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A sexy ’60s spy got dumbed down in Guy Ritchie’s new Man From U.N.C.L.E.

David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin (Photo: Douglas Jones for LOOK Magazine)
David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin (Photo: Douglas Jones for LOOK Magazine)

In a fourth season episode of Mad Men, “The Chrysanthemum And The Sword,” Sally Draper watches The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at a friend’s house. Roused by a scene in which Illya Kuryakin finds himself tied up and disheveled, she begins to masturbate.

As with most cultural references on the show, the program, the star, and the specific scene that served as the catalyst for Sally’s sexual awakening were carefully selected and pitch perfect. And her response to Kuryakin—played by David McCallum—couldn’t have been more true to life for a large percentage of girls and young women in the mid-1960s. At the height of the sly spy show’s popularity, the mysterious Russian sidekick-turned-star became a heartthrob unlike anything television had ever seen.

Guy Ritchie’s new Man From U.N.C.L.E. film adaptation doesn’t come close to capturing that magic. Despite the show’s early cult status, few were craving a cinematic reboot so many years after the fact, and no one involved in any step of the projects’ decades-long crawl toward the screen ever seemed publicly enthused about the source material. But it’s particularly frustrating to see how little attention the movie paid to what made Kuryakin such an exciting character, and how important he was to the success of the storytelling.

Premiering in September 1964, and gaining massive success just under halfway through its first season, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. inspired television’s first full-fledged fandom. Kuryakin, dubbed “the blond Beatle” for his shaggy haircut and passionate young female admirers, received the bulk of that unprecedented fervor from what TV Guide dubbed “the mystic cult of millions.” McCallum received more fan mail than any other star in the history of MGM Studios up until that point, including Clark Gable. He couldn’t leave his hotel room without being mobbed, and was often greeted at airports by throngs of young women waving placards that read “All The Way With Illya K.” An appearance at Macy’s in New York had to be canceled when the 15,000 fans who showed up to see McCallum stampeded through the store.

The reasons for this kind of response seem obvious in retrospect. On a purely aesthetic level, McCallum was disarmingly dreamy with his mop of blond hair, stunning blue eyes, and a slim but muscular build that perfectly filled out his character’s signature turtlenecks. But the appeal went so much deeper than that. Much like Spock after him, the Russian agent offered audiences an alternative to the more traditional macho heroes that dominated television and film.

“Both characters were cool, aloof aliens in a strange world, traits that appealed to adolescents who felt a similar sense of disenfranchisement from an adult world that became known as ‘The Establishment’ when college students began their revolt against the Vietnam War,” author and educator Wesley Alan Britton writes in his 2004 book Spy Television. “Kuryakin and Spock appealed to a growing trend championing nonconformity and an interest in fictional figures that were different from previous media heroes and role models.” For his young female fans, Kuryakin represented a romantic alternative as well.

Unlike the squeaky clean teen idols of the time, there was something rawly sexual about the character. He was also the antithesis to his partner, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), and his traditional leading-man swagger. Cut from the same cloth as James Bond—and created by 007 author Ian Fleming, who assisted in the early development of the show—Solo’s appeal to both female characters and female fans was clearly treated like a foregone conclusion. He was an American, a debonair man’s man who looked good in a suit and effortlessly enchanted every woman in his path. Women loved Bond, so obviously they’d respond to Solo in the exact same manner.

Many did, and the character was not without his charms, but Solo didn’t offer U.N.C.L.E. viewers—who tended to skew younger than Bond fans—anything that they hadn’t seen before from television, and certainly nothing they hadn’t seen from men in general. Bolstered by changing attitudes in politics and pop culture, and the sexual revolution, women were allowed to feel desire with less shame than perhaps any other time in modern Western culture, and this newfound sexual expression required a new kind of outlet. Solo, with his slick suits and womanizing ways, wasn’t up to the task. In both looks and behavior, the smarmy spy was far too much like Sally Draper’s dad to be of much interest to her generation.

Kuryakin, by contrast, was intelligent, wry, and intermittently sensitive. Solo strutted around with immaculately groomed hair and spouted innuendo. Kuryakin preferred more casual, modern fashion, and made literary allusions. There was no template for a character or a man like him, and the element of the unknown was enthralling. The appeal is clear from the third episode, which marks his first major appearance on the show. “The Quadripartite Affair” introduces a number of enduring and endearing traits in both style (he sports a polo shirt under his suit jacket) and substance: He calls a civilian they’re working with “a stubborn woman.” Napoleon assumes this is an insult, but Illya goes on to clarify that “resolution is my favorite virtue,” firmly establishing his series-long fondness for smart, capable women. The episode also offers a taste of the Russian’s compassion when he ends up captured by the enemy along with the stubborn woman. Out of her element and understandably distraught, she begins to panic while he methodically searches for escape routes. As she becomes increasingly upset, she begs him to act like a human being for once. Instead of telling her to be quiet, or judging her for her reaction, he does the least spy-like thing possible: He pauses for a brief moment and hugs her.

