DVD Review/Look Back: The Man from UNCLE - Complete

DVD Review: The Man from UNCLE

There was a great moment early in the series NCIS.

Jethro Gibbs and company are in their office, when one of his subordinates wonders if their medical examiner, Dr. Mallard aka “Ducky” (David McCallum), ever dated.

“Dated?” Gibbs asked rhetorically. “When Ducky was a young man, we called him Illya Kuryakin!”

Gibbs’ juniors have absolutely no idea what their boss means. Then again, if you mentioned Kuryakin and his partner Napoleon Solo to anyone under 40, they probably wouldn’t know either. It’s a loss this collection is about to rectify.

The mid-60s were a great time for television. True, in those days the concept of UHF was revolutionary. Most TV sets only had one dial that listed the first 13 channels on the dial and only the richest families had color. Still, the general quality of the entertainment provided was some of the highest TV was going to deliver for decades to come.

It was also a great time for the UK. They weren’t just exporting the Beatles and Stones and leading the world in fashion. They were also kicking tail and taking names in the spy genre as well. Sean Connery ruled the roost as Bond, James Bond. On the TV front, Patrick McNee’s Avengers was about to get a giant boost from Diana Rigg and her cat suit. Don’t forget the pre-Prisoner Patrick McGoohan, with his revamped version of the series Danger Man, now called Secret Agent. If you think American producers of entertainment weren’t watching the dollars crossing over the Atlantic, you were driving an Edsel.

MGM producer Norman Felton certainly noticed. He met up with Bond creator Ian Fleming and they came up with some ideas. Fleming’s main contribution was the character Napoleon Solo. It was the name of a minor character in some of the Bond books, but when United Artist (who was not part of MGM at that time) raised a stink about it, Fleming gave Felton the rights to Solo for one pound sterling.

Felton then brought in fellow producer Sam Rolfe. Rolfe set Solo inside an international peace keeping organization called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Unlike other such spy series, U.N.C.L.E. had no national affiliation. Its agents could be from any country. As one might have guessed, Solo (who would be played by Robert Vaughn) was quickly scripted a partner in the form of Kuryakin (McCallum), a Russian. They both reported to the ever witty elder agent, Alexander Waverly (the legendary Leo G. Carroll).

No good international covert operation could be without its nefarious counterpart. This was provided by THRUSH. THRUSH’s main job was to profit from chaos, war mongering and general malfeasance. They would much prefer the U.S. and the then USSR and Red China drop bombs on each other than work for one of those countries. There was no mention of the Vietnam War, racial and sexual equality or even the Great Society. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (technically Solo) had its own concepts of good and evil, even though it did show a strong Kennedy-like sense of liberalism.

Not that kids of the 60s gave a damn about the political implications. What mattered was the show was chock full of martial arts, daring do, cool gadgets and lots and lots of gorgeous actresses. ). Heck, they even had an incredible car, the legendary test model Piranha, which had more gadgets than the writers would ever use. Both Vaughn and McCallum looked sharp in tuxes, too. This gave them incredible female followings to boot. McCallum got the teenyboppers while Vaughn the over-21s

When he series debuted in 1964 on NBC, it had a rocky start. This was primarily due to going up against superhits McHale’s Navy and The Red Skelton Show. So NBC moved it. They also started sending Vaughn and McCallum out on strategically important promotional tours. By early 1965, the show took off like a rocket, eventually rivaling Bonanza for the #1 show on American TV.

Then MGM got really smart. It edited a number of the two-part episodes and released them as movies overseas. The Man From U.N.C.L.E., to paraphrase ZZ Top, wasn’t just ba-a-a-d. They were international. It had a fan following with also loved British rock, danced in the original discos, wore collarless suits or go go boots and miniskirts and read the likes of Kesey, Pynchon and Haley. In other words, UNCLE was hitting a new audience, a new generation called Baby Boomers.

