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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. --- Napoleon Solo: More Than Meets the Eye

TITLE: More Than Meets the Eye
AUTHOR: st_crispins
WEBSITE : http://file40.net/file40g/crispins/cris_page.html
CHARACTER: Napoleon Solo
FANDOM: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
SPOILERS: C’mon, it’s a 40-year old series and continuity wasn’t important.





Obsession

As it happened for millions of other kids of my baby boomer generation, when I first encountered The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the summer of 1965, shortly before the beginning of its second season, it was love at first sight

Today, within Media Fandom, MFU is a relatively small, almost boutique fandom so it’s difficult to describe the level of popularity that the series enjoyed in its heyday. Obviously, there was no internet back then, but also no DVDs no VCRs, no cable (except in rural areas) no cable networks, no IM, no cell phones. The portable radios were tinny transistor types. Music came on records. There were only three networks and in some parts of the US, less than that.

Most houses had one black and white set, usually controlled by the father of the house. If you wanted to watch a program, you had to negotiate with Dad.

One. Television. Set. Our lifeline to the rest of the world.

In the early morning and on Saturdays, there was children's programming. Prime Time (which began at 7:30 EST) was for "the family." Most of it was nice, bland, unexciting. We didn't mind going to bed at 10 pm.

And then The Man from U.N.C.L.E. arrived in 1964. Compared to everything else that was around, it was smart. Exciting. Fast-paced. Sexy. Originally sold to the network as “James Bond for television” (Ian Fleming was involved early on in the series’ development) it was much more than that. It was a pop culture phenomenon in a way that, in our current fragmented media environment, is just not possible today.

For the first half of the first season, MFU’s ratings were poor and the series was almost cancelled. But then, the fans got busy. They wrote letters to NBC --- millions of them (this was at least two years before the Trek campaign). When the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas, KORK, decided to drop MFU because its time period conflicted with the station’s “family night” at the movies, local fans organized a protest campaign and managed to convince the local CBS affiliate to air the series instead. When the college students came home for Christmas break and their preferences began to register on the Nielsen ratings, (Nielsen does not sample TV audiences in dorms), MFU’s ratings began to climb. By the time I tuned in that August, MFU was claiming 44 per cent of all the televisions turned on in its time period. During second season, that number jumped to over 50 per cent. The only television audience comparable today is for the Super Bowl.

MFU wasn't children's programming, but young people all over the US and eventually in other countries as well, most notably the UK and Japan, embraced it. Reporting from a research survey conducted for MGM (the studio where MFU was made), the series’ producer, Norman Felton, told the NBC executives that the viewers (who were largely teenagers and college students)“are not just watching the program because they dislike the other programs that are on, or because they just like it. They are watching because they are fans, fanatics, if you will. They talk about the program with other fans, and go beyond that: they proselytize, they want to convert non-viewers!… Many of the now rabid fans told us that it took them a few shows to start to get into 'the spirit' of the program, but once 'hooked' they are now hooked ‘all the way.'

MFU fans who lived through that period remember being obsessed with the show. We were all hooked: we not only watched U.N.C.L.E. episodes and tried to tape them on tinny reel-to-reel tape recorders. We read U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks and magazines. We collected U.N.C.L.E. merchandise, everything from clothing to toy guns. We played U.N.C.L.E. in the backyard. We cannibalized pens for communicators, and strapped makeshift shoulder holsters containing plastic Lugers to our sides. And many of us wrote MFU adventures, often incorporating ourselves and our friends into the missions. And why not? Since every MFU “affair” had an Innocent or two, Mary Sue was actually canon.

MFU wasn't originally meant for us, but it was *ours* in a way a prime time television program had never been previously. TV Guide noted that there had been "nothing" like MFU before: the magazine called it "the mystic cult of millions." When the Beatles came to America, the person *they* wanted to meet was Robert Vaughn who played Napoleon Solo.



The Living Room Spy

While my enthusiasm matched that of practically every kid I knew, one thing was different: all my girlfriends were massively, hopelessly in love with Illya Kuryakin, the blond enigmatic Russian agent played by David McCallum (and come to think of it, many of them still are). For about three years, McCallum’s face was everywhere, on every issue of every teen-oriented magazine that hit the stands.

But for me, it was Solo, always Solo, the actual “man” of the title. It is Solo’s image, after all, that appears in the bullet-riddled spidery glass at the beginning of every first season black and white episode, an image that has remained with me for over 40 years.

