The past year has been an especially harsh one for the entertainment industry in terms of well-known personalities who have passed away. Today's news that actor Robert Vaughn has died hits Cinema Retro especially hard and this writer in particular. He died from a battle with leukemia and was surrounded by his family in his final moments. I first met Robert in 1983 at a press conference in New York in which he and David McCallum promoted their forthcoming TV movie "Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E." I've remained friends with them ever since and shared many an enjoyable conversation. Robert was an early supporter of Cinema Retro and contributed to numerous issues, most recently issues #33 and #34 in which he was interviewed by writer Steve Rubin about the dramatic occurrences in making the 1969 WWII film "The Bridge at Remagen". Robert overcame a troubled youth in which he grew up in a household in which both of his parents, who were actors, were barely on speaking terms. In his autobiography "A Fortunate Life", he related how, as a young man with an aspiration for acting, he and his mother drove to Hollywood in a beaten up car in hopes he would find work. He did so almost immediately and gained praise for his stage appearance in "End as a Man". That led to appearances in a slew of "B" movies, including the Roger Corman cult film "Teenage Caveman". He didn't linger in "B Movie Hell" for long, however. Having befriended Paul Newman, he got a key supporting role in Newman's 1959 film "The Young Philadelphians" and earned an Oscar nomination for his performance. That led to him being cast by John Sturges in the 1960 western classic "The Magnificent Seven". He became a familiar face on TV in the 1960s and co-starred with Gary Lockwood in the short-lived TV series "The Lieutenant".
Vaughn with Steve McQueen on the set of "The Magnificent Seven".
Robert entered the realm of superstardom with the 1964 premiere of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", which benefited a great deal from the explosive success of the James Bond phenomenon. He played suave secret agent Napoleon Solo opposite David McCallum as fellow agent Illya Kuryakin. The show struggled for ratings in its first season before catching fire in the second season and becoming a pop culture phenomenon in its own right. In 1966 Photoplay named him the most popular male star in the world. The series lasted three-and-a-half years and when it went off the air in January 1968, he went immediately into production on "Bullitt", the detective thriller in which he played an ambitious D.A. in conflict with a maverick detective played by Steve McQueen. He was nominated for a BAFTA for his acclaimed performance. Over the decades Robert appeared in many other major films including "The Venetian Affair", "Superman III" , "S.O.B" and "The Towering Inferno". He won an Emmy for his performance as the political hatchet man in the 1977 mini series "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" and in 1998 was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had a late career success as one of the stars of the British crime series "Hustle" that ran from 2004-2012, earning him a new generation of fans.
Robert was always consumed by politics. He was the first major American actor to publicly denounce President Johnson's Vietnam War policy, a position that earned him criticism from William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism. The two men ended up having a memorable debate on Buckley's political show "Firing Line" and a moderator ruled it a "draw", something Robert took great pride in. He and Buckley formed a mutual respect and kept in touch after the event. Robert also worked tirelessly to pursue higher education and became the first star of his caliber to earn a PHD. His thesis on the Hollywood blacklist was published as the acclaimed book "Only Victims". He was a close friend of Robert F. Kennedy and was devastated by his assassination in 1968, just two months after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, who he greatly admired and once introduced at an event. Robert became disaffected with the situation in America and moved to England for several years where he starred in the TV series "The Protectors" and made feature films such as "The Mind of Mr. Soames" and the 1970 all-star version of "Julius Caesar". Although he considered himself a confirmed bachelor, he fell for his co-star in a production of "The Tender Trap", Linda Staab. They ultimately married and raised a son, Cassidy, and a daughter, Caitlin. The Vaughns resided in Ridgefield, Connecticut, having preferred the East Coast to the dazzle of Hollywood, but they also spent a considerable time in England shooting for the filming of "Hustle". Robert loved the UK and considered it his second home. In 2014 he returned to London to star in a West End revival of "Twelve Angry Men". He received rave reviews and proved he could still bring in audiences, as the play was a smash hit and entered an extended run.
Cinema Retro's Lee Pfeiffer reunited Vaughn with David McCallum and "Man From U.N.C.L.E." guest star Joe Sirola at the 2009 event in honor of Vaughn at The Players.
In 2009, this writer had the pleasure of arranging and hosting a black tie dinner in honor of Robert at New York's famed private club for the arts, The Players. The highlight of the evening was the surprise appearance of David McCallum, who made a very gracious speech about their long friendship. The two men remained in touch through the years and always called each other on their birthday.
With Robert's death, the entertainment world has lost another great talent. He once told me why he titled his book "A Fortunate Life". He said, "All I ever wanted to do was act and I always have. If you do what you want to do for a living then you can say you never worked a day in your life".
Thanks for the memories, Robert. Closing Channel D for the final time.