The Influence of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the American Theater 1938–58 (1970)
Robert Francis Vaughn (November 22, 1932 – November 11, 2016) was an American stage, film and television actor, author, political activist and advertising spokesperson whose career spanned nearly six decades.
Born in New York City, Vaughn died from acute leukemia in Danbury, Connecticut eleven days before his 84th birthday.
For over 50 years Vaughn was the lead or guest star in over 200 television shows. His roles including playing the spy Napoleon Solo in the 1960s international hit series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Vaughn won an Emmy in 1978 for Washington: Behind Closed Doors, a television mini-series.
In his biography A Fortunate Life, Vaughn summed up his life, saying "With a modest amount of looks and talent and more than a modicum of serendipity, I've managed to stretch my 15 minutes of fame into more than half a century of good fortune". "The breaks all fell my way".
Robert Vaughn was born on November 22, 1932 to Gerald Walter and Marcella Frances (née Gaudel) Vaughn at Charity Hospital in New York City. Vaughn's father was a radio actor and his mother was a stage actress. His parents divorced, and Vaughn lived with his grandparents Frank and Mary Gaudel in Minneapolis while his mother traveled and performed.
Discussing his childhood in a 1965 New York Sunday News interview, Vaughn said “I was a complete wreck as a child, emotionally unstable, excessively prideful” and that he often felt miserable. “I cried all the time and I was always getting beat up”.
Vaughn attended Lowell Elementary, Jordan Junior High School and North High School in Minneapolis, graduating in 1950. Nicknamed "Nobby", Vaughn's activity in high school included the Polaris Weekly school newspaper, the student council and various sports, including being named captain of the cross-country team.
Vaughn earned a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Southern California in 1970. His doctoral dissertation "The Influence of the House Committee on Un-American Activities on the American Theater 1938–58" was an appraisal of the effect the committee's activities had on American theater. Vaughn's original research included data from questionnaires and interviews he conducted with witnesses who had been labeled "uncooperative" by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In 1972, he published his dissertation as a book titled Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting.Kirkus Reviews lists the book as "the most complete and intelligent treatment of the virulent practice of blacklisting now available". Still in print, the book is regularly assigned to law students.
Vaughn was inducted into the US Army Reserve on November 29, 1955 and entered active duty on December 18, 1956 at Fort Ord, California. During his first leave, he discovered his mother had been diagnosed with Berger's disease, an often fatal kidney disorder. Vaughn applied for an Honorable Hardship discharge. While waiting for a decision, Vaughn was held over at Fort Ord and served as a drill instructor. Discharged from active duty on May 26, 1957, he again served in the US Army Reserve until November 1962.
Vaughn's mother encouraged his becoming an actor early in his life. She taught Vaughn to recite Shakespeare's “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet when he was 5.
In 1950 Vaughn worked as a page at Minneapolis' WCCO (AM). "My job was a kind of glorified page boy position, but I was allowed to wear civvies rather than the silly uniforms often sported by studio guides and messengers in those days".
His first film appearance was as an extra in The Ten Commandments (1956), playing a golden calf idolator. Vaughn is also visible during a chariot scene behind Yul Brynner.
Vaughn's first notable appearance was in The Young Philadelphians (1959). Vaughn credited Paul Newman with helping him earn his first major film role. "The person who launched my career into A-list movies was Paul Newman. When my agent called and said Warner Bros. had a role for me in The Young Philadelphians, I mentioned it to Paul, who belonged to the same health club I did. He told me it was the perfect role for me and offered to do the screen test with me. That was unheard of. In a screen test, you run your lines with a script girl who is off camera. I had never done one before, but Paul did it with me and the result was wonderful".
Vaughn recalled the morning in January when he arrived in Sturges’ office for his audition, "...an ax was hanging over every movie project in Hollywood. Unless the casting for a picture was completed by noon on a particular Friday, production couldn’t begin". Telling Vaughn he wanted to cast him based on his performance in The Young Philadelphians, Sturges said "We don’t have a script, just Kurosawa’s picture to work from. You’ll have to go on faith. But we’ll be filming in Cuernavaca. Never been there? You’ll love it — it’s the 'Palm Springs of Mexico' ". Vaughn told Sturges “I'm in”. Saying "Good decision, young man", Sturges asked "And do you know any other good young actors? I’ve got four other slots to fill". Vaughn suggested James Coburn, a former classmate and friend. Sturges hired Coburn.