It wasn’t so bad being in the minority. It was easy to find someone to trade McCallum photos for Vaughn’s. True, it took more effort to scour the adult movie star magazines for pictures and articles of my idol (Vaughn’s demographic was older than McCallum’s), but when we played in the backyard, I always got the role of Solo while the rest of my friends fought over Illya.

Although the gossip rags dubbed Sean Connery “the bedroom spy” and Robert Vaughn the living room spy, Vaughn’s Solo was no Bond clone. A quiet, somewhat introverted intellectual (he has a PH.D. in Communication from USC) who’d played mostly villains and delinquent playboys previously (he was Oscar nominated for his tragic rich kid in The Young Philadelphians), Vaughn suddenly found himself a romantic action hero. He realized early on that it would be foolish to compete with the bigger-than-life screen image of Bond. “I couldn’t be Sean Connery who was so impressive-looking, an ex-Mr. Universe,” Vaughn recalls, although Photoplay magazine did eventually publish an article comparing the two actors and their screen personas. “I had to be me, being this person [Solo]. According to the scripts, women found him attractive. So I used what women found attractive about me.” Today, Vaughn says that although he didn’t realize it then, he now believes he was using John F. Kennedy as his model for Solo: “Charming, funny, witty, terribly glib, and totally detached and removed.” The fact that the character always wore tuxedoes and crisp business suits and parted his hair in a similar manner to the then-recently deceased president also reinforced the visual impression.

Actually, Solo is less like Bond and more like the characters Cary Grant played in Alfred Hitchcock films like Notorious, To Catch a Thief and particularly, North By Northwest. NxNW’s tone is very close to MFU’s: both even feature Leo G. Carroll as the spy master on the side of Good. And indeed, Grant was the image Norman Felton first had in mind when he thought about casting the role.

Felton, along with Sam Rolfe who was hired to develop the concept, wanted a different kind of hero, one who was somewhat average --- “intelligent, not massive in size, witty and interesting” . A list of potential casting choices included Jack Lord, Rip Torn, Harry Guardino and notably Robert Culp, who went on to star in I Spy. But in the end, Felton and Rolfe chose Vaughn who was then co-starring in The Lieutentant a series produced by Felton’s Arena productions. More recently, Vaughn recalled that he asked Felton several times why he’d been cast. “Norman said it was because when a take was over [on The Lieutenant] before they said cut, I would say something wry and witty and James Bondish. He said that he knew I had a sense of humor even though my character on the series was not humorous... He just thought I had a sense of theatricality or humor or worldliness or something well beyond my age”

While McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin was dubbed the blond and/or Russian Beatle, the very epitome of the late 1960s, Napoleon Solo, the senior partner of the team, is a throwback to another era, to the late 50s-early 60s of Kennedy and Frank Sinatra. The iconic image of Kuryakin is dressed in a black turtleneck (a fashion, BTW, that was defined and popularized by MFU). The iconic image of Solo is dressed in an impeccable tuxedo, with a martini in one hand and an U.N.C.L.E. Special in the other.

This may seem to be the spy cliche, but with Solo, there is always more than meets the eye. In the series’ pilot, The Vulcan Affair Solo recruits Elaine May Donaldson (Patricia Crowley), an “ordinary housewife” in order to get close to Andrew Vulcan, a reclusive industrialist and high ranking member of Thrush. It seems Elaine was once Vulcan’s college sweetheart.

Although early in the story, one of the U.N.C.L.E. secretaries accuses Solo of being “an awfully cold fish” with Elaine, he is anything but. He is friendly, witty, understanding, and respectful. But he is also perceptive, manipulative, determined and deadly.

One of Solo’s most revealing character moments occurs about midway through the story, when the agent tells Elaine perceptively and sympathetically that it’s not the villains who she fears, but rather that her glamorous cover identity will seduce her away from her real life. Pointing to her image in a mirror, he observes, “You’re afraid that you won’t be able to walk away from what you see in that mirror when the time comes.” He safeguards her wedding ring throughout the mission and at the end, is considerate enough to remember to supply Elaine with gifts for her family to bring from her “PTA trip. On the other hand, when Solo and Elaine are captured and threatened with certain death, Elaine tells him not to blame himself. To which Solo replies, (according to the stage directions in the script “genuinely astonished”), “Of course I don’t blame myself. It had to be done.” [ for an MFU episode guide, go here.]

Not Quite ‘ Solo’

As the series went on, of course, Solo was soon joined by a Russian partner, Illya Kuryakin. Even before the series actually aired, the producers, directors and writers took note of the chemistry between Vaughn and McCallum, and by extension, Solo and Kuryakin. “You could tell, not only from the language of the scripts, that we liked each other but we were kind of competitive,” Vaughn observes today about the characters. “But that was what the show was about. [In reality] we did like each other and we were kind of competitive, and that came across.”

