Illya Kuryakin

Illya Nickovitch Kuryakin is a fictional character from the 1960s TV spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Illya Kuryakin
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. character
David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin
Portrayed byDavid McCallum (television)
Armie Hammer (film)
OccupationSecret Agent

The series was remarkable for pairing an American, Napoleon Solo, and the Russian Kuryakin as two spies who work together for an international espionage organisation at the height of the Cold War. Kuryakin was played by Scottish actor David McCallum.


Although originally conceived as a minor character, Kuryakin became an indispensable part of the show, achieving co-star status with the show's lead, Napoleon Solo. McCallum's blond good looks and the enigmatic persona he created for the character garnered him a huge following of female fans.[1] Such was the popular hysteria surrounding him that he was referred to in newspaper reports at the time as "the blond Beatle" or "the fifth Beatle". While playing Kuryakin, McCallum received more fan mail than any other actor in the history of MGM.[2]

Much of the character's appeal was based on what was ambiguous and enigmatic about him. When an acute reaction to penicillin hospitalized him in the early days of filming the series, McCallum took the opportunity to give serious thought to how he might flesh out what was, at that stage, a sketchy peripheral character. The approach he hit upon was to build a persona based on ambiguity and enigma, hiding, rather than revealing, aspects of the character's background and personality. McCallum summed up the character in commenting "No one knows what Illya Kuryakin does when he goes home at night."[3]


Kuryakin is consistently referred to as a "Russian"; however, he appears to have spent at least some of his childhood in Kyiv, Ukraine ("The Foxes and Hounds Affair") and his name is spelled the Ukrainian way not the Russian way (Illya vs Iliya). He is Number Two in Section Two (Operations and Enforcement) at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in New York City. He seems to be a Soviet citizen of good standing rather than a defector. In "The Neptune Affair" he appears in the uniform of the Soviet Navy and is recalled to the USSR to help deal with a crisis.[4] Despite the series being aired at the height of the Cold War, no great issue is made of Kuryakin's nationality and politics.

In the film The Spy with My Face, he claims to have been "the first lieutenant in the Russian navy to set fire to an igloo," although it is possible this story was invented to entertain his companion.


He identifies his father as being "the eleventh son of Kuric," a Gypsy leader ("The Terbuf Affair"), but later admits he fabricated the story to gain the trust of the local Gypsies (who are not fooled). Nonetheless, some fans theorize some of the story may be true as there is a name link (Kuric / Kuryakin), Kuryakin is an expert on the Gypsy culture and traditions, and Solo makes a reference in one of the spin-off novels to his partner's "Gypsy heritage." His attitude to women contrasts with that of his partner; they chase him, but he rarely pursues them.

He holds a Master's degree from the Sorbonne and a PhD in Quantum Mechanics from the University of Cambridge ("The Her Master's Voice Affair"). He appears to have been an undergraduate at the University of Georgia in Tbilisi (though he states Georgia itself is in "the Ukraine"), where he practiced gymnastics ("The Hot Number Affair"). Kuryakin is a polymath. He is well-read in English literature, he has an in-depth knowledge of music and plays the bass viol, the English horn and guitar. He also sings, and he speaks many languages, including French, German, Italian and Japanese.

His technical skills are also well honed. He is an explosives expert who stayed on at the U.N.C.L.E. Survival School a month after he graduated to teach a class on the subject. In "The THRUSH Roulette Affair" he is described as "proficient in Physical Arts, Judo, Karate, Fencing, Sharpshooter,"[4] and references are made in various episodes to his training and expertise.

He dresses more soberly than Solo and in darker colors - his signature costume is black slacks and a black turtleneck, often with his shoulder holster worn outside the sweater. He is generally more ascetic in his tastes than his partner and expresses distaste for extravagance on more than one occasion. His one indulgence is food, and his enormous appetite is a recurring joke throughout the series.

After cancellation

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was canceled mid-way through its fourth season in 1968. McCallum reprised the role of Kuryakin for a 1983 TV movie Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair.

The character has enjoyed a rich afterlife in the U.N.C.L.E. fandom particularly in fan fiction. Kuryakin has been the subject of several popular songs including Alma Cogan's Love Ya Illya and Ilya Kuryakin Looked at Me penned by The Cleaners from Venus. The Argentine rap duo Illya Kuryaki and the Valderramas were named after him. In the 1988 comic Shattered Visage, made as a sequel to the spy show The Prisoner, Kuryakin and Solo both make cameos at the funeral of a spy, along with John Steed and Emma Peel. Kuryakin also inspired the surname and character of Simon Illyan in Lois McMaster Bujold's award-winning Vorkosigan Saga science fiction series.

Since September 2003, McCallum has been playing Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard in the highly successful American TV series NCIS. In the Season 2 episode "The Meat Puzzle", around 20:50 into the episode, when Special Agent Kate Todd asks Special Agent Jethro Gibbs "What did Ducky look like when he was younger?," Gibbs responds "Illya Kuryakin". In that same episode, a photo of a much younger Ducky is actually a promotional photo from McCallum's Man from U.N.C.L.E. days. In an episode during the 12th season of NCIS Dr. Mallard revisits his younger life in England. While looking at a photo of his younger self he states, "I miss those turtle-necks." an apparent reference to the wardrobe of Kuryakin.

In an interview for a Man from U.N.C.L.E. retrospective television special, McCallum told of a visit to the White House during which, while he was being escorted to meet the President, a Secret Service agent told him "You're the reason I got this job."[5]


Armie Hammer portrayed Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a 2015 film adaptation of the TV series of the same name.[6] This interpretation of the character, however, differs from that of the television series. Hammer portrays Kuryakin as a short-tempered, violent and volatile (the end credits state he has "Volatile personality disorder") KGB assassin traumatized by the past of his parents, particularly his father, a top government official, who was caught stealing from Stalin's party funds and was exiled to Gulag. Kuryakin was the youngest man to ever join the KGB Special Forces, becoming one of their best "within three years," which was a way to deal with the shame his family was left in.

Several of the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. double TV episodes were put together with additional footage in order to create eight feature films which were placed on general release in the years 1964 to 1968, starring David McCallum as Kuryakin. Titles include One of Our Spies Is Missing, The Helicopter Spies, The Spy with My Face, The Spy in the Green Hat, The Karate Killers, How to Steal the World, To Trap a Spy, and One Spy Too Many.


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