When television went looking for the small screen's answer to James Bond, they found Vaughn, Robert Vaughn. Anyone who was over six years old in the mid 1960s knew about The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a highly successful series that took us deep into the world of espionage on a weekly basis. U.N.C.L.E. stood for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement, and from 1964-1968 the agents kept the world safe from evil - specifically their counter agency THRUSH.
Robert Vaughn starred as Napoleon Solo, the suave, sophisticated superspy who got the girls - along with the bad guys. Together with his partner Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum, the duo traveled the globe thwarting evil and doing all those spy things James Bond did on the big screen. With an array of technical gadgets, Solo and Kuryakin managed to get themselves out of countless dangerous situations. And whenever they needed to contact headquarters, they would simply pull out their trusty communicator and say, "Open Channel D."
Today both Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are still lighting up our television screens - on different, yet popular shows. Vaughn stars in the AMC series Hustle, playing - what else? - a suave, sophisticated con man, and McCallum is in the CBS show NCIS where he is the resident forensic doctor, Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard.
In 1983 the team reunited for a TV movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., but since that time there has not been another effort to bring back the super agents. A spin-off, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. aired during the 1966-1967 season with Stephanie Powers teaming with Noel Harrison in a stylish version of their all-male counterparts.
In 2006 there was hope that the series would be released on DVD. Everything was ready to go. "I did a whole day [for bonus features] with these people on camera," Vaughn says. "They paid me very well. They were certain they had the rights to the DVD and suddenly I heard it was no more." Legalities kept the DVDs off the shelves, but U.N.C.L.E. fans are patiently waiting for their beloved show to some day make it to the DVD market. Vaughn jokes that whoever ends up with the rights for the DVD "will probably hire me for another day [of interviews]."
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was hugely popular and indelibly linked Vaughn with his character Napoleon Solo. "It came in on the crest of the James Bond movies," offers Vaughn. "There were two that had already come out. Goldfinger and From Russia with Love, I believe. Two or three had already been out and they were internationally successful, and when they showed me the script I said, 'well this is James Bond on television' except in my case I will be in the living room and not the bedroom because it's television," he says with a grin. In actuality, Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), and Goldfinger (1964) hit the big screen before Napoleon and Illya showed up in our living rooms. Being in theaters, James Bond was able to portray a little more adult behavior than the U.N.C.L.E. spies were allowed to do on national television. This was the 1960s, and although the times were changing, they hadn't yet changed that much to allow suggestive scenes on television. By today's standards, these scenes are commonplace and even tame, but in the mid 60s they were considered too sexy for American audiences. However in Europe things were different and American audiences are unaware that different versions of their beloved show aired overseas. "Well, we actually shot extra scenes," Vaughn confided. "We had eight two-hour movies that were released on television in one and two hour segments, but they were released overseas as two-hour movies and we always added a couple girls, scantily clad, for the extra shots to be sold overseas." It's safe to say the European audiences got a little different look at our favorite spy series.
By today's standards the show was, for lack of another word, dorky. "Oh yes. No question about it," Vaughn acknowledges. Although the agents traveled the world keeping it safe, everything was shot on the MGM lot in Culver City, California. "Everybody thought - the people that didn't know - thought that we went on foreign locations, but we never left MGM. Everything was built there. They had a New York street, a Paris street, a Rome street. They had a jungle. They had a lake. They had a paddlewheel boat. So we didn't have to go more than 20 minutes to get any country in the world or town in the world. They were all there."
When asked which episode stands out in his mind, Robert Vaughn doesn't hesitate to answer. "I think the episode with Jack Palance I like very much. It was a two-hour show. Most of the ones I remember are the two-hour movies because they spent more money on them and they hired movie stars - Janet Leigh and Jack Palance and Joan Crawford and people like that. Movie stars of that era anyway. These are the movie stars that came on that show because of their kids who said 'Why don't you get on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. so we can see you?' And then they would just call up the casting people and say 'I'm Joan Crawford and I want to be on the show' and they would write a script for them." Not many television shows of the time could command such behavior from highly acclaimed movie stars. Napoleon Solo even made some brief appearances in other shows - the Please Don't Eat the Daisies and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. television shows and the Doris Day film The Glass Bottom Boat in 1966. This spy was in demand and everywhere you looked you could find U.N.C.L.E. posters, dolls, and other items lining the shelves and reminding us that America had its own super spy. Who needed Bond when you had Solo?
