Robert Vaughn

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Robert Vaughn Pencil Portrait
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In 1965, the actor known to millions around the world was concluding work on his Ph.D in political science. Approached by the President of the university, he was asked if he would host Robert Kennedy and his wife Ethel when they visited the campus for a speech to students and faculty. As he was escorting Kennedy to the student rally, the enthusiastic crowd suddenly rushed forward and appeared ready to crush the senator’s car. The man carrying the hopes of a generation for the “second coming of Camelot,” turned to the man who regularly saved the world each week on television and asked the obvious question; “What would Napoleon Solo do in a case like this?”. For one of the few times in his life Robert Vaughn had no obvious answer, but he would have plenty to say in the coming years as a staunch anti-Vietnam campaigner. A man with strong political convictions and diverse literary interests, he was never going to lead a life of constant ‘A’ list celebrity parties and meaningless female dalliances.

His political interests were no mere passing fancy. He took time out from his career to study for a PhD with a dissertation on the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era. This was subsequently published as “Only Victims,” the first major book on the subject.

In the mid 60’s the actor became associated with senator Robert Kennedy and spent time with his family at Hickory Hill. Suitably aghast at RFK’s reluctance to officially oppose President johnson and the Vietnam issue, he was galvanised into action once the taciturn brother of the slain President announced his candidacy. Vaughn’s official political affiliation within the Democratic Party was with Eugene Mccarthy, but his heart was with Kennedy. In the final event, he never got to nail his sail firmly to the RFK mast for in the early hours of June 7, 1968, the actor found himself in New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral standing vigil beside the casket containing the mortal remains of the great political hope of liberal America. After the service Robert Vaughn accompanied the casket on the RFK funeral train to Washington, numbing his pain at the bar as part of an eight hour Irisk wake. It was the grande finale to his political idealism. As he writes on page 231 of his autobiography, “In the years to come, Richard Nixon would preside over student riots, increasing racial polarisation, the Watergate scandal and almost six more years of death in Vietnam – John, Martin and Bobby – had all been snuffed out. We won’t see their likes again”.

By his own admission, a good proportion of the 150 pictures he’s made were B-pictures; many of which he cannot personally remember and I’d be hard pressed to recommend any of them. Yet a handful of his roles had astonishing impact. He was the dandyish gunfighter who had lost his nerve in the classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960), in which he co-starred with Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. In Bullitt (1968) he reunited with McQueen, playing a cynical, ambitious politician. Above all, in 100 memorable television episodes, he was Napoleon Solo in The Man From UNCLE, a light-hearted spy spoof (roughly modelled on James Bond), which paired him with David McCallum, playing the handsome young Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin. The show became a global hit.\

His friendship with Steve McQueen is the classic example of opposites attracting. Mcqueen had no interest in life outside Hollywood, Vaughn was consumed with world geo-politics, McQueen loved speed, Vaughn eschewed “sensory rushes”, Mcqueen saw little that was amusing about his life, Vaughn was self depracating. Most tellingly, McQueen chased pussy like it was going out of fashion, whilst Vaughn applied moderation in an industry known for excess, and didn’t marry until he was forty two. The union endures to this day. I can’t imagine what on earth they talked about, but the king of Cool clearly saw something in Vaughn that was admirable, sincere and trustworthy. In that respect, he would appear to have been a good judge of character, but from where had this deep thinking approach originated?

In the late 50’s, Vaughn was given a book to read by a friend concerned at his near permanent state of equanimity. “I’ve known you for ten years and yet I’ve never seen you angry or depressed. Either you’re a saint or insensitive”.

The book was “The First and Last Freedom” by the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. In his autobiography Vaughn argues that the philosopher’s thoughts dovetail with those of Dr Erich Fromm.

Krishnamurti wrote, “Is it not possible then, to be aware of everything as it is? Starting from there, surely, there can be an understanding.

