The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
(4 out of 5 stars)
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

Say U.N.C.L.E.! One of the coolest and most popular spy shows aired during the Cold War era is finally out on DVD. The complete series with all 105 original episodes is available in a collector’s attaché case – and it’s not booby trapped. You may need the help or your uncle and a few cousins to lift it, but every campy, gadget-filled action packed episode is worth it.

A two-episode preview with extras was sent out prior to the release of the series -- and guess who captured one of the DVDs? Judging by the clarity of the picture, if you didn’t know the episodes were shot when Lyndon Johnson was threatening to nuke Russia, you’d think the production crew raided a 60s costume shop and shot the scenes on a soundstage just a few weeks ago. Spies are supposed to be tight-lipped, but you’ll find the agents of espionage spill quite a few useful tales in the more than 10 hours of bonus footage.

Robert Vaughn, very much a talented, detached loner in real life, played the similarly aloof Napoleon Solo, a swarthy, calm and calculated fashion plate modeled after James Bond. Solo was a shoot first and ask questions later type around men folk, but he could turn on the charm for the fairer sex with his smoldering eyes and gentlemanly comportment. Solo may have worn Armani, but he wasn’t above getting his custom made suits dirty while sending a few bad guys to knuckle town. His more passionate partner, Russian Ilya Kuryakin, wore his blonde hair in a Beatle mop and favored black turtlenecks to suits. Kuryakin preferred to think his way put of a trap, but like Solo, he wasn’t above using fisticuffs or emptying a clip into his enemies. Their boss, Mr. Waverly, was a sophisticated, wizened, old school English gentleman, played by distinguished character actor Leo G. Carroll, the star of the 50s T.V. sitcom “Topper.” Each week the trio would team up with an “innocent of the week,” (a fish out of water character the audience could identify with) to battle T.H.R.U.S.H., an equally secretive organization with apparently endless supply of vile villains out to rule the world.

“The Never Never Affair,” a fan favorite from Season I, features Barbra Feldon, who within a few years would star in the popular T.V. spy spoof “Get Smart” with Don Adams. The always suave Caesar Romero plays guest villain Victor Ravais, the boss of T.H.R.U.S.H.’s French office. Feldon plays milquetoast Portuguese translator Mandy Stevenson, who’s so bored with her life she resorts to breeching security in order to convince Solo she’s spy material. Tired of Mandy’s pestering, Solo devises an elaborate ruse to trick her into thinking she’s on an important mission. Someone needs to pick up Mr. Waverly’s tobacco – so, handing Mandy a humidor, Solo convinces her she’s a courier picking up vital information. The joke becomes reality when Mandy tells her boss she’s been selected to be Waverly’s courier and he mistakenly gives her a vital microdot containing the list of Ravais’ agents. Solo and Kuryakin set out to find Mandy before T.H.R.U.S.H does unspeakable things to her and cops the list, but Solo is no longer sure of the convoluted route he told her to follow. Having already failed to capture Kuryakin when he was carrying the information, two T.H.R.U.S.H agents spot Kuryakin with Mandy and assume he’s passed the information to her. The two chase after Mandy instead of Kuryakin, who along with Solo ends up in a shootout in a movie theater. Ever the gentleman, and unaware his men are pursuing Mandy, Ravais offers her a ride in his limousine, just as his men round the corner and congratulate him on capturing the courier. Ravais may be a bad guy, but unlike his fellow agents, he’s chivalrous and gives Mandy every opportunity to tell him where she’s hidden the microdot:

Ravias (examining the humidor): Looks like a humidor, smells like a humidor. What do you suppose it is?
Mandy (smiling slyly): A humidor.

Ravais carefully twists the humidor’s lid, certain it’s set to explode. Sweating like a condemned man, he pulls the top off and is visibly relieved when he and Mandy remain intact. Snappy repartee was always a trademark of the series, especially when delivered by acting vets like Romero, who amps up the pressure on Feldon’s Mandy… Where is the microdot hidden?

Mandy: Let me warn you, I don’t crack under pressure.
Ravais: Not at all?
Mandy: Not noticeably, no.

Solo and Kuryakin track Mandy to the bad guy’s headquarters above a repair shop, which Solo easily infiltrates. (All it takes is a twist of the distributor cap). Solo gets into an oil drum tossing, fist flinging, gas spraying donnybrook with the mechanic, but is captured before he can free Mandy. Tied to a chair with an oil drum stuffed with T.N.T as an explosive gift for the next group of U.N.C.L.E. agents that enter the garage (which would include Kuryakin and Mr. Waverly), Solo shows the audience why the final act of the episode was subtitled “The Over-the Shoulder-Shot.”

