NEW YORK — At the height of the Cold War, spy shows were in vogue. One of the most notable was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” which debuted on TV the fall of 1964. The spy thriller starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively, who worked together for the counterespionage firm U.N.C.L.E., the acronym for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
Every protagonist needs an antagonist and U.N.C.L.E. faced off against the villains’ organization, THRUSH, which strove to take over the world.
The TV show ushered in a wave of spy shows and within two years, there were almost a dozen on the air. Lasting four years, the show gave birth to a spinoff show, several movies (mostly reworked TV episodes) and a full-length movie in 2015. The bevy of spy gadgets, a secret attache case, the U.N.C.L.E. gun and their cool car also inspired toys, which delighted children then and still appeal to collectors. The television juggernaut transitioned into a merchandising workhorse.
Among the toys made to capitalize on the popularity of the show were a line of action figures made by A.C. Gilbert, die-cast vehicles from Corgi, comic books by Gold Key and spy toys. Toy sets featuring spy tricks or weapons are highly sought after today. Several board games also were made, starting with Ideal Toy Co.’s version that sold for about $3 in 1965.
Todd Sheffer, production manager at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa., said popular toys included the secret attache case, a THRUSH gun, a Solo gun and a Secret Lighter gun. “All of these are quite desirable and sought after,” he said. “They are pretty well life-size, so for a child, they were massive. They were quite complex in design as well.”
Popular with collectors are the 12-inch action figures based on the show that were made by A.C. Gilbert Co. “They, unfortunately, didn’t have the articulation of G.I. Joe figures but they came with a few different outfits and accessory sets,” he said. Some high-grade examples have been reported to sell for a few thousand dollars.
“Corgi did make a THRUSH-Buster car which was popular as well but not quite as exciting as James Bond’s Aston Martin but did include a ‘Waverly’ flicker/flasher ring,” Sheffer said. “They merchandised the series pretty heavily with clothing, model kits, watches, buttons, trading cards, board games and a lunchbox.”
Probably the biggest hits at the time were the cap-firing gun sets that came with an ID badge and other accessories. The attache case set included “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” passport, a wallet with ID card, a plastic cap-firing gun and metal clip and a cap-firing grenade. The secret weapon set came with cap guns and holsters, an ID badge and an U.N.C.L.E. membership card. Both sets sell for about $500-$800.
The enduring popularity of the show and its toys can perhaps best be explained as it being a snapshot of the time. “The Cold War was going strong and James Bond was the hottest thing going in the movies. The spy craze was on and this TV show brought it into your living room,” Sheffer said. “You had the handsome duo of agents: the old school James Bond-suave Napoleon Solo and the younger blond Russian Illya Kuryakin. So, eye candy for the ladies and action for the men.”
Longtime collector Tesco Vee, who sold his massive U.N.C.L.E. collection at Hake’s in 2017, said in an interview with Scoop that he had long been interested in spy stuff. In 2007, he purchased a friend’s collection in bulk. He ended up with over six showcases worth of “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” memorabilia and toys, nearly everything ever made, before deciding to downsize to focus on collecting monsters and robots. “It was a cool, campy time and U.N.C.L.E. was second only to Batman for sheer volume TV tie-in memorabilia, so it was a target-rich environment with many cool things to look for,” he said.
Kicking off with James Bond, spy fiction has always made for cool toys. At the height of its popularity, “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” toys and merchandise dominated every corner of the franchising industry from lunchboxes and pajamas to comics, toys and board games. The Cold War may be over but these toys are still hot.