Competition aside, it’s pretty obvious even if you don’t write from a slash perspective that Solo and Kuryakin have great affection for one another. They banter, they share food and drinks, they spend time together and even take an occasional vacation together and most importantly, when one is captured (which happens about twice an episode) the other always finds time for a rescue. Despite the fact that they appear to be physical and temperamental opposites, they have more in common than is apparent at first glance.

A friendship and successful working partnership between an American agent and a Russian agent was revolutionary for the time period. Keep in mind that when MFU premiered, the Cuban Missile Crisis was still fresh in the public’s mind. But the producers hoped to look beyond the Cold War to a different world --- the world, incidentally, that we know today --- and in that, their vision was prescient. “We’re showing people things to come and we’re doing it with a sense of humor,” Felton told TV Guide shortly after MFU’s premiere. “So rather than making a comment on life as it is today, we are making a comment on life as it will be in the future.”

With the addition of Illya, witty repartee, and a group of regular writers, some of whom were actually drinking buddies of Vaughn, the Solo character began to loosen up and become warmer, and more accessible. “I had lunch with the writers every day,” remembers Vaughn. “They got to know me better and as time went on, they used me [my own personality] as they knew me at lunch.”

As a result, Solo acquired more of Vaughn’s charm and sardonic humor. He also became even less the super spy and more fallible. He didn’t always get the girl. He got in trouble with Mr. Waverly, his cranky superior. He sometimes made mistakes ---occasionally big ones. For example, in The Never Never Affair, Solo tries to give a bored U.N.C.L.E. HQ office worker (played by future Get Smart co-star Barbara Feldon) a taste of the “romance and glamour of espionage.” He does this by concocting a “secret mission” for her. In reality, she’s just going to fill Waverly’s humidor at a local tobacco shop. The accidental result is that the office worker ends up carrying a vital microdot while being pursued by Thrush agents all over New York City. A scene in which Solo must explain to an angry Waverly and an incredulous Illya what he did on a whim is very funny.

“There’s no question that he [Solo] did become more vulnerable and make mistakes and be flustered and a little nervous, unlike Sean Connery’s impeccably cool Bond,” says Vaughn. “They [the writers] were definitely writing this way. Whether it was based on knowing me better or they thought it would give the character [Solo] more humanity, I don’t know.”

The writers also introduced an ongoing contest of one-upmanship between the agents. “The See Paris and Die Affair ends with Solo enjoying the fact that Illya has made a mistake and is in trouble with Waverly. The original script for The Gazebo in the Maze Affair was changed slightly so that it would end in the reverse situation, with Illya joking while Solo suffers Waverly’s wrath. In The Girls of Nazarone Affair Illya’s “forgetting” to tell Solo that the mission was actually resolved more successfully than the senior agent was led to believe, results in the two men nearly coming to blows as the episode fades out.


A Man of Contradictions

In the mid-1960s, when MFU appeared, television was still in the process of making the transition from the anthology to the serial form. Most of the working producers (like Norman Felton) had come to television from theater and they considered creating an entirely new story with a new cast each week superior to have a continuing storyline with regulars. They thought continuity was more appropriate for juvenile audiences, because it was akin to episodic adventures found in the old Saturday morning movie serials.

As a result, even though most “quality” series had a cast of regulars, in programs as different as Wagon Train and Route 66, the emphasis was put on the guest stars. There was very little background development for the main characters. [It wasn’t until the arrival of series like Hill Street Blues, Dallas and other soaps in prime time that continuity became essential. ]

This happened with MFU as well. Vaughn has said that he expected audiences would not be interested the least bit in anything in his Solo’s background or where he lived. The producers and writers, at least at first, saw Solo, Kuryakin and the mythical U.N.C.L.E. organization as mere plot devices --- springboards and frameworks for the U.N.C.L.E. formula which would always involve both regular folks (The Innocents) caught up in the mission and flamboyant super-villains, both types of characters to be played by big name guest stars.

So, we don’t know a great deal, canon-wise, about either Solo or Kuryakin. [for the agents' complete bios, see this and this ]. Many elements of Solo’s biography that appear in the early series’ development notes, including an early marriage and the subsequent death of his young wife in an auto accident, were largely ignored or, at least, never mentioned during the course of the series. (Fan-gone-pro writer, David McDaniel, writing for Ace, did make use of some of the information for his paperback novels). Indeed, despite the fact that Kuryakin was often described as “enigmatic” and “mysterious,” in canon, we actually know a bit more about the Russian agent than Solo.