Sampling any of the first two episodes and one could see why. A good example of the show speeding on all cylinders is episode #1.9, “The Sprigas Affair.” It kicks off with Waverly giving Solo and Kuryakin their latest assignment, to bring down an up-and-coming Eastern Bloc politician who acts like Winston Churchill but in reality shows all the tendencies of Josef Stalin (Werner Klemperer, best remembered for his comedic turn as Hogan’s Heroes Colonel Klink). They recruit a former MIT chemical engineer currently down on his luck (William Shatner). The train Shatner to act like he has access to a new weapon, a gas that is completely undetectable but can knock out an entire region without killing a single person called “Sprigas.” From there, Kuryakin dresses up as a captain in Klemperer’s black ops organization while Solo acts as Donnerson’s bodyguard.

From there, the idea is simple. They goof up just enough to make Klemperer’s assistant (Leonard Nimoy) think there’s something fishy with the whole deal. At the same time, Donnerson is so hungry to get the formula, and thus rise to a Secretary’s position inside his government, that he ignores the grift. After some great intrigue and double-dealing, the carpet is finally pulled out from Klemperer’s feet, Nimoy ends up in his position, and Shatner is amply rewarded for his patriotism.

What’s incredible about the entire episode is there’s no major violence throughout the entire show. Shatner shows the roots of Denny Crane were there long before he played James Tiberius Kirk or TJ Hooker. Both McCallum and Nimoy appear to have great fun chewing up European accents while Vaughn is wonderfully sardonic.

Yes, this episode originally aired in 1964, a couple of years before Star Trek.

Actually, what’s also impressive about U.N.C.L.E. was its ability to draw major talent to itself. As Richard Donner, who directed many of the episodes, would say in the extra content, he was constantly amazed that the likes of then and future superstars like Anne Francis, Telly Savalas, Caroll O’Conner, Ricardo Montoban and Barbera Feldon would make guest appearances throughout the series’ history. Further, Vaughn, McCallum and Nash were always in top form, no matter what kind of script they were handed.

The scripts would be the downfall of the series in the long run. The success of UNCLE soon spawned another dozen or so similar shows for the rest of the decade. Some, such as I Spy and Mission Impossible would eventually become major competition, both for ratings and talent. Others, just drained the talent, both for cast and crew.

As Vaughn himself would say, he knew the writing was on the wall when in the third season he was fighting a guy in a gorilla suit. The ratings sunk appropriately. The series would last nine episodes into its fourth season when NBC gave UNCLE its burn notice.

Not that it mattered for Vaughn and McCallum. Vaughn went back into feature films. His first after UNCLE was with his colleague Steve McQueen in the film Bullitt. He would then carve a long career primarily playing sophisticated villains. During his tenure as Solo, he also went to USC to get his Ph. D in Communications. If you want to what he’s up to currently, a good sample of it can be seen in the BBC series Hustle, where he plays an elderly confidence man who helps coach a younger generation on how to pull the big grifts. A fifth season of the series is currently in production.

As for McCallum? Well, he’s still part of the NCIS team as the sardonic Ducky. Inbetween he led an equally busy career with a number of highlights, including teaming up with Joanna Lumley in the underappreciated series Sapphire & Steel. He’s also developed some interesting ties in the animation world. He’s been cast as the voice of Zeus in the upcoming Wonder Woman film and was the voice of Alfred in Batman: Gotham Knight.

What’s pleasurable to see is, if the extra content is any indicator, both Vaughn and McCallum remained great friends long after UNCLE was over.

As for the set? About the only thing this 41-disk case is missing are some of the movie adaptations of the two-part episodes or the one-off sequel Vaughn and McCallum did in the early 80s. Otherwise, you get every UNCLE episode, over ten hours of extra content and a solidly crisp, clean restoration of show, including the rarely seen pilot. All this is smartly packed inside a small briefcase for easy storage. There’s even a mention, just a mention, of the camp spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E..

In all, if you are going to restore and re-release a classic TV series, this is the way to do it. So maybe only older heads who remember the swinging 60s will immediately grasp who Illya Kuryakin was. One scan of any of the first two seasons of this set will tell you why he and his partner Napoleon Solo are such beloved characters to many even today.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - The Complete Series is in stores now - yes, in the suitcase.

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