It was a heady mix for 1964—it’s still pretty effective over 50 years later, actually—different and dangerous enough to be a source of rebellion and awakening for a new generation, laying the groundwork for the character’s ascent to a Beatles-level sensation. In turn, Kuryakin fanatics managed to save The Man From U.N.C.L.E. both commercially and creatively.

The series, which was initially conceived of as a starring vehicle for Solo, with Kuryakin appearing only occasionally to add some international flair to the United Network Command For Law And Enforcement, floundered when it first debuted in September 1964. It was on the brink of cancellation when college kids across the country started noticing it while visiting home over the Christmas holidays. Impressed with the show’s blend of style, drama, and smart humor in general—and Kuryakin in particular—they started telling their friends and siblings about it. Word of mouth spread, and Man From U.N.C.L.E. grew into a genuine hit.

Eager to maintain their increasingly key Kuryakin-loving demographic, the show’s producers and writers elevated the character to full co-star status and continued to capitalize on the mystery that McCallum was building with the role. Initially frustrated by the lack of direction that he was given on his character—he was told that Kuryakin had a crate of jazz records under his bed and little else—the actor soon learned to embrace Kuryakin’s elusive nature.

“After about five or six scripts, there was nothing specific about the character. And I began to realize that there was something wonderfully enigmatic about not knowing what the character was,” McCallum said in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book by Jon Heitland. “And so, from then on, whenever something specific arose, such as he was married, or had a family, or lived somewhere, or was educated, or whatever—whenever those arose, I took them out with the permission of the writers.”

As fans became increasingly enthusiastic about the mysterious Kuryakin, McCallum and crew doubled down on their vision, which managed to bring an admirable sense of ambiguity to the program that was previously unexplored by American television. It also made Solo a more interesting character, giving the archetypal spy a regular foil to play off of, and allowing him to develop a personality of his own beyond his baby Bond beginnings. Making Kuryakin a regular and equal character also allowed Vaughn and McCallum to capitalize on their incredible chemistry, and develop one of the best duo dynamics of all time, which made the already clever and playful show even more enjoyable.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. did cater (or maybe pander) to the physical cravings of its fans, finding new and inventive ways to tie Kuryakin up and get him wet, disheveled, and half naked on a weekly basis, but the writers managed to do it in such a way that it never harmed the overall quality of the show. There’s no actual reason for agents from U.N.C.L.E.’s nemesis agency, T.H.R.U.S.H., to strip Kuryakin down to a tight white T-shirt and underpants, for example, but the overall effect on the script is neutral at worst, and makes excellent fodder for a Sally Draper moment. In a sense, this unselfconscious and unapologetic courting of the female gaze predicts what’s currently happening with the Magic Mike films. It must have felt downright revolutionary, not to mention dizzyingly exciting, 50 years ago.

While directors came and went, and the Napoleon Solo role became a revolving door for elite Hollywood stars (George Clooney and Tom Cruise both signed up and dropped out; everyone else from Channing Tatum to Jon Hamm was considered at one point before Henry Cavill finally landed the role), Kuryakin was quietly handed to the attractive but ultimately underwhelming Armie Hammer. The script, written by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, strips Kuryakin of almost everything that made him so appealing originally. His fondness for strong-willed women remains, but the mystery is replaced with too much backstory and his brains are replaced with superhuman brawn. He’s no longer an alternative to Solo; he’s Napoleon with a Russian accent and blond (and far too stylized) hair, 2015’s answer to everything that left the character’s original fans uninspired and unsatisfied.

It’s not the end of the world. Today’s young people have a vast selection of pop-cultural fodder for their fantasies that would have been unimaginable to the adolescents of the ’60s both in scope and public acceptance. But Ritchie’s movie still feels like a wasted opportunity. The symbiosis between Kuryakin and his fans, a mutually beneficial relationship in which ratings and adoration were rewarded with smart stories that were worthy of their passion and vice versa, is still frustratingly unique a half century later, despite whatever cultural gains society has made. And it’s the least that fangirls—a criminally underestimated population who deserve so much more respect and attention for their unbridled investment in the things they love—deserve.