Robert Vaughn, who starred in “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in the 1960s and would become nearly as indelible a fictional spy as that other one played by Sean Connery, has died, according to reports. He was 83, and had been undergoing treatment for leukemia in New York and Connecticut, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
New York-born Vaughn received an Oscar nod for his role opposite Paul Newman in 1959’s “The Young Philadelphians,” but it was on TV that Vaughn made his mark — one that stretched across decades, and across commercials, too, often of the 1-800 variety, which were ubiquitous on New York TV for years.
Vaughn grew up with the medium of television. He had credits in dozens of series — most now forgotten — and in a handful of films, some as notable now as on the day they were released, notably “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) and “Bullitt” (1968), arguably the greatest car-chase thriller in cinematic history, which created enduring myths around Vaughn’s co-star, Steve McQueen. There were a few other classic and quasi-classics, too — “The Bridge at Remagen,” “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” “The Towering Inferno “ and “Superman III” — but when the film career flagged, the TV one remained. Vaughn was Gen. Hunt Stockwell on “The A-Team,” and he later appeared on “Hunter,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “Diagnosis: Murder.” He was most recently, and briefly, in “Law & Order: SVU.” Vaughn even built up credits on English TV, on the long-running British soap “Coronation Street.”
But it would be “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that captured the imagination — or at least the hearts — of millions of viewers during a relatively brief run, from 1964 to ’68. An acronym for United Network Command for Law Enforcement — think FBI, only much sexier — the series was really about the men from U.N.C.L.E.: Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo and David McCallum Jr.’s Illya Kuryakin. The crime-fighting duo concentrated most of their energy on THRUSH — Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and Subjugation of Humanity, which (with a name like that) was engaged in monstrous evil.
Of course, THRUSH had to get by Napoleon and Illya first. McCallum — who remains one of the biggest stars on TV as one of the core cast members on “NCIS” — played Kuryakin not quite for laughs. But Vaughn played Napoleon exactly for what was intended, a sex symbol with not-quite distant intimations of James Bond. Connery had become the biggest star in the world, and for a moment, Vaughn threatened to become the biggest one on television. Millions of kids argued over who was their favorite — lllya or Napoleon — as urgently as they argued over their favorite Beatle. Vaughn was simply perfect in the role: He, in fact, did play Napoleon for laughs, but the humor was so subtle and seductive that fans probably never picked up on much of it.
Per the AP, Robert Francis Vaughn was born into a theatrical family Nov. 22, 1932, in New York City. His father was a radio actor, his mother performed on Broadway and his grandparents acted in theater. His parents divorced when he was only 6 months old, however, and he was sent to live with his grandparents in Minneapolis, where he said his childhood was miserable. "I cried all the time and I was always getting beat up."
After his grandparents died, Vaughn moved to Los Angeles. Spotted in a college play, he was signed to a contract with Burt Lancaster's company but was soon drafted into the Army. After his discharge in 1957, he made his first movie, "No Time to Be Young."
Long among Hollywood's most eligible bachelors, Vaughn married actress Linda Staab in 1974. "The breaks all fell my way," said Vaughn in 2006. A liberal Democrat, Vaughn became passionately opposed to the Vietnam War while he was making "U.N.C.L.E." and delivered anti-war speeches at colleges and other venues around the country. He also debated the war with conservative William F. Buckley on the latter's TV talk show, "Firing Line." Vaughn became a friend of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and campaigned for him during his 1968 run for the presidency.
When Kennedy was assassinated that year, Vaughn was so upset that he moved to England for five years. Returning to the U.S., the actor decided to resume his education. He had already earned a bachelor's degree in theater arts from California State University, Los Angeles, in 1956, and a master's degree from the University of Southern California in 1960.
He returned to USC, where he earned a Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation was an overview of the House Un-American Activities Commission's effect on American theater. It resulted in a well-received book "Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting."
Vaughn was also drawn to politics in several of the TV roles he chose. He portrayed Harry S. Truman in "The Man from Independence," Woodrow Wilson in "Backstairs at the White House" and a presidential aide in the 12-hour "Washington: Behind Closed Doors," for which he won an Emmy. He also toured in a one-man play "F.D.R." about Franklin D. Roosevelt's battles with polio.
Vaughn is survived by his wife, Linda Staab Vaughn, their son Cassidy and daughter Caitlin.
-- The Associated Press's Frazier Moore and the late Bob Thomas contributed to this report.