Current TV viewers probably know Robert Vaughn as much for his work on commercials for the law firm of Kalfus & Nachman as they do his work on the BBC America series, “Hustle,” but once upon a time, Vaughn was revered as a veritable rock star among the younger television viewers of the world for his role as secret agent Napoleon Solo on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E..” Time-Life is preparing to release a box set containing the entire series, along with a ton of special features, and we were able to speak to Vaughn about his work as an agent of U.N.C.L.E., his relationship with his co-star David McCallum, and their reuniting for a TV movie several years after the end of the show. We also had the opportunity to speak of “Hustle” for a few minutes, as well as a few of Vaughn’s other, less-heralded works. (“Black Moon Rising,” anyone?) And now, with the obligatory introduction out of the way, let us now open Channel D…
Robert Vaughn: Hello, Will, and how are you doing today?
Bullz-Eye: I am doing good, sir, how are you?
BE: Pleasure to talk to you.
RV: Thank you.
BE: I regularly see your commercials for the law firm of Kalfus & Nachman here in my area.
RV: Alright. Where in the country is that?
BE: It’s the Norfolk -- Virginia Beach area.
RV: Norfolk, Virginia, near the beach.
BE: Yes. Well, I’ve only watched the promotional disc for the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” set thus far, but that alone has given me quite a few great flashbacks. I’m sure the experience of putting together this set has given you plenty of those yourself.
RV: Yes, absolutely.
BE: Did you enjoy being able to sit down with David (McCallum) and discuss your shared experiences, or are you someone who is kind of reticent to revisit the past?
RV: No, no, no. I am never reticent about sitting down and talking about myself with anyone who wants to. (laughs) No, David and I were great friends during the show, and we remain friends. We live very close to each other, geographically; he’s in New York City, and I’m about an hour north of New York City, in Connecticut. His wife and my wife both are interior designers, so… (trails off) The last time I saw him, I ran into him accidentally in Valencia, right where the big fires are going right now. He does his show (“NCIS.”) there at the Santa Clarita Studios, and I was doing a pilot for ABC and we both happened to run into each other at the bar one night, quite to each others’ surprise.
BE: I had the pleasure of meeting him in July at the Television Critics Association tour.
RV: Ah, yes.
BE: You know, I didn’t realize that Ian Fleming had had a hand in the creation of “U.N.C.L.E.,” albeit a small one.
RV: Yes. Fleming and Norman knew each other, and that was the beginning of…I’ve never really been able to nail down how it all happened, but, generally speaking, it came as a result of their friendship and their desire to do a version of James Bond on television, and after that it got into a lot of legal, angry…well, in other words, it went on and on, and, eventually, the show was originally called “Solo” when I got the script. And then, because of lawyers, MGM, NBC, Norman Felton, all those people changed it to "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," and at some point, as we were filming, I believe Ian Fleming died…somewhere in that immediate area…and I guess there was a cease and desist to do anything further until money had been put out for lawyers.
BE: How long had it been since you’d seen the original “Solo” pilot before this set was put together?
RV: I haven’t seen it.
BE: Oh, really? It’s on the promo disc. It’s very interesting to see the different dynamic there.
RV: Well, I know that after we did the pilot, which was, I think, about…well, I don’t know how long, but it took a lot more days devoted to the pilot than are normally devoted to a pilot, and I didn’t realize why at the time. But now I know that their intention was always to release it as a movie overseas and add some hot women and sell it around the world. And they did that; Sandra Berger being one of the hot women, and Luciana Paluzzi being another.
BE: I know it is mentioned in one of the featurettes that when you and David first started working together, you didn’t necessarily share a lot in common on a personal level. How quickly did it take for you all to find a rapport with the onscreen relationship?
RV: Well, the…as I recall, David only appeared in the pilot film for…I don’t know whether they added some scenes for the movie, but for 70 or 80 seconds or something. Then, because of his big fan response when the pilot was shown on television, they began to build up his role, which, for me, was wonderful, because I had a lot of good friends, particularly David Janssen, who never had any life at all they were just doing television series and doing publicity about television series and that was it. He was the sole star of the shows that he did. And so it was a delight for me to reduce my workload by half by having David do the show, but, more importantly, it could have been awful if we didn’t like each other. But we were very fond of each other, had a lot of fun doing the show, and loved doing it.
