James Bond creator Ian Fleming contributed to the show's creation. The book The James Bond Films reveals that Fleming's TV concept had two characters: Napoleon Solo and April Dancer (The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.). ("Mr. Solo" was originally the name of a crime boss in Fleming's Goldfinger.) Robert Towne and Harlan Ellison wrote scripts for the series, which was originally to have been titled Solo. Author Michael Avallone, who wrote the first original novel based upon the series (see below), is sometimes incorrectly cited as the creator of the series (such as in the January 1967 issue of The Saint Magazine). At one point, Fleming's name was to have been connected more directly with the series. The cover of the original prospectus for the series showed the title Ian Fleming's Solo. Solo was originally slated to be the "solo" star of the series, the only "Man". But a minor walk-on by a Russian agent named Illya Kuryakin caught fire with the fans, and the two were permanently paired.
The series, though fictional, achieved such notability as to have artifacts (props, costumes and documents, and a video clip) from the show included in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library's exhibit on spies and counterspies. Similar exhibits can be found in the museums of the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies and organizations involved with intelligence gathering.
Though executive producer Norman Felton and Ian Fleming had developed the character of Napoleon Solo, it was producer Sam Rolfe who created the organization of U.N.C.L.E. Unlike the nationalistic organizations of the CIA and James Bond's MI6, U.N.C.L.E. was a worldwide organization that comprised agents from all corners of the globe. The character of Illya Kuryakin was created by Rolfe as a Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent.
The creators of the series decided that the involvement of an innocent character would be part of each episode, giving the audience someone with whom it could identify. Through all the changes in series in the course of four seasons, this element remained a factor — from a suburban housewife in the pilot, "The Vulcan Affair" (film version: "To Trap a Spy"), to the various people kidnapped in the final episode, "The Seven Wonders of the World Affair".
UNCLE headquarters in New York City were most frequently entered by a secret entrance in Del Floria's Tailor Shop. Another entrance was through The Masque Club. Mr. Waverly had his own secret entrance. Unlike the competing TV series I Spy however, the shows were overwhelmingly shot on the MGM back lot. The same outside staircase was used for episodes set throughout the Mediterranean and Latin America, and the same eucalyptus dirt road on the back lot in Culver City stood in for virtually every continent of the globe. The episodes followed a naming convention where each title was in the form of "The ***** Affair", such as "The Vulcan Affair", "The Mad, Mad, Tea Party Affair", "The Waverly Ring Affair", and "The Deadly Quest Affair", the only exceptions being, "Alexander the Greater Affair", parts 1 & 2.
Rolfe managed to make the implausibility of it all seem not only feasible but entertaining. Frogmen emerging from wells in Iowa, shootouts between UNCLE and THRUSH agents in a crowded midtown Manhattan movie theatre, top secret organizations hidden behind innocuous brownstone facades; this was a parallel universe that lay just beyond our own. Rolfe left the show at the conclusion of the first season, frustrated by lack of recognition of his role in the show's success and his lack of monetary compensation.
This campiness was most in evidence during the third season, when the producers made a conscious decision to increase the level of humor (though second season had shown a considerable increase towards a farcical approach with "The Yukon Affair" and "The Indian Affairs Affair"). With unfunny shows like "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair," the show tested the loyalties of its supporters and this direction resulted in a severe ratings drop, and nearly resulted in the show's cancellation. It was renewed for a fourth season and an attempt was made to go back to serious storytelling, but the show's final producer, Anthony Spinner, turned it into a grim, plodding shadow of its former self, and it was cancelled midway through its fourth season.
The theme music, written by Jerry Goldsmith, changed slightly each season. Goldsmith only provided four original scores and was replaced by Morton Stevens, who also composed four scores for the series. After Stevens, Walter Scharf did six scores, and Lalo Schifrin (who later wrote the memorable Mission: Impossible theme) did two. Gerald Fried was composer from season two through the beginning of season four. The final composers were Robert Drasnin, Nelson Riddle and Richard Shores. The music reflected the show's changing seasons – Goldsmith, Stevens and Scharf composed compelling and dramatic scores in the first season using brass, unique time signatures and martial rhythms, Gerald Fried and Robert Drasnin went for a lighter approach in the second, employing harpsichords and bongos and by the third season, the music had become pure farce exemplified by an R&B organ and saxophone version of the theme. The fourth season's strained attempt at seriousness was duly echoed by Richard Shores' somber and uninspired scores.
