As his legions of fans worldwide mourned the death of actor David McCallum, the Scottish-born actor was remembered as the quirky medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the long-running "NCIS" television series.
But McCallum, who was 90, was perhaps best-known as Illya Kuryakin, agent for the super-secret spying-for-good United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) on the popular series “Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Initially the sidekick of agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) — whose name was created by James Bond creator Ian Fleming — Kuryakin, with his Beatle-haircut and soft Russian accent, quickly became a full partner to Solo as they battled evil operatives of varying stripes.
Although the series ran from 1964 to 1968, it lives today among a new generation of fans who watch its four seasons and 105 episodes on YouTube.
In its heyday, "U.N.C.L.E." spawned board games, novels, comic books, and nine motion pictures, as well as various imitations.
A sister series, "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." came later, and the bag and container company Glad was pitched by (you guessed it!) "The Man From GLAD."
As former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Tom McArdle recalled: "I grew up knowing who Napoleon Solo was before I knew who Napoleon Bonaparte was."
Vaughn once recalled spending a weekend in Virginia at the Hickory Hills home of friend Robert Kennedy to discuss RFK's presidential campaign in 1968. The bedrooms of the Kennedy children, he noticed, were plastered with posters of Solo and Kuryakin.
But "U.N.C.L.E." also raised serious political questions over who was running the supersecret crime fighting organization and who had authority over agents of different nationalities.
And just who was a source of evil?
These ranged from a Castro-like female guerrilla leader — played by Margaret Cordova — plotting to steal a U.S. jet and nuclear warhead to help her brother seize power in a Latin American country, to the sinister Madame Gervais Revel — played by Anne Francis — widow of the reputed intelligence chief of France's nationalist "Secret Army" (OAS), which had tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.
U.N.C.L.E. agents even thwarted a deranged German scientist who had kept Adolf Hitler in suspended animation for 20 years and attempted to revive him.
Most of the time, however, Solo and Kuryakin dueled with THRUSH, a mysterious international crime syndicate that seemed to be a hybrid of the Mafia and ISIS terrorists.
According to novelizations of the series, THRUSH stood for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and for the Subjugation of Humanity.
Many considered the series a saga about the Cold War, and today it is frequently referred to as a "Cold War" drama.
But Solo and Kuryakin never took on any KGB agents, or indeed subversives from any Iron Curtain country.
Kuryakin, some viewers assumed, was a former KGB operative who had "turned." No episode verifies this or much else about the U.N.C.L.E agents or their British chief, Alexander Waverly, played by British actor Leo G. Carroll.
"U.N.C.L.E. is an organization consisting of agents of all nationalities," went the opening narration. "It's involved in maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world."
Just who or what determines that "political and legal order" was never explained.
"['The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'] bothered conservatives and people who took seriously constitutional questions about U.S. sovereignty," the late M. Stanton Evans, conservative author, lecturer, and teacher, told Newsmax in 2014. "The whole idea of agents from different countries working for an international law enforcement organizations raised a number of concerns, especially since they came from such a hit series."
The closest the show's writers came to hinting who was behind "U.N.C.L.E." occurred in the opening scene, which featured the New York skyline and always prominently focused on the United Nations building (although U.N.C.L.E. headquarters was actually in the East 40s, with its agents' entrance in the little-noticed Del Floria's tailor shop).
"I loved the show as a kid and even own the complete series on DVD," said Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "But the show was completely unrealistic in having a Russian agent as a major character at a time when the Soviet gulag was filled with political prisoners.
"The complete failure of the U.N. and its domination by undemocratic governments shows just how foolish the idea of a secret international organization fighting a secret crime organization such as THRUSH was at a time when the worst criminals in the world were the communist leaders of Russia and China, not any private crime group or mob operation."
When THRUSH and the critics of the series failed to finish off "U.N.C.L.E.," the third season of the series effectively did. Known to aficionados as "the silly season," Season 3 brought in David Victor to succeed Sam Rolfe as executive producer and a battery of new writers who ratcheted up the series' "spy spoof" and self-parody.
Even the rock duo Sonny and Cher got into the act during "the silly season."
"We had a fight scene, and I forgot to pull my punches with Bob Vaughn and flattened him," the late Sonny Bono recalled to this reporter in 1995 when he was a Republican U.S. Representative from California. "He wasn't very happy with me."
Fans were furious with "U.N.C.L.E." and its ratings plummeted. Nervous producers recanted, and fired and replaced the writers, and the show reverted to its more sober approach to intrigue and espionage. But it was too late. On Jan. 15, 1968, Solo, Kuryakin, and Mr. Waverly frustrated THRUSH for the last time and the series came to an end.
But, not quite. In 1983, the made-for-TV movie "The Fifteen Years Later Affair" brought Solo and Kuryakin out of comfortable retirement to grapple with a reconstituted THRUSH.
Mr. Waverly had long since died — as had actor Carroll — and was replaced as head of U.N.C.L.E. by another British actor, Patrick Macnee of "The Avengers" fame.
As his fans mourn David McCallum, they can count on one thing for sure: that "Man From U.N.C.L.E." will be discussed, debated, and a subject of considerable political discourse for years to come, just as it has been since it premiered 59 years ago.
Editor's Note: We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose cooperation this article would not be possible. (This closing line, like that which closed each episode every week, is fictional.)
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