We recently passed the 45th anniversary of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., the short-lived spin-off to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series. The TV series ran for just one season of 29 episodes, from September 1966 until April 1967. While Man took a serious approach to the spy game, Girl was campy. Batman was having huge success over on ABC at the time and NBC apparently thought that was the way to go. While Man was on the air for four seasons, Girl was cancelled after just one.
The Warner Archive is releasing the series on DVD and it’s now available for purchase. To celebrate the release, I recently spoke with Girl’s star, Stefanie Powers. Powers has had a long and impressive career and has starred in numerous stage plays and musicals, television shows, and movies. She’s also written books on fitness and an autobiography and released a CD.
She’ll always be remembered for her role opposite Robert Wagner on TV’s Hart to Hart but her first television job came years earlier.
I believe The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was your first big role, correct?
Stefanie Powers: It was my first television role and, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the first time that a woman had starred in an hour long television series. That wasn’t made a big deal of in those days. I don’t know why, but it wasn’t. I didn’t actually learn about that until only a few years ago, when somebody put it in the context of pioneers of television, and I said, ‘Well I’m hardly a pioneer.’ And they said, ‘Oh no, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was the first blah blah blah.’ So that was it, and I don’t know why that wasn’t made a point of in those days but, um, I guess we weren’t so conscious of sociological changes and things like that.
How did the role come about?
Powers: I was “sold,” or rather they “bought” me. I was under a contract to Columbia and my contract was exclusive to motion pictures. At that point, I’d made about fifteen movies under the Columbia contract, and they were kind of wonderful roles — co-starring with John Wayne and a lot of rather iconic names in the motion picture firmament. So, I had gotten to a point where MGM had made them a good offer.
The pilot had been made with two other actors as a spin-off from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series. They changed their minds about how they saw the characters, and came to Columbia and made the offer. In those days, we were lowly actors and weren’t privy to the corporate decisions. We were only told after the fact.
Because you were seen as kind of a commodity?
Powers: Yes, that’s exactly what we were. Well, we still are, but it’s a slightly different game. It’s the agents now instead of the studios.
The tone of Girl From U.N.C.L.E. was different than Man from U.N.C.L.E., kind of campy…
Powers: Indeed it was –- not necessarily the desire of NBC to acquire this kind of campy/satirical approach to espionage, but it seemed to lend itself to the kind of farce that we were doing. I thought it was a hell of a lot of fun but that was a major complaint on the part of NBC — that we looked like we were having fun.
Was there any particular aspect of the show that you particularly enjoyed doing — I know that you’re fluent in many languages…
Powers: I would have to say overall, as I look back on it, the thing that is most outstanding would have to be the guest stars. It happened at a time when television was taking over from movies. The movie studios were fading away. They were losing their monopolies on creating, distributing and exhibiting the product. It’s kind of interesting today because the very thing that caused the collapse of the motion picture studios is so prevalent in everything we do today –- I mean, if Apple isn’t a monopoly I don’t know what it is. How did that suddenly escape through the wire of monopoly, when the movie industry didn’t. It’s all very questionable.
But, in any event, the movie studios were suffering from this increase in oversight, and there was a determination on the part of Washington to destroy what these wonderful movie moguls had created. As a result, there wasn’t a lot of work around, especially for people with these fantastic names. And as television became more important, it was being used similarly to the way it’s being used now -– to create a more public awareness, to reach a larger audience.
So, when we had guest performers like Peggy Lee — I mean where and how in my wildest dreams would I imagine I would have the privilege of being in the same scene, let alone in the same room, with Peggy Lee! That was thrilling. Boris Karloff! I mean, where else could I have worked with Boris Karloff?
Right. And I think he even did at least part of the episode in drag?
Powers: I think he did the whole episode in drag. (laughs)
The show lasted 29 episodes, one season. Do you have any thoughts on why…
Powers: One season was 29 episodes — quite different than the seasons now.
Oh, absolutely. Any thoughts on why it didn’t go longer? I think Norman Feldon was ill around that time…?
Powers: Yes, he was. I think that was a major thing. Norman really was our executive producer and was in that position where the network would have listen to him appeal to keep his shows on the air. Norman was not well, and it was shortly after that, that both we and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were both cancelled.
There’s been talk back and forth about bringing Man From U.N.C.L.E. back as a movie with George Clooney and Steve Steven Soderbergh as director. Any discussions that you’ve heard that there might be a place for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.?
Powers: Ah! No! (laughs) And I wish there were. It would be nice.
The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. is currently available from the Warner Archive on DVD.
What do you think? Do you remember this show? Did you like the campy approach?