In September of 1964, a new series premiered on American television. It was a spy series influenced by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and the films that began with 1962’s, Dr. No. I was eleven years old at the time and couldn’t wait to see it. America had caught spy fever and television and Hollywood were feeding demand. The show was called, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and it was a major hit, the source for what is widely recognized as the first real media fandom, two years before the debut of Star Trek and Trekkies. This fandom grew and sustained itself from the 60’s through to the present, rewarded with a new film interpretation that seeks to cash in on both Boomer nostalgia and the current fascination with hyper-lethal, shadow agent heroes.
We are fortunate to hold the papers of the executive producer and co-creator of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Norman Felton, in the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/2/resources/271. As a kid, I ran around the house with my U.N.C.L.E. gun and my U.N.C.L.E. communicator and glued myself to the screen when the show aired. Not content to be mere consumers, many teens began newsletters and fan clubs. Teenage girls were an enormous share of the show’s audience and were particularly smitten with the show’s English actor, David McCallum. He played agent Illya Kuryakin, a cool, cerebral opposite to his partner Napoleon Solo’s suave man-of-action, played by American actor Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, The Young Philadelphians). Vaughn’s character was the show’s ladies’ man but it was McCallum that pulled in record-breaking fan mail, more than Clark Gable at his most popular.
By 1966, the show was a huge success and the stars of the series were on a promotional tour. They travelled to New York to appear at Macy’s department store. They were to drive their limo straight into a freight elevator and go up to meet the fans, but it was not to be. 15,000 teenage girls showed up and quickly became unmanageable. It was decided to cancel the appearance. When they learned of the cancellation, the girls rioted, doing extensive damage to Macy’s with a few injuries as well. The police influenced Vaughn and McCallum to return immediately to the West Coast. McCallum later vowed to never appear at an American promotion again, fearing that fans or he himself would be injured. This devotion didn’t end when the series was finished in 1968. It expanded into more clubs, newsletters, conventions, and fan art and fan fiction. One of those fans was Lynda Mendoza and we are privileged to have her fine collection of David McCallum fan materials http://aspace.lib.uiowa.edu/repositories/2/resources/778.
With the new film, U.N.C.L.E. returns to center stage in pop culture. I‘m currently binge-watching the first season of the series on DVD, enjoying it and watching with a more critical eye than I did fifty years ago. The show alternates between a self-reflexive campiness and a realism that makes it palatable to a contemporary audience. Interestingly, in light of the huge McCallum fandom, the Kuryakin character makes only intermittent appearances, sometimes not at all. Perhaps this peekaboo added to the hunger teens felt for McCallum. He was often referred to as “the blond Beatle” because of his hair. He is still acting, in the hit series, NCIS, as is Robert Vaughn, seen recently on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit.
Among the fan-related and series-related material in the two collections are letters from Felton to and from Ian Fleming regarding the series and a letter from Felton explaining that he sent his papers, including scripts, correspondence, photos, business records, advertising, etc. to the University of Iowa so that fans would leave him alone and could come to a central location to see the treasure. In the Mendoza collection, there are card and board games, fan t-shirts, convention materials, fan correspondence, newsletters, and a wealth of merchandise and memorabilia.
Want to get started exploring Man From U.N.C.L.E related collections in the University of Iowa Special Collections?
1. Norman Felton Papers, MsC 265
Scripts, photos, memorabilia, and documentation relating to the making of the Man From U.N.C.L.E, its reception, and its fan communities from the series’ executive producer Norman Felton.
2. Lynda Mendoza Collection of David McCallum Memorabilia, MsC 895
Collection of materials related to the actor David McCallum, assembled by the president of his official fan club.
3. Laura Leach Collection of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Fanzines, MsC 910
2 thoughts on “Return of the Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
I remember watching it faithfully in 6-8th grades. It was Fun, but lacked the coolness factor of Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake on “Secret Agent”, or the later “Avengers” shows. McCallum was more interesting than Vaughn, but I really liked Leo G. Carroll as Alexander Waverly.
I’ve watched reruns of the show recently and have been astonished at how low their budgets were. All the location work seems very limited and their interiors ware often bare bones sets, with blank walls and minimal props.
I think “Green Acres” and “The Addams Family” both seemed to have higher production values.
Glad this collection is at Iowa, near where I live!!!
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