Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | The Men from U.N.C.L.E. — the 1960s’ top TV spies
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The Men from U.N.C.L.E. — the 1960s’ top TV spies

Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin were the top TV spies in the 1960s.Last year I received one of the coolest gifts ever — a 41-DVD boxed set of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” the TV spy series that ran from 1964-’68. The set came in a package that looks like a secret agent’s briefcase, and includes all 105 episodes of the program, plus a ton of extras such as documentaries and commentary by the show’s stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

I’m still sifting through this pop-culture treasure chest, and having a blast. The series was my favorite TV show from my childhood — I had a bunch of toys related to the show, and I read and collected books, gadgets, magazines — anything to do with U.N.C.L.E.

I’ve been struck by a few observations about the show, in light of 40 years of being a fan, and then suddenly being able to see every episode on DVD.

First (and relevant to this blog), I’m surprised at how many Asian Americans were cast in the show as guest stars. There were some episodes set in Asia, like one that takes place in Japan, and that’s kinda hokey since all the sets and scenes are actually shot in Hollywood. But in many episodes, the requisite woman who’s an innocent bystander but gets dragged into the plot as a sidekick is Asian American, and I mean Asian American as in, no phony accents. They’re Asian American actors cast in American roles, which is nice.

Second, they had some big name guest stars. I just watched a goofy one from the third season (of the four, the third was the one where the show got silly, comedic and unbelievable) titled “The Hot Number” that featured Sonny and Cher. Cher was a snooty fashion model (not a stretch) and Sonny was a bumbling fashion designer. The episode also featured Sonny and Cher’s music, which was a neat cross-marketing gimmick.

Third, a lot of the episodes are slight to the point of being anemic. The story lines are sometimes clunky and the writing often forced. And little of the acting, even from Vaughn and McCallum, is Brandoesque. It’s more like Shatneresque.

But then, the artifice is actually part of the charm of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

It was at once a ripoff of the James Bond movies’ success, tamed down for a television audience (no ridicuous double-entendre names like the Bond films’ femme fatales), and a spoof of te genre, as if the producers instinctively knew Americans needed to laugh at the spy-vs-spy antics of the modern era, or they’d just be paranoid and terrified.

When I posted about my U.N.C.L.E. DVD marathons on Facebook, I had enough people start commenting about the show that I’ve decided to pull out an old post from another website, an excerpt about “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” from “The Toy Book,” which I co-authored with my friend Leland Rucker, back in 1991.

“The Toy Book” is a social history of baby boomer-era toys. This is an excerpt from “The Big Bang Theory” chapter, which starts out covering the cowboy craze of the 1950s (Roy Rogers, Mattel’s “Fanner 50” pistol, then moves into the cop-show craze (from “Dick Tracy” to “Dragnet”) and war toys (“Combat,” G.I. Joe) before observing that the Vietnam War made war toys less popular as the 1970s approached. My friend Leland is 10 years older than me, so he grew up with 1950s Western shows, while I grew up with the ’60s spy craze from 007 to “Get Smart.” (You can also read the introduction to “The Toy Book.”)

Here’s the excerpt:

One of the reasons that wartime toys lost their bang with consumers (in the 1960s) was that the biggest media escape from the increasingly grim news of Vietnam was in the cloak-and-dagger underworld of spies. By the early Sixties, the Cold War had created a cultural dynamic that split the world into the “free” (us) and the “Reds” (them).

Western allies were good guys, and the Russians and other communist countries were evil schemers. And with technology advancing the ability of all parties concerned to obtain and analyze top-level communications, the mysterious world of espionage developed an irresistible allure. After American pilot Gary Powers’s U-2 reconnaissance jet was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and the Cuban missile crisis two years later, it was obvious that both sides were spying on each other — that this is the way governments worked in the post-WWII atomic age.

The early pop focus of the spy craze was Ian Fleming’s series of novels about the urbane British intelligence officer, James Bond, better known to government officials as Agent 007. Though the novels were popular, Bond didn’t become the best-known hero of the Sixties until the stories were set to script and produced as a series of hit movies (the movies still continue, though Fleming’s books have long since been exhausted), originally starring Scottish actor Sean Connery as the suave, clever, womanizing Bond, ace agent of Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

“Dr. No” started the gold rush in 1963, followed in quick succession the same year by “From Russia, With Love,” “Goldfinger” in 1964, and “Thunderball” in ’65. That year, 007 sparked a worldwide craze for spy-related paraphernalia, with Bond merchandising keyed into the release.

