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Robert Vaughn, the urbane actor who starred as the American spy Napoleon Solo on the slick 1960s NBC series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., died Friday. He was 83.
Vaughn, who received an Oscar nomination for playing Paul Newman’s hard-drinking buddy Chet in the 1959 drama The Young Philadelphians, died of acute leukemia in a hospital on the East Coast, his manager Matthew Sullivan told The Hollywood Reporter. He had been undergoing treatment for his illness in New York and Connecticut.
Vaughn’s memorable performances also included turns as one of the seven gunmen in The Magnificent Seven (1960), as a steely senator in Bullitt (1968) — those two opposite Steve McQueen — as an addled studio chief in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981) and as a corporate villain in Superman III (1983).
For his work on Washington: Behind Closed Doors, a 1977 ABC miniseries that was based on John Ehrlichman’s book, The Company, Vaughn received an Emmy Award for playing a crude aide to the president, a character based on Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman.
Shortly after starring as a U.S. Marine captain on the short-lived NBC drama The Lieutenant — a show created by future Star Trek legend Gene Roddenberry — Vaughn landed the role of the charismatic Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., another series from MGM Television and producer Norman Felton’s Arena Productions.
On the Cold War-era series, which lasted four seasons and spawned a sequel and several movies stitched together from episodes, Vaughn teamed with Russian spy Illya Kuryakin (played by Scottish actor David McCallum) as members of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
The outfit, with headquarters cleverly concealed in a dry cleaner’s shop in a New York City brownstone, fought the evil forces of T.H.R.U.S.H., thought to be an acronym for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.
Felton, who was a friend of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, gave Vaughn some advice on how to play Solo, the actor related in a 2015 interview with Entertainment Weekly.
“Felton said to me, ‘My suggestion to you is, whatever you think works for women for you, use that on the screen,’” he recalled. “Well, I’m not sure if I know what works for women. If I did, I’d never be acting — I’d be out working women all the time!
“Anyway, that was kind of the thrust of the thing: Give it your own sense of humor, and whatever you think makes women attracted to you, do that. So that’s what I tried to do, basically.”
U.N.C.L.E. spawned a line of toys (think: suitcases that with a few twists turn into guns or walkie-talkies), received some 70,000 fan letters a month and made it to No. 1 in the ratings. Female viewers were especially attracted to Vaughn, who once dated actress Natalie Wood and enjoyed sampling the nightlife along the Sunset Strip.
“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.”
A turn toward campy ruined the show, and U.N.C.L.E. was canceled quite suddenly in late 1967.
(In the Guy Ritchie movie version of U.N.C.L.E. that was released by Warner Bros. in August 2015, Henry Cavill played Solo.)
Robert Francis Vaughn was born on Nov. 22, 1932, in New York City. His parents were actors and divorced when he was a toddler, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents in Minnesota.
He pursued journalism at the University of Minnesota, where he was selected as the male finalist in a radio contest for actors for 1951. That recognition gave him the confidence to move west, where he studied drama at Los Angeles City College and won an award for playing the lead in a production of Mr. Roberts.
After a talent scout spotted him onstage in Calder Willingham’s End as a Man, Vaughn signed with Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster’s film company — one of the first independents in Hollywood — but was drafted into the U.S. Army.
When he returned, Vaughn got work as an extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s remake of The Ten Commandments (1956), then landed his first starring role, playing an angry young man in No Time to Be Young (1957).
His performance as a moneyed Main Line patrician who is accused of murder in Vincent Sherman’s The Young Philadelphians put him on the map, and roles in such films as The Big Show (1961), The Caretakers (1963), The Venetian Affair (1966), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), Julius Caesar (1970) and The Mind of Dr. Soames (1970) followed.
Vaughn starred as London-based international crime fighter Harry Rule on the British TV series The Protectors in the early 1970s and played a senator and victim in The Towering Inferno (1974).
He received another Emmy nomination for portraying Woodrow Wilson on the 1979 NBC miniseries Backstairs at the White House; was the furtive Gen. Hunt Stockwell on NBC’s The A-Team and a con man on the British series Hustle; and showed up in David Zucker’s BASEketball (1998).
In the late 1970s, Vaughn attended night classes at USC and earned his doctorate in communications after writing a dissertation, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting, about the dark period in Hollywood history.
Said McCallum: “I can’t recall when he actually began his Ph.D. thesis, but everywhere he went, Robert had a book with him and was taking notes,” he told THR. “I always called him on his birthday, which is that terrible day of November 22, as it was ironic given his friendship with the Kennedys that he was born on the day that JFK was shot.
“Robert once said, ‘Would you like to come out to dinner? There’s a new place called The Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard.’ It turned out to be the first organic restaurant. Robert was always up with current trends.”
Vaughn married actress Linda Staab in 1974, and they adopted children Caitlin and Cassidy. They survive him.
Matthew Vaughn, the London-born director of such films as Kick Ass (2011) and X-Men: First Class (2011), grew up believing Robert Vaughn was his father until the actor in 2002 produced evidence from a 1980s patrimony court case that proved he was not. Vaughn had been in a relationship with Matthew’s mother, the socialite Kathy Ceaton, whom he met when he was in England working on The Protectors.
Duane Byrge contributed to this report.
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