To acknowledge, to be aware of, to get at that which is, puts an end to struggle. If I know that I am a liar, and it is a fact which I recognize, then the struggle is over. To acknowledge, to be aware of what one is, is already the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of understanding, which releases you from time. To bring in the quality of time, not in the chronological sense, but as the medium, as the psychological process, the process of the mind, is destructive, and creates confusion. So, we can have understanding of what is when we recognize it without condemnation, without justification, without identification.

To know that one is in a certain condition, in a certain state, is already a process of liberation; but a man who is not aware of his condition, of his struggle, tries to be something other than he is, which brings about habit. So, then, let us keep in mind that we want to examine what is, to observe and be aware of exactly what is the actual, without giving it any slant, without giving it an interpretation. It needs an extraordinarily astute mind, an extraordinarily pliable heart, to be aware of and to follow what is; because what is is constantly moving, constantly undergoing a transformation, and if the mind is tethered to belief, to knowledge, it ceases to pursue, it ceases to follow the swift movement of what is. What “is” is not static, surely – it is constantly moving, as you will see if you observe it very closely. To follow it, you need a very swift mind and a pliable heart – which are denied when the mind is static, fixed in a belief, in a prejudice, in an identification; and a mind and heart that are dry cannot follow easily, swiftly, that which “is”.

On page 129 of his autobiography Vaughn writes; “For me, this concept of trying to understand what is or what someone is trying to tell you while freeing oneself not only from the distractions of the moment – noise, music, people’s voices – but also from the distractions of a lifetime of prejudice requires a kind of divinity that few possess”. In a mood of literary resignation, the actor then adds much effort and with little practical result”. He further adds “In other words, it is not a question of accepting what ‘is’; you do not accept what ‘is’, you do not accept that you are brown or white, because it is a fact. Only when you are trying to become something else do you have to accept. The moment you recognize a fact, it ceases to have any significance. I believe he (Krishnamurti) means that a mind is trained to think of the past or the future, trained to run away in multifarious directions – such a mind is incapable of understanding what ‘is’.

I was not so much surprised to discover that Vaughn had encountered Krishnamurti but that he would choose to write about him. The actor turned 80 in 2012, and I trust that more than 50 years of study has prepared him for what lies ahead.

As for myself I understand and accept “my condition” since Krishnamurti prepares his devotees for self awareness and the final journey. I don’t believe Jesus will arrive to wash away my sins but that rather, I must pay for them in the afterlife. I believed for a while that advancing years would bring greater universal awareness amongst people, but I am now convinced that most individuals prefer sensory insulation and misrepresentation. I would rather enjoy discussing “The First and Last Freedom” with Robert Vaughn but sadly I doubt such a meeting will ever occur.

Recommended listening

The Man from Uncle (soundtrack 1964-68)

The theme music, written by Jerry Goldsmith, changed slightly throughout the series’ four seasons. Goldsmith only provided three original scores and was replaced by Morton Stevens, who composed four scores for the series. After Stevens, Walter Scharf did six scores, and Lalo Schifrin did two. Gerald Fried was composer from season two through the beginning of season four. The final composers were Robert Drasnin (who also scored episodes of Mission: Impossible, as did Schifrin, Scharf and Fried), Nelson Riddle and Richard Shores. The music reflected the show’s changing seasons—Goldsmith, Stevens and Scharf composed dramatic scores in the first season using brass, unusual time signatures and martial rhythms, Gerald Fried and Robert Drasnin opted for a lighter approach in the second, employing harpsichords and bongos and by the third season, the music, like the show, had become more camp, exemplified by an R&B organ and saxophone version of the theme. The fourth season’s attempt at seriousness was duly echoed by Richard Shores’ somber scores.

The recordings I have on CD originate from vinyl albums issued in the UK in the mid 60’s. These long player releases are difficult to track down but fortunately more recent compilations are available on import from the States.