Vaughn's portrayal of hired gunslinger Lee included his wearing black gloves throughout the film, signifying his reluctance to "get his hands dirty" even while continuing to kill for hire.
Vaughn's acting showed Lee's internal struggle with cowardice. Having lost his nerve, he could not fight until he finally summoned the internal courage to face certain death while freeing hostages. When offered the chance to run, Vaughn’s Lee is told "Go ahead, Lee, you don’t owe anything to anybody". His answer? "Except to myself".
When Vaughn died in 2016, he was the last of the actors who portrayed "The Magnificent Seven" to pass away.
In 1983, he starred as villainous multi-millionaire Ross Webster in Superman III.
Vaughn made his television debut on the November 21, 1955, "Black Friday" episode of the American television series Medic, the first of more than two hundred episodic roles through mid-2000.
In 1956, Vaughn made his first guest appearance on Gunsmoke in the episode entitled “Cooter.” The following year, he made his second guest appearance on Gunsmoke opposite Barbara Eden in a Romeo-Juliet role, in the episode "Romeo", which turned out okay for the bride and groom.
The Dick Van Dyke Show
In 1963 Vaughn appeared in an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show as Jim Darling, a successful businessman and an old flame of Laura Petrie in the episode "It's A Shame She Married Me".
His dissatisfaction with the somewhat diminished aspect of the Rambridge character led Vaughn to request an expanded role. During the conference, his name came up in a telephone call and he ended up being offered a series of his own—as Napoleon Solo, title character in a series originally to be called Solo, but which became The Man from U.N.C.L.E. after the pilot was reshot with Leo G. Carroll in the role of Solo's boss. This was the role which would make Vaughn a household name even behind the Iron Curtain.
Explaining the two The Man From U.N.C.L.E. characters' appeal, Vaughn said “Girls age 9 to 12 liked David McCallum because he was so sweet, but the old ladies and the 13- to 16-year-olds liked me because I was so detached”.
At the height of the The Man From U.N.C.L.E. show’s popularity, Vaughn reported receiving 70,000 fan letters a month. "I was bombarded with house and apartment keys labeled with the addresses of the adoring girls who lived behind those doors, he wrote in his 2008 memoir, A Fortunate Life. "At the end of our first season, I had to put up an electric fence around my house to keep out the girls. I even tried using recorded animal noises to fend off my visitors, but I could never operate the sound system."
Vaughn said the success of the show boosted his career. "Not only was it a great deal of fun, it changed me from being a working actor to a negotiating actor. After U.N.C.L.E., I never accepted the first offer: if I wanted more money, I asked for it. A better dressing room? Four first-class tickets instead of two? I’d ask for them, and I’d often get them."
In 1966 during the initial The Man From U.N.C.L.E. broadcast run, Vaughn appeared as a bachelor on the premiere episode of the nighttime version of The Dating Game which aired on October 6, 1966. Karen Carlson, the 1964 Miss America pageant first runner-up chose Vaughn as her date, which included a trip to London, England.
After The Man from U.N.C.L.E was cancelled in 1968, Vaughn continued to appear on television and in films.
Vaughn starred in two seasons of the British detective series The Protectors from 1972 through 1974.
Vaughn experienced a resurgence in 2004. He began co-starring in the British TV drama series Hustle, made for BBC One. The series was also broadcast in the United States on the AMCcable network. In the series, Vaughn played elder-statesman American con artist Albert Stroller, a father figure to a group of younger grifters.
When show producer Simon Crawford Collins met Vaughn, he recognized "straight away that he could bring a whole new dimension to the part of Albert". He later called Vaughn, offering him the role. Vaughn said during the call he was "told to get on a plane an hour after I got the phone call and start shooting the following day."
In 2006 Vaughn said "I imagined that Napoleon Solo had retired from U.N.C.L.E., whatever U.N.C.L.E. was. What could he do now to use his talents and to supplement his government pension? I imagined Stroller as Napoleon Solo, The Later Years".