The character’s popularity eventually resulted in a slew of classic TV shows of the mid- and late-Sixties. Part of 007’s appeal was with the arsenal of strange and wonderful gadgets that helped him get out of any jam. The wizard of weaponry that gave Bond all these cleverly disguised gimmicks was Q, the Weapons and Security expert for HMSS. For Bond, he created an Aston-Martin car that shot oil slicks, and had a rotating license plate, bulletproof shield and a device that came out of its tires to slash away at pursuers. He had lighters that were really bombs. He had guns hidden in unexpected places. He had all these things that could be reproduced by toy manufacturers for kids to “play” spies.

But the Bond movies were often racy, because the Bond character was. How could you not be with female love interests named “Amazon Honeychile” (“Dr. No”), “Pussy Galore” (“Goldfinger”) and “Domino Vitalie” (“Thunderball” — she and Bond end up making love underwater, as her bikini top floats to the surface)? Though toy companies busily cranked out Bond-related ephemera, the biggest profits would clearly roll in when the Bond formula could be translated into the more family-oriented television medium, to a program that kids could identify with week after week.

So it was no surprise that the first of the spy shows to hit the TV screen was also the one that was most-often merchandised by toy companies. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was partly conceived with the help of Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming. He’s the one that came up with the name of the program’s lead character, Napoleon Solo, during an early meeting with “U.N.C.L.E.”‘s producers.

“U.N.C.L.E.” stood for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement,” a fictional worldwide organization that fought despots and evil would-be world rulers with the most up-to-date espionage and law enforcement techniques, not to mention the coolest spies since James Bond himself. U.N.C.L.E.’s arch-nemesis was another worldwide organization, THRUSH, which stood for “Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.” That’s exactly what U.N.C.L.E. was out to stop.

By 1966, spy-related toys, both licensed and generic, were rampant all over the country. Every major manufacturer, including Ideal, Marx, and A.C. Gilbert, as well as dozens of small companies, signed agreements to produce official Bond and U.N.C.L.E. toys. With both fads, guns were the most popular kinds of toys — guns of all kinds, disguised in ever-more ingenious ways.

James Bond used Luger guns tucked in a shoulder holster; the U.N.CL.E. agents used sleeker Beretta pistols with attached silencers, also tucked inside shoulder holsters — all good secret agents had shoulder holsters. That was just the basic weapon.

American Character marketed lower-end gadgets like the 007 Secret Agent Pen, a regular ballpoint pen on the surface, but actually a deadly useful device for spies. It had a built-in whistle so that “in an emergency, the 007 Pen’s high whistle will summon help from fellow agents in school.” The pen also shot off caps, and had a switch that sent secret messages hurtling through the air (at least a few feet). The messages were written on the accompanied 007 Vaper-Paper, which dissolved when you dropped it in water. Other accessories from American Character included a secret ring of allegiance, and an ID bracelet with a secret compartment for those pesky secret messages.

For “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” however, the industry’s creative departments went into maximum overdrive. There were dozens of products, from board and card games (Milton Bradley got in the fray with spy-related games, but so did other manufacturers that weren’t known for their games), to spy magic kits (A.C. Gilbert sold magic sets emblazoned with 007 as well as U.N.C.L.E., just to cover all bases — never mind that magic tricks had little to do with the spy fad at all), shooting arcades, ordinary walkie-talkies boxed in spy regalia, cars created to match familiar vehicles from the U.N.C.L.E. series (AMT made a beautiful plastic model of the futuristic Piranha car that graced some of the U.N.C.L.E. adventures) and Bond movies, puzzles, bubblegum cards, Halloween costumes, clothes, lunch boxes, books, records…you name it. Ingenious designers even created boxes for U.N.C.L.E. miniature cars that folded out into advertising displays for retail stores.

Several companies also created miniature versions of the famous agents for kids to set up in make-believe situations. Gilbert sold licensed G.I. Joe-like figures for Bond and U.N.C.L.E. characters, as well as a doll for another, short-lived, TV thriller series, “Honey West” (starring Anne Francis as a fetching, Bond-like detective). Aurora Plastics offered scale plastic models of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, but unless you were a skilled model maker, you were certain to flub the paint job and screw up trying to make the faces realistic.

