Robert Vaughn

TheatrePeople.com, November 2013

Interview by Glenn Rice

Robert Vaughn is a Hollywood legend. In the sixties he made Western movie history as one of The Magnificent Seven before rocketing to international stardom as suave superspy Napoleon Solo in the wildly popular and still much-loved TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 

He went on to major movie roles in classics including Bullitt and The Towering Inferno, and enjoyed further TV success in the seventies with thriller series The Protectors. From the noughties until recently he played the central role of conman supreme Albert Stroller opposite our home-grown theatrical colossus Adrian Lester in BBC TV’s long-running hit show Hustle.

He’s essayed countless other screen roles too - not least a recent stint as a visiting tycoon in Coronation Street, of all things - but maintains that the stage is his first love. It’s this passion (and his co-star Martin Shaw) that’s coaxed him onto the boards for an all-too-rare theatre performance as Juror #9 in Twelve Angry Men, the peerless 1950s jury-room drama that's just opened to rave reviews at the West End’s Garrick Theatre.

I met Robert in his Mayfair hotel suite to talk about the play, and to touch on some of the key points of a phenomenal acting career that stretches back to cult ’50s movies and beyond. At 80 he is warm, witty and elegant, and retains the wry, commanding presence the world warmed to half a century ago, when he was Napoleon Solo.

Robert, it’s a real pleasure to meet you. Is this your first time performing in the West End?

Definitely the first time. I mean, I’ve been here as a viewer, but not as a participant.

We know you well from movies and TV but outside the States you’re not known as a theatre performer, though in fact you started young and had a successful career on the stage.

I started when I was 12, in a tent show in Iowa. Then when I was in my twenties I went on to do a lot of plays locally, and I did Hamlet twice, I did Inherit The Wind and a couple of Tom Stoppard plays at the Kennedy Centre. My parents were stage actors, which is how I first became aware of the theatre.

Your parents were also radio actors, is that right?

My father was a radio actor, during the halcyon days of the ’40s when everybody was on radio. Most of them went on to become movie actors, like Richard Widmark, people like that.

I loved 'Solo Behind The Iron Curtain', which was a terrific radio hour you did for the BBC not so long ago.

Well, radio is definitely how it should be. You don’t have to wash or anything, you just go on there and do it, and you don’t have to do anything with your hair or make-up or anything else.

Coming to Twelve Angry Men. You’re clearly in great shape, but a tour and a West End run would be quite a task for a man half your age. You’re feeling ready for it?

Well, so far it’s OK – talk to me again in March!

The play is an adaptation of the classic Henry Fonda film from 1957. Did you see it on its original release?

I saw it only when I was going to do this play. I didn’t see it at the time it came out. As a matter of fact, the actor who plays my character in the film, Joseph Sweeney, I’d never seen him before and I’ve never seen him since. There have been other productions too. Jack Lemmon did one, and I don’t know who played my role in that, [it was Hume Cronyn] who’s called simply 'the old man' - Juror Number 9.

The (unseen) accused in the play is a Hispanic boy, which speaks of a very specific strand of racism that was around at the time the piece was written, and of the then-current fear of 'juvenile delinquents'.

Well, yes. This was right around the time of West Side Story too. The focus was the western part of Manhattan Island, where there were a lot of Puerto Ricans.

In the play there’s a character played by Miles Richardson - who I’m sure you’re aware of, his father was one of the leading lights of the theatre, Ian Richardson – and he’s a very nasty character. But Miles plays him so well that you don’t dislike him. You shouldn’t dislike him, but he’s a real bigot.

He says (assumes hectoring, know-all tone) "Ah, I know ’em all, they’re multiplyin’ they’re gonna take us over. Pretty soon there’ll be none of us, it’ll just be – you know who I’m talkin’ about! You know the liars? The people that grow up to be killers? They got no other choice ’cause that’s how they breed."

He rambles on like that throughout the whole production, and yet we’ll still tolerate him on stage at the end of the whole thing.

You co-star with Martin Shaw who, like you, was once half of a famous TV crime-busting duo – The Professionals, in the late ’70s and '80s. Have the two of you compared notes on your erstwhile law-enforcing activities? 

No, I’ve talked to him about other things but I didn’t know about The Professionals. I’ll have to talk to him about that. He’s a lovely guy. He’s got all of us together to do this and he’s so sweet to everybody and so kind. He’s a generous man.

