November 16, 2016

Robert Vaughn, R.I.P.

Robert Vaughn was made to play villains, so much so that even his good guys were smarmy. I mean, look at Napoleon Solo. When The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first debuted, Vaughn was clearly the star of the show - remember, it's original title was to be Solo - and there was something indelibly smug and superior about him. Yes, one could say that Sean Connery's James Bond had the same aura of superiority about him, but in Connery's case it was leavened by a certain self-awareness, the knowledge - even when the Bond movies were more serious than they became - that you couldn't really take it all that seriously. U.N.C.L.E., though, was always about the fantastic (even when it was more serious than it became), but you couldn't really tell it by looking at Napoleon Solo.* But then something happened: the Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), who was intended to be little more than a bit part, struck a nerve with the TV audience - especially the young female segment - who thought Illya deserved a much bigger role. That may well have been the best thing to happen to Napoleon Solo.

*A fact of which you're probably all aware: the name Napoleon Solo came from the Bond story Goldfinger, and was gifted to the show by Ian Fleming, who was originally to have played a role in the development of the series. It was one of his two contributions, the other being the name "April Dancer" - which, of course, became Stefanie Powers' character in The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

It is something of a testament to the entire U.N.C.L.E. crew - Vaughn, McCallum, the producers, directors and writers - that they rode with the changes brought by making McCallum's character a co-equal, and in so doing made The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a far better show, and Solo a far better character. The addition of Kuryakin brought another side to Solo, the humor that rounded the edges of his smug character, in time even producing a self-deprecating side that would never have been apparent otherwise. Perhaps it was the writing, perhaps it was the way McCallum and Vaughn seemed to click from the beginning, but from this came the Napoleon Solo that we all know and love. And yet -

You remember the smarmy, politically ambitious Walter Chalmers from Bullitt, for example. Frank Flaherty in Washington: Behind Closed Doors. His appearances in Columbo. That kind of character seems to fit Vaughn to a tee. Even in The Protectors, where as Harry Rule he again plays a good guy, there's still something smarmy and smug about him.*

*A quality he displayed off-screen as well, according to at least one source working on the series.

But Vaughn could turn that to his advantage as well, whether parodying his image, as he would many times (one could argue that his occasional appearances with Conan O'Brian were just that), or as in The Magnificent Seven, where his character Lee isn't particularly likable, but becomes suddenly vulnerable - and accessible - when his secret fear is exposed, working to his (and our) advantage. In his Oscar-nominated role as Chet Gwynn in The Young Philadelphians, he's on trial for murder, a jam from which only Paul Newman can rescue him. And when the smugness was in the background, then you could admire the urbanity and charm that was so often on display, and for which he was so well known. Most of all, no matter what role he was playing, he was seldom ever out of work - an extremely valuable knack when you're an actor.

Off-screen, he could display the same tendencies. He comes off as incredibly pretentious and self-important in a TV Guide profile where he talks about his close friendship with Robert Kennedy - adopting similar mannerisms to "Bobby" and decorating his office in the same style. I'll say this for him though; he was a true believer, one who wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty in the political realm. He never would have been satisfied with making grandiose proclamations on Twitter. (I wonder how he felt after this election?) Other stories talk about him being difficult to work with, although Hollywood is one of those towns where everyone has an ax to grind.

If this all sounds somewhat negative, I don't mean it to be, because you can't be the star of a TV series I like a lot without earning some goodwill. And the truth of the matter is that I liked Robert Vaughn. It was easy enough when he played a character with likable tendencies, but even when he didn't, I could admire his considerable skill as an actor. I can't miss his living presence, because I didn't know him; I can't be too sorry that he won't appear in any new work, although he was still busy in this decade. But I can be grateful that so much of his work is preserved, such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - where he was never better than when he wasn't flying solo.


  1. I'm currently reading the autobiography of Robert Vaughn. Which I would not have discovered had it not been for his (unfortunate)obituary. But I am disturbed by the mention of RV being "pretentious" (as if intentional) in the article. Which I think is a description that can be interchanged with simply being "self-aware." As Vaughn relates through his memoirs, various events and experiences, can not but be appreciated in historical hindsight. To be privy to, or perhaps just exposed to, such (first hand)events, especially in the making of "Camelot" has real value. And IMO, I don't feel the recounting of such events was done simply for the mere attempt of name dropping and self-interest, but simply as a matter of factual reporting. We're nearly a half Century from the epicenter of the original, and IMO personal experience (and thus personal opinion) is most valuable! I respect the author's effort to share the events of the time! And many a time, such stories have brought a smile to my face, as being sincere and quite revealing as an honest endeavor!!

  2. Robert Vaughn was far from being a shallow Hollywood actor. He earned a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Southern California in 1970, which meant he completed his coursework and wrote the majority of his dissertation during the run of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. That is an impressive accomplishment.


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