He also appeared in two episodes of Columbo during the mid-1970s, "Troubled Waters" (1975) and "Last Salute to the Commodore" (1976). The latter episode is one of the few in the series where the identity of the murderer is not known until the end. Vaughn won an Emmy for his portrayal of Frank Flaherty in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (ABC, 1977) and during the 1980s starred with friend George Peppard in the final season of The A-Team. Vaughn played Morgan Wendell, opponent to Paul Garrett played by David Janssen in the 1978–79 miniseries Centennial.
After a string of guest roles on series such as Law & Order (in which he had a recurring role during season eight as Carl Anderton, a wealthy businessman who vows revenge on the NYC DA's office and longtime friend Adam Schiff for sending his grandson to juvenile correction for murdering his stepsister). In September 2006, he guest-starred on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In 1966 Vaughn founded a film production company, Ferdporqui Productions with his "lifelong best friend" actor Sherwood Price. The company was headquartered at the M.G.M. Studios in Culver City, California.
They purchased production options on books and scripts in the 1960s. In 1966 they acquired the production rights to Joseph Sargent's "story idea" Bridge on the River Hudson and hired Peter Allan Fields to produce a script treatment. Vaughn was reportedly to star in their first independent film venture. They also acquired the rights to Robert Laxalt's novel The Man in the Wheatfield in 1966 and sought investors in the proposed film's production.
In 1968 the company opened a branch office in Great Britain. In the 1970s Ferdporqui Productions provided production management on The Protectors which starred Vaughn.
Vaughn's investments included profitable livestock herds and west Texas gas wells which made him a millionaire. In 1967, one of his wells saw an increase in production output from $13 per week to $270 per day, a $98,550 annual output (equivalent to $864,919 in 2022). The reportedly frugal Vaughn said "If it went tomorrow, it wouldn't visibly change my life". Vaughn said he had lived on one-quarter of his salary for the past ten years and that his business manager allowed his $25 spending money per week.
Advertising pitch man
In later years, Vaughn appeared in syndicated advertisements marketed by Commercial Pro, Inc. for various personal injury and workers compensation law firms, using the catchphrase, "Tell them you mean business".
Vaughn was also an informercial pitchman from 1985 through 1990 for the Helsinki Formula, a claimed baldness cure. In 1994 the Federal Trade Commission sued, blocking the product's bogus claims but $100 million dollars of the product had already been sold.
In 1993 Vaughn told The Los Angeles Times he had no problem promoting the Helsinki Formula "cure". He said “That was about the most profitable thing I’ve ever done in my life. Every call that came in on the 800 number, I got a piece of that”.
The Seinfeld tv show mentioned Vaughn's Helsinki Formula ad during the show's second season May 2, 1991 episode:
Jerry: [as Elaine flips through channels] What are you doing? All right, all right. What's the matter with that? What about that one?
Elaine: Robert Vaughn, The Helsinki Formula?
Jerry: He was good in Man From U.N.C.L.E..
Vaughn married actress Linda Staab in 1974. They appeared together in a 1973 episode of The Protectors, called "It Could Be Practically Anywhere on the Island". They adopted two children, Cassidy (born 1976) and Caitlin (born 1981). They resided in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
During the late 1960s Joyce Jameson was a girlfriend of Vaughn's. She acted opposite Vaughn as a guest star on a 1966 U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Dippy Blond Affair".
For many years, it was believed Vaughn was the biological father of English film director and producer Matthew Vaughn, born when the actor was in a relationship with early 1970s socialite Kathy Ceaton. However, a paternity investigation identified the father as George de Vere Drummond, an English aristocrat and godson of King George VI. Early in Matthew's life, Vaughn asked for the child's surname to be Vaughn, which Matthew continues to use professionally.
Vaughn was reported to have political ambitions of his own, but in a 1973 interview, he denied having had any political aspirations. In a conversation with historian Jack Sanders, he stated that after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, "I lost heart for the battle."
In 1967 Vaughn released the MGM Recordsspoken word albumReadings From Hamlet which featured him performing seven excerpts from Shakespeare's Hamlet accompanied with incidental music. The MGM Records E/SE-4488 lp was released in both mono and stereo formats.
Vaughn published Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting in 1972. A second book, A Fortunate Life, his autobiography was published in 2008.