He’s played presidents, conmen, billionaires and spies, and off-set Robert Vaughn is equally happy in a variety of roles – author, academic, teacher and, most of all, actor
Even by the very starry standards set by celebrity CVs, Robert Vaughn’s employment record is something of a blockbuster in its own right.
He’s the star of some 150 movies, most notably The Magnificent Seven and Bullitt, and almost as many TV shows – from Bonanza and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to The Protectors and The A Team.
It’s a prodigious output and one to make even fellow Hollywood long-stayers such as Michael Caine or Clint Eastwood look like work-shy underachievers. And Vaughn’s not finished yet.
A committed Anglophile, he’s currently appearing in the final series of BBC1’s conmen caper Hustle and has squeezed in a cameo in Coronation Street, where he’s currently doing a turn as the wealthy new American beau of regular character Sylvia Goodwin (Stephanie Cole).
And when I catch up with the 79-year-old at his Connecticut mansion, he is enjoying a well-earned break before his next film shoot which will mean crossing the Atlantic once more. Why, given he could surely afford to have retired long ago, does he continue to do it?
If acting hadn’t worked out, Vaughn’s original plan B was to go into sports journalism
He quotes the opening sentences of his 2009 autobiography, A Fortunate Life: “A wise man once remarked, ‘If you do the thing you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.’ I did, and I haven’t.
“It’s true that I’m busier than ever, but I’ll carry on as long as I’m vertical and reasonably articulate. I am going to go on and on like Margaret Thatcher,” he intones in an impressive baritone rendition of the Iron Lady’s famous pledge.
His breakthrough role came in 1959 when he appeared opposite Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination, but it was as suave secret agent Napoleon Solo in the 60s TV hit The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in which he first achieved worldwide fame.
And there’s quite a symmetry to Vaughn’s six-decade career, since he describes his role of scamster-in-chief Albert Stroller in Hustle as “a retired Napoleon Solo – no more cars and girls, but he still finds life exciting as a conman”.
No wonder that the young Hustle cast see their “Mr V” as something of a guru, yet he doesn’t seem to take his status as an elder statesman too seriously. Significantly, he hesitates slightly before confirming his age to me, since performers often don’t act their age on stage and screen but simply ask directors how old they want them to be.
But in an industry that is always reinventing itself, he stays ahead of the game by challenging himself with offbeat acting projects such as playing Paul Getty II in the US version of that well-known career-rebooter, Little Britain, explaining that he likes to work with people who make him laugh.
As for the advantages of seniority, “I don’t think age confers any new freedoms as you get older, but people do tend to think you are wiser than you are,” he says.
Vaughn’s lack of pomposity is one of his charms, and is also the reason why he continues to stay healthily alert and interested in the world beyond what he calls in his autobiography “the peculiar self-absorption of an actor”.
Long assumed to be a diehard Democrat because of his friendship with the late Bobby Kennedy, he was the first actor to campaign publicly against the Vietnam War but now describes himself as politically independent.
“I’m either a Democrat or a Republican, depending on the philosophy of the particular candidate,” he says. “I’ve played four American presidents – Wilson, Roosevelt twice, Truman and Nixon – but I never wanted to go into politics myself. I would rather play politicians on-screen.”
He teaches masterclasses in acting at Yale from time to time and has a PhD in communications. His thesis subject was Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy era, later published as a book under the title Only Victims. However, the very ungrand Vaughn insists: “I’m only Dr Vaughn to my students.”
There have been quite a few future A-listers among those pupils over the years, including a nervous young Jack Nicholson, whom Vaughn taught in his Sunday-afternoon Players’ Ring acting class in LA in the mid-50s. Despite the mere five-year age gap, he assumed the mentor role and found himself urging a disheartened Nicholson not to give up the business in 1967. Two years later, Nicholson shot to fame in Easy Rider.
If acting hadn’t worked out, Vaughn’s original plan B was to go into sports journalism, and when he was drafted into the army, he became a drill instructor. Keeping fit continues to be very important to him, especially with the long filming days that TV budgets require, and he uses his home gym’s treadmill and weights machine – which he stresses is “the old-fashioned, freestanding kind” – almost daily.
Neither does he neglect intellectual workouts, believing in a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. “I get up every morning, anxious to read the papers, because curiosity about life is what drives me,” he says. “I also read online, too. My wife has just bought me a Kindle for my birthday and I’m going to read a biography of Spencer Tracy and a book by Condoleezza Rice on it.”
He married actress Linda Staab in 1974 and they have two adopted children, Cassidy, 35, who works in the motor industry, and Caitlin, 30, an animal anaesthetist.
The Kindle should prove a useful companion between takes, for the last surviving member of The Magnificent Seven has just begun shooting a new British indie comedy film called The Magnificent Eleven for what one imagines is well below Vaughn’s usual pay scale, simply because the title, and the concept, tickled him so much. Instead of arriving on a horse, he turns up in a stretch limo.
“I couldn’t resist that: the story of a low-end soccer team that can’t even afford jerseys. I play a menacing character called American Bob, because I’m very menacing both publicly and privately…”he says
And with this latest series of Hustle the final one, what next for the rather magnificently multi-tasking Mr V? “Well,” he muses, “I might write another book . . .”
Hustle continues on BBC1 on Friday nights at 9pm.