BE: Was there ever any kind of critical backlash along the lines of, “Oh, well, it’s just a James Bond rip-off,” or did the show just take off so quickly with fans that it didn’t even have a chance to…
RV: It didn’t take off quickly, as a matter of fact. In fact, in today’s market, it would have been canceled. It went on the air in September, and they moved it around. I think they went on Tuesday originally, then they moved to Monday, and then they went to Friday, but, anyway, what happened was…well, among other things, but one of the things being the ascent of David in terms of the fan response. The fact was that during the Christmas holidays of 1964, all the college students returned home and took over the television sets, the ones that were around at night time. And they had been watching the show and having “U.N.C.L.E” parties at various dormitories and fraternities. So as a result of that, we went from 63rd in the rating to about, I think, number 12 in about six weeks, and that’s how the show really took off; that combined with other things. Suddenly, the show which was about to be canceled was in the top 10 in the ratings.
BE: How bizarre was it to be treated like such a rock star?
RV: Well, no question, both David and I were very serious actors. He had done Judas in “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and he had done “Freud” on film, and I had done “The Magnificent Seven,” and “Hamlet” on stage several times. So we were both in our early 30s, and we fancied ourselves as very serious actors, and to be treated like rock stars, which was a lot of fun, I must admit, it somewhat dimmed our view of ourselves as serious actors. But we both enjoyed the rock stardom for as long as it lasted.
BE: How was Leo G. Carroll to work with? He always looked like a kind but slightly befuddled uncle type.
RV: Well, he was never befuddled, but he certainly acted like that. He was only selling his story. He was the dearest, sweetest man, and I think I mention it in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Book” that, as far as I was concerned, he was the real class of the show. He had been on Broadway in a play called “The Green Bay Tree” in 1933. He wasn’t the leading man in the play; he was practically a juvenile when he did the play, but he played the manservant to the lead, whose name was Laurence Olivier.
RV: Yeah. But he had a long theatrical history, both in motion pictures, and Alfred Hitchcock mentioned in one of the biographies about him…about Hitchcock…that Leo G. was the perfect screen actor; he just was so on the money in terms of reality and simplicity that he found him the best screen actor. And, of course, he worked with…I mean, Hitchcock worked with everybody from Cary Grant to Ray Milland, so to single out Leo G. as the best is quite a compliment.
BE: Absolutely. Were there any guest stars who had been on the show that you had forgotten about until you started going through the archives for the set?
RV: No, I pretty much remembered all of the movie stars because, usually, the way they came to do the show was one of their children or grandchildren said, “Why don’t you get on that show? We want to see you on that show!” So Joan Crawford signed on, and Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, and so on. That’s how they came to do the show. The ones that did multiple visits were Vincent Price and George Sanders, and I had a good time with both of them. Sanders was a little gloomy; he announced sometime around the time he did the “U.N.C.L.E” show that he was going to kill himself when he was 65 because he was bored, and he indeed followed through and did kill himself when he was 65, having been, I guess, still bored when he got there. But he was odd. He had it in his contract that there should be a piano on the stage, and then he had a fellow who worked as an extra or a stand-in for him…and I have forgotten his name, but he used to hand George a little Pepsi or Coke with a little splash of vodka as George rippled his fingers over the keys. Joan Crawford also had that happen: a little bit of vodka in her Pepsi-Cola. Always Pepsi, since she, of course, was married to the Pepsi-Cola people.
BE: Oh, well, there you go: she always had it at hand. Do you have a favorite parody of the show? Because there have been plenty of them over the years.
RV: The one I enjoyed the most was “Get Smart,” because I knew both Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, because I was going with a girl for many years who was a sketch comedian, and that’s how I got to meet them before they became quite famous. They came on the “U.N.C.L.E” set two or three times and sat there all day and made notes, and out of that came “Get Smart.” That was by far the best parody, because the other shows were really…they were serious shows like “U.N.C.L.E” was supposed to be, but “Get Smart” was a real parody, and it was funny. Very funny.
