U.N.C.L.E. wannabes

Most of the following episodes of various television series relied on the viewer having at least a passing familiarity with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Most play off U.N.C.L.E. through casting Robert Vaughn and/or David McCallum or references to the show itself. The two episodes of The FBI at the end include one that had an U.N.C.L.E. writer and director. The other had three guest performers who had previously appeared on U.N.C.L.E.

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The A-Team: “The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair”
Original airdate: Oct. 31, 1986 (Thanks to Connie and Cindy for this info)

Writer: Terry D. Nelson Director: Michael O’Herlihy

The fourth season of The A-Team paralleled the fourth season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. In each case, a once-popular show faced falling ratings. In both cases, the show had gotten too humorous and once-ardent fans went elsewhere for their adventure fix. With The A-Team, there was a huge revamping where the mercenaries who righted wrongs came under the heel of a mysterious spymaster, General Stockwell (Robert Vaughn). The episode begins with the team stealing a new Soviet stealth fighter jet. At the same time, Stockwell meets with an old Russian ally (David McCallum). Big mistake as the McCallum character double crosses Stockwell, capturing him and torturing him. Eventually, the team seems to agree to swap the jet for Stockwell. But team leader Hannibal (George Peppard) has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Critique: In some ways, this episode is more faithful to MFU than the 1983 “Return of the Man From UNCLE” television movie. We have act titles (actually five — there is a separate epilogue with an act title — compared to four on an MFU episode), whip pans and phrases like “Somewhere in Siberia” superimposed on the screen. The interplay between Vaughn and McCallum almost seems like a darker, alternate-universe version of UNCLE. Director Michael O’Herlihy (brother of frequent MFU guest star Dan O’Herlihy) also directed MFU Episode 13. He films a torture scene with Vaughn and McCallum in a very similar manner to a Hawaii Five-O episode he also directed called “Nine Dragons.”

However, RV and DMc boys are upstaged by Dwight Schultz as Murdock, the A-Team’s resident loon. It turns out McCallum’s character is using a psychiatric hospital as a front. Murdock is sent “undercover” to investigate. “Hey wait a minute,” Murdock says as the plan is presented. “I’ve got a card here that says I’m sane.” Hannibal looks at the object — it’s a paper with “I am sane” written in crayon (the S is backwards). Hannibal reassures Murdock that he’ll only PRETEND to be insane. Murdock’s cover is someone who thinks he’s Frank Sinatra. Murdock, of course, takes it too far, even referring to team member B.A. (Mr. T) as “Sammy.” Murdock is hilarious and is the high point of the show. One warning: Some versions of the episode in syndication have edited out the act titles. Grade: A.


Mr. and Mrs. Smith: “The Impossible Mission”
Never aired in the United States

Director: Artie Mandelberg
Thanks to Lynda Mendoza for providing additional details.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a short-lived 1996 series featuring Scott Bakula and Maria Bello as a pair of operatives who pretended to be a married couple. In this episode, another pair of agents for the same organization, codenamed Mr. and Mrs. Jones (Christopher Rich and Cindy Katz), are in trouble during an operation at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Mrs. Jones lays wounded in the ventilating system of the hotel. Mr. and Mrs. Smith engage in a Mission: Impossible style gambit to salvage the operation. David McCallum appears as Ian Felton (Ian Fleming and Norman Felton, get it?), a criminal who hopes to make a big score selling U.S. currency plates to a mysterious Mr. Rolfe (after Sam Rolfe, natch) for $20 million. Robert Vaughn was originally set to play Rolfe but a last minute change caused the part to be recast with another actor, Larry Thomas. There is also a whip pan at one point. Other allusions to 1960s spy series include Bakula saying, “It looks like we’re needed,” similar to a John Steed schtick in The Avengers. McCallum makes a good villain here. The series got canceled before this episode aired (CBS axed the show in November 1996 as this show was being filmed). “The Impossible Mission” has aired in Europe, however. The version I saw has Norwegian subtitles superimposed over the credits.Grade: B.


Diagnosis Murder: “Discards”
Original airdate: Nov. 13, 1997

Writers: J. Larry Carroll and David Bennett Carren Director: Christian I. Nyby II

This show about a crime-solving doctor (Dick Van Dyke) who helps his detective son (Barry Van Dyke) often engages in “stunt” casting during the “sweeps” when ratings are used to set advertising rates. The idea of this episode was to feature several stars of 1960s spy series. Robert Vaughn appears as Alexander M. Drake, the head of the CIA’s Los Angeles station (funny, since the CIA’s charter prohibits the agency from operating in the United States). But Drake is bumped off halfway through the episode and Vaughn gets little chance to do much except act like an oily bureaucrat. The episode really showcases Robert Culp as “discard” spy Dane Travis and Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter, her Mission: Impossible character. Culp is excellent as his character tries to reconcile with his son and figure out who’s trying to kill him. We’re told that Cinnamon received a commendation from Ronald Reagan and George Bush on April 20, 1981 in a private ceremony. Cinnamon gets to provide a little espionage philosophy. “The face is like a mask,” she says at one point. “I’ve worn many masks, deceived many people.” Patrick Macnee also appears but it’s little more than a cameo appearance. An in-joke for UNCLE fans: Dane Travis meets his son at a Beverly Hills Restaurant called Del Floria’s (four-star rating). Grade: B-Plus.


