Actor Robert Vaughn Dies At 83

Robert Vaughn, who was perhaps best known for his role in the 1960s ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ and was also one of the stars of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ has died at the age of 83:

Robert Vaughn, the cleft-chinned actor who reached the peak of his fame in the 1960s playing Napoleon Solo, the debonair international agent tasked with saving the world each week on the hit television series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” died on Friday in Danbury, Conn. He was 83.

His manager, Matthew Sullivan, said that the cause was acute leukemia, for which Mr. Vaughn had been under treatment in Manhattan and Connecticut.

Mr. Vaughn had numerous roles in film and on television. He played an old boyfriend of Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) on an episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and a gunman in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960). He was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his role as a man accused of murder in “The Young Philadelphians” (1959) and won an Emmy in 1978 for his performance as a White House chief of staff in the mini-series “Washington: Behind Closed Doors.”

But no character he played was as popular as Napoleon Solo. From 1964 to 1968, in the thick of the Cold War, millions of Americas tuned in weekly to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” to watch Mr. Vaughn, as a superagent from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, battling T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity), a secret organization intent on achieving world domination through nefarious if far-fetched devices like mind-controlling gas.

At the height of the show’s popularity, Mr. Vaughn said he was receiving 70,000 fan letters a month.

The show was a self-aware parody of Ian Fleming’s creation James Bond, who had been played by Sean Connery in two hit movies by the time “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” made its debut. (Fleming served as an adviser to the show, and is widely credited with coining the name Napoleon Solo.)

“The whole show is a joke. It’s an extension of the Bond joke into a gigantic cartoon in prime time,” Mr. Vaughn told The Saturday Evening Post in an 1965 interview, to which, the magazine noted, he arrived wearing a custom-tailored Italian suit and a black silk tie.

Joke or not, the show was wildly popular and catapulted Mr. Vaughn into overnight fame. It was also a platform for many other acting careers, most notably that of David McCallum, the Scottish actor who played Illya Kuryakin, the enigmatic Russian spy and Solo sidekick who developed a big fan following of his own.

Kurt Russell (at age 10), Leslie Nielsen and Joan Collins all appeared on the show. In the first season, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, who would co-star on “Star Trek” two years later, had roles in the same episode.

Despite his acclaim, Mr. Vaughn could be a little disdainful about his vocation. “Acting has always been very boring to me,” he told The Post. “Anyone not in television to become a millionaire is a simpleton.”

(…)

Robert Francis Vaughn was born on Nov. 22, 1932, in New York City into a theatrically inclined household. His father, Gerald Walter Vaughn, was heard on radio series like “Gangbusters” and “Crime Doctor,” and his mother, the former Marcella Gaudel, appeared in a 1931 Broadway production of “Dracula.” The couple divorced when Mr. Vaughn was an infant and he moved with his mother to Minneapolis, where he was partly reared by grandparents.

“I was a complete wreck as a child, emotionally unstable, excessively prideful,” he told The Sunday News of New York in a 1965 interview.

When he was with his mother, she pushed his acting career, teaching him to recite the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from “Hamlet” when he was 5. While she was working as a cocktail waitress in a Chicago bar to earn extra money, his mother had young Robert perform the soliloquy for John Barrymore after Barrymore had dropped by. She later helped get her son cast on radio shows like “Let’s Pretend” and “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.”

Mr. Vaughn headed to Hollywood in 1952. During the day, he studied theater arts at Los Angeles City College and played bit parts, including a Hebrew slave in the movie epic “The Ten Commandments.”

At night he would go to local hot spots and hobnob with other aspirants and the occasional star. He hung out with Johnny Carson, dated Natalie Wood and knocked back Cutty Sark at 2 a.m. with Bette Davis. He also befriended a young James Coburn and took credit for getting him a role in “The Magnificent Seven.”

After he graduated from college in 1956, Mr. Vaughn signed with Columbia Pictures for $15,000 a role. His career was temporarily waylaid when he was drafted; he served uneventfully as a drill sergeant in the Army and was discharged after 18 months.

After that, his life was a series of increasingly high-profile parts, and then he landed “U.N.C.L.E.” The show was such a success at first that he expected it to last for many years, but the ratings dropped, and it was canceled halfway through its fourth season.

He kept busy afterward, appearing on numerous TV shows and in movies like “Bullitt” (1968) and “The Towering Inferno” (1974). He also traveled extensively. He was in Prague in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into the city to suppress the local reform movement.

Mr. Vaughn earned a doctorate in communications from the University of Southern California in the mid-1960s. His dissertation, “The Influence of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the American Theater 1938-58,” was published as a book, “Only Victims,” in 1972.

In later years, Vaughn took on many character actor roles, including an extended stint during the eighth season of Law & Order where he played a political rival to District Attorney Adam Schiff as well as other roles in which he played similar characters.

 

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tyrell says:

    I saw him a while back on a program discussing his role in “The Magnificent Seven”. He looked in great shape. He seemed like a nice guy. “Mag 7” : still a great movie. It had several future great stars. That is the way director John Sturges played it: great leading stars and really good supporting cast.