BE: At the point the show was cancelled, were you ready to move on, or would you have been willing to continue a bit longer?
RV: Well I would have…contractually, I would have had to continue for another year, because we had a five year contract, but I was so immersed at that time in…I was national chairman of Dissenting Democrats, which was the largest anti-war group in the country, and I was so involved with debating Bill Buckley and people like that and making speeches against the war that I hardly even blinked when I heard it was canceled. As a matter of fact, it was canceled on a Thursday and nobody knew about it, and the next day was Friday and it was the last day of shooting on a live show, and we didn’t know. No one had been told a word about the fact that we were going to be canceled, so there wasn’t even a cast party, which they usually have. You know, the show has been around for a long time, and you maybe get together, but there was no cast party. We just all went our separate ways.
BE: What were your thoughts…
RV: (continuing) But, you know, the first movie I did after “U.N.C.L.E” was “Bullitt,” which was a huge success, and that kind of bridged my gap from television back to movies.
BE: I was actually going to make a comment about that; that must have been just a breath of fresh air, that you were able to step from one success into another.
RV: Oh, absolutely, because 95 percent – if not more – of the stars of television shows just disappear, or they come back later in another television show, but very few…at that time, the only two people who had made the transition were James Garner and Steve McQueen.
BE: What were your thoughts about (the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” reunion movie) “The Fifteen Years After Affair?”
RV: Well, I liked the…the guy that produced and wrote it was named Michael Sloan, and Michael, when he was about…I don’t know, I guess he was in his late teens. But he submitted a script to “U.N.C.L.E.,” and that was just exactly the time the show was canceled. So he had been thinking about doing the revival since he was a teenager, and they finally got it off the ground. It got very good ratings, and there should have been another one, but there wasn’t, and…who know what happens in the minds of programmers and the networks? Well, usually, they get fired, that’s what happens, and then the new people come in, and if there is a slate of new shows by the previous head of the studio, that slate is entirely expunged, and the new person brings in their own slate.
BE: Which catch phrase from the show have you found yourself hit with the most?
RV: “Open channel D.”
BE: That’s what I figured. Do you ever get tired of hearing it?
RV: No! As a matter of fact, I hosted a show for the Emmys…well, it was on film, so I guess it was to be incorporated in some way into the Emmys, but it was about theme songs from famous television shows, going from “U.N.C.L.E” on through the one I just am doing now, called “Hustle.” Monica Mancini, Henry Mancini’s daughter, was the hostess for the entire evening, and the way she introduced me was that she said, “Our next presenter seems to have been lost; we can’t find him anywhere. Let’s give it a try.” So she pulled out the pen and said, “Open channel D,” and I was in the audience, and they put a spotlight on me, and I said, “Solo here,” or something like that. So definitely “open channel D” is the key word or phrase to “U.N.C.L.E.”
BE: Since you brought up “Hustle,” would you ever have expected to be a series regular again at this point in your career?
RV: Well, I am.
BE: Oh, I know, but…I guess I should have said, would you have anticipated it?
RV: Well, I didn’t anticipate it because I wasn’t making any efforts along those lines, but it was offered to me, and I was told to get on a plane an hour after I got the phone call and start shooting the following day…but I couldn’t quite make it. It was actually the second day after I got there. But that’s what happened. It’s interesting, I think, from your point of view in terms of “U.N.C.L.E.,” that they asked me…“they” being the British press, which, of course, are 11 daily newspapers, and half of them or more are tabloids. But the day after I did my first day of filming on “Hustle,” I had a whole swarm of calls at my club where I stay there, and they all wanted to know what I thought about my role. Well, of course, I had not thought one moment about my role; I was busy recovering from jet lag and getting fitted and so on, so I decided, “Well, I’ll just make something up.” So I said, “Well, suppose Napoleon Solo had retired from being a secret agent and he couldn’t get along on his pension, his government pension, and he missed the fast life. What could he have done to incorporate his knowledge of the world and still work on the right side of the law? Well, he could be a con man.” I just made this up as I was going along, and now all the bios of the show contain that story.
