When I was young, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a smash hit. Boys wanted to be like Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin; suave and cool secret agents who could dazzle the ladies and get the best of the bad guys (or was that the other way around?) Girls just wanted Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the handsome actors who portrayed those gadget-touting hipsters. It was one of many important lessons I’d learn over the years about women and how they think. But it was also an opportunity to discover Robert Vaughn, who has led a fascinating life far beyond his accomplishments as a television and film star.
Vaughn’s book A Fortunate Life is more of a memoir than an autobiography; he does not dwell on his childhood and adolescence for chapters on end nor does he make his hit television show the focus of his book. In fact, Vaughn takes us through a series of events and relationships as a confidante where the focus is seeing through his eyes rather than looking at him. It’s a subtle but clever move that makes for a vastly entertaining read (I devoured it in one sitting) aided by the fact that Vaughn is one of the most intelligent and erudite actors on the planet. Being witty as hell doesn’t hurt, either.
The book came out late last year and I finally made time to get a copy this weekend; for some reason I felt compelled to do so immediately. As a child of the times, I admit I enjoyed reading anecdotes about his contemporaries like James Coburn and Steve McQueen, but I was spellbound by his recollections of the political climate. Vaughn was the first actor to speak out publicly against the Vietnam War, and was an activist who ran the gamut from stumping for candidates to debating William F Buckley on hostile ground (no small feat, Buckley regularly ate opponents for breakfast).
His close relationship with Robert F. Kennedy and the subsequent tragedy brought back vivid memories for me, having lived through the times. After JFK and Martin Luther King were felled by assassins, many felt RFK was the last hope for America, and his Presidential campaign radiated even more fervor, optimism and hope that Obama brought to the 2008 election. When he was gunned down after the California primary, the youth of America was numb. Vaughn has very strong opinions about what really happened that night.
I mentioned that Vaughn is whip-smart. Few know that his Doctoral thesis was written about Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare era in Hollywood, and later published under the title Only Victims. I read the book last year while reseaching the Hollywood Blacklist, as it’s considered one of the definitive works on the subject and is a staple at many law schools. Vaughn is thorough but never condescending, a trait echoed in his new book as well.
Vaughn has always been a “working actor”, which loosely translated means he’s got a few stinkers on his resume over the years. Television was exploding when he was breaking into the business, and like many actors of his generation he cut his teeth playing guest roles on dozens of shows. He has a short-lived series prior to UNCLE called The Lieutenant and most recently has come full circle playing a con artist in the British series Hustle. But he’s also etched several landmark film performances into history, from The Magnificent Seven to Bullitt to The Bridge at Remagen. I just grabbed the DVD of The Young Philadelphians so I can watch it tonight; a young Vaughn was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (he lost to Hugh Griffith from Ben Hur) playing opposite Paul Newman.
I’ve read a few interviews with Robert Vaughn over the years and he seems like a charming, witty and intelligent man. That’s what you’ll think, too, when you read this book. Enjoy!
A recent BBC interview to promote the book.
Robert Vaughn’s filmography at IMDB.com
Also check out Hustle – The Avengers meets Oceans 11.