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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.