The biggest boom triggered by the U.N.C.L.E. series (including “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,” a campier offshoot starring a young Stephanie Powers as April Dancer, which aired in 1966 and ’67), though, was in guns. For several years in the late Sixties, you could find some of the most cleverly designed toy guns imaginable. Roy Rogers’ cowboy hat derringer was a novel idea in the Fifties, but it was nothing compared to the plethora of top-secret, hidden, disguised, and just plain strange firearms toy companies cranked out.

Most guns came with an U.N.C.L.E. logo that gave them the necessary cachet; it was even better if the manufacturer could also include one of the triangular badges that identified U.N.C.L.E. agents on the series. Ideal had a lock on the most popular gun sets, which came with the badge, an ID card, and cap-blasting Berettas that converted into rifles with its attachable scope, stock and silencer barrel. The company also made replicas of the awe-inspiring rifles used by the bad guys in the show, THRUSH agents. The rifle’s most prominent feature was the huge red circular night-scope on top of the barrel, and Ideal reproduced the menacing look of the weapon in perfect, plastic detail, down to target silhouettes in the sight.

There were sets of tiny guns that could be hidden in several places on your body; THRUSH’s insidious gun hidden in a walking cane; and Ideal even came up with the Illya K. Special Secret Lighter Gun. You opened the clever fake lighter/cigarette case and lifted the realistic row of “cigarettes” to reveal the plastic workings of a communicator; when you flicked the flint to light your smoke, a gun muzzle popped out the front and shot a cap at your unsuspecting counteragent!

The greatest work of U.N.C.L.E. merchandising, though, was Marx’s Counterspy Outfit Trench Coat. The tan vinyl coat was styled to look like the grown-up Burberrys real secret agents wore, but the toy version was designed with a number of secret pockets carrying helpful gadgets from exploding cap-grenades to communicators and a couple of guns. The problem was, it didn’t take long before the vinyl started to rip. Mom could patch it with clear tape for a while, but within a few months, you had to trash the coat. By then you’d lost or broken most of the fancy gadgets that came with it, anyway.

The boom in spy toys reached far beyond licensed products keyed in to specific movies or TV shows. Hundreds of generic spy paraphernalia crowded the toy stores and Christmas catalogs of the era, including Mattel’s novel Agent Zero M Movie-Shot, a pistol-grip style movie camera that converted into a deadly machine gun at the press of a button, which activated a telescoping barrel that shot out of the lens.

The relatively new Topper company created its own generic spy gadgetry as well: They came with names like Secret Sam, Crime Buster and Multi-Pistol 09. Though not quite as aggressively violent as the amazing Johnny Seven One Man Army guns, these were pretty handy in fighting the forces of evil espionage.

The Crime Buster was the most macho, a massive machine gun for the kinds of raids that ended your mission. It made a loud siren noise, could shoot bullets, a smoke grenade, or a signal missile. Best of all, it sported a “Riot-Spray Gun” feature that shot four bullets at once.

Secret Sam was an elaborate, heavy-duty pistol-that-converts-to-a-rifle weapon that had a silencer that actually deadened the sound, and could shoot a message missile if you were stuck in distress. You could even attach a periscope to its sight, to aim at the bad guys and still remain hidden. The best part of Secret Sam was the attache case it came in, which was obviously based on similar cases for 007 and U.N.C.L.E. fans. The pistol fired while it was still in the case, and a real (cheap) camera was built into the case.

The 09 Multi-Pistol was less an espionage gun than a combination war/spy/police shoot-’em-up gun. It robbed a grenade, a bomb, a rocket, a message missile, or plain old bullets. And when your ammunition was exhausted and a foreign agent approached, the gun had an ace-in-the-hole: “The most exciting feature of all…Multi-Pistol 09 has a SECRET DERRINGER CAP PISTOL concealed in the handle. Flip open the bottom and it ‘pops’ into your hand.”

With these innovations in fantasy weaponry, it’s a wonder that old-fashioned Western guns and holsters are still made today. In fact, a quick tour of any toy store will show that young cowboys and Indians still fight it out in backyards all over the country, and a few boys still like to don khaki and olive drab to play army with toy military gear. But you won’t find much in the way of spy toys anymore, such is the ebb and flow of cultural fads.