Akron Beacon Journal, August 30, 1964
By JACK MAJOR
HOLLYWOOD – In TVland the months of August and September constitute Ballyhoo Season when network and studio eager beavers set out to prove it IS possible to fool all of the people all of the time.
The season begins when old series resume filming and new programs release stories about the fabulously marvelous entertainment that is headed our way.
Ballyhoo Season is when Jerry Lewis predicts his show will be the big of the year ... when NBC publicity folks claim that “Don’t Call Me Charlie” will be an instant comedy classic ... and ABC forecasts top ten ratings for a quiz show called “100 Grand.”
And so it went a year ago when NBC and MGM were excited about a program called “The Lieutenant.” Robert Vaughn, one of the stars, was confident enough about the series that he admitted it was his intention to pretty much play himself in his role as Capt. Ray Rambridge. This was an usual thing to say. Many actors play themselves, but few acknowledge the fact.
Vaughn hoped to establishment himself as a personality. He was seeking popularity that would keep him in demand far after “The Lieutenant” was gone, though he obviously didn’t think the show would be finished after just one season and 29 episodes.
No one was rooting for “The Lieutenant” more than Vaughn, who thought the show might enable him to write his own ticket in the future. But, alas, things didn’t quite work out that way.
For one thing, Vaughn found himself relegated to the role of babysitter for the program’s real star, Gary “Look at Me, I’m Beautiful” Lockwood, who played Lt. William “Bill” Rice.
For another, Vaughn came across more like a robot than a human being. This was not the kind of personality likely to attract a large following.
Still, when “The Lieutenant” was canceled, it was Vaughn, not Lockwood, who received another offer.
“We recognized Vaughn’s talent,” said a man at MGM, “and we were really sorry he got buried in ‘The Lieutenant.’ We think his new program, ‘The Man From UNCLE,’ is much better suited for him.”
So now another Ballyhoo Season is underway and Vaughn is repeating himself. He wants to be Personality-Plus and will definitely tailor his new TV role to fit himself. This time Vaughn has assurance he will be THE star.
His program will bear more than a slight resemblance to movies made for Ian Fleming’s creation, secret agent James Bond. Vaughn will be Napoleon Solo, an agent for UNCLE, an agency now designated as the United Network Committee for Law and Enforcement. Originally it was slated to be a United Nations organization, but the United Nations got wind of the idea and killed it.
Vaughn should do well with his role. His affiliation with MGM will help. That studio has a high standard of television production. Even its failures – “The Lieutenant,” “Sam Benedict” and “Eleventh Hour” – were slickly produced and usually praised by critics. There was no lack of quality, only lack of ratings.
The 32-year-old Vaughn also is a fine actor, although his portrayals generate little warmth. Vaughn realizes this and feels his new series will be as much of a challenge to his personality as it will be to his talent.
So when I met Vaughn I wondered if the public will buy this guy.
I hope so. Vaughn came across as a poised, articulate, polite and well-organized fellow. And serious. He was suave, too, but kind of snobbish suave.
He assured me his character would be more maverickian (as in Bret Maverick) and dashing and comical than he was during our breakfast interview, and I granted how it is difficult to be dashing and comical at breakfast.
This particular Ballyhoo Season happens to occur in an election year, which prompted me to ask about stories that Vaughn plans to quit acting eventually and go into politics.
A Democrat, Vaughn already is active in California politics and has worked on behalf of Pierre Salinger’s Senatorial campaign.
Vaughn said the stories are true and that he expects to run for office in ten years.
Originally he intended to be a journalist and was working toward that goal at the University of Minnesota in 1951 when he became more interested in acting. He moved to California five years later and was signed to a film contract by Hecht-Lancaster Productions. But the Army got him before he made his first movie.
Discharged from the service in 1958, he made “Prehistoric World,” about a colony of people who somehow managed to survive nuclear war. The studio changed the title to “Teenage Caveman” in hopes of capitalizing on the success of movies with similar titles that appealed to their target audience – “I Was a Teenage Frankenstein” and “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”
I was the one who raised the subject, and when I did, Vaughn winced.
“I took the film because I felt it contained a strong argument for disarmament, but I never would have done it had I known they were going to change the title.”
Vaughn proved himself in his next film, “The Young Philadelphians,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
The nomination wasn’t enough to kick Vaughn’s film career into high gear, although he did play one of “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960. However, his performance was often lost among the scene-stealing efforts of Steve McQueen and James Coburn. Most of his work since then has been one-shot guest roles on television, including a rare comic turn as an ex-boyfriend of Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Vaughn’s only regret so far about “The Man From UNCLE” is its timeslot – Tuesday nights at 8:30 – which places it opposite “McHale’s Navy.” Joe Flynn, one of the “McHale’s” stars, is a close friend of Vaughn.
“We’re also rivals of a sort,” said Vaughn. “He was teaching a drama class at a Los Angeles school a few years ago and asked me to substitute for a few nights. I did and the school liked my work so well it hired me to replace Joe.
“When he heard my TV show was going on opposite his, he called and said, ‘Why, you SOB ... you’ve already taken one job from me; now you’re threatening the best job I’ve ever had!”
Friendship or no, Vaughn hopes to make good that threat.