Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Sun-Times on Dec. 14, 2007.
If the term United Network Command for Law Enforcement means nothing to you, then chances are either you were not a fan of one of the coolest television series of the 1960s, or you know the show by it’s much more familiar (and easier to remember) moniker “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
The series, which aired on NBC from 1964-1968, starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as American and Russian, respectively, super-spies in an organization of crime fighters around the world. Their enemy? That would be THRUSH, a network of maniacal evilmongers bent on taking over the world.
The entire run — “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series” is now available for home video (TimeLife/Warner Home Video) — all 105 episodes plus 10 hours of bonus features, including a new 90-minute interview with Vaughn and McCallum.
The 41-disc collection comes packaged in a silver “attache case,” what else? The bonus materials are top-of-the-line, especially the behind-the-scenes featurettes that take you into the world of the gadgets, costumes and memorabilia collections.
The gallery of Hollywood’s elite that guest starred on the series included Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
Robert Vaughn, who starred as the dashing American James-Bondish Napoleon Solo (opposite his Russian counterpart, McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin), talked to the Sun-Times about this classic television series.
Q. What did you like most about playing Napoleon Solo?
A. I like Solo because he was Solo. Because I loved James Bond. There were three “Bond” movies out at that time, so the series really picked up on that. It was fast cars, money, glamorous women, action adventure, great locales.
Q. The show was such a huge hit, what was the fan mail like?
A. We got all kinds of mail. Some saw the show as James Bond. Some saw it as foreign intrigue. Some saw it as an early version of “Get Smart.” A lot of people thought we were an actual branch of the U.S. government, or the United Nations. We got tons of mail from people who thought we were a real organization.
Q. Solo and Kuryakin had some of the coolest crime-fighting gizmos on television. Were they as cool as they looked?
A. We had no extravagant budget for props so our two prop guys would take their 99 cents and buy all sorts of cheap stuff and just make these things from scratch. The famous pen that we talked into was created from bits and pieces of who knows what. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry came on set one day and got the idea for the “Get Smart” shoe phone from our pen. The famous gun was a Walther P38. It was sold in plastic toy form with great success around the world. Unfortunately, David and I, being quite dumb about merchandising, got no money from all the toys’ sales.
Q. What was the biggest surprise for you both in terms of “U.N.C.L.E.” and its success?
A. We had no idea how big the show was. We [ Vaughn and McCallum] were in our 30s and suddenly this oddball adventure show started to go to England and Asia and we were thrust into these worldwide personal appearances. We’d land, and there were thousands of fans at the airport. Or we’d make an appearance at a department store and the line was around the block.
Q. The series took us to some very exotic locales. Something tells me you never made it to most of those destinations.
A. [Laughs] It was a fictitious world organization with cells in every world capital. But it was a fictitious world. At MGM we used Lot 2 and Lot 3 for all the exterior sets of world capitals. Lot 3, which has been used for “Tarzan” and “Show Boat” [films], had a lake, river, trees, hills, so we used quite a bit of that for the French Riviera, or the tropics and such.
Q. Napoleon Solo was also quite a physically demanding role. Did you do your own stunts and action sequences?
A. There were so many fights, but I had a very good stuntman who I was determined to keep employed. But I was in great physical shape, so I often did the stunts in rehearsal, then he’d do them, and invariably the director liked my version better so we went with mine. But I faked all the martial arts stuff. I have no martial arts skills whatsoever.
Q. So what happened to the show’s writing by season three, when everything started to get very campy?
A. That’s what happens with TV shows as they become hits. The show’s creator supervises the first year, involved with all the scripts, the casting, and the second year , he walked away to do another series. A new producer comes in, wanted to prove he could make the show successful by eliminating some of the stuff that had made it successful in the first place, and it ended up being a silly show.
Plus, the second year we were on, “Batman” debuted and that show was the template for popular culture of the time. So they wanted our show to have more of that really campy feel to it. And our show just lost its purpose.
Q. What about Leo G. Carroll, who starred as Alexander Waverly, the very dashing head of the whole U.N.C.L.E. organization?
A. He was just pure class. Hitchcock cast him in “North by Northwest” and said at the time he was the finest screen actor who ever appeared in films. We were just honored to have him as part of our show.