Disc 1
1. Theme from “The Man from UNCLE” (Jerry Goldsmith)
2. Meet Mr.Solo (Jerry Goldsmith)
3. Martini Built for Two (Morton Stevens)
4. Wild Bike (Morton Stevens)
5. Solo on a Raft (Walter Scharf)
6. Fiddlesticks (Lalo Schifrin)
7. The Man from THRUSH (Lalo Schifrin)
8. Ilya (Lalo Schifrin)
9. Invaders (Jerry Goldsmith)
10. Solo’s Samba (Walter Scharf)
11. Bye Bye Jill (Morton Stevens)
12. Watch Out (Walter Scharf)

Disc 2
1. Sandals Only (Gerald Fried)
2. Solo Busanova (Robert Drasnin)
3. Off & Running (Robert Drasnin)
4. Boo-Bam-Boo Baby (Gerald Fried)
5. Slink (Gerald Fried)
6. Run Spy Run (Gerald Fried)
7. Jungle Heat (Gerald Fried)
8. Wiggely Pig Walk (Gerald Fried)
9. Lament for a Trapped Spy (Gerald Fried)
10. There They Go (Robert Drasnin)
11. Jo Jo’s Torch Song (Robert Drasnin)
12. Dance of the Flaming Swords (Gerald Fried)


Recommended viewing

The Young Philadelphians (1959)

The first of Vaughn’s Emmys, the Tv equivalent of the movie Oscar, for his portrayal of a young man on trial for murder. Not many actors steal a film from under Paul Newman’s nose but here he certainly did!

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

A huge moneyspinner in its day, the film was essentially an inferior remake of “The Seven Samuri” in which a bandit terrorizes a small Mexican farming village each year. Several of the village elders send three of the farmers into the United States to search for gunmen to defend them. They end up with seven, each of whom comes for a different reason. They must prepare the town to repulse an army of 40 bandits who will arrive wanting food.

For those who revere the movie, Vaughn’s account of it is disconcerting to say the least.There had been a writers’ strike in Hollywood, and all director John Sturges knew was that he was going to remake the classic Japanese film ‘The Seven Samura’i. Sets had been built in Mexico, but there was no script, and only two actors, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, had been cast.

“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.”

As Vaughn tells it, the actors sat around most of the time playing poker. Much of the script was written on set: “We’d be told one evening ‘tomorrow we’ll be doing this scene’, and that night carbon copies of the script pages would be slid under our doors. We spent a lot of time complaining about working on such a rotten picture.”

How wrong can you be? The film became a massive success, thanks largely, he believes, to Elmer Bernstein’s immortal theme tune. Vaughn reportedly has it as his personal ringtone and when he’s out shopping and it rings out passers-by stop dead in their tracks; an amusing story and possibly true but at my time of life almost certainly nothing more than good PR. In any event, the bass riff to “The Man from Uncle” theme would surely be more appropriate.

In terms of screen time, readers may wonder why I’ve included the film within this commentary for after all, although Vaughn is the last surviving actor amongst the cast, his role was hardly the most prominent. Put simply, there is a case to suggest he had the most interesting part for cowardice, a trait wherein fear and excessive self-concern override what is socially deemed as right and courageous action, was clearly a perfectly understandable reaction in his character in the face of near overwhelming adversity.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Complete) DVD Box Set

Only available on import and US Region 1 so you’ll need a multi region player to view the discs. All a little too much for me as the quality of writing dipped after the first two seasons. Once “Batman” had taken off a more camp quality overtook the advantures of Napoleon and Illya, as far removed in quality from the monochrome bravura of the first season as possible. It’s impossible to cherry pick the episodes and until such a download option becomes available it’s a hefty outlay for the box set. Check out the episode guide at\

OK, I’m way too old for this fansite but I remember the series with great affection and for the arresting soundtrack music.\

The Bridge at Remagen (1969)

Overcoming his attraction for his buxom Czech translator Pepsi Watson (“I sensed she was a very high strung, perhaps excessively emotional person”) and taking the view to ‘never sleep with with anybody who has worse problems than I do’, Vaughn was an object study in focussed concentration whilst filming overseas in Prague, Vienna, Hamburg and Rome. Carousing at night with fellow actors was sufficiently ‘controlled’ and he delivers a fine performance as Major Paul Kreuger. This bleak World War II action drama, directed by John Guillermin, concerns the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the last remaining span across the Rhine into Germany during the final days of the war in 1945.

