UPDATE: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. box set is available from Time-Life. Not a bootleg, although it is the kind of thing Thrush would do.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is finally out on DVD. You can buy the complete box set of episodes, all four seasons. For kids growing up in the 60s this is a big deal. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was TV's answer to James Bond movies. Suave secret agents, acronym agencies, crazed villains with eye patches, beautiful women, daring stunts, gadgets, and lunch boxes you could take to school.
Robert Vaughn, who never met a line he didn't deliver the same way, starred as Napoleon Solo (an odd choice of names since he always had a partner). Blond towhead David McCallum was his cohort, Illya Kuryakin. An American and Russian working together. I'm trying to think of today's equivalent with an American and an Arab. Okay. Jack Bauer and Casey Kasem.
The first year of Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the best. Creator Sam Rolfe envisioned a somewhat gritty show. For his trouble he was replaced in year two. From there the series went to color and veered towards comedy and camp and went through five showrunners. Imagine How To Stuff A Wild Bikini as a spy show. The series even had a spinoff, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. starring Stephanie Powers. That show was so off-the-charts stupid it made Batman seem like The Wire.
I've always had fond memories of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and was very excited last summer when one of those up-the-dial cable channels no one ever watches started replaying them. (American Life or Lifestyle, who the hell knows? The other 23 hours they show Juiceman informercials.) I was so geeked up. Set up my Tivo season pass and settled in to revisit those happier simple times when our enemies only had nuclear weapons and vowed to destroy us.
What struck me more than anything else was how utterly cheesy the show looked. Produced by MGM originally in black and white, each episode must've cost $49.99. How did I not notice this originally? Never an extra on any busy street or in any hotel lobby. The same exteriors for every worldwide location. Solo could meet his contact in Tokyo or Budapest - it was the same building. Every chase scene was on the same road. Every sign was printed on cardboard. AMERICAN EMBASSY. HONG KONG AIRPORT. Kuriyakin would be walking down a street and come to a sign that looked like a high school election poster that read UNITED NATIONS.
They had to go a big art auction once. The action took place in a small lobby that looked like a receptionist's office, then a doorway, which supposedly led to a grand ballroom. Through the doorway you saw four people sitting on card chairs calling out bids.
The episodes usually had Solo & Kuriyakin thwarting Thrush while getting some innocent MILF involved in the caper.
But one episode stood out. I was hoping to see it again and sure enough, there it was! It was called "The Deadly Games Affair" (all episodes were "affairs").
In this "affair" it seems that Hitler was still alive but in suspended animation, being held for safe keeping by a mad professor in a bunker under his ranch style house in suburban Long Island. When it is discovered that Solo has the same blood type as der Fuhrer he is kidnapped and strapped to a table where his brain is to be switched with Adolph's. (Didn't they do this movie twenty times in 1933?) At the last moment Solo escapes, captures the professor, and while he's in the neighborhood, kills Hitler. (Whew!!!)
And this was an episode of the good year.
In later seasons there was the "Bat-Cave Affair" with Martin Landau (pre Ed Wood) as a vampire/Transylvania Thrush agent. The plastic bats added a nice touch of realism. In "The Indian Affair," Thrush kidnaps "Chief Highcloud", Illya dons a wig and Indian garb and the episode could not be filled with more jaw dropping politically incorrect "how" and "wampum" references. "The Galatea Affair" is a take-off of My Fair Lady with Joan Collins in the virginal Julie Andrews role. "The Pop Art Affair" has the Man From Uncle battling Thrush beat-niks and a drug that can induce fatal hiccups. Illya disguises himself as the abominable snowman in "The Abominable Snowman Affair." But maybe the worst of all was "The My Friend, The Gorilla Affair." Napoleon Solo is in Africa trying to track down Illya and seeks the help of a girl named "Girl" (Vitina Marcus) who was raised by apes. And later in the show Robert Vaughn dances with a man in a gorilla suit. Vaughn, who holds a PhD from USC, was nominated for an Academy Award five years earlier!
All of these "affairs" and more are included in the box set. Even with the bizarre plotlines and crappy production values I still want to get it.
If only the lunch box was included.
You can read more from Ken at kenlevine.blogspot.com