A magnetic performer who was equally at home playing heroes or heels, Robert Vaughn was a leading man and character actor whose five-decade career included such hit films as "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), "Bullitt" (1968) and "The Towering Inferno" (1974). His greatest successes, however, came on the small screen; first as the dashing Napoleon Solo in the runaway hit series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (NBC, 1964-68), and later, with an Emmy win for "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" (ABC, 1977) and numerous other miniseries and TV-movies. The quality of projects offered to Vaughn dropped off in the 1980s and 1990s, but he rebounded in 2004 with the UK series "Hustle" (BBC One, 2004-10), which afforded him a chance to once again display his considerable charm, an attribute that was the main reason for his enduring popularity. Robert Vaughn died on November 10, 2016 of leukemia. He was 83.
Born Nov. 22, 1932 in New York City, Robert Francis Vaughn was born into a family of performers - mother Marcella Gaudel was a stage actress, while his father, Gerald Walter Vaughn, was a radio actor. His parents separated when he was young, forcing Vaughn to move to Minneapolis, MN with his mother, where he eventually attended the University of Minnesota to earn a journalism major. Vaughn began exploring acting in 1950, and after winning the Philip Morris Intercollegiate Acting Contest, he relocated to Los Angeles where enrolled in Los Angeles City College before transferring to Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences. There, he earned a Masters degree in theater and began making his first appearances on television in 1955.
He actually played two roles in his first movie, "The Ten Commandments" (1956), which cast him as both a spear-carrier for pharaoh Yul Brynner and a Hebrew worshiping a golden calf. Within a year's time, he had moved up to supporting player onscreen, beginning with the 1957 Western, "Hell's Crossroads," which cast him as Jesse James' killer, Bob Ford. His first leads were only a year away - Vaughn survived the indignities of B-grade dreck like "No Time to Be Young" (1957), which cast him as an upstanding young man who goes terribly awry, and the title role in Roger Corman's cult classic "Teenage Caveman" (1958), to earn an Academy Award nomination as a young man on trial for murder in "The Young Philadelphians" (1959). Vaughn lost the Oscar but took home a Golden Globe for his performance, and left the ceremony a newly minted A-list player. His next major picture was John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" (1954) set in the Old West. Though he had just 16 lines of dialogue in the film, Vaughn made an impression as a haunted gunman who joins Yul Brynner in defense of a small town against a bandit (Eli Wallach) and his gang. Both films helped to cement Vaughn's screen persona in the minds of audiences - charming on the outside, but with layers of emotional turmoil just below the polished surface.
Despite his success in films, Vaughn was primarily a television actor in the early 1960s; in addition to his near-constant stream of guest appearances, he co-starred on Gene Roddenberry's military drama "The Lieutenant" (NBC, 1963-64) as a tough captain who made life difficult for series star Gary Lockwood's stalwart officer. But he soon tired of the secondary status, and asked producer Norman Felton for his own series. The result was "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," a tongue-in-cheek spy series that drew its inspiration from the wave of espionage-related entertainment that followed in the wake of the James Bond film franchise phenomenon.
Initially, the series focused around Vaughn's charming, cool-headed American spy Napoleon Solo. James Bond creator Ian Fleming had conceived the character, who was joined by brooding Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) after audiences reacted positively to the pair's chemistry. Because the tone of the show was light but action-packed, with plenty of beautiful ladies for Vaughn to romance, it was not surprising how quickly the show became a massive hit for NBC, resulting in countless tie-ins, including eight theatrical movies constructed from episodes. Vaughn received three Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, but was consistently overshadowed by McCallum in both Emmy nods and fan popularity. In 1983, Vaughn and McCallum reprised their roles for a CBS TV movie, "The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.," which was intended as the launch of a new series, but critical and audience response did not warrant the revamp.
