The Enigmatic Mr. Kuryakin
With true insight into what their audience desires, NBC decided after viewing, "The Vulcan Affair" to drop the Russian character. Luckily, their instructions to this effect were garbled and Illya Kuryakin was given a lease on life for the resulting show. Still, he was considered very much a minor character, and billed as such. David McCallum was given second billing with the words "costarring;" this would last until the third season when he and Vaughn were both listed as starring in the show. In fact, in "The Double Affair," McCallum received third billing, after the episode's guest-star Senta Berger!
The first batch of episodes filmed featured either very little of the Russian agent, or nothing at all with him in it. The show was produced at that point as "Solo" and it is Solo who gets to do everything. "The Dove Affair," "The Love Affair," "The Neptune Affair" and other such shows are quite clearly centered about the Solo character, with nothing for Illya to do. His first real role of any size was in "The Quadripartite Affair," where he is seen a phlegmatic, quiet character, giving to mouthing such lines as, "Think of me as part of the scenery."
He became in instant hit.
Responding fast to his popularity, fresh scripts with better roles for the Russian agent were written, and the shows already filmed without him were spaced out for the remainder of the season. The production crew geared themselves to cash in on the sudden popularity of Illya, and he fast became the rising star of the show. It seemed that for every interview Robert Vaughn gave, McCallum gave three. Illya was in. He even had a small book devoted to him, something that poor Solo didn't get.
Why was the character so popular? McCallum describes Illya as "a walking enigma who occasionally runs," and therein lies a good deal of the appeal. Illya is an unknown. Throughout the show, McCallum refused to give out details on Illya. We have no idea about his family, his background, where he lives, what he does in his spare time. He has a wedding ring (purely by accident), but we do not even know if he is divorced or widowed. There is, of course, a great deal of fascination with the unknown, and this helped to keep Illya in the public mind. They hoped to discover more about him.
Better, though, Illya is shy. He is very quiet and reserved, especially around girls. It isn't that they hold no appeal for him-he is most happy when he gets the girl, providing she is the type of female he likes. (The Bow-Wow Affair" and "The Birds and the Bees Affair" especially). It's just that he is the kind of person who is hesitant to express his feelings, and isn't into the sort of casual flirting that Solo loves so much. He has even attempted to put off girls by pleasing insanity runs in his family ("The Cap and Gown Affair"). He prefers girls who are quiet and intense like himself.
This shyness is a vulnerability, and this vulnerability appealed to the female viewers. They liked to feel that they understood Illya, and could give him what he needed. Whenever McCallum went on tour, he was mobbed by female fans, all wanting a sample of their heartthrob, Illya. The Russian spy had an incredible sex-appeal to the female fans. Of course, blond bangs and a Beatle haircut, along with good looks certainly didn't hurt his chances at all!
Illya is also intelligent. He frequently has to correct the easy-going Solo on matters of facts and so forth. He is an ambulatory encyclopedia, and yet never shows off his knowledge without being asked. He doesn't attempt to intimidate anyone by his cleverness, but there he is with the information when it is required. You can't help but admire him for this.
He's also a man of action. In fact, David McCallum did a large number of stunts for the show himself. This athletic ability of the star makes Illya look very virile as he swings about on ropes, climbs trees, fights or whatever. Since Vaughn always uses a stunt man on his action sequences, his fights and stunts are always filmed from a distance. With McCallum doing his own stunt work, the camera can get a lot closer in to show Illya in action. He's very impressive in such matters.
Finally, and most importantly, he's a foreigner-an alien. Just as Spock rose to his popularity because of his inner turmoil on being an alien among humans, Illya had the same appeal. He is an outsider, and one from Russia, of all places. It was a brave move of the show to have a Russian as a star in the series at a time when the Cold War was still a little to warm for comfort. The Bay of Pigs was certainly fresh in everyone's minds, and Russia seemed like a menacing hulk, positioned to nuke out the USA. In such a time of tensions having a Russian on the staff at UNCLE looked like a very dumb move-undoubtedly the reason why NBC wanted him out. Instead, it helped Illya to become popular.