BE: Well, it’s like the joke they made on “NCIS” about what Ducky (David McCallum’s character) would have looked like 20 years ago, and the answer was, “Like Illya Kuryakin.”
BE: As far as some of your film work, I wouldn’t even begin to try and guess how many movies you’ve been in over the years, but I myself have always had a soft spot for “Black Moon Rising.”
RV: Oh, thank you very much. Interestingly enough, the guy who produced it was my go-fer at MGM, and I would have expected he was going to be a go-fer all of his life, but he became a very successful producer. That was one of the many films; he did several others with George C. Scott. And the other interesting thing about the film was there was a car chase at the end of the film, between Tommy Lee (Jones) and myself, and it was kind of the highlight of the film, as all car chases tend to be, but we never met each other. We were filming on different days, so I never met Tommy Lee Jones, who I had great respect for as an actor. But everybody would go, “So how’d you like working with Tommy Lee Jones?” And I’d say, “Well, I didn’t work with him. I just drove around in this underground garage, and he drove around the same garage on another day.”
BE: Is there any film in your back catalog that has never been issued on DVD that you would like to see reissued?
RV: Yeah, I think…well, I guess most of the ones that were successful have been reissued. So I can’t think of anything right off hand.
BE: Well, there was one…I was looking at your IMDb listing, and it was one that I had never heard of which sounded interesting, one called “The Mind of Mr. Soames.”
RV: I was just going to say that!
BE: (laughs) Well, there you go!
RV: After I finished talking, just this moment, I thought of “The Mind of Mr. Soames,” which was Terence Stamp, and it was kind of a fascinating premise about a boy who grew to the age of 30 and was still in bumpers and still in the crib because he had not matured intelligently, intellectually. So two different doctors, a liberal doctor, which is what I played, and a conservative doctor, Nigel Davenport, are bucking the theories of how to raise him and make him normal at the age of 30. Although I met Terence Stamp, Terence was in a period of not talking, and he didn’t really say anything except “good morning” and “good-bye.” Now, I later found out he was doing that for purposes of trying to engage his mind in being a child who couldn’t speak at the age of 30. But I didn’t know that until later, so I just thought he was a rude asshole. (laughs) But I have met him since then, and I love him personally. He is a terrific guy. We had a few laughs about what I just told you.
BE: Okay, and to keep you and Stacey (Studebaker, the publicist on the project) on schedule, I’ll close with this one: has there ever been a TV project that you worked on that didn’t really take off that you thought should have?
“There was a car chase at the end of (“Black Moon Rising”) between Tommy Lee Jones and myself, but we never met each other. We were filming on different days. Everybody would go, ‘So how’d you like working with Tommy Lee Jones?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I didn’t work with him. I just drove around in this underground garage, and he drove around the same garage on another day.’”
RV: Well I did one…and in a way, I’m going to answer the question. I did one which I won the Emmy for called “Washington: Behind Closed Doors;” Jason Robards played Nixon, I played Haldeman, Andy Griffith played Lyndon Johnson, Cliff Robertson played the head of the C.I.A; that was a 12-and-a-half hour mini-series. The bible for the second half after the Watergate break-in, which is what the story in the first half was about, had already been written; they had signed Jason Robards and myself and given us our salary for the second series; when the show aired and because it didn’t get ratings as high as “Roots,” which was at that time the barometer of a really successful mini-series, we didn’t do the bible. So the whole show was 50 percent of what it could have been. The second half of the 12…well, it would be 24 hours, actually…was a wonderful bible; it was a wonderful script, and it was never done, and I feel very sorry about that. (pauses) But I got paid anyway.
BE: Well, that’s half the battle.
RV: It made me happier.
BE: Alright, well, it has been a pleasure speaking with you.
RV: Thank you, Will, very much. I appreciate it.
BE: I am very excited to see the final product. Do you have a place where you are going to put your new attaché case that the set’s being packaged in?
RV: You know, I haven’t even thought about that yet. But, hey, give my best to all of the folks in the Virginia area who watch my commercial.
BE: Absolutely. I most certainly will.
RV: Thank you very much, Will!
BE: Thank you.