Originally presented in Winter 2016 issue of Jack Lords Hair.
Like many people, I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Robert Vaughn. A tweet noting his passing said it best when they described Mr. Vaughn as “The coolest person on television.” Whether he was playing Napoleon Solo, international spy from the 60’s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or evil corporate mogul Dick Lecter in Pootie Tang, Robert Vaughn brought an irrepressible cool to whatever part he played.
When producers sought someone to play a corporate type, an aristocrat, a jet-setter or a high-class scoundrel, there were many actors available. However, there was only one Robert Vaughn. He had an air of intrigue which made him perfect as Napoleon Solo. That same intrigue lent itself nicely to his performance as the troubled gunman Lee in The Magnificent Seven.
Robert Vaughn has always struck me as someone who was too big for TV. I’m not saying that he fancied himself as someone who was too big for TV, rather I think his talent was better suited for the silver screen. He was perfect as the ambitious Senator Chalmers in Bullitt, serving as a thorn in the side of Steve McQueen’s character throughout the film (This would be not be the last time Mr. Vaughn portrayed a politician, he would reunite with Mr. McQueen in The Towering Inferno).
However, talent and ambition does not always translate into superstardom. Hollywood is a strange place where the cream does not always rise to the top. Robert Vaughn had some memorable roles on the silver screen but like many actors, his filmography had some questionable choices (Did he really need to star in Killer Birds or C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the Chud?). Still, even when he starred in duds like Superman III and Battle Beyond the Stars, he made the films a little bit more enjoyable with his performances. Whether he needed a down payment on a yacht or he wouldn’t to try something different, he seemed to be having fun.
A quintessential example of Mr. Vaughn’s coolness was his role as Napoleon Solo. Like James Bond (both Bond and Solo were the creations of Ian Fleming), you got the feeling that Napoleon was in it more for the girls and glamorous lifestyle than he was out of any devotion to country (not that either man were portrayed as unpatriotic). Solo and Bond always got the job done but they had a lot of fun along the way, never showing any sign of distress.
One of my favorite scenes with Solo is from the film The Spy in the Green Hat (several of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s two-part episodes were edited into feature length films for overseas distribution). In it, Solo and his partner Illya Kuryakin have just fought with killers from the villainous group known as THRUSH, and are chasing the enemy. As their car races down the street, Napoleon sits in the passenger side, resting his hand on his chin as if this is just a leisurely Sunday drive. Yes, Napoleon Solo was one suave spy.
Mr. Vaughn found success in America and the U.K. During the early 70’s, he starred in The Protectors, a show about private detectives operating in Western Europe. Mr. Vaughn fit in quite nicely as Harry Rule, one of three operatives (although the show featured other “Protectors” along the way) who fought crime and helped the helpless (usually beautiful young women). The half-hour show could be hit and miss with its scripts (although some were rather good) but it was shot on location throughout Europe, providing some beautiful scenery for Mr. Vaughn to appear in.
Just as he wasn’t afraid to appear in films like Chud 2, Mr. Vaughn wasn’t above doing celebrity endorsements. When you see a celebrity do a paid endorsement, you have to wonder whether they’re paying for a new summer home or if they’re down on their luck. Whatever the reason, Mr. Vaughn appeared as a paid spokesperson for a series of ads for personal injury attorneys. Normally, such ads rate about a 5 on the degrading level (with 1 being “humiliating” as seen by June Allyson doing commercials for Depends and 10 being “acceptable” as seen by Florence Henderson’s old spots for Wesson cooking oil). In Mr. Vaughn’s case, he pulled it off without losing any prestige. The man was so stylish that he could do a commercial for Charmin with him dropping a deuce in an outhouse and you’d still marvel at his style.
Despite his ups and downs, Mr. Vaughn remained a bankable star. His role as American con artist Albert Stroller in the BBC series Hustle endeared him to a new generation of fans and reminded long-time fans why they’ve enjoyed his work throughout the years. In recent years, he guest starred on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and his last two films were The American Side and Gold Star.
In addition to his Hollywood career, Mr. Vaughn was actively involved with politics throughout his life and was one of the first celebrities to protest the Vietnam War. Mr. Vaughn obtained a PhD in Communications and debated William F. Buckley about the war on an episode of Firing Line. Mr. Vaughn died on November 11, 2016 from acute leukemia.