From the episodes, we know Solo was in Korea and served under Colonel Morgan (The Secret Sceptre Affair), probably in military intelligence although it’s not specified. Seven years before The Terbuf Affair, Solo had a serious relationship with Clara Richards (now Valdar) which is described in the subtle, indirect television 60s-speak of the time as being “very good friends.” Although he certainly has a taste for the finer things in life, it’s mentioned in several episodes that Solo is not wealthy himself. Indeed, in The Brainkiller Affair , when the cash-strapped Innocent, Cecille Bergstrom (Yvonne Craig) observes that Solo couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to deal with tragedy and poverty, he responds, “You know, as hard as it might be for you to believe, I do understand that.”

In The Green Opal Affair Solo tells another Innocent about his grandfather, a small country lawyer who went quail hunting every September and took time to “smell the flowers along the way.” It’s a nice story and typical of the sort of exchanges Solo indulges in with Innocents, particularly if they are female, but it’s not true. At the end of the episode, Kuryakin reports from Solo’s U.N.C.L.E. file that one of his grandfathers was an admiral, the other an ambassador.

Which brings us to another problem in sorting through Solo’s background based on canon: he lies (and why not? He’s a spy after all.) Should we believe him, then, when he talks about coming from Kansas in To Trap a Spy, the film version of The Vulcan Affair (The movie scene was recut into The Four Steps Affair)? Probably not. Even his Thrush file is not quite right. In The Thrush Roulette Affair, we read that he’s 6 foot tall weighing 175 pounds, but that’s probably wishful thinking. Vaughn himself, was somewhere around 5 foot 10-11 at the time.

In so many ways, Solo is a walking paradox. He’s a gourmand, yet in The See Paris and Die Affair, Illya complains “Must you put ketchup and mustard on everything?” He’s the planner of missions and shrewd enough to concoct the elaborate, Mission:Impossible-worthy scenario used in The Strigas Affair, yet he will employ the same skills (and get in trouble for it) entertaining Mandy in The Never Never Affair.

He’s a playboy, yet he’s also a romantic, constantly offering advice and even match-making among the Innocents. He changes girlfriends as often as ties, but nevertheless, in the grip of the amnesia drug Capsule B he falls in love with Mara in The Nowhere Affair and risks his career and life for a woman who once dumped him in The Terbuf Affair. In fanfic, he’s often presented as the more masculine/dominant member of the partnership, yet he probably has more culturally-identified feminine traits, such as his vanity and his love of chit-chat. Eminently sophisticated and civilized, he can also become a self-described “homicidal maniac” and will press the muzzle of a Thrush machine gun to a guard’s head, threatening to perform a very messy frontal lobotomy.

Confusing maybe, but certainly fertile ground for fanfiction. Unlike modern series, MFU leaves the writer lots of elbow room to imagine and create. However, trying to boil Solo down to his core, I’d define three elements: dedication, seduction and luck.

Dedication and Loyalty

“For a man like you,” Gervaise Ravel informs Solo in The Giuoco Piano Affair,”if there’s the smallest doubt in your mind, no matter how insignificant the cause, you have to make the ultimate sacrifice... Your respect for what you think is right is your weakness.”

This doesn’t come as news to either Solo or us. It’s pretty clear, even from the pilot, that while action, excitement, good food and beautiful women are the perks of the job, Solo’s in it for a higher calling. Although the writers deliberately eschewed any heavy-handed philosophy, Solo does make comments, asides and occasional short speeches that express his views of how the world should work.

He’s totally dedicated to the U.N.C.L.E. organization and respectful and accepting of Waverly’s authority. He seldom questions an order and accepts his superior’s reprimands with sheepish nods and lowered eyes. According to canon, he’s Waverly’s heir apparent, and, in many ways, Solo is the ultimate company man.

But he’s also loyal to people he cares about, primarily Kuryakin, and often, he has to balance his personal and professional obligations against each other. Again, the writers never wanted to put their characters in a real moral bind, so usually, Solo manages to spring his partner (and/or the Innocent) and still complete the mission. There is one scene, however, that occurs midway through the two-part Concrete Overcoat Affair in which we clearly see Solo wrestling with the choice of dedication and obedience to Waverly and his loyalty and responsibility to individual people, in this case, the Innocent and his partner. Waverly lets him off the hook, but it’s a fascinating scene and one much debated among fans.

