Suave, debonair and cool Robert Vaughan has passed away after battling against leukemia just short of his 84th birthday. Impeccably dressed in nearly all the roles he played his best known character was as Napolean Solo in, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ a hugely popular though implausible TV series that ran from 1964 – 1968.
Born on 22 November 1932 in New York his mother was a stage actress who travelled with the theatre and so he spent much of his childhood with his grandparents before studying journalism in Minnesota before leaving the course after 12 months to go to LA to study drama. He continued to study throughout the sixties where he did his masters writing a PhD on the aftermath of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation which he would be publish in 1972.
Vaughan didn’t start acting in earnest until he was well into his twenties in several uncredited roles mainly on TV before appearing in his first film role in, ‘Hell’s Crossroads’ in 1957 a long forgotten western but was cast as the lead in a drama that same year, ‘No time to be Young’. Inevitably like many he appeared in a Roger Corman film, ‘Teenage Caveman’ which was a James Dean influenced film that, though dreadful, was good fun to watch. He went back to working on TV before he landed a role that would bring him to the attention of many as an alcoholic framed for murder in ‘The Young Philadelphians’ which earned him his only oscar nomination. If that film established him then it was his next, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ that made him a recognised star even when appearing alongside Steve Mc Queen who he would later appear with in ‘Bullitt’ (for which he would be nominated for a BAFTA). With his face and name known it was his return to TV in ‘The Man from UNCLE’ that ensured he was in the public consciousness for decades even when the series had ended having been cancelled halfway through it’s fourth series it was still popular in the UK.
The films he appeared in after that were largely forgettable with the exception of 1974’s disaster epic ‘The Towering Inferno’ and returned to making mostly TV series. He reworked his Magnificent Seven role in 1980’s ‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ and was great in Blake Edwards ‘S.O.B.’ as a moronic studio boss though the film was chiefly remembered for Julie Andrew going topless. TV was giving him better roles than film with perhaps ‘Superman III’ being an exception and turned up in the most unexpected places including Prince of Bel-Air, Stingray, The A Team, Little Britain USA and even Coronation Street. It was TV that would give his career another boost when he starred in Hustle a great series about con-men of which he was the leader.
Despite his sometimes serious screen persona Vaughan was a committed political activist having joined the US Democrat party in the 1950’s whilst still a student. Though liberal in his views its possible that his devotion to politics that might have led to him not quite achieving the heights of his acting contemporaries but even then he managed to achieve well over 200 screen credits of which he was always disarmingly modest telling journalists, ‘I’ve managed to stretch my 15 minutes of fame into more than half a century of good fortune’. Happily married since 1974 with two children he passed away surrounded by his family. Ironically his last role was to be as a dying father in the recently released, ‘Gold Star’.