Suave TV spy and a political activist

Known for his role on television series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn took an early stance against United States involvement in Vietnam

Emmy Award- winning actor Robert Vaughn (above) died of acute leukaemia, aged 83.
Emmy Award- winning actor Robert Vaughn (above) died of acute leukaemia, aged 83.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • Robert Vaughn, who played a suave spy in the 1960s television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and a political activist and scholar of the writers and actors blacklisted by the mid-century communist scare, died last Friday at a hospice in Danbury, Connecticut. He was 83.

The cause was acute leukaemia, said his manager.

From 1964 to 1968, Vaughn was one of the most recognisable actors on the small screen, playing Napoleon Solo, something of an American version of James Bond in the spy spoof The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He starred alongside David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin as an international crime-fighting duo in the tongue- in-cheek series that was one of the most popular shows of its time.

Each week, the two from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, a private organisation "involved in maintaining political and legal order anywhere in the world", accepted a mission from their boss (Leo Carroll).

With wit and panache, they overcame danger in the form of deadly gadgetry and the thugs of their nemesis, Thrush. Their tailored suits, carefully coiffed hair and debonair manner remained undisturbed.

"There was something cool about it," Mr Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media in New York, told the Los Angeles Times last year.

"It created an emotional resonance for TV. It became the most popular show on campus in 1964, 1965 and 1966 - the first two seasons. It was a cultural phenomenon."

Vaughn and McCallum developed a genuine screen chemistry, trading quips and remaining imperturbable in the face of disaster.

U.N.C.L.E. appealed to two kinds of viewers: those who considered it a serious spy thriller and others who went along with the show's self-mocking irony.

To the second group, Washington Post TV critic Laurence Laurent wrote in 1965: "Vaughn's cool detachment is a great joke on all the sweaty, grimy adventures."

Vaughn appeared in more than 200 movies and TV shows over his 60-year career, including the 1960 movie The Magnificent Seven, alongside Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. He was the last survivor of the movie's original seven lead actors.

In his early years, he was known as a man about town, often dating beautiful actresses, including Natalie Wood.

In 1959, he played opposite Paul Newman in The Young Philadelphians, a film about upper-class hypocrisy. He portrayed an alcoholic who lost an arm in the Korean War and later stood trial for murder.

He was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Hugh Griffith from Ben-Hur (1959).

He reunited with McQueen in the 1968 police drama Bullitt, playing a corrupt politician. The film was a box-office success.

Vaughn was also an engaged political activist. In 1966, he took an early stance against United States involvement in Vietnam. He often spoke on college campuses and, separately, debated the Vietnam War with the US vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey and conservative writer William Buckley Jr on Buckley's Firing Line TV programme.

While making The Man From U.N.C.L.E., he took graduate courses at the University of Southern California and received a doctorate in communications in 1970.

He revised his dissertation, about the chilling effects of the House Un-American Activities Committee on the theatrical world, and published it in 1972 as a book, Only Victims: A Study Of Show Business Blacklisting. The book is still in print.

He was born Robert Francis Vaughn in New York City to actors, but they separated when he was an infant. He grew up with his grandparents and went on to study theatre, becoming an early acting teacher of Jack Nicholson's.

He appeared in the 1969 World War II film, The Bridge At Remagen, before returning to TV in 1972 in The Protectors, a detective show produced in England.

He often acted in mini-series in the 1970s, including Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), for which he won an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He received another Emmy nomination for his portrayal of President Woodrow Wilson in Backstairs At The White House (1979).

Vaughn played four other presidents on stage and TV - Richard Nixon, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Over the years, he appeared in other films and theatre. He published a memoir, A Fortunate Life, in 2008.

Survivors include his wife of 42 years and two children.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 14, 2016, with the headline 'Suave TV spy and a political activist'. Subscribe