One prop, often referred to as "The Gun," drew so much attention that it actually spurred considerable fan mail, often so addressed. Internally designated the "U.N.C.L.E. Special", it featured a modular semi-automatic weapon, originally based on the Mauser Model 1934 Pocket Pistol, but soon replaced by the more-readily available Walther P38 pistol. As such, the gun could be converted into a longer-range carbine by attaching a long barrel, extendable shoulder stock, telescopic sight, and extended magazine. The magazine was actually a standard magazine with a dummy extension on it, but it inspired several manufacturers to begin making long magazines for various pistols. The gun usually fired some form of a fast acting tranquilizing dart instead of bullets as opposed to the lethality of a THRUSH weapon. While many of these continue to be available 40 years later, long magazines were not available for the P-38 for some years. However, they are now being custom made, as are reproduction parts for the U.N.C.L.E. carbine, and sold at "TheUncleGun.com" . "Pictures" of their U.N.C.L.E. gun reproductions can also be seen on the official "Man From U.N.C.L.E. DVD set" The "U.N.C.L.E. Special"-configured Walther P38 would later become the distinctive alternate mode for the Transformers character Megatron, the evil leader of the Decepticons. THRUSH had an equally impressive range of weaponry, much of it only in development before being destroyed by our heroes; their most notable item was the infrared sniperscope, enabling them to target gunfire in total darkness. A major design defect of the sniperscope (both in the TV series and in the real world) was that its image tube's power supply emitted a distinctive whining sound when operating. This device was built around a U. S. Army-surplus M1 carbine.
A few of the third- and fourth-season episodes featured an "U.N.C.L.E. car", which was developed from the Piranha, a concept car built to prove the usefulness of plastics in auto construction.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. rated so highly in America and the UK that MGM and the producers decided to film extra footage (often more adult to evoke Bond films) for two of the first season episodes and release them to theaters after they had aired on TV. The episodes with the extra footage that made it to theaters were the original pilot, "The Vulcan Affair" retitled To Trap a Spy, and also from the first season "The Double Affair" retitled as The Spy With My Face. Both had added sex and violence, new sub-plots and guest stars not in the original TV episodes. They were often released as an U.N.C.L.E. double-feature program first run in neighborhood theaters, bypassing the customary downtown movie palaces which were still thriving in the mid-60s and where new movies usually played for weeks and even months before coming to outlying screens.
A selling point to seeing these films on the big screen back then was that they were being shown in color, at a time when most people had black and white TVs. The words IN COLOR featured prominently on the trailers, tv spots and posters for the film releases.
Subsequent two-part episodes, beginning with the second season premiere, "Alexander The Greater Affair," retitled One Spy Too Many for its theatrical release, were developed into one complete feature film with only occasional extra sexy and violent footage added to them, sometimes as just inserts.
All of the films were successful in many parts of the world, even those where the TV show did not air, sometimes surpassing box office receipts of the most recent Bond film. The later films were not released in America, only overseas, but the first few did well in American theaters and remain one of the rare examples of a television show released in paid theatrical engagements.
Among the films in this series:
The U.N.C.L.E. fad also inspired a related series of books, the best of which, in most opinions, were written by David McDaniel. See below for a listing.
Other spin-offs included a Man from U.N.C.L.E. digest-sized story magazine, board games, action-figures, and toy pistols. The show also inspired the naming of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
Several comic strips based on the series have been published. In the US, there was a Gold Key Comics comic book series (one based on the show), which ran for about a dozen issues. Entertainment Publishing released an eleven issue series of one- and two-part stories from January 1987 to September 1988 that updated U.N.C.L.E. to the Eighties, while largely ignoring the reunion TV-movie. A two-part comics story, "The Birds of Prey Affair" was put out by Millennium Publications in 1993, which showcased the return of a smaller, much more streamlined version of Thrush, controlled by Dr. Egret, who had melded with the Ultimate Computer. The script was written by Mark Ellis and Terry Collins with artwork by Nick Choles, and transplanted the characters into the present day.