Washington behind Closed Doors (1978)

Unavailable for 35 years in any form other than bootlegs I was delighted to have the opportunity to tape this series in 2011 when it received a welcome rescreening. Time had not dimmed my recollection of this televisual masterwork. At the time of it’s original screening, I had recently passed my A Level in Government and Politics and had studied the American legislature. My interest was therefore piqued and the series never failed to deliver on my expectations.

In fact, the miniseries’ source material was a peekaboo thriller called ‘The Company’ by none other than convicted Watergate felon John Ehrlichman. But the TV version’s producer and co-adapter, David W. Rintels, expanded Ehrlichman’s tale of a vindictive President at odds with his blue-blooded CIA director—aka Not Richard Helms, and played here with suitably pained reserve by Cliff Robertson—to toss in pretty much everything but the kitchen sink when it came to delivering the barely fictionalized lowdown on the Nixon White House’s depredations, follies, and unbelievable rogues’ gallery of dunces and creeps.

The one performance that was deservedly recognized at the time was Robert Vaughn’s portrayal as Frank Flaherty. His characterisation was based on a real life person, H. R. Haldeman, who was the White House Chief of Staff to President Richard Nixon. Haldeman gained a stern reputation for expecting top of the line work. He and the President were very close – Haldeman was even dubbed “the President’s son-of-a-bitch” – and Nixon relied on him to filter information that came into his office and to see to it that information was properly dispensed. In order to facilitate this modus operandi, Haldeman reorganized the White House staff to a “funnel” model still followed in the White House today. Recognized by his distinctive flattop haircut, Haldeman would serve throughout Nixon’s first term and into his second, though his service was cut short due to the unfolding Watergate scandal, and his role in it. Resigning in April 1973, Haldeman was later tried on counts of perjury, conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and was imprisoned for 18 months.

Vaughn took home an Emmy, though the miniseries otherwise came up empty-handed which, in my opinion, was a staggering response in view of the sterling work from all concerned. Industry acceptance was probably muted thanks in part to the universal acclaim accorded to “Roots”, a mini series that appeared around the same time. Nevertheless, Jason Robards, perhaps best known for his performance as the upstanding Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in “All The President’s Men”, makes for a superb Nixon-like President “Monckton”, all brash exterior, insinserity and acute paranoia. Wintry, scowling, giving a bark of a laugh at his own humorlessly mean-spirited jokes, snarling out his latest scheme for “sticking it to his enemies” or turning bathetically self-pitying at the unfair advantages everybody else had, Robards is living proof that magnetism can be charisma’s opposite but rivetting nonetheless. Throughout the series, Vaughn is the ultimate “right hand man from hell” but occasionally not immune from withering Presidential rebukes himself.

With America reeling from the shame and indignation of a disgraced President the time was ripe for television producers to grasp the nettle firmly in hand and drive the political sword home. There was little chance of a critical backlash whatever the public’s reductive view of national politics; anyone who secretly thought otherwise was either too ashamed to admit it, or in prison. Again, one of those occasional televisual feasts that can almost justify the lethargy of a couch potato. I don’t read, draw, tap out a rhythmic pattern on my drum machine, think about work problems or anything else when its on and for me that rarely happens. Superb.

