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The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — A Cautionary Tale, Part 2

3,631 words

9 David McCallum and Robert Vaughn in an early episode [1]Act Three: “The Mush from U.N.C.L.E.”

Eventually someone pointed out that there is a law in New York State prohibiting the exploitation of “U.N.” or “United Nations” for commercial purposes, so “U.N.C.L.E.” had to be given a meaning. Thus “Unified Network Command for Law and Enforcement” was proposed, with “Unified” soon becoming “United.”

As to why it’s “Law and Enforcement,” that is a bit of a mystery. But if you want to piss off an U.N.C.L.E. fan, just try leaving it out. It may have something to do with the fact that Rolfe wanted U.N.C.L.E. agents to be called “Enforcement Agents,” a term used a few times in the subsequent series and then totally forgotten about. But what were they “enforcing”?

Sam Rolfe was a pretty apolitical chap, but Norman Felton was not. In college at the University of Iowa, he was a member of one of the student “John Reed Clubs,” which were under the direction of the American Communist Party. While Felton was not, strictly speaking, a Marxist, his convictions were far to the Left of center, and remained so throughout his life. Felton was a life-long supporter of liberal causes. When he died in 2012 at the age of 99, his family suggested that in lieu of flowers donations could be made to the ACLU.

Felton was a one-worlder, a peacenik, an anti-violence-on-TV producer of violent TV, and so staunch a death penalty opponent that when his daughter, granddaughter, and son-in-law were brutally murdered in 1982 he plead for clemency at the sentencing of the killers (three blacks looking for money to buy drugs). Felton wrote in article some years afterwards: “I later learned that one of the men who committed the murders had been taken from his mother when he was only seven months old and put into foster homes until at age 16 he was let go, having had no meaningful relationships.” (See here [2] — the entire article depicts as sad a case of liberal delusion as I have ever encountered.)

In fairness, I must point out that Felton was no Neiman Marxist or limousine liberal. Born in London, the child of a lithographer and a cleaning lady, he had left school to work at age 13. His family moved to the U.S. three years later, seeking a better life. Through talent and a lot of luck Felton wound up attending the University of Iowa, though he didn’t have a penny. I would guess that he acquired his political convictions through his friends in the Teamsters, of which he was a member before he was 20. His surname will invite speculation about his ethnicity, but Felton seems to have been raised a Christian.

It is quite likely that Felton influenced Rolfe in having Solo work for an international organization, rather than a U.S. government agency. For Felton, this struck a blow against nationalism. And one detail from the Felton-Fleming notes that Rolfe did retain was Solo as Canadian (though this was quickly forgotten about and never mentioned in the series). This was important for Felton because of a chance conversation he had had in London in June 1961 with Joanna Spicer, BBC assistant controller of planning for television. She cornered Felton and asked him why the leads in American TV shows were always tall, two-fisted, well-built Americans. Felton gave her no answer. But internally, good liberal that he was, he had to admit that this was indeed a deucedly appalling state of affairs.

Hence, “Solo” is Canadian. And hence Robert Vaughn and David McCallum — who were both nice looking (McCallum’s appeal to young girls has already been discussed) but hardly physically imposing. In answer to Miss Spicer, Felton wanted to present what he called “a new kind of hero,” and essentially this amounted to short and scrawny. Vaughn was about 5’9”; McCallum a mere 5’7.” Both were cast by Norman Felton, as Sam Rolfe elected not to produce the pilot film, though he later decided to produce the first season. Rolfe originally envisioned Illya as physically massive.

And as to U.N.C.L.E. being an international organization, for Rolfe it was a plus simply because if Solo worked for the U.S. government, “we’d be doing anti-communist stuff every week,” as he told TV Guide (October 24, 1964). It wasn’t that Rolfe was pro-communism, it was that he was bored with thrillers that used the Russians as convenient villains. Even Fleming was bored: that’s why he (co-)created S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

Nonetheless, later on this drew the ire of none other than Ayn Rand, who devoted a significant portion of a 1965 article to attacking U.N.C.L.E.[1] Remarkably, the famously rational Miss Rand — one of whose followers later claimed that she had “a mind like a computerized laser drill” — manages to miss the point of a great many things in the episodes she watched. For example, it’s apparent from her descriptions that she couldn’t follow several of the plots (plots that I followed when I saw the series as teenager), and so she declares “It is impossible to tell who is doing what or why.” She also failed to discern when Robert Vaughn was playing Solo, and when he was playing Solo playing an undercover role. One of these episodes (unfortunately) involved Solo playing a buffoon in order to lull the bad guys into a false sense of security (the aforementioned “Neptune Affair”). So Rand got her wires crossed and thought Vaughn’s Solo buffoonish. Nevertheless, she manages to raise some good questions.