The second episode sent out for preview is the show’s color pilot episode, entitled “Solo.” Initially the show was indeed “solo.” Ilya Kuryakin appears in the first scene in which a group of T.H.R.U.S.H agents breach U.N.C.L.E’s security and try to blow up their headquarters. He has a few lines and is never seem again. Neither is “Mr. Allison” (Will Kuluva), U.N.C.LE.’s original #1. A network edict was sent down after the suits viewed the pilot: “Get rid of the character with the accent.” The Latin-accented Kuluva was exiled to the land of U.N.C.L.E. trivia, replaced by Leo G. Carroll. The problem was the message from on high had been directed at David McCallum’s character, who the suits also hated because he had long hair. By the time the error was discovered, stacks of fan male from teenagers being delivered and no decoding was necessary – the audience loved Ilya Kuryakin. Not only was McCallum’s character spared, he was elevated from bit part to co-star.

Patricia Crowley, one of the busiest T.V. actresses in the 60s, is the episode’s designated “innocent.” Crowley often played the spunky All-American mom, a Donna Reed redux with 2.5 kids. (In this episode playing housewife Elaine May Bender, she only has two kids.) Bender’s drafted by U.N.C.L.E. to find out how and when her one-time college boyfriend and current T.H.R.U.S.H operative Andrew Vulcan plans to assassinate the ruler of an African nation. Vulcan is played by hang-dog-faced Fritz Weaver, who currently makes his living as a narrator on the History Channel. The leader of the mythical African nation is carried out by William Marshall, whose brilliant bass voice and letter perfect James Earl Jones diction commanded the screen while Jones was still in high school. (Ironically, the classically trained Marshall is best known for roles he’d rather forget – The titular character in the Blaxsploitation film “Blacula;” stressed out genius Dr. Richard Daystrom in the “Star Trek” episode “The Ultimate Computer,” and The King of Cartoons in “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” In the end Marshall may have indeed forgotten about these roles – he died of Alzheimer’s disease four years ago.).

While the once hesitant Elaine May quickly begins to enjoy the high life, Solo gets beaten up, blown up, chased and tied up when Vulcan discovers who he is. The best part of the action takes place at Vulcan’s plant where Solo and Bender lead the villains on a spirited chase before they’re caught. See if you can spot Richard “Jaws” Kiel in a cameo as a wrench wielding bad guy – but don’t stop to pick at the unpopped kernels in your bowl or you’ll miss him. By the end of the episode, Crowley’s Bender puts her cocktail gown on the line for her country. You kinda know she’ll rise to the occasion – she’s Super Mom – but you root for her anyway. There’s a slight plot twist at the end – just who is the bad guy here? But whether he’s solo, or paired with Ilya Kuryakin, or even Pat Crowley, you know Napoleon’s going to save the day with a spark of genius or a battle royal.

More U.N.C.L.E

The complete box set contains a full magazine of extras, including “A Celebration of Guest Stars,” a feature on the villains that cropped up on the show. Even if you don’t know these 60s character actors by name you’ll recognize their faces, including Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker), Robert Culp (“I Spy”), Ricardo Montalban (Khan and Mr. Roarke), stunning Susan Oliver (“Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone”) and Gavin Macleod (“The Love Boat”). There’s a teaser scene with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy before they worked together on, you guessed it… “Star Trek” (Is there a pattern here?)…And there’s Scotty (Canadian by birth James Doohan) on the bridge of a warship without his Scottish brogue. Robert Vaughn recalls the most beautiful actress he ever worked with a hint of sadness – Sharon Tate. David McCallum gushes over Elsa Lanchester’s guest appearance, and no, she never did a guest spot on “Star Trek.” Lanchester was married to Charles Laughton, one of the most celebrated actors in all of filmdom. Lanchester was no slouch herself, especially playing shrewish, conniving women that looked like your favorite grandma but killed like Jack the Ripper. Director Sam Sargent is equally complimentary toward Caesar Romero: “It was delightful meeting a legend.”

Another extra, “The Cloak and Dagger Affair: The Untold Story of The Man From U.N.C.LE.” traces the shows origins from a few distaff ideas James Bond writer Ian Fleming passed onto screen writer Norman Felton, to the choice of Vaughn (“I looked good in a tuxedo”). You also get a code book’s worth of amusing anecdotes from Vaughn and McCallum who recalls with delight a conversation he had with the elderly Leo G. Carroll about his plans during the shows hiatus: “My wife and I are going to stay home and watch each other fall apart.” More revealing is a reunion interview with Vaughn and McCallum, who clearly weren’t the best of friends when originally paired together on the show, but have come to respect one another and enjoy the lasting fame their roles afforded.

If you’re lucky, your uncles drop by the house on holidays to mooch a few beers. Now your see your favorite U.N.C.L.E.s anytime you want.

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