So What Is U.N.C.L.E., Exactly? The New Spy Thriller's Name Pays Homage To Its TV Origin
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. makes its debut in theaters this weekend, and while many critics are noting the film's stylish and sexy version of cold war politics in the 1960s as being the film's main draw, the average moviegoer is probably more concerned with wondering what on earth the acronym "U.N.C.L.E." could possibly stand for. Is the movie about a prominent nephew? Does it have any relation to the similarly-acronymic Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Just what is U.N.C.L.E.?
Well, in Guy Ritchie's new film, U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law Enforcement. It is a fictional spy organization made up of members from several countries around the world, and since the film takes place in the '60s, the two most prominent countries touting members among U.N.C.L.E.'s ranks are the United States and the Soviet Union. In the film, Henry Cavill plays American agent Napoleon Solo, who has to team up with rival Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, played by Armie Hammer, in order to stop a bunch of old Nazis from deploying a nuclear bomb. The movie is a throwback to the flashy spy pop culture phenomenon of the '60s, which was spurred on in large part by the popularity of James Bond. In fact, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is itself based on a spy TV series of the same name, which aired on NBC from 1964 to 1968.
But The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was far from the only show about spies competing for eyeballs in the television landscape of that decade. Here are eleven other examples of '60s spy TV shows, all of which are groovy, baby.
That's right, this summer's other spy thriller also got its start as a '60s spy TV show, where it still featured that same unmistakable theme song and self-destructing messages.
You know their names. Iron Man. Thor. Captain America... Wait, wrong Avengers. These Avengers were British secret agents investigating everything from run-of-the-mill murders in the early episodes to deadly robots in the later ones. The show aired in Britain from 1961 to 1969, and began airing in the U.S. in its fourth season when Diana Rigg, known to today's audiences as Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones, joined the cast.
Another British series exported to the states, this show was known as Danger Man in its native country. Although the series enjoyed a long run covering four seasons from 1960 to 1968, it's best-remembered today for Johnny Rivers' hit theme song.
Secret Agent star Patrick McGoohan left that show to create his own iconic spy series, which lasted only one season but had a big impact on the "spy-fi" genre. McGoohan starred as an unnamed retired agent who was given a number (he took the lyrics of his previous show's theme song to heart, it seems) and held prisoner on a mysterious island, from which he tried to escape in every episode.
Certainly closer to today's Avengers than The Avengers, this British series, which aired Stateside on NBC, focused on secret agents for a UN force known as Nemesis who are imbued with superpowers. Because sometimes, just being a spy isn't enough.
The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was one of the most successful of all the spy shows, so much so that it had its own female-centric spinoff. The protagonist was April Dancer, who was given her Bond Girl name by Bond author Ian Fleming himself, and she was played by the equally Bond Girl-sounding Stefanie Powers.
It Takes A Thief
This show featured a thief who becomes a spy for the U.S. Government in exchange for them keeping him out of jail. Superstar Fred Astaire even starred in several episodes of the show as lead character Alexander Mundy's father.
This series from the creator of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. dealt with espionage during World War II, putting a bit of a period piece spin on the genre.
Robert Culp and, oof, Bill Cosby, starred as spies who disguise themselves as a tennis player and his trainer, respectively. The series was an action-comedy, and was considered revolutionary due to its portrayal of a black actor being on equal footing with his white co-star.
A straight up farce of the spy genre that got its own recent movie adaptation, Get Smart came from the minds of comedy legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Even the opening titles are funny.
Wild, Wild West
Not to be confused with the awful Will Smith movie or the awesome Will Smith rap song, this series blended the most popular genres of 1960s past and present by putting spies in the the Wild West where they would thwart flamboyant villains' plans for world domination.
When you're done with U.N.C.L.E., be sure to check out some of these shows to get your '60s spy fix.
Image: Warner Bros.