First of all Rand, who was a refugee from Soviet Russia, asks “what would be wrong with ‘doing anti-communist stuff every week’?” Good question. But from Rolfe’s perspective, again, there was a legitimate answer: audiences were bored with it. The early episodes of U.N.C.L.E. include an explanatory sequence with voice-over [3] stating that the organization “is involved in maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world.” The apolitical Rolfe never meant those words to be analyzed too carefully. But then he’d never met Ayn Rand. She asks

If “U.N.C.L.E.” is dedicated to international law enforcement, does this mean that it protects indiscriminately any sort of government? . . . If so, then would “U.N.C.L.E.” have protected the Nazi government in Germany against the Jewish refugees? Would it protect Castro’s government against the Cuban refugees? Would it protect the Soviet government against the refugees from one third of the globe? The presence of Illya Kuryakin among the knights of “U.N.C.L.E.” would seem to indicate the affirmative, which is pretty sickening. Aw, it’s not supposed to be taken seriously —the producers would probably answer —we’re only kidding, it’s all “tongue-in-cheek.” But the question is: which cheek? Left or right? The answer is probably: the middle —that is, tongue stuck out at the audience in the name of nothing in particular.

Ouch. But some of these are pretty fair questions. What is unfair is the imputation of cynicism to the show’s producers. Many years later in an interview, Rolfe heaped scorn on “tongue-in-cheek” saying “tongue-in-cheek means ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing so I’m giving it a name.’” Like Have Gun — Will Travel, the Rolfe-produced first season of U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1965) was light hearted, but had solid plots and genuine suspense. After his departure, however, the producers really became what Rand saw them as: cynics with tongue stuck out at the audience.

But what really were the politics of the U.N.C.L.E. organization? What was meant by saying that it maintained “political and legal order anywhere in the world”? Well, the 105 episodes of the series make it plain that this “international organization” was not, as Rand seemed to think, a value-free agent of the political status quo. Instead, its mission was the spread of the Western model of the “open society.” You see, Solo and company don’t go around propping up dictators. In fact, they topple a few in the course of the series. Exactly how could such an organization enlist multi-national cooperation, including that of the Soviet Union? The writers and producers of the series were never really forced to deal with this question, because the villains on U.N.C.L.E. were almost always “Thrush,” a fictitious nation devised by Rolfe. And this is where the plot thickens — or gets really confused, depending upon your perspective.

Act Four: “Oy! Again with Thrush!”

10 Thrush insignia [4]

Thrush insignia

If you already know anything at all about this series, you probably think that Thrush is an organization, not a nation. And you may think that it’s “T.H.R.U.S.H.” But this was not Rolfe’s original conception. He came up with the idea for the same sort of reason Fleming came up with Solo’s pet bird: to get around plot problems. Faced with the prospect of coming up with new villains, with new motivations every week, Rolfe invented Thrush as a convenient fallback, to be used only now and then. And when it appeared the villain’s motives would be instantly clear: he’s doing it “for Thrush.” (Though in the series’ later years it would be seen again and again and again — in virtually every episode.) But what exactly was Thrush?

Early on, Rolfe conceived of Thrush as an organization of baddies “for hire” — sort of how S.P.E.C.T.R.E. was depicted in the film version of You Only Live Twice (which came four years later, of course). No one seems to know how the name “Thrush” was arrived at. But it was pointed out that it sounded a bit too much like “Smersh,” the Soviet murder organization that shows up in several of Fleming’s novels. This may have simply been a product of Rolfe’s subconscious mind, as he certainly had imagination enough to come up with a name that didn’t sound like “Smersh.” But there was the fear that some might see Thrush as Smersh + S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Thus, anxious to avoid another volley of “cease and desists” from Broccoli and Saltzman, Rolfe was asked to make Thrush distinctively different.

In his notes on Thrush from April 1964 — written five months after production on the pilot wrapped — Rolfe notes that Thrush operates by means of a large number of semi-autonomous units called satraps, which are always disguised as something else:

A satrap may take the form of a manufacturing complex . . . or a school . . . or a hospital . . . or a series of underground tunnels or caverns . . . or a department store, etc. They exist as functional parts of the society in which they have been set down . . . but they have a shadow existence all their own . . . a secret life in which they dedicate their fanatic loyalty to Thrush.

So far this sounds uncannily like a concept Norman Felton must have been very familiar with: the Communist “cell,” answerable to the Comintern. But the notes actually begin this way:

There is a nation named Thrush on this earth. If you were to examine the globe carefully, you would not find the name engraved anywhere. Yet time and again, as you passed your hand over country after country, you would have placed your fingers (unwittingly) on territory under the domination of Thrush.