Seduction and Charm

There is no doubt that Solo likes sex and more than a few hints, canon-wise, that he’s very good at it. This, in a time, when even married couples on television didn’t sleep together in the same bed.

But he also likes women, too, and spends an inordinate amount of time charming them, flirting with them, listening to them and chatting them up. (Even slash stories recognize Solo’s affection and appreciation for the opposite sex.) This makes him appear less a sexual predator like Bond, and more like someone who simply enjoys life so much that he can’t turn down an attractive opportunity when it comes his way.

The fact that women are attracted to him in return is blatantly commented on in a scene in The Candidate’s Wife Affair in which a drugged Innocent immediately cuddles up to him during a makeshift interrogation. “Can’t you turn it off?” Kuryakin demands sourly, to which Solo can only shrug helplessly. “Hey, when you’ve got it, you’ve got it. And I’ve got it.”

But Solo’s capacity for seduction extends beyond sex. He seduces everyone he meets. He romances dangerous Thrush agents. He talks Innocents into helping out on missions. He cajoles his captors so they let down their guards enabling him to escape. He even talks his partner into various plans and schemes. And he does so automatically and effortlessly.

It’s a hallmark of his character that Solo is constantly manipulating and conniving, trying to keep ahead of everyone else and making things go his way. And they usually do. When they don’t, there’s a good-natured shrug followed by a move to Plan B.

Yes, most definitely, he’s got “it.” And he knows it.

Which may either irritate you or make you chuckle in appreciation.

“Your self assurance borders on the arrogant,” a villain named Bufferton informs Solo in The Giuoco Piano Affair. “You know,” Solo responds, “I used to worry a lot about that until I realized that it only offended people such as yourself.”

Luck

Although it’s never commented upon explicitly in canon, it’s pretty obvious that Solo is inordinately lucky. Whether it’s due to chance or a combination of preparation and flexible thinking on his part is not quite clear. But there are times, as when he scores a perfect bulls eye in a dart game in The Gazebo in the Maze Affair or makes a brilliant shot using a mirror in The Never Never Affair that Solo even astonishes himself.

This is a man who wins at love, war and cards --- indeed, whatever game he plays. Because life itself is a game to him and he plays hard to win, always calculating the odds. At times he seems almost reckless (Vaughn commented once that he thought Solo was a little crazy) and there is speculation that he’s an adrenalin junkie, which seems to be supported by canon.

Nevertheless, Solo has an optimistic, playful view of life. He is only seldom cynical, usually accepting events with a certain wry, sardonic humor. He’s smooth and keeps his head in a crisis, and even when he does get angry, he tends to get quieter and less emotional, not more. Perhaps that’s the secret to his luck: he always remains cool under fire.

Descendant/Ascendant

I suppose I can’t do an essay on Napoleon Solo without making at least brief mention of the fact that for a time in MFU’s fanfiction history, U.N.C.L.E. Chief of Enforcement became a sort of nonentity.

About ten years ago, I did a survey of MFU fandom for an academic paper and discovered that, while Solo was a favorite of male fans, almost three-quarters of the female fans preferred Illya. In fact, for the first decade that followed the series’ cancellation, they preferred Illya so much that in most of the stories written during that period, Solo is either a supporting player or he doesn’t appear at all.

The first MFU fanfic novel that appeared in 1975, The Blue Curtain Affair featured Illya assisted by a Mod Squad-type group of young agents with Solo nowhere to be seen. The longest running MFU zine is The Kuryakin File . There is no Solo File.

When I entered MFU fandom a decade ago, it made me sad to see that my favorite character was being ignored or portrayed in ways that I found less than flattering. Fortunately, with a new generation of both gen and slash writers entering in the late 1980s and early 90s (I was one of them) this situation has changed drastically. Although Solo fans are still outnumbered by Illya fans, I would also guess that fans who prefer *both* agents together outnumber us all.

Appeal

So, finally, what’s the appeal? In several discussions in the muncle community of Solo’s traits in canon and fanon, he was described in a number of ways, many of them discussed in this essay. But the most telling comment was “chameleon-like” and I can certainly agree with that. Solo has a rare ability to adapt easily to people and situations as a good spy should. And because of the juxtaposition, even disconnection, of what is exterior and interior, he can be a lot of fun to watch and write. He is never quite what he appears to be and plumbing those depths, finding all sorts of little surprises, can keep a fan writer busy for a long, long time.

Additional reading:

Solo in slash.

Solo in het.

Solo in pictures and articles

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