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Robert Vaughn, in 1964, was still trying to establish himself as a leading man and had decided that the best way to do it was through a television series. During the 1963-64 season he had played second fiddle to Gary Lockwood, then also considered an up and coming leading man, in an NBC military series called "The Lieutenant."

The program, created by Gene ("Star Trek") Roddenberry, was expected to be a hit, but it never caught on. Lockwood's career continued — the highlight would be the 1968 movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey" — but for the most part he was cast as the heavy in guest appearances on a lot of television series. (He appeared in one episode of "Star Trek," in 1966.)

Norman Felton, a producer of "The Lieutenant," came up with another show in which the hero would be the American answer to James Bond. Looking back on it now, the choice of Robert Vaughn to play the role of Napoleon Solo seems strange. Vaughn, in person, is a likable, personable fellow, but on screen he's very convincing as a smug, arrogant and vindictive character.

However, in 1964 the jury was still out on the role best suited for his looks and his considerable talent that had gotten him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in 1959's "The Young Philadelphians." What was interesting to me in re-reading the story that came out of our interview was how candid Vaughn was in regard to his image and how he hoped "The Man From UNCLE" would establish him as a popularity personality as well as a talented actor. He had had similar hopes for "The Lieutenant."

 

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.

 

"The Man From UNCLE" was a hit; there's no doubt about that. But it did not turn Robert Vaughn into a leading man. He was upstaged a bit in that regard by his co-star, David McCallum, the Scottish actor who played UNCLE agent Ilya Kuryakin. Not that the series did McCallum that much good, either, though it gained him a measure of lasting fame. It wasn't until he aged considerably and took on the role of Dr. "Ducky" Mallard in "NCIS" that he had his biggest hit and became a sort of Golden Ager sex symbol.

The biggest problem with "The Man From UNCLE" is that it never really became the spoof viewers expected. NBC or the program's producers must have decided it worked too well as a straight adventure series, leaving the funny business to Mel Brooks when he created "Get Smart" and cast comedian Don Adams as agent Maxwell Smart.

A similar problem afflicted the Bill Cosby-Robert Culp series, "I Spy," which came long in 1965. It takes a special talent — James Garner or Bruce Willis, perhaps — to successfully walk that fine line between adventure and comedy and make a film or a program work on both levels. Sean Connery did it with the James Bond films, though his first effort, "Dr. No," puzzled many critics who weren't sure at times whether to laugh or groan. (Culp had much better luck at getting a few laughs a few years later working with William Katt in the Superman spoof, "The Greatest American Hero.")

Vaughn certainly was in demand as an actor after "The Man From UNCLE" ended, but has been much more memorable as a villain. Even his good guys are usually crusty and cold.

He also is known for a few commercials, particularly the "You mean business!!" ads that he did for several law firms around the country. The ones for Savannah lawyer Benjamin Eichholz proved embarrassing in 2010 when Eichholz was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and fined $25,000 for his conviction on obstruction of an investigation into his mishandling of pension and retirement accounts in his law firm.

 

 

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