The germ for this was actually established in the U.N.C.L.E. pilot: when Solo accuses one of the baddies of selling out his country the man replies “Thrush is my country.” In his notes, Rolfe goes on to refer to Thrush as a “supra-nation.” “There are no geographical boundaries to Thrush,” he writes.

At the top of the organization is a Council, whose members meet periodically in a cemetery in Prague.

Just kidding! But that did seem like where this was going, didn’t it? (It probably wouldn’t have seemed that way to Rolfe; I have no reason to think that the parallels I am drawing here were conscious or deliberate on his part.) Actually, Rolfe writes that “At regular intervals these members of the Council meet in the Capital City of the organization. The Capital City is called Thrush and the entire organization takes its name from this city.”

In earlier versions, Rolfe had left things vague — saying that Thrush might even be a code name for a single individual. This was suggested in several episodes Rolfe produced, as he wanted to keep Thrush mysterious for as long as possible — even implying that U.N.C.L.E. itself did not know what “Thrush” meant. One thing is certain: it was definitely not intended to be an acronym. One of the authors of the Ace Books U.N.C.L.E. paperback series (David McDaniel) made the absurd suggestion that Thrush meant “Technological Hierarchy for the Removable of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.” But this was never used in the series, and is not considered “canonical.”

McDaniel does nicely sum up what Thrush is about, however. Rolfe writes: “Thrush, like many a nation, has a national purpose. Thrush’s purpose is to dominate the earth.” Many of the members of Thrush, Rolfe tells us, hold positions of importance in the countries they (outwardly) claim as their own. “But no matter where they live,” Rolfe writes, “they pledge their allegiance to Thrush.” Contrary to what your suspicious minds may be thinking, the City of Thrush is not located at 32° 4’0” N, 34° 47’ 0” E.  In fact, Rolfe specifies that it is mobile and regularly changing locations.

A misunderstood Austrian wrote the following when Rolfe was a toddler:

The Jew’s domination in the state seems so assured that now not only can he call himself a Jew again, but he ruthlessly admits his ultimate national and political designs. A section of his race openly owns itself to be a foreign people, yet even here they lie. For while the Zionists try to make the rest of the world believe that the national consciousness of the Jew finds its satisfaction in the creation of a Palestinian state, the Jews again slyly dupe the dumb Goyim. It doesn’t even enter their heads to build up a Jewish state in Palestine for the purpose of living there; all they want is a central organization for their international world swindle, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states: a haven for convicted scoundrels and a university for budding crooks.

The first part of this quote inspired in me the following reverie. Now, it’s not clear if the upcoming U.N.C.L.E. movie will feature Thrush (or merely an organization that could be Thrush). But imagine a new U.N.C.L.E. series with the following premise. Instead of hiding in the dark, members of Thrush now openly proclaim their true national allegiance, proudly hanging the Thrush emblem over their manufacturing complexes, schools, hospitals, series of underground tunnels or caverns, and department stores. Further, they present themselves as aggrieved victims — victims of U.N.C.L.E.’s decades-long campaign of genocide.

You see, when Thrush’s citizens developed their earthquake machine, brain killing machine, volcanic activator, and their army of beautiful-but-deadly-female-robots — when they threatened to unleash invisible killer bees and hiccup gas on the world, they were just trying to protect themselves. And their children. Just like in “The Children’s Day Affair” (Dec. 10, 1965), where Thrush really did open its own school. An elementary school, to be exact. (And, by the way, all the above are actual plot McGuffins from U.N.C.L.E. episodes.)

Perhaps the saddest chapter in this long history of persecution was depicted in the two-part “Concrete Overcoat Affair” (11/25/66 and 12/2/66 — released overseas theatrically as The Spy in the Green Hat). In this particular shoah, U.N.C.L.E. cruelly sabotages Thrush’s plan to build a permanent homeland for itself by diverting the Gulf Stream and turning Greenland into a lush, tropical paradise (which will be renamed “Thrushland” — no, I’m not kidding, this was an actual plot!).

Thrush would flourish in today’s society. They could do everything they did in the 1960s, but out in the open. And no one would dare say a word. U.N.C.L.E. would be driven out of business. Illya Kuryakin would be languishing in prison, charged with crimes against humanity. Napoleon Solo would be somewhere in Argentina, hounded by Thrush avengers. Every four years, U.S. presidential hopefuls would make the trip to lush, tropical Thrushland, appear before the Council swearing to protect America’s “special relationship” with Thrush, and would cover their heads and pray before the Ultimate Computer. (Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that according to Rolfe the Ultimate Computer — yes, that’s a proper name — is housed in the City of Thrush, where it devises Thrush’s plans.)

