I have a soft spot in my heart for The Man from U.N.C.L.E; not so much for the series itself, but for the actors who starred in the show. I was quite young when the show was new but I have vague memories of my sisters tuning in every week. I also recall a reference to my “Illya Kuryakin” pajamas, so named because they mimicked the spy’s trademark, turtleneck sweaters.
When I was a teenager, UNCLE must have aired in syndication because I became enough of a fan to buy and read every tie-in novel I could find at the used book store. I also named my turtles Napoleon and Illya, a true sign of deep fandom setting in.
But it wasn’t Robert Vaughn’s witty, laid-back Bond-like spy character that started my fangirling, it was his role as Harry Rule in The Protectors. This half-hour, British crime drama was the first show to send me running for a notebook and pen so I could fanfic the night away. My best friend, Cheryl was as crazy about the show as I was and luckily she was even more enamored with Robert Vaughn while I was all about his sexy French sidekick Paul (Tony Anholt).
Every Sunday night we’d record the show on audio tape, then we’d talk on the phone and dissect every episode which would lead to more fan fic ideas and more discussion during lunch at school on Monday.
I listened to those audio tapes so many times, I can still hear most of the dialogue in my head when I rewatch the show. I also distinctly here my friend’s father sneeze right at the climactic moment of the opening theme on our favorite episode. When I watch the show now, my brain inserts that sneeze into the credits every time.
I can forgive Mr. H’s interruption because he was responsible for my one and only meeting with Robert Vaughn himself. I grew up across the bridge from Philadelphia and the theater district. That year, Robert Vaughn was appearing in The Real Inspector Hound – an Agatha Christie-like farce by Tom Stoppard. I suspect there was a deep message in the play that I missed entirely because I was a teenager and because one of my favorite TV stars was performing live. The truth is, I could barely pay attention to the play knowing that I might have an opportunity to meet Mr. Vaughn and get his autograph. It wasn’t for sure — stars don’t always come out to meet the public–so at the same time, I was preparing myself to be disappointed.
When the play ended, the crowd cleared and only a few people, who clearly also were hoping for an autograph, remained. Mr. H was anxious to leave, too but Cheryl and I were determined to stay until a stage manger told us all hope was lost.
Then it happened. Robert Vaughn himself came out into the theater. The adult autograph hunters rushed him and he signed away while we hung back unsure about the approach. After that, things get muddled in my mind because star struck is a debilitating disease that attacks the brain unmercifully. Before it wipes your memory, it attacks your vocal chords leaving you unable to utter a word, then it opens the nonsense gate forcing you to sound like a fool.
Before either of these things could happen, Mr. H — determined to get on with this — stepped right up to Robert Vaughn and said “Harry Rule! You and that Contessa take over my TV every Sunday night. I can’t watch anything else because my daughter has to see you on TV.”
Yikes! Did he just call him by his character name? Cheryl, who couldn’t remember her own name when Robert Vaughn asked, was mortified. I did a little better. I managed to hand over my program, tell him my name and gush semi-coherently for 30 seconds.
Robert Vaughn was kind and attentive and he made two teenage girls feel very special and not at all like the geeky idiots we felt like inside. I think he and Mr. H had a conversation about something but it’s all a blur. I could blame my lack of memory on the passage of time but I didn’t remember most of it five minutes after it happened. That’s what fangirling will do to you.
It was all over in under 5 minutes but that next Sunday, when I sat down to watch The Protectors, it was a whole different experience. Robert Vaughn wasn’t merely a flickering image on my TV. He was real. And for the first time, I had that, “hey, I met him in person” experience which changes everything and I wanted more.
I got to meet the other Man from U.N.C.L.E under similar circumstances. David McCallum was starring in Mouse Trap at the Playhouse in the Park in Philadelphia. I was in high school at the time, much older and wiser than my previous encounter and I was alone. I took a train to a bus to see the play. Kurt Kasznar, the star of Land of the Giants was also in the play, so it was a two for one.
I don’t remember any of the performance because I spent the entire time rehearsing what I would say after the show. When the curtain fell, I made my way around back (following the experienced autograph hunters) to the parking lot behind the stage. The actors had to leave this way so it was the perfect place to force a meeting.
Kurt Kasznar came out first and no one even approached him. I guess they didn’t want to chance missing David. I wasn’t going to let him get away so I stepped up and asked for an autograph. I told him I was a Land of the Giants fan. He was surprised but pleased. He was cordial but not chatty. Once I opened that door, a half dozen others came over for an autograph. I always wondered if they had no idea who he was but figured if I was excited then they should be, too.
When David McCallum came out, he was swarmed with fans. He patiently took names and signed autographs. I remember being surprised that no one was talking to him. They were just doing the usual “I’m a big fan, can you sign” and that’s it. I always felt that stars deserve more than just having a program shoved in their face. I got my opening when a woman called him Illya. After she was gone, I asked him if, after all the shows and movies he’d done, it bothered him to be so closely associated with that single role on Man from U.N.C.L.E. . He said he was proud to have been a part of such an iconic show and it was just nice to be remembered.
And memories are all I have of both of them. Sadly, I didn’t take photos on either occasion and I sold both autographs to a dealer a few years later. I wish I had held on to those programs, thinking back, I can’t imagine why I agreed to part with them. I wonder where those two programs are now? Maybe I should check and see if they’re on eBay!
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