Hullabaloo

Original airdate: Sept. 27, 1965 OR March 28, 1966 (Hullabaloo home video tapes give conflicting dates.)

Writers: Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth Director: Bill Davis

Before there were music videos, there was American Bandstand and Hulaballoo. The latter, on NBC, featured a celebrity host introducing various music acts. One of the show’s major demographics was teenagers, a segment (especially teenaged girls) that also liked Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

As a result, it was inevitable that David McCallum be asked to host the show. However, instead of appearing as himself, McCallum is in character. As a result, an announcer says it is Illya Kuryakin who is hosting the program. It begins with Kuryakin hanging above the Hullabaloo stage, black turtleneck sweater and all, supposedly talking into his pen communicator to Alexander Waverly. Leo G. Carroll, picking up some extra change, provides the voice over. Waverly attempts to warn Kuryakin away from the hosting chores, indicating that Thrush will attempt to use the program to kill him. But Illya says it’s too late, that he must go through with it. Waverly relunctantly agrees.

For the rest of the show, Kuryakin/McCallum squeezes in intros for Brenda Lee, the Animals and other musical acts while simultaneously avoiding assassination “attempts.” He walks by a wall of album covers, where an assassin’s hand reaches out. At other times, Kuryakin/McCallum rushes about the stage, even knocking over the giant letters that spell Hullabaloo. The intrepid agent even treats the audience to a brief rendition of “Double-O Soul.” (More spoken than really sung.) In the end, however, Kuryakin is caught and handcuffed by two women Thrush agents. “Oh well,” Our hero says, “you can’t win them all.” Meanwhile, some women who were teenagers when this show originally aired react in an, eh, interesting way to this shot. Grade: A-Plus-Plus (for Kuryakin/McCallum fans); B (everone else).


A Man Called Sloane

QM Productions, aired NBC fall 1979

Robert Conrad was T.R. Sloane, debonoir agent for UNIT. The agency’s secret entrance was a toy store. Once in HQ, Sloane reported to his boss played Dan O’Herlihy, who sent him to oppose the forces of KARTEL. Sound familiar? Sloane was viewed as a James Bond knockoff and the show’s title sequences clearly emulated the Maurice Binder designed credits of the Bond movies. But the show definitely relied on MFU as its inspiration. Like UNCLE, Sloane relied much more on science fiction than Bond. Sloane opposed an android who wanted to take over the world — and that was just the first episode. One time UNCLE contributors Peter Allan Fields and Dick Nelson were among the writers on the show. However, the show didn’t catch on and was canceled after a half season.


Masquerade

Glen Larson Productions/20th Century Fox, aired ABC, spring 1984

A U.S. spymaster (Rod Taylor) has a big problem. The KGB knows all of his agents and its top assassin (Oliver Reed) keeps picking them off. When Reed’s character kills Taylor’s mentor (Robert Sterling), enough is enough. Assisted by rookie agents Greg Evigan and Kirstie Alley, Taylor recruits a team of non-spies (can you say innocents?) to pull off a job (and taking out Reed’s character in the pilot). Producer Glen Larson, once dubbed “Glen Larceny” by writer Harlan Ellison, basically mixed MFU with Mission: Impossible. Ace M:I writer William Read Woodfield was recruited as story consultant. But the show didn’t last long.


Spy Game

Aired ABC, spring 1997

This show spotlighted ECHO, a top-secret U.S. agency. The show acknowledged its UNCLE influence with references to “Uncle Solo’s Tailor Shop” and the like. Plus, the producers were fond of casting actors from previous spy shows such as Robert Culp and Peter Lupus. But again, the show didn’t catch on with viewers.


Secret Agent Man

UPN (which years later got merged into the CW) in 2000 picked up this series, produced by Barry Sonnefeld, director of Men in Black and the upcoming Wild, Wild West movie. A UPN press release described the show thusly: “This new, ultra-cool retro spy series, brimming with a healthy dose of confidence, style and wit, centers on a trio of covert, jet-setting agents of P.O.I.S.E., a top-secret arm of the government that monitors high-stakes global espionage. There’s Monk, a guy who does it with panache, high-tech gadgetry, and if necessary, physical strength. He’s partnered with the highly skilled, no-nonsense beauty Holliday and together, they shepherd the agency’s newest recruit, Parker, whose straight-laced manner is in stark contrast to Monk’s freewheeling style. Starring are Costas Mandylor (“Picket Fences”) as Monk; Dondre T. Whitfield (“Between Brothers”) as Parker; and Dina Meyer (“Starship Troopers”) as Holliday. The executive producers are Barry Sonnenfeld (“Get Shorty,” “Men in Black,” “Wild Wild West”), Barry Josephson (“Wild Wild West,” “The Last Boy Scout”), Richard Regen and Rick Kellard. The series is a production of Sonnenfeld Josephson Worldwide Entertainment in association with Columbia TriStar Television.”

