Like "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation," Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" and the upcoming "Star Trek Beyond," Guy Ritchie's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is based on a 1960s TV show. And during the 1960s, that show was bigger than "Mission: Impossible," "Dark Shadows" and even "Star Trek."
How big? More so than any of the others, the four-season NBC series -- starring Robert Vaughn as American spy Napoleon Solo, David McCallum as his Soviet partner Illya Kuryakin and Leo G. Carroll as their handler, Alexander Waverly of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement -- spawned an armada of action figures, plastic models, games, badges, toy guns and much more, including, of course, lunchboxes -- one of which now resides in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
When "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." premiered on Sept. 22, 1964, it was still early in the phenomenon of secret-agent fiction ignited by the James Bond movies. "U.N.C.L.E." arrived after the Bond films "Dr. No" (1962) and "From Russian With Love" (1963), but before "Goldfinger" (1964) had its U.S. release -- and well before Dean Martin's Matt Helm or James Coburn's Derek Flint spy-caper movies, or the parody series "Get Smart," or Marvel Comics' "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.," which writer-
editor Stan Lee has said was inspired by "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
Only insofar as the name, though: Where the Nick Fury stories were espionage adventure dramas with a science-fiction tinge, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." was a lighthearted satire of super spies -- at least until the ratings started fading and the show's final half-season, in 1968, became more serious.
So aside from Bond, "U.N.C.L.E." had the field largely to itself in the beginning, and the producers used that time well, daring to tweak Cold War prophecies by teaming an American and a Soviet -- long before "Star Trek" made Ensign Chekhov part of the post-Communist future. "U.N.C.L.E." upped the ante from Bond's laser beams and spring-loaded boot knives to such delightfully outlandish threats as earthquake inducers and hiccup gas. Yet it counterpointed that craziness with a plot formula of audience identification, having an ordinary civilian find himself, or more often herself, swept up in the action and intrigue.
Solo and Kuryakin also had to deal with expense accounts and office politics, adding an equally down-to-earth quality that grounded stories involving supervillains, global crime cartels, former Nazis and the evil organization T.H.R.U.S.H. -- whose full name was never revealed in the series but was the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity in the spinoff novelizations.
The show also spun off eight feature films -- consisting of episodes with extra footage for a little more sexiness and violence -- plus a TV series, the campy "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1966-67), starring Stefanie Powers as agent April Dancer. And there was a reunion TV movie in 1983.
It's all enough to make you cry "U.N.C.L.E.," and let slip the dogs of Cold War.