuryakin, and Mr. Waverly frustrated THRUSH for the last time and the series was over.

But not quite. In 1983, the made-for-TV movie "The Fifteen Years Later Affair" brought Solo and Kuryakin out of comfortable retirement to grapple with a reconstituted THRUSH. Mr. Waverly had long since died (as did actor Carroll) and was replaced as head of U.N.C.L.E. by another British actor, Patrick Macnee of "The Avengers" fame. 

It is unclear when the proposed movie will be completed. One thing appears a good bet: that the next "Man From U.N.C.L.E" will be discussed, debated, and a subject of considerable political discourse, just as the first version was when it premiered 50 years ago.
EDITOR'S NOTE: We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose cooperation this article would not be possible. (This closing line, like that which closed each episode every week, is fictional.)

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One little-noticed 50th anniversary date in 2014 was that of September 22. In 1964, that was the date of the premiere of NBC's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," the series that brought the secret agent craze of the mid-1960's to the small screen.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 50th anniversary
Wednesday, 31 December 2014 04:22 PM
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