Robert Vaughn: A Fortunate Life

Posted on 31 August 2009

Robert Vaughn

When The Man from U.N.C.L.E. debuted in the mid 1960’s, I was too young to understand the cold war between the U.S. and Russia, but old enough to enjoy this hit “spy versus spy” TV series.  Blonde David McCallum and dark-haired, dark-eyed Robert Vaughn played good guy espionage agents Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo, respectively.  While Illya was young and hip, Solo was more mature and cerebral, but no less compelling a character.  U.N.C.L.E. was my first introduction to Robert Vaughn.  Over the years, I have seen this fine actor in a number of TV shows and films, but I knew very little about his private life.   Coming upon his latest book in the library, A Fortunate Life, I was intrigued enough to take it home.  Vaughn’s portrayal of the rational and often stoic Napoleon Solo had given me no hint of the deeply passionate man who put his convictions into action time and again.  Let me share with you some of the more interesting facts that I have learned about Robert Vaughn.


He grew up in a family of actors.


In 1939, at the age of six, Robert recited the entire “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet for famed actor Jack Barrymore.  At the end of his performance, the audience exploded in applause and Barrymore praised him with a very vocal, “More, lad, more!”  The venue was not a stage but a bar in Chicago, and despite the accolades, the boy’s mother had to prompt him to reprise the  soliloquy several times.


Vaughn’s favorite role is Hamlet.


He was one of the stars of the blockbuster film, The Magnificent Seven.


While the beautiful actress Natalie Wood was most closely associated with another Robert (her husband, actor Bob Wagner), Robert Vaughn was also romantically involved with her for quite a long time.


He holds a PhD; in 1970, he received his doctorate from the University of Southern California.


A Fortunate Life is his second book.  Published in 1972, the premise of his first book, Only Victims, also served as the subject for his doctoral thesis.  Only Victims is an exposé of Hollywood’s blacklisting of certain actors in the 1950’s.  Victims of McCarthy’s witch hunts — in, ironically for Vaughn, the cold war era — the performers found themselves unemployed and unemployable due to their politics, viewed by the paranoid-in-power as Communist.


Robert Vaughn was the first actor to speak out publicly against the Vietnam War.


His opposition drove him to debate William F. Buckley on that archconservative’s TV program, The Firing Line (one of the longest running shows in TV history).  By all accounts, Vaughn won the debate.


In addition to serving as National Chairman of Dissenting Democrats, the largest antiwar organization in the United States, he was instrumental in persuading Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy to run for President of the United States.


Convinced of a conspiracy, Vaughn believes that Sirhan Bashara Sirhan did not kill Bobby.  For those interested in delving further into this mystery, the actor-activist recommends Peter Evan’s book Nemesis.  Evan expounds upon a theory that Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who married President Jack Kennedy’s widow Jackie, was partly responsible for Bobby’s assassination.


Because of the many beautiful women with whom he had liaisons, and the adventures that he had with friends and fellow actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn, Robert Vaughn did indeed have a fortunate life.   The book reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and part of the 80’s.  Vaughn is an excellent storyteller who knows how to capture and hold the reader’s interest.  If you like your politics served up with a little Hollywood glamour and gossip, this is just the book for you.

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- who has written 11 posts on Write On New Jersey.

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