1967: Spy TV star debates a conservative icon

Robert Vaughn, right, with Richardo Montalban in the first-season Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode, The Dove Affair

July 8 is the 50th anniversary of when Robert Vaughn, the star of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., debated William F. Buckley Jr. about the Vietnam war on the program Firing Line.

Buckley, the founder and publisher of National Review, took on debate partners over more than 30 years on Firing Line.

Firing Line’s format was polite but intense. In 1967, the Vietnam War was raging and it was an intense time.

Vaughn was one of the most prominent actors who opposed the war.

Vaughn, decades later, in an interview for the Archive of American Television, described his preparation for the debate.

The actor said he “spent a month in a monastery reading everything Buckley had ever written in his life, including term papers at Yale. So I walked in as the young challenger against the old champ.”

The Firing Line taping occurred during a day off during filming of the fourth-season U.N.C.L.E. episode The Thrush Roulette Affair (July 5-7 and 10-12, according to Jon Heitland’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. book).

The Hoover Institution, a conservative think thank has posted the Buckley Vaughn encounter. It lasts more than 48 minutes. It’s considerably more polite than a debate, a year later, between Buckley and author Gore Vidal on ABC.

You can view the Buckley-Vaughn video below. There’s a judge, C. Dickerman Williams.

At the end, Williams says, “We’ve had a conflict between a hawk and a dove…Whose feathers were the more ruffled? The hawk’s or the dove’s? I must leave that to you to decide, As chairman, I can’t make a decision myself, I regret to say.”

(Corrected to remove reference to PBS. Firing Line wasn’t shown on PBS until the early 1970s.)


8 Responses

  1. I would have thought Walter Chalmers would have been a hawk myself. Oh wait, wrong entertainment …

  2. Firing Line aired on WOR-TV broadcast out of New York City from 1966-1967 and it was syndicated to local stations during this time. There was no PBS until 1970. Firing Line moved to PBS in 1971

  3. Buckley is quite dismissive of Vaughn in his opening comments but he got more than he bargained for. He got more than he bargained for with Gore Vidal too, come to think about it.

  4. I watched the debate. Vaughn could be a bit erudite at times (intentionally so) but genuinely moral. Buckley was an informed, intimidating character. Who poked through Vaughn’s position, to rattle him. But was neutralized by Vaughn’s charming aplomb, just as he used in his famous roles. Buckley discovered Vaughn was indeed “a student of minutia” who held his position elegantly. And Buckley couldn’t resist a pointed jab about the MFU; in fact the only one getting under Vaughn’s skin. Read Vaughn’s autobiography; which explains much about his public persona. A very accomplished professional, particularly grounded, in spite of a world of make-believe distractions.

  5. @sgspires68: Thanks. Corrected to remove PBS reference.

  6. Enjoyable debate. Why can’t we have these types of intelligent discussion in the present day?

  7. Similar vein (the art of polite public debate) same actor (Robert Vaughn) different occasion was “The Cavett Show” episode June 8, 1968. Noteworthy because it was an impromptu get together among popular political and social analysts exchanging viewpoints in reaction to the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Of course Mr. Vaughn received a PHd in Communications.

    Particularly noteworthy, was that the discussion occurred not more than 24 hours AFTER the tragedy! And considering that Mr. Vaughn was a personal friend of Robert Kennedy. The amount of emotional poise, civil debate and philosophical gentility expressed, was outstanding. I did a “Spotlight” article highlighting the event at this link: https://disqus.com/home/discussion/channel-finbot/spotlight_on_a_tv_series/

    Many compliments can be attributed to Mr. Vaughn, and among them, that he was ever focused and articulate.

    Thank you for running the article (again)

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