"It was the turning point in my life and I will look back on it with nothing but fond, good memories. It made a major difference in my life," Vaughn happily says about the show. "I went from being a working actor to being a negotiating actor and that's what you aim for in this business is to say I want better dressing rooms, I want better money, I want better transportation. But you can only do that in a position of strength and that show put me in a position of strength." He acknowledges every couple years he is approached about resurrecting Napoleon Solo and he is not opposed to doing it and is waiting patiently to receive a good script that would reinstate him as an U.N.C.L.E. agent. However David McCallum insists he would not be eager or willing to reprise Illya Kuryakin, who he says would probably be living in Russia with his wife and kids today. For McCallum, his days with U.N.C.L.E. are over. But Vaughn thinks if he were to return to U.N.C.L.E. he'd be playing the head of the agency "sitting in front of television screens sending young men to their death," he says with great alacrity.
Today Robert Vaughn still looks as suave and sophisticated as he did when we first noticed him all those years ago. His hair is grayer, but he still has that air of elegance he brought to Napoleon Solo. Dressed in a three-piece dark suit with a striped tie and looking immaculate, he sat down to discuss his past and his present. Currently he is in the fourth season playing Albert Stroller in 'Hustle' and enjoying every minute of it.
As a matter of fact, when asked what he thought Napoleon Solo would be doing today he smiles and with a glint in his eye says, "He'd be doing Hustle, actually. I mean that seriously. They asked me when I started filming in London about the background of my character and I said I can't give you any background because I was just hired yesterday. I flew in and I arrived and people were calling the day I arrived in London. Now, I had met with the people connected with Hustle in May but they didn't decide until August that they wanted me to do the part. And they already started shooting the first segment so I came in overnight. You know they have eleven newspapers in London, a minimum of eleven, and they all were calling the day I got there [asking] 'What's your viewpoint on Albert Stroller?' And I said, 'Well, I'm just going to make this up. You'll have to go along with me. Suppose Napoleon Solo retired on his government pension, sat back and realized he couldn't live on the government pension, he couldn't travel the way he used to, he couldn't have the kind of cars, the women, the casinos, the hotels and so on. What could he do which would be within the bounds of the law - edgy but in the bounds? Well he could be a con man." He grins. "And from that moment on everybody has said the show is actually 'Napoleon Solo - The Later Years.' Also called Hustle." That statement alone should have U.N.C.L.E. fans tuning in to see Napoleon reincarnated in his new profession.
For those who want to learn more about the man who so elegantly saved the world countless times, an autobiography is scheduled to be released in Spring of 2008, titled, you guessed it - Flying Solo. Vaughn chuckles as he says the title. "Actually it means two things. It only takes me up in my life until I meet my wife, so I have indeed been flying solo prior to Napoleon Solo. I was actually a single man until I was 41. Rather late. Irish marry late."
Robert Vaughn was friends with Robert Kennedy and discussed his view on the assassination. "I've been very involved since 1970 in trying to reopen the investigation into his murder in Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, I have a chapter devoted to just that the investigation," he explains and says about the death of RFK, "The whole world was devastated in many ways that have yet to even be known."
The public might have the view that actors are not the most intelligent people. That is true for some of them, but Vaughn is not among that group. Besides being a class act, he is highly intelligent, and that comes through in his work and in just talking with him. This is one man who has the brains to do a lot of things, but chose to follow his love of acting. The Magnificent Seven (of which he is the sole surviving member) and Bullitt (with Steve McQueen) are two films that he did and about which he says "will always be around as long as they have film festivals of any kind." He has had a long and successful career in theater, film and TV, however theater is his favorite. "Well, if I could earn the living that I earn in motion pictures and television in the theater, I'd be doing theater. But you can't. Nor come even close to it. I enjoy working on stage. Having relationships with the audiences and question and answer sessions afterwards. I enjoy that."
His love of the theater was behind his doctorate dissertation at USC. "I did my Doctorate on the House Un-American Activities Committee's affect on the American theater. Stuff had already been written about the way it had affected show business, television, motion pictures, [and] radio. No intense investigation had been done about the way it had affected theater, particularly New York theater. That was what the purpose of the [dissertation] was, was to find out if it was affected and in what way - positively or negatively. And it really wasn't. The one bastion of standing strong was the equity of the actors union who continued to hire people who were blacklisted in other places. People who couldn't earn a living anywhere as actors could earn a living in the theater, in New York and in the United Stated during that time frame, from about 52 to 60, around there."
He is the father of two grown children - a daughter, Caitlin and a son, Cassidy, who he says to his knowledge have not seen every U.N.C.L.E. episode even though he has them all on tape. "They've never bothered to look at all of that, nor have I for that matter. But they're there if they want to. And I'm sure they'll look when the DVD comes out, I'm certain they'll look at those." There will be millions of U.N.C.L.E. fans viewing them as well.
Dont't forget to also check out: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.