He plays the role Henry Fonda took in the film. It’s a character with unambiguous moral authority, which is something you often play yourself, be it a judge, a president or a general.

My wife has said of me in the past: 'He’s the last of the three-piece suit actors'. Because in Bullitt and movies like that I’ve always got a three-piece suit on, speaking as an oracle as opposed to just a conversationalist.

In Hollywood’s Golden Age Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart would play those unswervingly upright parts. It’s a strain of acting that isn’t around much anymore.

Well I’m gonna hang around and dissuade everybody about that strain. 

You played opposite Adrian Lester for many years in Hustle. How is he to work with? 

Wonderful. Adrian is so talented and can do so many things well in addition to acting. He does dialects, he does voices, he dances, he sings. He is funny, he is serious – he is a remarkable person.

I know that every time I came to work, by noon that day I’d have at least three good laughs from Adrian, because he’d always make me laugh. I mean, he’s a very serious person, but always wonderfully funny on the set. Robert Glenister too. We had a lot of good laughs.

Is Hustle definitely over now?

It’s definitely over until somebody decides to write it again. The reason it ended was that Tony Jordan was exhausted from coming up with these complex plots and making them believable. I mean, that’s just my guess.

Ever since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. your place in pop culture has been assured. But you do high culture too; your performance as Hamlet, for instance, was highly acclaimed.

Maybe that’s why I did Hamlet twice. I could be on record as having done 'the ultimate goal of all post-Elizabethan thespians'. Olivier said that - I didn’t say it. And whatever Sir Larry said, I believe.

You've called it 'the worst movie of all time', but nonetheless Teenage Caveman was a big break for you back in in 1958 and is kind-of the ultimate ‘50s B-movie. Its legendary director Roger Corman has just been in London for a film festival. Did you get in touch?

No, I haven’t been in touch with him. The last thing I did for him was in South America. His wife is the daughter of my grandmother’s sister. So I’m related to Roger Corman. Not by blood, but by marriage of some kind. I never discussed that with him, as often as we were together.

The first one I did with him was Teenage Caveman, which was called ‘Prehistoric World’ when I got the script. The reason it was called that was because it was supposed to be a plea for disarmament, which appealed to me because I was only about 22 at the time and I was for disarmament, because I didn’t want to go in the Army, ha ha! And when I got the script I said, this is strange. It was written in blank verse and it was very odd language. And I had to wear the loincloth.

If, in my life, I’m remembered for one thing only it’s that in Teenage Caveman I invented the bow and arrow. There’s a scene in the picture where I’m walking along with a bow over my shoulder and my shoulder hits a tree of some kind and it flips back and forth. And I stop there and I ponder this for a moment, and I look at my bow and I look at the tree and I take a piece off the tree and I  shave it down, and I put it in the bow and I shoot it.

And the next thing you see is a cut to a stuffed deer that somebody’s carrying, that Roger had probably not paid 59 cents for. And that’s my moment in film history, where I invented the bow and arrow and killed a stuffed deer in a Roger Corman movie.

It’s a unique achievement.

It is.

From 1965 to 1968 The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was one of the biggest TV shows in the world. Napoleon Solo remains your signature role, yet you went straight into Bullitt when U.N.C.L.E. ended and were never typecast, unlike, for instance, Adam West, who played Batman on TV at the same time. Why not? 

Well, I thank my good friend Steve McQueen for that, because what you say is exactly right. Because you come out of a hit television show…like Jimmy Garner.  Even though he had a movie career before he had a television show, after the television show he didn’t really work much in movies any more. That happens all the time. 

U.N.C.L.E.  was such a phenomenal success, more so in the UK than it was in America actually. It seems to have never stopped playing here. I have women of all ages stopping me today, and they’re 70 and 50 and 40, and I don’t know whether the show runs endlessly on some kind of a tape somewhere.

It was lucky that Bullitt was such a huge success. It was the first movie I did after U.N.C.L.E. and it did great box office all over the world, and that had to do with Steve’s great appeal and the car chase. It was the first car chase, and there were many more after that. There were no special effects either – they cordoned off the whole of San Francisco so they could do this wonderful chase.

You’ve said you’d welcome a cameo in Guy Ritchie’s upcoming Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie. It seems to me the obvious thing to do would be to cast you in the 'commander-in-chief' Mr Waverly role that Leo G. Carroll played in the TV series.

Yeah, I would think so. Get a whole bunch of cameras lined up there and me sending a whole load of young men to their death, as Mr Waverly did. I could do that!