'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Robert Wagner ('NCIS')

The 86-year-old legend reflects on his rise to prominence during Hollywood's Golden Age, his secret four-year affair with Barbara Stanwyck, his late wife Natalie Wood and his Emmy-contending guest spot on CBS's highest-rated drama series.
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Robert Wagner

"I've always wanted to be an actor," says Robert Wagner, the legendary star of film and television who's now 86 and just as handsome and suave as ever, as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "And," he adds with a chuckle, "that's why I'm still doing it."

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Wagner, who grew up dreaming of being in show business, first made his name in Hollywood in the early 1950s as a contract player at Darryl F. Zanuck's 20th Century Fox. He landed there after being spotted by the agent Henry Willson, who also discovered his contemporaries Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Rory Calhoun, Troy Donahue and the beautiful young actress Wagner would marry twice, Natalie Wood. "I got some very good breaks with Fox," he recalls, starting with a two-scene part as a shell-shocked veteran opposite Susan Hayward in 1952's With a Song in My Heart. That same year, he died in James Cagney's arms in John Ford's What Price Glory and was nominated for the Golden Globe for most promising male newcomer for his performance in the John Philip Sousa biopic Stars and Stripes Forever.

A big part of Wagner's popular appeal was his dashing appearance and unmistakable charisma, which proved to be catnip to the ladies. For the purpose of generating publicity, he was sent out by the studio on many fake dates with beautiful rising starlets like Debra Paget and Lori Nelson, but unbeknownst to almost anyone at the time, he was actually dating Barbara Stanwyck, his co-star in 1953's Titanic who was more than twice his age, for four years. "She gave me a lot of confidence," he says, noting that she also taught him to deepen his voice, by which he is now instantly identifiable.

At the same time, the actor was becoming a hot commodity in town: He was handpicked by Spencer Tracy to be Tracy's co-star in 1954's Broken Lance and 1956's The Mountain (they received equal billing on the latter); played the title character in 1954's Prince Valiant; and won raves for his portrayal of a villain in 1956's A Kiss Before Dying (one of the few bad guys he played). Then, in 1956, Wagner was paired on a studio-arranged date with Wood — she was celebrating her 18th birthday that night — and both were smitten. They became the Brangelina of their day, marrying, for the first time, a year later. "We were very much in love," he says wistfully, adding, "She was so good, just a wonderful actress."

By the end of the decade, though, Wagner's personal and professional life were in turmoil — his marriage to Wood collapsed (they divorced in 1962) just as the studio system to which he owed everything did as well. So he relocated to Europe, where, as an independent actor, he starred in a few other films — among them 1962's The Longest Day, for Zanuck, and 1963's The Pink Panther — before returning stateside and racking up a few other notable film credits, 1966's Harper, 1974's The Towering Inferno and 1976's Midway. It was during this same era that he was encouraged, by Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, to transition into TV acting, even though that was not then thought to be a good move for a film actor. "I thought, 'Oh, man, this is the end,'" he recalls — but it actually proved to be a great new beginning.

Between 1968 and 1984, Wagner starred on three classic TV series. He received an Emmy nomination for inhabiting "a perfect character" opposite mentor Fred Astaire in Roland Kibbee's espionage comedy It Takes a Thief (1968-1970). He and Eddie Albert stole scenes from each other as detectives in Glen A. Larson's Switch (1975-1978). And, most famously, he and Stefanie Powers were married mystery-solvers in Hart to Hart (1979-1984). He credits Hart to Hart with helping him to get through the darkest days of his life, when Wood, whom he remarried in 1972, fell off their yacht and drowned on Nov. 29, 1981. "When Natalie left us," he says somberly, "it was lucky for me that I had work." He elaborates, "I went back to work and it really saved me — that and my three children — and I got breathing again."

In 1990, Wagner married actress Jill St. John, who he first met in 1956, and with whom he has starred in seven movies, several episodes of Hart to Hart and the famous "The Yada Yada" episode of Seinfeld. In the time since, he also has starred as "Number Two" to Mike Myers' Dr. Evil in three hit Austin Powers films ("Can you imagine working all of your life and being referred to as 'Number Two,'" he cracks) and done a number of guest spots on popular TV shows — despite finding them "intimidating and very nerve-wracking" — including Two and a Half Men.

Some of his best notices have come for his guest work on CBS' NCIS, on which he has popped up in nine episodes since 2010 as Anthony DiNozzo, Sr., the ne'er-do-well father of star Michael Weatherly's character. "They've written some really, really great things for me," says Wagner. "It's just been a joy for me to have this in my life." (Fun fact: Weatherly, whom Wagner calls "a wonderful young man," played Wagner in the 2004 TV movie The Mystery of Natalie Wood.) This season, Wagner appeared in two standout episodes of the show. In the first, "Reasonable Doubts," he encounters a homeless woman who thinks he's her father — he might be — and who he helps through a difficult time. ("It gave me a great opportunity," he says, "and I'm very proud of it.") In the second, "Family First," he helps the show say goodbye to Weatherly's character, as the actor was leaving the show after 13 years. ("That was a very emotional day," Wagner says.)

All in all, Wagner, now a proud father and grandfather, says he is happy to still be active in the business he has always loved: "The impact of the motion picture business and television — it never ceases to amaze me."