Two Man from U.N.C.L.E. strips were originated for the British market in the 1960s (some Gold Key material was also reprinted), the most notable for Lady Penelope comic, which launched in January 1966. This was replaced by a Girl from U.N.C.L.E. strip in January 1967. Man from U.N.C.L.E. also featured in the short-lived title Solo (published between February and September 1967) and some text stories appeared in TV Tornado.
The movie briefly filled in the missing years. THRUSH had been put out of business, and the remaining leader was in prison. (His escape begins the story.) Illya had quit U.N.C.L.E. after a mission had gone sour and an innocent woman been killed, and now designed women's clothing at Vanya's in New York. Napoleon had been pushed out of U.N.C.L.E. and now sold computers, though he still carried his U.N.C.L.E. pen radio for sentimental reasons (which is how the organization is able to contact him after so many years).
Solo and Kuryakin were recalled to recapture and defeat Thrush once and for all, but the movie misfired on a key point: instead of reuniting the agents on the mission -- and showcasing their witty interaction -- the agents were separated and paired with younger agents. Like most similar reunion films, this production was considered a trial balloon for a possible new series, but none emerged.
In an episode of the The A-Team, season five, where Robert Vaughn had a recurring role as General Stockwell, David McCallum guest starred in an episode titled "The Say Uncle Affair" as Stockwell's former espionage partner, Ivan. Footage from the series was used for flashbacks in the story, and the signature change of scene music from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was used whenever scenes changed in that episode.
McCallum played one of the few characters ever to have been killed in an A-Team episode.
A region 2 DVD (PAL for Europe) release of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movies was released on September 8, 2003. The DVD contains five of the eight movies, missing the following: To Trap a Spy (1964), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966) and One of Our Spies is Missing (1966).
Two dozen original novels were based upon Man from U.N.C.L.E. and published between 1965 and 1968 (for a time, the most of any American-produced television series except for Star Trek, though there have now been more original novels published based upon Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Freed from the limitations of network television, these novels were generally grittier and more violent than the televised episodes and were very successful.
Another volume, The Final Affair, also by David McDaniel, was completed but not published. Copies of the manuscript have circulated among fans for decades. Written after the series was cancelled, it was intended to provide a definitive conclusion to Solo and Illya's adventures. At one time there were plans to publish The Final Affair in a limited deluxe edition, but the project failed. Another book, The Catacombs and Dogma Affair, has been mentioned in some sources, but it isn't listed as one of the official U.N.C.L.E. novels (it's possible it might be one of the above volumes, retitled, or it may be the unpublished second U.N.C.L.E.novel by J. Hunter Holly, which has been circulated in mimeographed form among fans). Volumes 10-15 and 17 of the series were only published in the United States.
Two science-fiction novels - Genius Unlimited by John Rackham (a pseudonym used by Phillifent) and The Arsenal Out of Time by McDaniel - appear to be rewrites of "orphaned" U.N.C.L.E novel outlines or manuscripts.
The Rainbow Affair is notable for its thinly-disguised cameo appearances by The Saint, Miss Marple, John Steed, Emma Peel, Tommy Hambledon (at whose flat Solo and Ilya encounter Steed and Peel), Neddie Seagoon, Father Brown, a retired, elderly Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Fu Manchu. The novel uses the same chapter title format that Leslie Charteris used in his Saint novels. (The title of one of the theatrical versions of UNCLE episodes, The Spy in the Green Hat, is very close to the title of The Man in the Green Hat, one of the "Hambledon" novels by "Manning Coles".)
Whitman Books also published three hardcover novels aimed at young readers and based upon the series. The first two books break the naming convention "The .... Affair" used by all other U.N.C.L.E. fiction and episodes:
A children's storybook written by Walter Gibson entitled The Coin of El Diablo Affair was also published.
The aforementioned digest magazine based upon Man from U.N.C.L.E. and often featured original novellas that were not published anywhere else. There were 24 issues running monthly from February 1966 till January 1968, inclusive.