-by Ken Plume
If there is a master list of actors whom you immediately identify whenever they show up on screen, Robert Vaughn surely has a secure place on it. From The Magnificent Seven to The Man From U.N.C.L.E., from The Towering Inferno to Superman III - you know, the list just goes on an on, in a career spanning nearly 50 years.
His latest foray is the BBC drama Hustle, the first season of which has just hit DVD. Like Ocean’s 11 with a multigenerational group of cons substituting for the fabled thieves, Hustle one of those confection dramas that you devour greedily, enjoying the dramatic cake and the sweet character icing all in one go, unable to stop with just one episode. Maybe the cake metaphor was a bit much, but this is still an amazing show, if only for Vaughn’s performance as an aging con with much wisdom to impart to the young, sometimes foolishly cocksure, turks.
We had a chance to chat with Vaughn about his life and career…
KEN PLUME: I guess the first question I have to ask you is - this many years into your career, what exactly does it take for a part to excite you?
ROBERT VAUGHN: Well, the first thing I consider is where it’s going to be filmed. Then I find out how much money they have, and then I read the script. In some 125 movies I’ve done over the last 50 years, I’ve been on some disastrous locations which I would never want to return to for any amount of money. So always make sure to check that out. In the case of the current show, it’s filming n London, which is my second home. I lived there off and on since the late 50s.
KP: You’ve done quite a bit of work there, as well.
VAUGHN: Yes, I did a series there for three years in the 70s, and I’ve done various other films like Julius Cesar with Charlton Heston, Jason Robards and Diana Rigg. In various periods in my life I’ve lived in London, and we’re living there now until we finish Hustle, whenever that happens.
KP: Hopefully no time soon.
VAUGHN: I hope not, because I’m really enjoying it. I love doing it.
KP: When you talk about locations, and I’m not asking you to name names, what is it that makes for a bad location for you?
VAUGHN: Well I can tell you quite clearly what I feel is a bad location. I’ll just cite three different pictures. One I did in Caracas where I was under house arrest and couldn’t get out of the country, and eventually I had to put on a costume with my wife and my dog, a Mexican and Spanish costume, and sneak into the airport - and I had to take the first flight out of Caracas that I could get, and it was to Barcelona, not to the United States. So my dog and my wife and I wound up in Barcelona and came back to the United States after having been under house arrest for several weeks in Caracas because the producers of the film were in jail. That was one instance. Another instance, I did a film in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and it was invaded by the Russians at the time I was filming, so once again I’m under house arrest. Nothing could be done about that. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.
KP: Well, except for the communists.
VAUGHN: And then I did another film in Yugoslavia where there were only four Americans in the cast. The rest were all Yugoslavians, and it was a three month shoot and I literally had no facilities at all. I had a tree to go to the bathroom behind. It was Robert’s tree…
KP: That’s because they have a strong guild.
VAUGHN: They did not serve food that was edible. In other words, they treated actors like trees, like chairs. I also did a film in Peru where I had a 24 hour bodyguard because The Shining Path, the Maoist guerillas, were kidnapping Americans right around when we were shooting on the top of Machu Picchu, the large mountain outside of Lima. That’s just a handful.
KP: So, really, it’s just locations that produce anecdotes that you don’t like…
VAUGHN: Oh absolutely, no question. Also, as the years go by, it puts unnecessary strain on my brain and my heart and I don’t want to experience that anymore.
KP: No, we definitely want you working for quite a few more of those years that stress would take away. We particularly want to keep you out from under house arrest or a communist invasion.
VAUGHN: Yeah, enough of that. I’d like to be under house arrest at Buckingham Palace.
KP: You’ve also been an actor over the years that hasn’t been afraid to make the transition back and forth between TV and film…
VAUGHN: Yeah, I was very lucky, because many actors that had great success in television series seem to disappear off the map, the acting map, and I was fortunate enough that the first movie I did after The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a picture called Bullitt with my old friend at that time, Steve McQueen. We’d known each other at that time for eight years. We met doing The Magnificent Seven. So that picture, Bullitt, was one of the top ten grossing pictures of 1968, which is the year that U.N.C.L.E. went off the air, and I went on into other motion pictures, and Towering Inferno and Superman III, and on and on and on - but lots of times that doesn’t happen. Most of the time it doesn’t happen to actors who’ve had a successful television series, but I was very fortunate.
KP: Particularly at that point.
VAUGHN: It was particularly having Steve as a friend at that point. He was producing the picture and he wanted me in it.
KP: Well, it’s good to have connections.
KP: Especially at that point in the industry, it was not an easy transition for an actor to make, to go from TV to film.
VAUGHN: Oh no, very definitely. I think the only two people who had done it at that time were James Garner and Steve McQueen. Other people did it as time went on, but most of the other actors, 90% of them, either disappeared altogether or reappeared many years later in some lesser vehicle.
KP: I also find it fascinating that during the 70s you pursued and attained a PhD.