In addition to his acting career, Vaughn was involved for many years in political causes; a longtime Democrat, he actively campaigned for candidates like Robert F. Kennedy (with whom he was friendly), and was a member of the Vietnam War-era group Another Mother for Peace, as well as Dissenting Democrats. Vaughn was long rumored to be the Democratic Party's choice to run in opposition of Ronald Reagan's bid for California governor in 1966, but he decided against the position. Vaughn's interest in liberal causes was also reflected in his book, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting (1972). The publication was his PhD dissertation from the University of Southern California, which he received in 1970 - at the height of his acting career.
The popularity of "U.N.C.L.E." translated into a brief spate of theatrical roles for Vaughn, beginning in 1968 with "Bullitt," which reunited him with his "Magnificent Seven" co-star, Steve McQueen. Vaughn's ambitious but corrupt politician, which earned him a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, led to more complex characters in the films that followed: the polished but war-weary Nazi officer betrayed by his commanders in "The Bridge at Remagen" (1969), the compassionate scientist wary of efforts to revive a man (Terence Stamp) in a coma since birth in "The Mind of Mr. Soames" (1971), Casca, one of the conspirators against Julius Caesar (John Gielgud) in the critically panned 1970 film version of the Shakespeare play; a turn as Harry S. Truman in "The Man from Independence" (1974), and the doomed senator in "The Towering Inferno" (1974). Unfortunately, too few of his films from this period were hits - for every "Inferno," there were misses like "Clay Pigeon" (1971) and "Demon Seed" (1977), with Vaughn as the voice of a computer that impregnates Julie Christie. By the end of the decade, he was back on television, where he found more substantial fare like the miniseries "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" (ABC, 1977), a thinly veiled portrait of the Nixon administration which earned Vaughn an Emmy for a chilly interpretation of H.R. Halderman. He found further praise for his turn as Woodrow Wilson in the miniseries "Backstairs at the White House" (NBC, 1979), and as real estate tycoon Morgan Wendell in "Centennial" (NBC, 1978-79).
Vaughn continued to keep a hand in features during this period, but by the 1980s, he was appearing largely in B-level genre efforts; the exceptions were Blake Edwards' black comedy "S.O.B." (1981), which cast him as a cost-cutting studio chief; "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980), a cheeky sci-fi adaptation of "The Magnificent Seven" produced by Roger Corman, with a script by John Sayles and special effects by James Cameron; and the disappointing "Superman III" (1983), in which he teamed up with Richard Pryor to take over the world and destroy Superman (Christopher Reeve) with a super-computer. Television remained his best showcase, which allowed him to play two presidents and a war hero between 1982 and 1986 - "FDR: That Man in the White House" (HBO, 1982), General Douglas MacArthur in "The Last Bastion" (PBS, 1984), and Roosevelt again in "Murrow" (HBO, 1986). In 1983, he returned to series work as a villainous businessman in the short-lived drama, "Emerald Point N.A.S." (CBS, 1983-84), and in the final season of "The A-Team" (NBC, 1983-87) as a general who brings the outlaw outfit into the military fold for special missions.
Vaughn breezed through the late 1980s and 1990s in mostly low-budget and independent features, as well as episodic television. On more than one occasion, he could be seen playing for broad laughs, such as his faded horror star Byron Orlock in the Corman-produced comedy "Transylvanian Twist" (1989). There was a brief stint on the daytime soap "One Life to Live" (ABC, 1968- ), and numerous commercials for law offices, as well as a recurring, nostalgia-driven role on the network version of "The Magnificent Seven" (CBS, 1998-99). A trio of appearances on "Law & Order" (NBC, 1990-10) in 1997 and 1998 as a lawyer who struggles to conceal his history of mental illness was a step towards more quality material. In 2004, he received his juiciest role in decades as the father figure for a group of London-based con men in the BBC One series, "Hustle" (2004-12). Following the end of that series in 2012, Vaughn made guest appearances in episodes of long-running British soap "Coronation Street" (ITV 1960- ) and "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC 1999- ), but otherwise he quietly retired. Robert Vaughn died of leukemia on November 10, 2016, at the age of 83.