For people of a certain age, it’s inconceivable that Robert Vaughn is gone, dead at 83.
That’s because it seems he’s always been there. His acting career lasted more than 60 years.
It began with small parts, to finding steady work (including a secondary lead in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven), to being a star in the 1960s with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and going back to being a steady performer.
His IMDB.COM ENTRY lists more than 200 acting credits. He received one Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (1959’s The Young Philadelphians) and won an Emmy (the 1977 miniseries, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, essentially the story of the Nixon administration with the names chaned).
With U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn became a leading man, making the character name Napoleon Solo one of the big names of the 1960s spy boom.
The show flirted with cancellation early in its first season because it was up against a popular CBS variety show hosted by Red Skelton.
But with a time slot change and a surge in interest in spy entertainment thanks to 1964’s Goldfinger, U.N.C.L.E. became a hit. Episodes of the show were re-edited (with extra footage added) to create eight movies for the international market. At the peak of U.N.C.L.E.’s popularity, the early movies were even released in the United States.
In some ways, though, Vaughn didn’t act like a star. Most series leads aren’t studying for a Ph.D during production. Vaughn did.
On some series, the lead actor guards his or her status. Yet, Vaughn didn’t seem to mind as David McCallum, as Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin, went from supporting player to joint star of the show. Maybe he figured McCallum’s increased workload would free him up for more study time.
For a time, it appeared as if Vaughn might go into politics. He was politically active protesting the Vietnam War. But a political career for Vaughn never happened.
After U.N.C.L.E., Vaughn continued to be cast in movies and guest roles on television shows. Often, he played villainous politicians (Bullitt) or business moguls (Superman III). He was in two episodes of Columbo. In the second, Last Salute to the Commodore, writer Jackson Gillis and director Patrick McGoohan sprung a twist that played on audience expectation that Vaughn must be the killer.
The actor enjoyed a late-career renaissance, with the lead in the series Hustle, about a group of London con artists. The show ran 48 episodes from 2004 to 2012. He also had a regular part in the series Coronation Street.
Over a career as long as Vaughn’s, you take some jobs that puzzle your fans. At one point, the actor did commercials for various law firms. He also promoted the Helsinki Formula for hair restoration. That even became a joke in an episode of Seinfeld titled The Deal. As The New York Times noted in its obituary of Vaughn, the actor later said he made quite a bit of money from the television spots.
But that sort of thing is only a footnote. The primary story is the connection Vaughn made with the audience. People who discovered him on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remained fans decades later.
As word of Vaughn’s death spread on the internet on Friday, there was shock followed by sadness followed by reflection.
He had always been there. It’s now just sinking in that he’s actually gone.
Filed under: The Other Spies | Tagged: Columbo, Coronation Street, David McCallum, Hustle, Jackson Gillis, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughn, Seinfeld, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Washington: Behind Closed Doors |