So Long, Mr. Solo

When fans would say to him that he looked like he wasn’t aging at all, Robert Vaughn usually quipped, “Good makeup man.” He used the line so often that Michael Sloan actually wrote it into the script for The Return of the Man from UNCLE.

But he did age, and now he’s gone. That fact is sad enough by itself, but it is astonishing to me, in a hugely depressing way, that so many young people don’t know who he was. (I work with people who think that the Henry Cavill Man From UNCLE and the Denzel Washington Magnificent Seven were both new movies, not remakes.)

Well, pull up a chair, youngsters, and Grandpa will try to get across why Robert Vaughn was AWESOME.

For kids of my generation, even more than James Bond, UNCLE was the emblematic spy-fi experience of the sixties– and Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo was emblematic of UNCLE. He and his partner Illya were EVERYWHERE.

I was all over the books and comics. Even then, I wasn’t really about the toys. I wanted something more immersive. That was part of UNCLE’s appeal– each week, for one episode, an ordinary person would get caught up in the apocalyptic secret war between UNCLE– the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement– and its sinister nemesis THRUSH, the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.

It was always okay, though, because Solo and Illya would get them home safe and it was mostly just exciting and not scary. Many of us longed to be there ourselves, to be part of that supercool secret world, just for a little while. For kids like me it was almost BETTER than James Bond because it was… the word I keep coming back to is “friendlier,” which sounds like an odd thing to say about what was supposed to be a high-powered secret agent show full of danger and adventure. But in a weird way, there was something genuinely avuncular about UNCLE in general, and Vaughn’s Mr. Solo in particular. We could all tell he was a nicer guy than James Bond, and if he wasn’t as out-and-out deadly, well, he was smarter, and if I had a THRUSH team coming after me I knew that Solo was the guy that would keep me safe, whereas with James Bond I was just as likely to end up dead. If you want to call The Man From UNCLE the kid’s table version of 007 I won’t argue, but I’d also have to add, And? What’s wrong with that? It was a gateway drug into spy stories for a lot of kids my age and most of us never looked back.

Today, of course, The Man From UNCLE is a home video evergreen, and there are still stations that run marathons. A lot of people looking at it today find the writing to be wildly uneven and the sets and effects to be unbearably cheap. They’re not wrong.

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Maybe you had to be there. But even looking at The Man From UNCLE today, Vaughn and McCallum sold it. The show might have had its campy period, but the actors never did.

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That’s what I always liked about Robert Vaughn, the actor. He was never a diva or a snob. He just dug in and worked, no matter the role. He was in some great stuff, but even when he was in something maybe not-so-great he elevated it.

For example, many obituaries have mentioned that he was the last living member of the original Magnificent Seven.

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But not too many of those noted that he also played one of the seven in the Roger Corman science-fiction version of that story, Battle Beyond the Stars. And his character Gelt was just as cold and badass there, too.

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And it always pleased me that he came back to play the Judge in the Magnificent Seven TV series, as well. His role made it feel like they were honoring the original, and doing it with his blessing.

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He had terrific comic timing too. You could see in movies like Superman III and S.O.B. and even fluff like Transylvania Twist. He could bring the villainy in stuff like Bullitt and Columbo. He was just always good.

But it was Vaughn as the suave adventurer I liked best. After UNCLE he was Harry Rule in The Protectors, an underrated and clever half-hour show that ran on the BBC for fifty-something episodes, many of which are up on YouTube.

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As he began to age out of leading-man roles, Vaughn moved effortlessly into character parts. A younger generation remembers his spymaster character Hunt Stockwell from The A-Team with the same affection I have for Napoleon Solo and Harry Rule.

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Probably my favorite role of his apart from UNCLE was when he was the cunning con man Albert Stroller on the BBC’s Hustle, one of the few cast members to go the entire length of the series.

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In Hustle Vaughn got to be both suave AND funny. It was one of the smartest shows around when it was running, and one of the best things about it was the twinkle in Vaughn’s eye. He took it seriously– but not too seriously.

And he was never above kidding his own image, whether it was showing up as the Man From UNCLE on Please Don’t Eat the Daisies or letting David McCallum torture him on The A-Team.

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There’s lots more I’m leaving out. He worked steadily from his twenties through his eighties. You just don’t last that long in show business unless you are professional, talented, and a fun person to have around. Vaughn was all of those, and he’ll be missed.

You younger folks who don’t know what I’m talking about should check some of these things out for yourselves, don’t take my word for it. You can find most all of it on home video or even just stream it on YouTube. Here is a little Harry Rule badassery just to get you started.

The rest of us wish his friends and colleagues and loved ones the best, and we share your loss, at least a little.

Safe journey, Mr. Vaughn. Rest in peace, sir, and thanks again for everything.

14 Comments

  1. Greg Burgas

    I like how you write “a younger generation” to describe people who watched The A-Team. Yeah, we’re so danged young, aren’t we? I know what you meant – younger than those who watched him on UNCLE – but that made me chuckle, because The A-Team was a long time ago.

