Saturday 16 December 2017

Obituary: Robert Vaughn

Suave, good-humoured leading man whose starring role in TV's 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' made him a superstar

SHOOTING STAR: Vaughn was best known for playing a secret agent in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'
superstar SHOOTING STAR: Vaughn was best known for playing a secret agent in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

Robert Vaughn, who has died aged 83, was a versatile American actor who for half a century specialised in debonair and often sinister characters.

He was the last surviving gunslinger from The Magnificent Seven, became a global teenage heart-throb as Napoleon Solo, played a string of villains and in his seventies enjoyed a revival as Albert Stroller in the BBC drama series Hustle.

A committed Democrat, who opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars and turned down the chance to run against Ronald Reagan for governor of California, Vaughn was the first to admit not all his 27 films and numerous television series were classics.

Dismissing most as "salary movies", he added: "If 90pc have been bad, that doesn't matter. There are still half a dozen to write home about." And there were: The Young Philadelphians (1959) which brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, The Magnificent Seven (1960), Bullitt (1968), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), The Towering Inferno (1974) and Superman III (1983).

Vaughn's portrayal in the tongue-in-cheek television spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. of Solo, a gun-toting "smiling tux" in partnership with David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, made him a superstar. When the Beatles asked to meet the pair in 1965, all were trapped in Hollywood's Capitol Records building by thousands of screaming girls, eventually being smuggled out in an armoured truck while decoys fought their way to the stars' limo. The welcome when Vaughn and McCallum (at whom most of the screams were directed) flew into Tokyo was just as tumultuous.

After U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn carved out a niche playing villains. In Bullitt he was the conniving Senator Walter Chalmers, who observed: "Integrity is what we sell to the public"; he reprised the role as Sen Gary Parker in The Towering Inferno.

In Superman III, to the anger of his son's classmates, he played Ross Webster, the company CEO who tries to kill the superhero. But his defining role was the sinister White House aide Frank Flaherty in the miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), for which he won an Emmy. Vaughn compensated for a miserable childhood by enjoying Hollywood to the full; his best friends were Jack Nicholson, James Coburn, George Peppard and Warren Beatty. In his memoir A Fortunate Life Vaughn recalled Nicholson stumbling through an acting class in the 1950s and telling him: "Vaughnie, I'm going to give myself two more years in this business. Then I'm going to look for another way to make a living." Vaughn replied: "Hang in there, Jack. You're too young to quit." Nicholson would win three Oscars.

Vaughn was more of an homme serieux than his friendships, his roles or his image suggested. In 1970, at the height of his stardom, the University of Southern California awarded him a PhD for his dissertation Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. He was philosophical about the movie business, observing in later years: "It's filled with rejection. The five stages of an actor are: 'Who's Robert Vaughn?', 'Get me Robert Vaughn', 'Get me a young Robert Vaughn', 'Get me a Robert Vaughn type' and 'Who's Robert Vaughn?'

Because of his popularity as Napoleon Solo, the Democrats asked him in 1966 to challenge Ronald Reagan, a fellow actor who was Republican candidate for governor. Vaughn declined, having pledged his support to "Pat" Brown; Brown lost by a landslide, leaving Reagan on the path to the presidency. Vaughn was also a friend of Bobby Kennedy, supporting his presidential campaign which ended in assassination in Los Angeles. Deeply shocked, he took a role in a film being made in Czechoslovakia - only for the Russians to invade in mid-shoot.

Vaughn was born in New York on November 22, 1932. His father, Gerald Vaughn, was a radio actor, his mother, Marcella Gaudel, a stage actress. His parents - who he was convinced did not want him - separated when he was small, Robert and his mother moving to Minneapolis. From high school he enrolled at the University of Minnesota to study journalism.

Leaving after a year, he moved to Los Angeles, taking a master's degree in Theatre at the State College of Applied Arts and Sciences. Weeks after graduating he landed a part in End As A Man, playing a sadistic military cadet; Burt Lancaster was at the first night and signed him up to a film contract.

Vaughn made his television debut in 1955 in Medic, and his first movie appearance as an extra in The Ten Commandments (1956), behind Yul Brynner's chariot. He first appeared on the credits in Hell's Crossroads (1957), playing Bob Ford, the killer of Jesse James.

His performance in The Young Philadelphians caught the eye of John Sturges, who was preparing to direct The Magnificent Seven, a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai transplanted to Mexico. Sturges had no script and not much of a cast; he hired Vaughn to play Lee, the snappily dressed gunslinger, and Vaughn suggested his school friend Coburn, who had minimal acting experience. Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter and the newcomer Horst Buchholz made up the seven.

Pages of script were pushed under Vaughn's door the night before each shoot; he had little time to study them as in the small hours McQueen would wake him, grumbling that Brynner had a bigger horse, a better gun or better lines. Yet it fell to Vaughn to deliver one of the best one-liners in a Western. When Chris (Brynner) greets him with: "I thought you were looking for the Johnson Brothers", a deadpan Lee replies: "I found them."

Though not a runaway box-office success, The Magnificent Seven became a classic, and the second most repeated movie on American television after Casablanca.

Vaughn moved back to television, starring from 1964 to 1968 in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Cult viewing for teenagers in 60 countries, it spawned a spin-off show, merchandising and movies. Vaughn recalled: "It made it pretty difficult to go shopping - at one point I had to employ a secretary to do my shopping for me."

He returned to the big screen with The Venetian Affair (1967) and then Bullitt, directed by Peter Yates and produced by McQueen's Solar Productions. Vaughn turned down appeals to play Chalmers, rating the script "the dumbest I'd read in my life"; only when McQueen started shooting having still not cast the part did he take it.

Numerous film roles followed, but he was busier in television, appearing in, among other things, The Protectors (1972), Captains and the Kings (1976), Murrow (1986), the long-running Columbo and Murder, She Wrote - and, more recently, Law & Order and Little Britain USA.

Vaughn played the lead in Hamlet in California while appearing in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and in the American production of Tom Stoppard's Inspector Hound. He depicted presidents Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry S Truman on the stage, and Woodrow Wilson in a miniseries. In 1987 he was brought into the final series of The A-Team to ease tensions between Peppard and the unpredictable Mr T.

In 2004 the BBC cast Vaughn, at 71, as Albert Stroller, a debonair patriarch lining up victims for a group of young British con artists. Hustle not only brought Vaughn to a new generation of viewers, but ran for eight series and was sold back to a cable network in America.

Vaughn blamed his mother for an inability to form lasting relationships; his girlfriends included Natalie Wood, Connie Stevens and the comedienne Joyce Jameson.

Then, in 1974, he married Linda Staab, who had appeared with him in The Protectors. They adopted two children, and lived happily, first in London and then, for more than 30 years, in Connecticut. She and their son and daughter survive him.

The British film producer Matthew Vaughn, husband of the supermodel Claudia Schiffer, was brought up believing Robert Vaughn was his father.

His mother, Kathy Ceaton, had been in a relationship with Vaughn but a court in LA ruled in the 1980s that Matthew's biological father was in fact George de Vere Drummond, a godson of King George VI and godfather of the model Jodie Kidd. (© Telegraph)

  • Robert Vaughn, born November 22, 1932, died November 11, 2016.

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