Although a commercial and cultural success, the cult show suffered a rocky legal beginning
Article by Andy Barnham
After the success of the James Bond franchise with Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) it is no surprise the 60s was subsequently hit with a massive spy craze; Eon Productions producing six Bond titles during the decade alone. This espionage fever was replicated in television and the 1960s saw The Avengers (1961), The Saint (1962) and Mission Impossible (1966) hit the small screen. Along with these titles, the 1960s also saw The Man from U.N.C.L.E. broadcast into our living rooms.
Originally titled Ian Fleming’s Solo, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. quickly ran into muddy waters when James Bond film producers threatened legal action both over Fleming’s name in association with the show and the use of the name ‘Solo’ for one of the main characters. The reason cited was that the name ‘Solo’ had been sold to them, by Fleming, and was being used as a character name in the Bond move Goldfinger, which was under production at the time (Mr Solo being the lone gangster that refuses Goldfinger’s offer to participate in Operation Grand Slam). Although Fleming signed an affidavit within five days to the contrary, the threat of action led to a change of program name, though the name of the main protagonist Napoleon Solo remained.
Original co- creator Sam Rolfe deliberately wanted to keep the acronym of U.N.C.L.E. ambiguous on account of the connection to Uncle Sam and the UN, but was countered by MGM’s legal department and concerns over using ‘UN’ for commercial purposes. As a result each show finished with a clarification of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Name changes also befell the adversary in the series. Due to the use of W.A.S.P. in Gerry Anderson’s Stingray TV series, following the pilot, U.N.C.L.E.’s antagonist had to be changed to T.H.R.U.S.H., even though there were further concerns that T.H.R.U.S.H. was too close to SMERSH, understandable given the legal conflicts with the Bond franchise.
Following events in Dallas in November of 1963, filming halted due to national mourning. On completion of filming some revisions were shot with the pilot, originally feature length, being recut down to one hour in duration and converted from colour to black and white. On viewing in New York, one network executive wanted to axe the Russian character Illya Kuryakin portrayed by David McCallum. Though executive producer Norman Felton saved McCallum by stating that contracts had been signed, he was forced to change the role of Mr Waverly, depicted by Leo Carroll. Mr Waverly was transferred from sidekick to head of U.N.C.L.E. due to his age as it was felt an older man was unsuited to being an action hero. All in all, three different versions of the pilot exist due to various edits being used in the USA, Hong Kong and Japan.
Despite all of this, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. aired on September 22nd 1963 and ran for four years with a total of 105 episodes and achieving such prominence that the show is featured in espionage exhibits in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the CIA.