Though slow to catch on initially, when it did it edged out 'Bonanza', 'Bewitched', and 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' to become America's favourite series.
It should come as no surprise to learn that the source was Ian Fleming, creator of 'James Bond 007'. Producer Norman Felton approached the novelist for ideas for a new adventure show, and he coined the name 'Napoleon Solo'. But a threatened lawsuit from Eon Productions resulted in Fleming's withdrawal from the project, hence Sam Rolfe was brought in. The award-winning co-writer of the film 'The Naked Spur' created a whole universe for Solo to inhabit, establishing the U.N.C.L.E. ( United Network Command for Law & Enforcement ) organisation and its evil counterpart THRUSH.
The pilot - 'The Vulcan Affair' - was originally made with Will Kuluva as U.N.C.L.E. chief 'Mr.Allison', the enemy organisation known as W.A.S.P., and the show itself called 'Solo'. But when it finally reached the small screen, Leo G.Carroll was 'Mr.Waverly', W.A.S.P. became THRUSH, and the show retitled 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'.
It opens with an assault force from THRUSH breaking into U.N.C.L.E. H.Q. They do not get far before alarms sound, doors slide into place, and security men dash to apprehend the intruders. One blows open a door. Behind it is the silhouette of a man. The intruder shoots three times, but the bullets splinter a sheet of protective glass ( this scene became the symbol of the show in its first year ). The lights come up, and Napoleon Solo ( Robert Vaughn ) stands revealed. Emerging from behind the glass, he kills the intruder.
THRUSH had wanted to silence Mr.Waverly before he could uncover their latest plan - industrialist Andrew Vulcan ( Fritz Weaver ) intends assassinating the premier ( William Marshall ) of a newly independent African state so that THRUSH can take over his country. Solo enlists the help of housewife Elaine May Donaldson ( Patricia Crowley ) who had dated Vulcan ten years earlier when they were at college.
The 'Donaldson' character would be the first of many 'innocents' - ordinary people enlisted by U.N.C.L.E. in their fight against THRUSH. Crowley is not only beautiful but funny too. As 'Vulcan', Weaver is good, as is Marshall as 'Ashumen'. I would like to have seen a bit more of Eric Berry's 'Alfred Ghist' though. His old-school English chumminess makes him a more menacing character than 'Vulcan'.
As an introductory episode, this is both well written and performed, though for excitement nothing tops the break-in at the start. Solo's evading security guards at Vulcan's plant is also memorable ( see if you can spot Richard Kiel, who played 'Jaws' in two Bond movies ) 'Illya Kuryakin' ( David McCallum ) does not get a lot to do, but that would change over the course of the series.
When it was released as the feature film 'To Trap A Spy', the Kuluva footage was reinstated, and W.A.S.P. mentioned as the villains. I for one am glad they did not stick with Kuluva as he lacked the warmth Carroll brought to the role of 'Waverly'.
In common with 'The Double Affair' from the same season, 'Vulcan' was omitted from the original run on B.B.C.-1. When the now-defunct satellite station 'Granada Plus' screened 'M.F.U.' a decade ago, the 'Solo' version of the pilot ( running ten minutes longer ) was screened for the first ( and only ) time.
'U.N.C.L.E.' was up and running, and American television would never be the same again.
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