VAUGHN: Yeah, I got my doctorate in June of 1970. I’d been in graduate school all through the 60s. I got my masters degree in 1960, and then during the 60s I did get my doctorate. USC, where I got my doctorate, were very kind to accommodate me in terms of my work schedule in television. Somebody let me off the hook in terms of certain time limits that would normally be put on somebody getting a PhD. They allowed me some flexibility - which was certainly alright with me, and I was able to complete the work. My doctorate dissertation, I revised as a book titled Only Victims, that dealt with Hollywood blacklisting.
KP: It’s a topic and attitude that seems to recur every once in a while in more insidious forms.
VAUGHN: Yes. I don’t think it’s ever going to reoccur again in exactly the same form, but there are still cases when people, even now who are supporting the war in Iraq, who are to some degree at least graylisted in Hollywood because Hollywood is a predominantly liberal community.
KP: You obviously have been very political over the years. I was surprised to find that you were asked to run for governor in the 70s.
VAUGHN: Actually it was Senator. And it was the Peace and Freedom party. It was made up of a lot of people, Black Panthers, so I declined.
KP: But at least you felt honored to be asked, right?
VAUGHN: Yeah, right.
KP: I also have to ask what the status of your autobiography is…
VAUGHN: I’m looking at part of it right now. I’m waiting… there are two publishers that are down to the wire that I’m meeting with, and my projected manuscript handing-in would be the Spring of 2008, and that would be exactly my 50th full year in the motion pictures and television business. So it’d be released on the 50th anniversary of my life in Hollywood.
KP: Does it have a title?
VAUGHN: It’s currently titled A Fortuned Life. And it’ll have a picture of me on the front and a picture of me on the back and my name on the top of the book and the title will be probably smaller than my name.
KP: It’ll should just be a picture of you. You don’t have to put your name on it at all.
VAUGHN: I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I’ll check that out.
KP: How exactly did Hustle come about?
VAUGHN: In May of 2003, my wife and I had scheduled a visit to Scotland, where we had never gone even though we lived in England many, many years off and on. Every time we had made a preparation to go to Scotland, something had canceled it with work or I had to come home for something. So we had this trip to Scotland planned. Five days in May. And about a week before we were to leave, I got a call from my British agent, Jean Diamond, and she said, “Are you coming through England any time in the near future?” And I said, “Well, oddly enough, I’m coming through in about a week on my way to Scotland. Stopping in London.” “Oh, wonderful,” she said, “The BBC wants to have lunch with you and tell you about a new series they’re doing about con men. And we’ll set it up.” So they did indeed set it up and I had a lovely long liquid lunch with all the producers and directors, and a great deal of hugging and kissing, we will know each other forever at the end of lunch, and all that kind of thing. So we went to Scotland and I didn’t hear anything back. In the meantime, they sent me three of the scripts for Hustle. They also sent me a videotape of a series they did called Spooks, in London, which is MI5 in America. This is the same production company that did Spooks - and is doing Spooks, because it’s still on the air. So I looked at the scripts, which I thought were wonderful - best scripts I’d read in years - and I loved the production values on the television shows that they sent me. So I said to the agent, “Green light. Absolutely. London is definitely a fine location for me, I’m very happy there.” So time went by and May went into June and June went into July, and I basically forgot about it because that happens quite often. There’s nothing unusual about it. There’ll be a great deal of movement and then all of a sudden it’s quiet.
KP: And you got a lunch out of it.
VAUGHN: Yeah. So in August, we had a huge blackout as you may remember, on the East Coast of America all the way from Canada down to North Carolina. Well, we knew from prior experience in the house that we lived in, in Connecticut, that when we had a blackout that affected us, which was fairly often, there was one phone in the garage that seemed to work while all the other ones did not work. So we were sitting there in the dark. It was about 9:00 at night and it was 2:00 am in London, and we’re watching television - a battery operated television - by candlelight, but we’re very used to it. It’s nothing unusual for us. And the phone rings in the garage. And so I went to the garage because it was only about 20 feet away. I picked up the phone and it was my agent, Jean Diamond, and she said, “They want you… they started shooting last Wednesday on Hustle and they want you there to shoot on Wednesday. So you have to take the flight out tomorrow night.” And I said, “Well, wait a minute. We haven’t even talked a deal.” And she said, “Don’t worry. They’ve already started shooting, they don’t want anybody else - they want you. And get over here.” So I did. I arrived Tuesday morning and started filming Wednesday morning, and that’s the story of Hustle.
KP: Well, that’s a great way to be wanted.
VAUGHN: Even though I didn’t know I was hanging in there, apparently I was and didn’t know it.
KP: It’s good when you’re contacted and it’s a fait accompli.
VAUGHN: Yeah! Right.
KP: And then stepping into the role, what is it about the character that you found appealing?
