As a child of the 60’s, there are several events that stand out as defining moments in the lives of those of us who remember that decade. I was, thankfully, too young to be one of those who fall into the category of the witty remark: if you remember the 60’s, you probably weren’t there.
I wasn’t doing drugs, and I wasn’t busy being resentful or rebellious. Mainly, I was trying to grow up and enjoy what the entertainment superpowers were handing me. Mainly, The Beatles, Barbies and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. That last element would prove to be nearly as defining an influence as the music and the doll, while providing so much fantasy and political bravado to my repertoire that I felt incomplete without a “mission” in life.
Looking back, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the most profound influence was, with all humility and pre-pre-adolescent zeal, the picture at the top of this page. While I became a fan of the show early on, even in black and white (come to think of it, that’s all we had anyway), the season two revelation that was given to us by NBC and the writers on the show was the very profoundly engaging and, dare I saw, sexy image of Illya in an unbuttoned white shirt.
That’s it. There was nothing more alluring during the course of the entire series, all four years, than the first time the darling Russian agent was caught without a tie or jacket, with his top buttons undone and his sex appeal oozing through the opening. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, tall or burly like so many others. He was aloof and businesslike, taking out the bad guys or being beaten and tortured at the hands of THRUSH, and we loved it…loved him. I daresay he created more heat through his unfortunate circumstances than any other character on television. My memory of the show centers around his exploits, his time on screen and the anticipation of any episode that might feature Illya rather than Napoleon Solo.
NBC caught hold of that euphoric response to David McCallum’s russian in a rather slow response. It’s incredible that they didn’t immediately recognize his potential. Then again, The Beatles almost didn’t get a recording contract, so…signs of the times, probably. The old powers that “were” at that time lagged behind popular thought and trends, peddling furiously through the maze of fan magazines and audience response until they finally “got ” it. Illya Kuryakin was the most volatile and sexy star to come across American television since…well, he was a first for me.
I’d never seen anything like him, with his longish (for the time) blond hair and angular features. Even as a child, an artist’s esthetic ruled my choices, and this one was a bombshell. It’s amazin to me now, in retrospect, how long it took the network and writers to understand the charisma and power that Illya had over, certainly, the female audience. Even the younger males probably related more to him in his more current, hip appearance. Black suit and tie, not a problem. He had the look.
Season two marked the beginning of the revelation. Suddenly, Illya was saying more, doing more and showing up in that white shirt sans the tie and coat. We saw a little more skin, and lots of water for him to climb up out of, white shirt clinging to his trim torso while little girls and grown women wondered how to have some of that appear in their lives. Illya…
And it was definitely Illya. Not David McCallum*, at least not for me. Illya was real, and that show brought him to me every week, full of adventure and fantasy. My friend Nancy and I made our own U.N.C.L.E. paraphenalia: cards; documents; communicators. I was the artist, so I recreated the logo on whatever we needed, going into business as the command center “girls”. I can’t imagine now that we weren’t arguing over who got Illya, but if we did we weren’t deterred from our assignments. Our “affair” was one of the heart, and the object was our Russian blond. Hear the sighs as we said his name…Illyaaaa…..
I’ve recently opened up the deluxe box dvd series of the show. What a dream come true for a child who wanted only to watch an episode more than once. Having it at my disposal is a luxury I could never have imagined. The power of the series was it’s imagination. Who among us had any idea that the communicator that they were using would be our cell phone? The writers gave us a vision of the world that we didn’t even know was futuristic, and the actors provided the romance and adventure that sustained us in the post-assasination, Vietnam era.
For a decade that had some of the worst news of the century, we also enjoyed some of the most creative and innovative entertainment of the same century. I consider my childhood blessed by that, and it has been an influence all of these years. I’ve never outgrown The Beatles or their music, and watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. these past few weeks has assured me of it’s merit and muse qualities as well.
I do remember the 60’s… Fondly.
* David McCallum remains a delightful presence on television as Dr. “Ducky” Mallard of NCIS. He is still quite an attraction and, considering the years that have passed, still qualifies as cute, ( a term I have read was not a favorite of Mr. McCallum’s back in the day). Still, to us girls…cute.