Hustle (BBC Tv series Seasons 1-8) 2005-12

There’s nothing wrong with quality entertainment; not every programme has to be thought provoking. Several episodes overworked the corrupt police officialdom theme but in the main the scripts remained refreshingly inventive. Vaughn used his Hollywood connections to bring in some US acting heavyweights and his appearance in full Elvis jumpsuit regalia in season four episode six was hilarious. It’s doubtful any London cabbie will accept a fiver off him now after eight seasons as the roper Albert Stroller.

There was talk of a Hollywood reincarnation but amongst the gambling fraternity, only Vaughn would have merited a substantial punt on recreating his role for the big screen. Ultimately, nothing came to pass and the actor’s death in 2016 would close the lid on any such revival project.

Recommended reading

Robert Vaughn—A Fortunate Life (2009)

I read this autobiography when it was first published in early 2009 but felt it was deserving of further investigation and I subsequently revisited it three years later.

Robert Vaughn was born an actor. His family worked in the theater for generations, and he knew from the very start that he would join them. In his fifty-year career, Vaughn has made his mark in roles on stage, in film, and on television the world over. In A Fortunate Life, he describes some of the one-of-a-kind experiences he’s enjoyed in his celebrated career.

“A Fortunate Life” reveals the details of his early years in Hollywood, when he found himself appearing as often in the gossip magazines as on screen, and he recounts insider stories about such legendary figures as Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Charlton Heston, Oliver Reed, Jason Robards, Richard Harris, Yul Brynner, Elizabeth Taylor, and many more. Vaughn’s work in The Young Philadelphians, The Magnificent Seven, Superman III, and many other films won kudos from critics and peers alike. Worldwide recognition came when he starred in the smash hit series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and he vividly describes the extraordinary experience of becoming, quite suddenly, one of the world’s brightest stars.

Vaughn warmly recalls his romances with stars like Natalie Wood and his adventures with friends like Steve McQueen and James Coburn, but equally important was his involvement in the politics of the 1960s. The first actor to publicly speak out against the war in Vietnam, he served as national chairman of Dissenting Democrats, the largest antiwar organization in the U.S. He gave hundreds of speeches denouncing the war, debated William F. Buckley on national TV, and helped persuade his friend Robert F. Kennedy to run for president in 1968 only to see the race end in tragedy.

For the discerning younger generation of television viewers who know of Vaughn for his long running role in the hit BBC Tv series “Hustle” there is much more to learn about this erudite actor.

Robert Vaughn-a fortunate life book review

Robert Vaughn—“Only Victims”

A fine account of the Hollywood blacklisting of actors and actresses who were considered to be Communists back in the Fifties. Vaughn wrote it after NBC cancelled “The man from Uncle” and amidst a personal depression following the RFK assassination. The main thrust of the work had its origins in the actor’s doctoral dissertation for the University of Southern California and was taken from a statement by Dalton Trumbo that the blacklist period produced “only victims.”

James Dalton Trumbo (December 9, 1905 – September 10, 1976) was an American screenwriter and novelist. As one of the Hollywood Ten, he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 during the committee’s investigation of Communist influences in the motion picture industry. Trumbo won two Academy Awards while blacklisted; one was originally given to a front writer, and one was awarded to “Robert Rich,” Trumbo’s pseudonym.12

Blacklisting effectively ended in 1960 when it lost credibility. Trumbo was publicly given credit for two blockbuster films: Otto Preminger made public that Trumbo wrote the screenplay for the smash hit, “Exodus”, and Kirk Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of “Spartacus”. Furthermore, President-elect John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the movie during his campaign trail.

The actor is to be commended for his exhaustive research and if the treatise on this dubious period in American history has been bettered by literary contemporaries it still remains a thought provoking piece of work more than forty years after its initial publication.



A comprehensive site devoted to Vaughn’s career, fully authorised by the star, which contains an interesting 1966 BBC Tv interview with the actor about the Vietnam conflict.

Robert Vaughn—Archive of American Television interview (2007)

An interesting overview of the actor’s life.