THE Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Robert Vaughn

Robert Vaughn

By James H. Burns: When I chatted with Robert Vaughn a few weeks ago, there was a fascinating surprise…  Now, I’m pretty certain he had only agreed to the interview, because, as you know, it was primarily about his friend, Allard Lowenstein, the late, great liberal political leader, and the time Vaughn spent campaigning for him, in Long Island. It’s possible he remembered me from another long chat, when we met years previously, at an actors’ function — or, at least, he remembered when he heard my voice (kind of unique!), and some other neat, unknown tales, he had told me then, though I think that’s unlikely.

But I am a good interviewer (the key, my friends is, of course, listening), and we wound up talking about many things, some of which you’d be familiar with, from his terrific memoir, A Fortunate Life. To me, it’s always astonishing to be talking with someone who knew Robert F. Kennedy, one of my personal heroes, and there was, naturally, some chat about American politics, then and now….  But when we wound up ultimately talking about U.N.C.L.E., there was an intriguing revelation:

Because Vaughn had just spent, for the first time, I believe, a great deal of time watching “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”!

When the U.N.C.L.E. marathon was on, a few months ago (was it on the DECADES cable channel?), Vaughn found himself checking in, within the coziness of his Connecticut home.

He had never really seen the episodes, and was now watching a number of the excellent first season shows.

Now, this isn’t unusual for any actor. In the 1960s, the schedule on television shoots could be overwhelming. (That’s been true, really, in any era of filmmaking.) Vaughn was also busy with his private education, and of course, civic pursuits.

By the time a television episode’s broadcast date rolled around, often months after an episode had been filmed, it would have been on an evening when the actor was probably exhausted from a day shooting a new episodes, or at least getting ready for a good night’s rest, for the next day’s efforts.

And some actors simply don’t like watching themselves.

(And there can be other interesting reactions: William Shatner once said that if he’s changing channels, and Star Trek is on, it’s like watching film of a son…!)

I’m certain Vaughn must have seen some shows, while at press event screenings, or at the unveiling of one of the U.N.C.L.E. feature compilations. (Over twenty-five years ago, he also showed some very good fellowship, hosting an U.N.C.L.E. marathon on a local Connecticut television station, taping several introductions.) But in this past pleasant spring, along with many others across our plugged in nation, Vaughn was watching those mini-movies first lensed over fifty years ago.

And he was pleasantly surprised, at how good he thought they were, and how well he thought they still played.

He was also pleased that some subtle things he told me he was trying to do with his portrayal of Napoleon Solo, came through on film.

Fourteen years ago, I had mentioned to Vaughn that I thought his management may have made a miscalculation, that U.N.C.L.E. had established him as a terrific, suave leading man, one of the only American actors ever able to do what I called “the Cary Grant” thing, being charming and debonair on camera, without pretense…

But then, right after the series, he was back to playing the heavy, or the figure of authority…

Vaughn seemed legitimately astonished.

Years later, I knew why.

Because to Vaughn, Grant was the great movie actor, and one of his personal celluloid heroes.

Towards the end of the chat, I told Vaughn that this might be silly for me to mention, but that I thought I should, that anyone who ran into him around his neighborhood always said wonderfully nice things about him, that he was a gentleman.

I mentioned a story where some years ago, some guy I knew said, “Hey, you know, I saw Napoleon Solo at a restaurant last week!

I said, “You mean, Robert Vaughn,”

And then Vaughn, smiling, said to me, the other evening:

“No, Jim. He was right. You see, I am Napoleon Solo.”

16 thoughts on “THE Man from U.N.C.L.E.

  1. Thanks for this item. I watched every episode when they were originally broadcast, bought all the tie-in books, etc. Had a crush on “Ilya Kuryakin” and was deeply shocked to find out he was Scottish.

  2. I loved the throwaway line in NCIS where an agent says (about the medical examiner, played admirably by David McCallum) that he reminds them of someone, and Mark Harmon’s character (totally deadpan) says, “Ilya Kuryakin,” and keeps walking.

  3. And thanks for the Robert Vaughn stories, I was never able to watch them in my youth, and unlike the Danger Man and Prisoner series, have never gotten to watch many of them later. I agree that Vaughn had the smooth charm, its a pity he didn’t get any of those roles.

    I tried some other spy shows from the period, but the Suck Fairy had definitely gotten to I Spy by the time I saw it…

  4. It would have been an interesting world if we had convinced him to run for elective office years ago. Another voice like his in Congress would have been a very good thing.

    He still looks like the embodiment of a Senator.

  5. I tried some other spy shows from the period, but the Suck Fairy had definitely gotten to I Spy by the time I saw it…

    I re-watched the entire run of I Spy around the time that Bob Culp died.

    The first couple of seasons were great (especially the episodes that Culp wrote), but in the third year Sheldon Leonard (the producer) wanted to put his efforts into another show that he’d started and cancel I Spy. But NBC wanted to keep I Spy running, and it did so–with a producer that didn’t want to be doing the show and a slashed budget.

    That’s when the Suck Fairy hit it hard.

    (Now, with the revelations about Bill Cosby, I don’t think I could watch it again.)

  6. Bruce Baugh:

    OK, this is a purely delightful story. Thanks, Mike.

    James H. Burns wrote it — though I’m happy to take credit for posting it here!

  7. Great story, thanks. I’ve been a fan of UNCLE for longer than I’ve been watching Star Trek, and I still take great pleasure in Robert Vaughn’s style and performance as Napoleon Solo. I really enjoy his villainous roles, too — he always made an excellent bad guy, especially when opposed by a strong lead character (Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” comes to mind.)

  8. Ah, but my sentimental favorite is Vaughn in Battle Beyond the Stars…

    …reprising his role in The Magnificent Seven.

    (And I still have my U.N.C.L.E. ID card!)

  9. I was reading Vaughan’s wiki page last week, and was shocked to discover he’d done a 3-week stint in long-running UK soap Coronation Street a couple of years ago. Apparently he played a love interest for one of the older characters.

  10. Ran into the Decades broadcast of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and managed to watch a number of them. So much fun, and they held up through time. It would be great if they ran them more regularly.

    Robert Vaughan has benn under utilized in the U.S. TV/film industry. I really enjoyed watching some episodes, on our local PBS channel, of the BBC show “Hustle” which starred Robert Vaughan as the leader of the “gang”. A really cool, funny and clever show about good guy con-men. (Doctor Who fans might recognize one of the gang members as well.)

    More on the Hustle show:

  11. I met Al Lowenstein at a political event, and he signed a reprint of a page from the Congressional Record.

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