The evening's surprise guest star David McCallum joins Robert Vaughn in acceding to Cinema Retro editor-in-chief Lee Pfeiffer's humorous demand that they sign his grade school Man From U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox. (Photo copyright: Tom Stroud)
By Lee Pfeiffer
Last evening, The Players club at Gramercy Park in New York City, in conjunction with Cinema Retro magazine, hosted a gala tribute dinner for member Robert Vaughn. The club dates back to 1888, when it was founded by actor Edwin Booth along with such luminaries as Mark Twain and General Sherman. The rich heritage continued with last evening's event. As Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Retro and a member of The Players, I had long wanted to hold an event in honor of Vaughn's career. Club Executive Director John Martello and I began planning the evening months ago, working around Vaughn's schedule for filming his hit TV series Hustle in England. The catalyst was the recent publication of Vaughn's acclaimed autobiography A Fortunate Life. Vaughn chose November 22 because of the date's significance in his life: it was his 77th birthday, the anniversary of the assassination of his political idol John F. Kennedy and also the date production began on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 46 years ago.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect was the remarkable compilation of video clips assembled by John Martello and his editor. Rare videos from the Cinema Retro archive were contributed, but there were still key clips that seemed be impossible to find: Vaughn playing young Teddy Roosevelt in an obscure Western TV episode called Law of the Plainsman, his performance as Harry S. Truman in the 1974 TV special The Man From Independence and his Emmy-winning role as the political hatchet man in the 1977 mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors. With Vaughn's personal assistance, clips were obtained from fans, TV networks and museums. The resulting 25 minute compilation gave ample evidence of Vaughn's diverse talents.
Vaughn acknowledges the chorus of Happy Birthday. (Photo copyright Tom Stroud)
The black tie affair began with a cocktail hour attended by the likes
of Ben Gazzara, Dick Cavett and Joe Sirola, who had played a villain in
several episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. As with all Players events, the charm of the evening was enhanced by the fact that the crowd is very limited in size, giving the event a very personal aspect. Vaughn arrived looking dashing as ever in the company of his charming wife Linda. His son Cassidy (a ringer for Christopher Reeve) and fiancee Kelly also attended. Even among the sophisticates at the cocktail hour, there was quite a commotion when a surprise guest appeared: David McCallum (who was accompanied by his wife Kathy). Vaughn was pleasantly shocked. He had known we had invited McCallum, but until the last moment it appeared as though filming on his TV series NCIS would prohibit his attending. However, a fortunate last minute change of schedule made it possible for him to join in the celebration of his old friend and U.N.C.L.E. co-star.
Vaughn accepts The Players' lifetime achievement award. (Photo copyright Tom Stroud)
Prior to the gourmet dinner, several speakers recalled their friendship with Vaughn. Ben Gazzara said the men had the time of their lives filming the WWII film The Bridge at Remagen in Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968 - until the ominous invasion of Soviet forces brought chaos, panic and slaughter to Prague. The cast and crew were confined to their hotel and were thought to be in mortal danger. An escape was planned to the Austrian border, and Gazzara said he and Vaughn rescued a desperate young woman who they smuggled out in their car. Gazzara commented on the curious nature of the acting business: despite having bonded so closely with one another, this evening marked the first time he and Vaughn had seen each other since 1968. Joe Sirola got some big laughs by telling the audience that, after being shot at, chased and beaten by the men from U.N.C.L.E., it was finally nice to meet with them in a civil setting. David McCallum spoke eloquently about his respect and friendship with Vaughn, who was clearly moved. He said that during the show, they rarely socialized because of their drastically differing lifestyles, but that he always had the utmost admiration and respect for his colleague.
Ben Gazzara recalled the harrowing experience of shooting The Bridge at Remagen amidst the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. (Photo copyright Tom Stroud)
Following dinner, Vaughn was the epitome of class and style, walking to every table and personally thanking everyone for attending. After the presentation of film clips, I interviewed Vaughn on stage. As always, he's a superb storyteller and recounted some marvelous anecdotes:
His career got an unexpected boost when he tried to get a part for his out-of-work mother in an L.A. play and ended up getting the lead role himself. Burt Lancaster saw his performance and signed him to a contract for his production company.
Responding to the laughs elicited by clips from Teenage Caveman, Vaughn confessed he had the misguided notion the film would be a denouncement of nuclear weapons. He said the entire film was shot around Griffith Park by producer/director Roger Corman in only ten days.
He humorously recalled the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner on the set of The Magnificent Seven, with McQueen obsessed with overshadowing his legendary co-star. He also said that McQueen and Charles Bronson were always trying to out-do each other with stories about who had the worst childhood.
He said at the height of U.N.C.L.E. mania, he had to install electric fencing around his home to keep fans at bay. Still, one day he was in the shower and looked up to see a number of young girls staring at him through his bathroom window. He also recalled an ill-advised meet-up with The Beatles that turned to potential disaster when word leaked out. The crowds were so crazed, Vaughn and the Fab Four had to be rescued in an armored car.
He said that he took a lot of heat for being the first major actor to speak out against the Vietnam War - and ended up on President Johnson's "enemies list". He had an awkward and unexpected meeting with LBJ, who sarcastically greeted him as "the speech-maker" in reference to Vaughn's frequent criticisms of the war. He also said that, while he opposed arch-conservative William F. Buckley's viewpoints and debated him on Buckley's show Firing Line in 1967 (a fascinating clip of which was shown), the two men had a friendship up to Buckley's recent death.
Vaughn also recounted about how he was brow-beaten into starring in a production of The Tender Trap to help friends who needed the work. Ironically, the confirmed bachelor ended up co-starring with Linda Staab, who he fell in love with and married, thus mirroring the script for the play.
Lee Pfeiffer reunites McCallum and Vaughn with their U.N.C.L.E. nemesis Joe Sirola, who appeared in several episodes including The Fiery Angel Affair and The Napoleon's Tomb Affair. (Photo copyright Tom Stroud).
At the end of the evening's festivities, I mentioned that earlier in the day, I recalled I still had my Man From U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox that I had taken to grammar school every day in 1966. Remarkably, I was able to locate it and warned Vaughn and McCallum they would not be allowed to leave the premises unless they signed it. Curiously, despite the countless celebrities I've met, I've never sought autographs - but having my two childhood idols in my presence was too much to resist. Cameras flashed incessantly as Vaughn and McCallum jocularly conceded to my "demand" -but McCallum warned his co-star "You'd better not cover up my face with your signature!" He also taunted me that his U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox still had the thermos. (Mine was obviously a casualty of childhood carelessness or a junior Thrush agent who stole it.) I should point out that both Vaughn and McCallum took pains to recognize how much they have enjoyed Cinema Retro columnist Craig Henderson's continuing coverage of the U.N.C.L.E. feature films. McCallum said his NCIS cast mates particularly enjoy reading about the early cinematic exploits of "Ducky" Mallard.
Despite having lasted for over four hours, the evening went by far too quickly. However, we did all agree to meet for dinner when McCallum's show is on hiatus - so hopefully there will be another U.N.C.L.E. reunion in the near future.