VAUGHN: Well, the day after I started filming, which was on a Wednesday, I was overwhelmed at my hotel with calls from the British press wanting to interview me. Everybody wanted to know what I thought of the character of Albert Stroller, and I, since I hadn’t actually given it zero thought - since I hadn’t planned on doing it - I said, “Well, look at it this way. Suppose my character from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo, after leading this glamorous international adventurous life, retired on his government pension. And realized after a while he couldn’t live that life anymore. What could he do that was still within the confines of the law that could take advantage of his knowledge of everything from women and cars to jewelry to international events, gambling and so on? He said, ‘Well, why not be a con man?”‘ So I just made this up as I went along. But that’s what’s now playing in all the columns in the U.K. That I’m playing Napoleon Solo, the later years.
KP: Wait a second… You make stuff up when you talk to the press?
VAUGHN: Well, I made it up at that point because I had nothing to say. I hadn’t given it any thought. So I told them in advance I’m just winging this as I go along, so bear with me. And everybody took it for gospel and that’s what it was. And what it remains today. Napoleon Solo, but he is now called Albert Stroller.
KP: Has that now legitimately become your hook into the character?
VAUGHN: Well basically, yeah, because it’s the kind of role that just lends itself to, I’m wearing a tux most of the time, I’m in gambling casinos, I do deal with various lovely ladies from time to time - so it is, in effect, a later version of the character I played in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
KP: It’s amazing how many roles you’ve performed that have found you in a tux.
VAUGHN: Yeah, my wife said I’m the last three piece suit/tux actor still around. I wear it very often. In Hustle I wear a three piece suit with a double breasted vest.
KP: Maybe that should be the subtitle for your autobiography.
KP: “Last of the Three Piece Suit Men.”
VAUGHN: Exactly. I’ll get it in there somewhere, I’m sure.
KP: Nothing ever goes away. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should be on DVD soon, even…
VAUGHN: Yeah. As a matter of fact, last year I did a whole day of filming for the DVD of the first year which was going to be… I think it was coming out this fall. And I suddenly found out that after I’d done all this, the company that I was doing it for didn’t actually have the rights to the DVD. And they still don’t have it, and I think someone else in the meantime got the rights to it, so it should be coming out this spring now under a different brand than the one that I worked for.
KP: Hopefully they’ll be able to repurpose the footage they shot with you.
VAUGHN: I hope so, yeah, because it really was literally an entire day of them asking me questions while I was on camera, and they just drilled me for eight hours about the show.
KP: Maybe they just used it as a great way to meet you.
VAUGHN: (laughing) Well, it’s a fairly expensive way. Lunch would be easier.
KP: And your season of The A-Team will be out soon as well.
VAUGHN: Oh, The A-Team! I didn’t know that.
KP: It’ll be out in a few months.
VAUGHN: Oh, is that right? I didn’t know. Well, I just did the last year. I didn’t do the whole… however many years they were on. I only did the last two.
KP: So really, with the release of that and Hustle, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., this could be the year of Vaughn.
VAUGHN: Yeah, I hope so.
KP: Are there any other projects that you haven’t been able to do yet that are kinda personal that you love to be able to do?
VAUGHN: The only thing that I have always wanted to do - and now it’s too late to do - was I wanted to do My Fair Lady onstage. A couple years ago I got a call from the president of Los Angeles City College, where I had gone to school in the early 50s, and they were having the 75th anniversary of the school, and they wanted to put all their budget into some big production of some kind and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing anything. And I immediately suggested My Fair Lady, and they said, “That’s wonderful. Do you think Jim Coburn would do Pickering?” And I said, “Well, I see Jim fairly often and I’ll mention it to him.” So fade in, fade out, they did get together with a lot of money to do the production, and Jim passed away, and then the woman who hired me - who was the president of the school - got a new job as chancellor of all the junior colleges in Michigan, and so she was out of the picture. So it never happened, and now I’m sure it never will. It’s too late in life for me to do that.
KP: You would have made a great Eliza, though.
VAUGHN: (laughing) Well, you’d have to get an elderly Eliza, or middle-aged, at least.
KP: I think you’re underestimating your ability to still carry off the role.
VAUGHN: Oh, thank you very much, that’s very kind of you.
KP: So really, doing that… is that something that you’ve always harbored a desire to do?
VAUGHN: Yes. I saw the original production on Broadway with Rex Harrison. I also saw, that same year, a production of Inherit the Wind with Paul Muni playing the lead on stage, and I remember at the time I said, “I must put this in my mental checkbook that I will someday be these two parts.” And I did do Inherit the Wind with E.G. Marshall at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey about 15 years ago, so I did get a chance to do that. But unfortunately, I didn’t get a crack at My Fair Lady. I learned all the songs and I spent a lot of time preparing for it, and unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to use my efforts.
KP: Well, maybe you can do just an audio version of it.
KP: Release your own cast album for it…
KP: At least all the preparation won’t go to waste.
VAUGHN: Well, we shall see.
KP: It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you.
VAUGHN: Thank you very much.
KP: And I wish you the best of luck and can’t wait to see what comes next, and I can’t wait to read your autobiography…
VAUGHN: Thank you very much, Ken…
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