"He may be a Communist, but he's our Communist," fans stated firmly. The political allegiance Illya felt was largely irrelevant to the viewers. He wasn't a fierce proponent of the Red way of life, and he fought weekly to save the Free World as well as his homeland. The menaces in the show were never really other countries, but the transnational forces of Thrush or other lunatics. Real problems, such as Russian aggression, never raised its head, so Illya was still safe. But the fact that he was an alien in America was compounded by his Communist background. He didn't ever share that with the people among whom he lived.
Illya thus became a sort of symbol for those who felt alienated and outside of society themselves. The Sixties was the great era of the Hippies, consciousness expansion, pop festivals, general rebelliousness and drop-outs. Illya looked as if he belonged right there with the protesters. (He actually joins them in "The Cap & Gown Affair," to discover that what he's protesting against-typically! is UNCLE . . .) How much more of an outsider could you get than a Communist Russian in capitalist America? Yet, in fact, many of the younger viewers felt themselves in something of a similar position. They were not as sure as their parents were that capitalism was the be-all and end-all of their lives. They were not sure that the way of life they were experiencing was the right way of life. They asked questions and realized that as far as society was concerned, they were on the outside. They weren't exactly knocking to come back in, but they were thoughtful and looking at the house and trying to make up their minds if they wanted to come back in.
In his way, Illya was a little like that-he could observe without becoming too involved, and a lot of people identified with him. There were, a lot of times, the same people who would identify with Spock a few years later. (The same phenomenon is still popular-look how successful Robin Williams was when he introduced his classic outsider in Mork & Mindy.) His quiet reserve, his intelligence, good looks and thoughtful manner made him the ideal person with whom to feel soul sympathy.
Another type of appeal that Illya had for certain female fans was his helplessness. There are plenty of fans who enjoy seeing their favorite characters suffer-not because they are sadistic, but because that way they can feel sorry for them. Illya had more than his fair share of suffering, especially in "The Children's Day Affair." These special fans could feel really sorry for Illya after shows like that! This is an appeal that lasts down the years and a number of fan fiction stories being written on the show include scenes of violence and suffering for Illya still. (The same kind of appeal is strong in other shows-Kelly Robinson gets knocked about and mistreated in "I Spy," and almost every episode of "Starsky and Hutch" had one or the other of them suffering incurable diseases, bodily harm or emotional turmoil; needless to say the series was incredibly popular with the emotional response brigade.)
It's odd in many ways that Solo didn't become more popular since he was inevitably beaten worse, or knocked about more-but he never seemed helpless with it as Illya does. After being whipped in "The Children's Day Affair," Illya gets to bleed and suffer a lot for the next act. When Solo is whipped in "The Shark Affair," her recovers almost immediately from the ordeal. And that's no fun, is it?
Still the suffering aspect to generate sympathy is one of many appeals that Illya had to the fans. He was also the younger of the two, closer to the age of many of the viewers. He was certainly put upon, having to do much of the arduous chores while Solo got the flashy part of the assignment. It always seemed like Mr. Waverly gave Illya the short straw and dirty jobs, while Solo got to go with the girl and have a good time. Most of the viewers were at an age where they were felling very put-upon themselves with household chores to constantly do, their room to keep tidy and so forth. They couldn't help but feel a lot like Illya-resigned to doing his duty, however mindless and meaningless the job.
Illya comes through also as the underdog a lot. In "The Birds and the Bees Affair," Waverly yells at him for messing up his part of the assignment, and Solo teases him unmercifully about it. How many of us haven't had to face up to that in our time? Poor old Illya, on the carpet for a small mistake-but he not merely overcomes his embarrassment, he saves the day also. Just like us, right?
In many ways, Illya is just downright more human than Solo. Napoleon seems to exist to crack bad puns, eat good meals and chase after every skirt on the show. Illya is more civilized, with due attention to other matters. Anyhow, he doesn't have to chase the girls-the bright ones know that he-and not Solo-is the prize catch and they come after him! That's the way to do it. Illya just bides his time, does his tasks and waits for the right girl to come along.
With his acting talents, David McCallum may have made Illya something of an enigma, but he also managed to create a totally harmonious human being. It is not at all surprising then that Illya fast became the popular character that he did. And he still endures. Even today McCallum quips that his tombstone will have to read: "Here lies Illya Kuryakin." The image of the Russian agent still hovers over everything the actor does. It might seem a little like an albatross at times, but it is a reflection of how well the wiry, Scottish actor did his job.