By John C. Alsedek:
If the fifties was the decade of the TV cowboys, then the sixties was the decade of the TV spies. The enormous success of the James Bond film series spawned a horde of small-screen imitations. A few, such as the Gene Barry vehicle Amos Burke, Secret Agent, were simply complete reworkings of already-existing programs that were designed to grab on to the new fad and were soon forgotten. But the ones that had staying power were all-new creations. Their ranks included the globetrotting I Spy (with Robert Culp & Bill Cosby), the comedic Get Smart (with Don Adams & Barbara Feldon), the sophisticated Mission: Impossible (with Peter Graves & Martin Landau), the Old West-based The Wild Wild West (with Robert Conrad & Ross Martin), as well as imports such as Danger Man/Secret Agent (with Patrick McGoohan) and The Avengers (with Patrick Macnee & Diana Rigg).
One of the most popular of the lot was The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Ilya Kuryakin. Developed from a concept by James Bond author Ian Fleming himself, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. played it a little lighter than Bond but without devolving into parody (at least not until its final season). It was originally conceived as more Vaughn’s vehicle, but the breakthrough star of the series was McCallum, whose cool, understated Kuryakin was a bit of a proto-Mr. Spock (in an interesting bit of trivia, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner guest-starred together on the show two years before Star Trek went on the air). The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had interesting villains, cool gadgets (especially the "U.N.C.L.E. Special" sidearm, which actually got fan mail!), a slick Jerry Goldsmith theme, eight Emmy nominations, and strong Nielsen ratings. So, of course, NBC decided to try and replicate that success with a spinoff series.
Unfortunately, that spinoff series was The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. concerned the exploits of two other U.N.C.L.E. agents, April Dancer and Mark Slate, who had been introduced in the season two Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Moonglow Affair." That episode had starred former Miss America Mary Ann Mobley and future Three’s Company fixture Norman Fell as Dancer and Slate. But when The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was developed as a series, neither Mobley nor Fell was brought back to reprise their roles. Instead, they were replaced by a younger, hipper duo in Stefanie Powers and Mark Harrison.
Powers, then 24, was already a solidly established actress with a resume that included major roles in films such as Experiment in Terror, McLintock!, and Die! Die! My Darling. Harrison, almost a decade her elder, wasn’t quite as experienced in terms of film work, but he did have plenty of stage experience (as both an actor and musician)—and being the son of silver-screen star Rex Harrison probably didn’t hurt either. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. went into production, filming mostly on the massive 165-acre Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City and premiered on September 16, 1966.
The show ran into trouble early on as it sought to build an audience. Even though there were plenty of tie-ins between The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and its parent series (two crossover episodes, a reworked version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. theme song, Leo G. Carroll as U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverly on both shows), it just never found its footing. Part of that was the difference in tone between the two shows. The campy Adam West Batman series was a ratings beast at the time, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was produced in very much that vein (in fairness, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had begun to veer in that direction as well). The show leaned hard into the cartoonish elements, which took it far afield from the original source material (though I have to say, it’s almost worth it to see Boris Karloff in drag in "The Mother Muffin Affair"!).
But I think the most basic issue was with the character of April Dancer herself. The show played Stefanie Powers’ good looks to the hilt, devoting a good chunk of each show’s budget to putting her in the most stylish and hip Carnaby Street ensembles imaginable. But April Dancer herself was portrayed as largely incompetent, more a character to be played for laughs while her partner handled the "man's business" like chasing the baddies, getting into fistfights, etc. (Harrison, a two-time Olympic skier, was a natural with the action sequences). In almost every episode, poor April would be captured or knocked out by agents of T.H.R.U.S.H. (the opposition to U.N.C.L.E.) and would require rescuing by Slate.
For viewers used to the likes of Anne Francis’ Honey West and Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel (supremely gorgeous yet also clever, skilled, and more than capable of handling themselves in a fight), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.’s April Dancer had to be a crashing disappointment. And that’s completely unfair to Powers, because the failings with the character weren’t her fault. A trained dancer and fluent in multiple languages, Powers would have been capable of so much more but simply got very few opportunities to be anything but a damsel in distress.
After a season of poor ratings, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. got the axe. Noel Harrison went on to a successful music career (he actually won an Oscar for Best Original Song for "Windmills of Your Mind"!), while Stefanie Powers rebounded to have a long & fruitful Hollywood career that culminated in the hit detective series Hart to Hart, for which she won two Emmys and five Golden Globes. Today, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is more a forgotten curio than anything else, though it is available on DVD as a MOD (Manufacture-on-Demand) release through the Warner Bros. online store.
Stefanie Powers’ future co-star on Hart to Hart, Robert Wagner, had his own spy series in the 1960s, ABC’s It Takes a Thief. That show was part of a subgenre that will be the topic of the next column. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.