11 Persecuted minority - Thrush agents with berets, coveralls and sniper scopes [5]American television sitcoms would all have to feature at least one Thrush member, who would be the smartest person on the show and make the others look dopey. Mary’s neighbor, or the dentist in Bob’s office suite, or Rob’s co-writer — all would show up wisecracking in Thrush berets and coveralls, carrying sniper scopes. Non-Thrush people dining in restaurants all over the world would have to stew silently while Thrush members monopolized the waiter’s time, asking for multiple substitutions. Hotels in New Delhi would offer a special “Thrush rate.”

And the Chinese would use U.N.C.L.E. to sell noodles. Wait, I think that’s actually happening . . . . .


Is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. any good? I’m talking about the series. The word on the street is that the upcoming film is pretty fine — but then it’s also been known for some time that it has virtually no real relation to the series (it’s a “reimagining”). As to the TV show, it depends on how you look at it. Compared to other hour-long adventure series on 1960s American TV, about half the episodes hold up really well. The first season of U.N.C.L.E., produced by Rolfe, is generally considered the best. The second season, the first in color, begins to get more hip and tongue-in-cheek. But when it’s hip it’s really hip, and the music is exquisite.

In the third season the show was taken over by one Boris Ingster, who had the looks of an NKVD interrogator and the artistic sensibilities of a Borscht Belt comedian. Under his guidance, U.N.C.L.E. became almost astonishingly bad (the nadir reached, by general consensus, in “The My Friend the Gorilla Affair,” in which Robert Vaughn dances the Watusi with a man in an ape suit). Perhaps Ingster owed his real allegiance to Thrush. That was the same year The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (starring Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison) enjoyed its one and only season. Famed TV critic Cleveland Amory described this series as having “all the credibility of women’s wrestling.” This is actually an undeserved slur on women’s wrestling. Trust me, no amount of marijuana will make The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. seem good.

When the ratings tanked, Felton did a creditable job of dragging Man back to reality in its fourth season. Under the guidance of producer Anthony Spinner, the series became almost too serious — and at the same time looked brighter, slicker, and more expensive that it ever had. But it was too late. U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled midway through its fourth year, and replaced by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the biggest hit of the late ’60s.

Back to reality, sort of -- the cool new HQ set for U.N.C.L.E.'s final season [6]

Back to reality, sort of — the cool new HQ set for U.N.C.L.E.’s final season

Compared to the British offerings of ’60s TV, U.N.C.L.E. pales. It’s not nearly as smart or slick as The Avengers, The Prisoner, or Danger Man. (Though oddly the British didn’t think so — they went U.N.C.L.E. crazy and thought their own shows lacking.) Unless you have watched a good deal of TV and cinema of yesteryear, you are unlikely to be able to look past U.N.C.L.E.’s relatively slow pace (considered fast-paced at the time), mild action (considered ultra-violent then), and small budget (big for the time). (How times change.) I can’t imagine a twenty-something or a teenager being able to sit through it. Still, despite its silliness and other shortcomings, U.N.C.L.E. is a far more literate series than almost any today. It actually assumes that its viewers know something about history and geography, and that they know what words like au courant mean.

It’s often witty. A perverse, mole-like Thrush villain says to his beautiful female subaltern “I like you. [Dramatic pause.] I’ve never said that to anyone before.” The camera work is quite good, and the color is often stunning. Vaughn and McCallum have an undeniable chemistry — but as the series wore on both began to act like they were phoning it in. (Vaughn admitted years later that he seldom read a script all the way through — only the bits that he was in.) And there is virtually no real characterization: Solo and Kuryakin are just ciphers. In the music department, as I have alluded to already, if you love cool 60s jazz scores you will feel like you have died and gone to heaven. And, in general when U.N.C.L.E. is good it is very, very cool. If you like ’60s style, and retro this and that you will probably flip over this show.

The foregoing account might suggest that the series is laden with Lefty sentiments. But that’s all built into the foundations, so to speak. Never once does the series get preachy or deliver “message” shows. (These were the days before producers felt comfortable openly parading their political views before Mr. and Mrs. Middle America.) But the youngsters who thrilled to the adventures of Solo and Kurakin got the subtext: almost all first generation U.N.C.L.E. fans are dyed-in-the-wool Democrats.

When the film is released, I promise you a review. And, by the way, now that you know that there were eight U.N.C.L.E. feature films released in the ’60s (all cobbled together from the TV episodes), you can baffle your friends by saying “I can’t believe they’ve made a ninth U.N.C.L.E. movie!”

You can buy the entire U.N.C.L.E. series here [7].


1. The article was “Bootleg Romanticism,” in the January 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter. When this article was reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto (New American Library, 1969), all the material on U.N.C.L.E. was deleted. The series had been canceled by this point, and so Rand considered discussion of it no longer topical.