It was the series that brought a bit of Bond into the American living room. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the hip spy show long before Jennifer Garner put on a wig or Chuck got embedded. Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and his mop-topped Russian compadre, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), beat up villains, heated up vixens and captured a nation of crazed teenage fans in the swinging '60s. But the series would go out on a fizzle rather than a bang as its fourth season ended early due to lackluster scripts and changing times (it was replaced in the lineup by Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In). There was one TV reunion movie that gained high ratings, but no sequel. Today both actors enjoy ongoing success: Vaughn in his AMC series Hustle and McCallum with NCIS. But it's the complete U.N.C.L.E. series coming to DVD this week — in a retro-style briefcase that could surely stop a poison dart or deflect a deadly laser beam — that has the two old friends revealing a few secrets from their superspy days.
TVGuide.com: How did U.N.C.L.E all begin?
Robert Vaughn: I was doing a series with Gary Lockwood called The Lieutenant about the Marine Corps, and I got a call at Camp Pendleton to pick up a script that night at MGM and meet with Norman Felton [the producer] at his office at nine o'clock the next morning. I picked up the script around midnight, but then Gary and I went out on the Sunset Strip and picked up a couple floozies and I didn't get back to my place till around 4 am [Laughs]. I read a few lines of the script on my drive into MGM that morning, and when I got to Mr. Felton's office, he asked me what I thought and I said, "It's James Bond for TV, but I absolutely want to do it." He called New York and said, "Vaughn wants to do it," and the person on the other end said, "Fine, go ahead." And that's how business was done in 1963.
TVGuide.com: And where are those floozies today?
Vaughn: I have no idea, I don't even remember what they looked like, but I did use all of the qualities I have to seduce floozies in my interpretation for my role [as Napoleon Solo].
TVGuide.com: And David?
David McCallum: I had just done The Greatest Story Ever Told, which was a wonderful way to be introduced to Hollywood and I was given three scripts for TV pilots. The one that made the most sense for me was the sidekick role of Illya Kuryakin on a show that was at the time called "Mr. Solo."
TV Guide.com: Both of you became teen idols because of the show. Did that ever lead to any sticky situations?
Vaughn: You know, in those days my home address was available and there was a constant group of fans waiting across the street from my house on Mulholland Drive. So, I put up a large fence covering my driveway, but one day I was taking a shower and as the sun came up I looked out the bathroom window and a bunch of kids were looking at me — they had climbed the fence. That was the oddest thing; to be caught bare-ass by these girls.
McCallum: You lose a great deal of privacy. I remember I was rescued by policemen outside Macy's in New York when fans became too violent, they closed off the street. It was insanity at its highest level. I never complained and it was great fun, but it could be literally hair-raising, as when one fan pulled my hair out.
TVGuide.com: Do you still have people recognize you from U.N.C.L.E?
McCallum: I use to get called "Illya" by people on the street, but now Illya has been completely superseded by Duky [his role on NCIS] — I get called "Duky" every day and 90 percent of those people have no idea about U.N.C.L.E.
TV Guide.com: The series seemed to change in tone over its four-season run.
McCallum: In the first year, the writers wrote fantastic ideas and Bob and I, with Leo Carroll [as boss Mr. Waverly], played them dead seriously. In the second year, the ideas became a little more fantastic and we still played them seriously because you could get away with that. But in the third year many of the stories became so hokey you couldn't really do anything with it. You began to parody a parody, and that's where I think things fell apart.
Vaughn: We went from being an adventure romance to a farce and it became more like Get Smart. I mean, one episode had us shooting cupcakes! But I was so immersed in the antiwar movement that I hardly paid any attention to the fact that the show was going downhill. It just didn't mean anything to me when they called to say the show was canceled.
McCallum: The interesting thing is NBC has still never called me to tell me the show has been canceled. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: The series had a lot of great guest stars, like Sonny and Cher….
Vaughn: I didn't even know who they were when they came on the show, but she was just so cute and charming. We also had Joan Crawford, Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, Vincent Price and Angela Lansbury. I saw Angela rather recently in a play and I went backstage and she said, "You said the kindest thing about me, that I had the best legs of all the girls that appeared on U.N.C.L.E." May I say, she still has great legs.
TVGuide.com: Will there be an U.N.C.L.E. movie?
McCallum: It's absolutely impossible. You have a Russian and an American fighting crime — you can't frame that now because there is no cold war. You can't do it as a period piece because you already have the original show from that period. You can't do "Son of U.N.C.L.E." or "Daughter of U.N.C.L.E." To bring it back in any way, shape or form would not be a good idea.
Vaughn: I think David's observation is correct in that it cannot be done as a period piece, it would look silly, but with an updating of the characters, I think it will be done. Every year I hear that it's going to be turned into a movie. I've seen no script.
TV Guide.Com: Who would you want to play Solo?
Vaughn: Well, my favorite actor is Tom Cruise and I certainly think he's got the charm and looks to play the role.
TVGuide.com: Is it good to have the series finally out on DVD?
McCallum: Yes, but what worries me is that people have such fond memories of U.N.C.L.E. that I hope when they look at them again, they don't think, "How could I have possibly liked this?" I'm sure it will all be fun and nostalgic for them… but some of the shows are pretty bad. [Laughs]
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