TV’s ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ Robert Vaughn on Early Influences, Natalie Wood

With director Guy Ritchie’s new bigscreen take on the beloved ’60s TV spy series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” rolling out globally, the original star of that series, Robert Vaughn, is naturally busy with interviews about his iconic turn as suave master spy Napoleon Solo. Vaughn’s also recently done a one-man stage production as blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and appeared in TV’s “Law and Order: SVU” and upcoming indie film “The American Side.” His first time in Variety was for performing in the 1954 Los Angeles revival of GB Shaw’s “Misalliance” for the Stage Society.

Performing Shaw on stage isn’t the obvious path to playing one of our favorite spies.

My goal was always to get better roles and in my case, performing on stage really led to great opportunities. My breakthrough came when I did Calder Willingham’s “End as a Man” on stage and was spotted by Max Arnow, who’d been the casting chief for Columbia. He was about to go to work for Burt Lancaster’s company and told Columbia I was not contract material, so that Hecht-Lancaster could sign me to a two-picture deal at $15,000 per picture. I was making $25 a week as a messenger.

One can see why your autobiography is called “A Fortunate Life.”

It was an exciting time. Michael Chekhov was directing The Stage Society and actors like Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal were members of the company. James Dean and Dennis Hopper were members of the health club I went to. I got to know the actor Ben Cooper, who introduced me to Natalie Wood. She was only 17 and I was 24, but she was already established and she believed I had great promise. She let me drive one of her two Thunderbirds and took me around and personally introduced me to people like Jack Warner and (Columbia Pictures chief) Harry Cohn.

It sounds like the right way to meet a studio boss!

I remember Harry Cohn was sitting on the curb at Columbia, reading Variety. Natalie told him I was “going to be big” and he asked me, “How big are you?” I said, “I’m as big as Brando and Olivier. Is that big enough?” And he said, “You’re going to do fine.”

Were those the actors whose careers you admired?

I was inspired by Cary Grant. I wanted to do the kind of work he did and to work in light-hearted roles, in comedies.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” had it’s lighter moments.

Unfortunately, everyone was excited about the “Batman” series and the “Green Hornet” and that comedic approach that they went too far in that direction. It got so lighthearted, it went off the air.

But “Bullitt” was right around the corner.

I did three pictures with Steve McQueen and I remember they offered me that one three times. I told them, “I’m not a script doctor, so I don’t know how to fix it, but it just doesn’t make any sense.” By the third time I said “No” they had offered me enough that, thankfully, it began to make sense. Remember, Rip Torn turned down the role in “Easy Rider” that made Jack Nicholson a star!

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