Obituary: Robert Vaughn
- 11 November 2016
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
With his suave good looks and impeccable dress sense Robert Vaughn was an elegant presence in film and television for more than 50 years.
His best-known role, and the one that made him an international name, was as Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The somewhat implausible, but extremely popular NBC series originally ran between 1964 and 1968.
He starred in more than 150 films, many of which have been completely forgotten both by audiences and, as he once candidly admitted, by Vaughn himself.
Robert Francis Vaughn was born into a theatrical family in New York City on 22 November 1932.
His mother, who was a stage actress, was often out on the road so Vaughn spent much of his childhood with his grandparents in Minneapolis, where he went to school.
He started off studying to be a journalist but quit after 12 months and moved with his mother to Los Angeles where he took a Masters degree in Theatre at California State University.
Even when his acting career took off he continued to study, gaining a PhD in 1970 with his dissertation on show business blacklisting during the McCarthy era which he eventually published as a book.
He made his first TV appearance in 1955 with a role in the US TV series, Medic and followed this up a year later with an uncredited screen appearance in the biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.
His film breakthrough came in 1959 when he was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe in the legal drama, The Young Philadelphians, where he appeared alongside Paul Newman.
A year later he was cast as the dapper, black-clad gunfighter, Lee, in the John Sturges western, The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of an earlier Japanese film, The Seven Samurai.
Although now seen as a cinema classic, the film had a chaotic start which was not helped by a writers strike in Hollywood.
Tongue in cheek
Vaughn later described how he arrived to discover that there was no script and that Sturges had only cast two of the characters, those played by Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner.
"So when Sturges met me, he actually asked if I knew any other good actors. I called my best friend James Coburn, who was hanging out with a chick, smoking dope in Greenwich Village, and told him: 'Get out here fast!' He had no money, and had to borrow some from his parents. But he made it."
Despite the misgivings of the entire cast who, according to Vaughn spent most of the time on set playing poker and waiting for the day's scripts to be written, The Magnificent Seven became a massive hit.
He then went back to television, playing a number of now forgotten roles before he was offered the title role in a new spy series, Solo which had been created, in part, by the author Ian Fleming.
Renamed as The Man From U.N.C.L.E, the first episode, shot in black and white, aired in September 1964 with Vaughn playing secret agent Napoleon Solo alongside David McCallum as the Russian born Illya Kuryakin.
The series, with its tongue in cheek approach to espionage ,brought some much-needed relief to a world deep in the Cold War and became an international hit.
It was especially popular in Britain, where schoolboys enthusiastically sent off for U.N.C.L.E. identity cards while their sisters gave Vaughn a screaming pop star style welcome when he arrived in London on a publicity tour in 1966.
Serious actor that he was, Vaughn had no regrets about taking on the role.
"Not only was it a great deal of fun, it changed me from being a working actor to a negotiating actor. After U.N.C.L.E., I never accepted the first offer: if I wanted more money, I asked for it."
By the third series a misguided attempt to introduce humour into the show resulted in excruciatingly embarrassing scenes such as Solo dancing with a gorilla. Audience numbers nosedived and the series was cancelled half way though its fourth season.
In 1968, Vaughn's former co-star, Steve McQueen, offered him the role of the ambitious and conniving politician, Walter Chalmers, in the film Bullitt, for which he received a Bafta nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Over the next three decades Vaughn appeared in a string of films, including The Towering Inferno and Superman III, as well as countless TV programmes.
Between 1972 and 1974 he spent a somewhat acrimonious time playing Harry Rule in the ITV series, The Protectors.
The plot featured three wealthy individuals getting together each week, usually in exotic locations, to solve crimes and protect the innocent.
It was described by Vaughn in his autobiography as "tasteless junk", and there were rows with the producer, Gerry Anderson, who accused Vaughn of behaving like a prima donna.
Nevertheless the show proved extremely popular and was only cancelled when a major sponsor pulled out at the end of the second series.
After years of mainly forgotten parts and guest appearances his career was re-energised when he was invited to play Albert Stroller in the BBC television series, Hustle.
Taking its inspiration from films such as, The Sting, Vaughn played an elderly con man responsible for setting up potential targets for a younger generation of grifters.
The format proved an immediate success particularly after the BBC brokered a lucrative deal with the US cable channel AMC.
"Hustle is wonderfully enjoyable, because all my life I've made an effort to be with people who can make me laugh. That original cast - Marc Warren, Jaime Murray, Robert Glenister and Adrian Lester - are all funny. So I know every day I'll have a few good laughs."
While filming in London, Vaughn took the time to narrate and appear in a BBC Radio 4 drama on the making of the film The Bridge at Remagen, in which he had starred back in 1969.
Off screen, Vaughn was a committed political activist who had joined the Democrats in the early 1950s while at college in Minnesota.
Firmly on the liberal wing of the party, he became close friends with Senator Robert Kennedy and played a major part in opposition to the Vietnam War but denied rumours he had ambitions to run for political office himself.
Vaughn's acting career never reached the heights achieved by some of his contemporaries, possibly because he devoted time to his political activities.
But he had no regrets. "With a modest amount of looks and talent and more than a modicum of serendipity," he wrote, "I've managed to stretch my 15 minutes of fame into more than half a century of good fortune."