Sonnefeld didn’t have any better luck than QM Productions or Glen Larson. It disappeared pretty quickly.

Teleplay: Chris Dickie Director: Perry Lang

The premier episode, delayed from May 1999 to February 7, 2000, clearly shows an UNCLE influence. The POISE name was jettisoned and the good guys simply work for “the Agency.” Still, there are five regional chiefs, a la UNCLE. However the Agency is amoral compared to UNCLE. Four of the five Agency chiefs are quite willing to throw a potential villainous defector to the wolves because the bad guys (whose group is called Trinity) have a weapon that will cause much havoc. At the same time, there are influences from Sonnenfeld’s “Men In Black” film. Operatives of the Agency all dress in black suits, white shirts and ties (except for Holliday). The producers also decided to reach back to Sam Peckinpah and utilize the director’s style of utilizing slow motion in action sequences. Costas Mandylor, as Monk, has a real baby face and doesn’t carry off the Solo/Bond role that well. The main titles, as did A Man Called Sloane back in 1979, rip off the late Maurice Binder’s titles for the James Bond movies made by Eon Productions Ltd. I didn’t dislike the premier as much as some television critics but we’ve seen a lot of this before. Grade: C.

Update: Trinity was unable to do in Monk and the gang but Nielsen Media Research, which produces television rating numbers, was a more formidible foe. UPN aired five episodes before pulling the plug following the 4/3/2000 episode. The episodes following the premier were an improvement. Compared to UNCLE, however, SAM definitely had a more amoral, cynical edge. In one story, Monk and Holliday were under orders to sacrifice the “innocent” character if Trinity got to him. But they seemed a bit quick to make this choice before Parker intervened. Vargas, the villain from the premier, returned in the fourth episode but was lobotimized by Trinity after his mission failed. Other episodes merited a B grade and the series had potential. But we’re not likely to see it realized.


The FBI: “The Spy-Master”

Writer: Anthony Spinner Director: Richard Donner

Original airdate: February 6, 1966

The FBI, which aired from 1965 until 1974, was Quinn Martin’s longest running series. Ironically, Martin (1922-1987) wasn’t particularly enthusiastic, in part because his politics were more liberal than FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s. The FBI chief wanted Martin to produce the program; the show itself was a joint venture between QM Productions and Warner Bros. In this installment, a U.S. diplomat is approached by China to provide U.S. secrets. The diplomat, while disagreeing with U.S. policy on Vietnam, is loyal and reports the incident. Luckily, he bears a strong resemblance to FBI Inspector Lewis Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), who takes his place. Erskine and his men are after U.S.-based operatives of the Chinese, who include Victor Allen (Patrick O’Neal).

What makes this episode of interest to U.N.C.L.E. fans is the presence of director Richard Donner (billed here as Richard D. Donner) and writer Anthony Spinner. Donner directed four of the first 14 MFU episodes; Spinner wrote a first-season MFU episode and would return as producer of the fourth season. The storyline is mostly tense, Donner does his usual professional job and QM Productions seemed to have a higher production budget than MFU. Also, Donner stages the pre-credit sequence, which takes place in Hong Kong, so it doesn’t look as if it were shot on a sound stage (even though it was). But there are gaffes. Most of the story takes place in New York City. Yet, at one point, we can see a sign for Interstate 5, which runs through Southern California. But overall worth watching. Grade: A.


The FBI: “The Defector” Parts I and II

Writer: Norman Lessing Director: Christian Nyby

Original airdates: March 26 and April 3, 1966

The first two-part story was one of the highlights of the first season for the show. An intelligence operative of an unnamed Eastern European nation, who also happens to be a chess player, seems to have been killed when his briefcase explodes at a Washington nightclub. In reality, the man had arranged for a friend to take his place; as it turns out, one of his country’s operatives had planted the bomb to ensure the chess player’s silence. The FBI, led by Inspector Lewis Erskine, plays a cat and mouse game with the would-be defector, his wife and his nation’s agents. While a good story, Part II looks a bit padded at the end with a big car/helicopter chase. Once again, QM appears to have a bigger budget than MFU, although we still see signs that this was filmed in Southern California and not Washington (including palm trees downtown). Of interest to U.N.C.L.E. fans: three actors who played U.N.C.L.E. heavies all appear here: Paul Lukas (later to be in MFU’s The Test Tube Killer Affair) as the cagey ambassador of the unnamed Eastern European country;John Van Dreelan (from The Quadripartite and Giuoco Piano Affairs), as another chess player working both sides; and James Frawley (also from Giuoco Piano and The Dippy Blonde Affair), as the killer who planted the bomb intended to kill the potential defector. Van Dreelan, is suitably oily as the chess player seeking money from the two countries pursuing the defector. Erskine outsmarts Van Dreelan’s character at the end of Part I. “I thought you said you weren’t a good chess player,” Van Dreelan says. Erskine responds he’s terrible. “I beg to disagree,” Van Dreelan shoots back. Grade: A.

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