    1. John Trumbull

      Yeah, I was one of the kids who grew up watching The A-Team. I was 10 when the show premiered, and 14 when Vaughn came on in the final season. IIRC, I was already a fan of his from UNCLE reruns on the Family Channel.

  2. Hal

    Charming tribute, Mr Hatcher. It is nice to see you mention most if what I put into my tiny tip of the hat to Mr Vaughn on your “Forgotten 007” post. Suave sardonic Solo, Lee, Chalmers (in comparison I never much liked McQueen, kool is krap!)Gelt, Ross Webster, Harry Stroller, it was always good to see Robert throughout the years (even in dreck like Hangar 17 or the retooled final season of The A-Team – apart from the episode with David McCallum that was enjoyable!). It was a boost to discover some years ago that he was also a good man, his book on blacklisting and socially conscious unselfish political efforts speak well of him, even as he acknowledged his flaws. Requiescat In Pace, Robert.
    P.S. It was great for me to finally see The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s monochrome first season recently, still excellent. I particularly enjoyed an episode with Robert Culp as a Captain Shark (featuring Jimmy Doohan in a bit), hilarious, atmospheric, clever, and odd with Vaughn, McCallum, and Culp on top form (two future Columbo villains for the price of one!).
    P.P.S. @Gregburgas – Only in mortal Human terms, Earthman… Think bigger! Bwahahaha!

  3. Hal

    Oops, one more thing… I forgot to mention that I have never understood those people who are so nailed to their time that they are unable to appreciate many older movies or television shows or comic books or novels, et cetera, it was silly in high school but it is ridiculous when older – from my point of view!

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Nice tribute, Greg (I wish my grandpa had told stories like this).
    And yep, I loved Robert Vaughn; he invariably classed up anything he starred in. I’m glad you mentioned his appearance in the awesomely campy Battle Beyond the Stars, and also Hustle. I never knew how familiar US viewers were with that show, which, as you said, is quite intelligent, funny and entertaining as hell, and Vaughn is definitely the stand-out cast member.
    Anyway, you will be missed, Mr. Vaughn.

  5. M-Wolverine

    Since it ties into the other article, Solo and Bond were kind of brothers from another mother, in that Ian Fleming was consulted and contributed to the concepts behind The Man from UNCLE. Solo’s name himself was a re-use of the mobster from Goldfinger. So while he may have been more TV friendly, Solo was certainly more Bondian than all the other knock off spy character/shows.

    1. John Trumbull

      Fleming also came up with the name “April Dancer,” which was eventually used for the lead character in The Girl From UNCLE. I believe he cut ties with the UNCLE show when the Bond movie producers threatened to sue, however.

  6. Jeff Nettleton

    Always a fan of Vaughn. I didn’t get to see UNCLE until the Return movie and the first wave of videos; but had been primed for it for years. I had a steady diet of Mission Impossible and The Wild Wild West, as well as the Bond movies on ABC (didn’t get to see one in theaters until Moonraker). For me, Vaughn was more of a tv guest star, and occasional movie actor, for my childhood. One highly under-rated film to catch is Bridge at Remagen, where Vaughn is the German officer tasked with destroying the bridge, before the Allies can use it to cross the Rhine. He’s torn between duty and a desire to get as many Germans across before destroying the bridge. Great little film, with some excellent character actors.

    Also a fan of Hustle. You could tell the cast had genuine affection for him, as well as the character. The man was true charm. Another favorite was his guest appearance on the Dick Van Dyke Show, as an old flame of Laura’s, who is a successful businessman. Nice mixture of comedy and romantic tension.

  7. John King

    As an “expert” on UK TV, I will point out that (for the last 60 years) the BBC has not been the only broadcaster of TV programs in the country.
    The Protectors was made for regional channel ATV and broadcast on the various regional channels that made up the ITV (Independent TeleVision) Network (the regional channels have, pretty much, merged in the last decade or two).
    While the BBC has shown reruns of some ITV shows, I don’t remember them ever showing the Protectors.

    Hustle, on the other hand, was made for the BBC and broadcast there, though the company who made it are independent and also make programs for other broadcasters as well (Kudos – made Spooks, Life on Mars, River, etc for BBC, Broadchurch, the Fixer, etc for ITV, Humans for Channel 4).

    Robert Vaughan was quoted as saying that Napoleon Solo, after leaving UNCLE, would have probably ended up doing the same sort of thing as Albert Stroller

    I probably first saw Vaughan in the UNCLE movies (though I later saw some of the TV series in reruns) [favourite moment “Are you coming?” in the Children’s Day Affair]

    a great, entertaining actor who will be missed

      1. Hal

        Aha! I thought so, easily done. Your columns are popular so be proud. It’s better that people are interested than not. (You have experienced the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to The New Post Alert, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination…)

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