In 1964, audiences watched the stylish adventures of an Ian Fleming superspy named … Napoleon Solo.
At traffic lights, on his way to a producer’s office, young actor Robert Vaughn had leafed through the script for a series called Solo. He realized immediately that it was “James Bond on television” and was sold.
With the film Dr. No and its sequel From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming’s hero had already become a successful franchise. And the biggest hits — Goldfinger and Thunderball — were yet to come.
In fact, the Solo producers had consulted with Fleming about their TV idea. With Bond movies in production, Fleming couldn’t participate much, but he did give them two character names — Napoleon Solo and April Dancer (eventually The Girl from UNCLE in a spinoff series).
One other Fleming-inspired idea was the name UNCLE. In his 9th Bond novel Thunderball, published in 1961, Fleming had winked at the mid-century bureaucratic passion for acronyms by calling Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s criminal syndicate SPECTRE (the Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Revenge, Terrorism and Extortion). The TV show’s UNCLE (the United Network Command for Law Enforcement) established the practice as a fictional superspy cliché, and KAOS, SHIELD, THUNDER and others followed. Hydra, Marvel Comics’ evil cabal, is now probably even more famous than SPECTRE.
The Man from UNCLE triggered and then surfed the massive wave of popularity for spy fiction that followed in American popular culture. Even perpetually panting teenager Archie Andrews pitched in as the Man from RIVERDALE.
The suave Solo and his stoic partner Illya Kuryakin were often pitted against Thrush, an organization described by Solo as believing “…the world should have a two-party system — the masters and the slaves.” The series started out excellently, but progressively lost focus, succumbing to “camp” claptrap. But it had made its mark.
“It was in a time of war,” McCallum recalled. “It was in a very agonizing time in the United States because of the Vietnam war, the cold war. It was a difficult time for people and ‘Man from UNCLE’ came along and was totally, as they used to say, tongue in cheek… People managed to escape for an hour with a Russian working with an American.”
America’s dark times even cast their shadow over The Man from UNCLE pilot, which suspended filming because of President Kennedy’s assassination.
On TV, anyway, evil could still be thwarted, and The Man from UNCLE attracted eager fans. Airing on NBC from 1964 to 1968, the series not only prompted a spinoff but numerous paperback novels, several movies, a latter-day pulp magazine and two comic books.
Solo and Kuryakin’s missions were always called “affairs,” and my favorite of the paperback titles was of course “The Unfair Fare Affair.”