Robert Vaughn: The Man from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Earlier this month, we had a little run on famous Minnesotans all in a row: Ignatius Donnelly, Gig Young, and June Marlowe. We resume it today with a post on the late Robert Vaughn (1932-2016). Not only did he grow up there, and briefly attend the University of Minnesota, but he later became a major supporter of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential run — against yet another Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey!

Vaughn’s career high water mark was of course his starring role as the smooth, slick Napoleon Solo in the television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68). This show was the first and highest manifestation of the American iteration of the ’60s spy craze begun by the British tv shows The Avengers and Danger Man (the latter starring Patrick McGoohan) and the James Bond films. Most of the later stuff that followed, like the Our Man Flint and Matt Helm movies, and shows like I Spy, Get Smart, The Wild Wild West and about two dozen others, were sillier, but like the Bond series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. walked a tight rope that kept it a bit closer in spirit of face-paced Hitchcockian thrillers like North by Northwest.

One reason the show was better than so much that followed was its closeness to the source. Ian Fleming was one of the team that created it, and it was originally to have been called Ian Fleming’s Solo. And the development process began prior to the premiere of the first Bond movie Dr. No. But the show’s producers ran into trouble with the producers of the Bond series, and so the thing was tweaked, although there are some clear similarities. The most glaring is the naming of the villainous bad-guy organization as THRUSH, which sounds awfully like SMERSH. And the acronym at this show’s center also seems a Fleming touch. I’ve always hated it — what is less glamorous or adventurous than an “uncle”? For me, the word evokes a pipe, a newspaper, and a sweater. It makes more sense when you recall all of those United Nations programs: UNESCO, UNICEF, UNITAR, UNSC, etc. On the show “United Nations” was tweaked to “United Network”, again for legal reasons, although the change now made the parent organization sound like a TV channel. At any rate, the international nature of the fictional spy agency was why, Napoleon Solo was partnered with a Soviet counterpart, played by David McCallum. Ironically, a man called Solo, and originally conceived to be such, became part of a famous duo. Yet the idea that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. would ever have a common enemy greater than either of them was the biggest fantasy on the show. Most of these Cold War entertainments seemed to do everything in their power to wriggle out of the ugly realities of the Cold War.

At any rate, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a huge craze when it was on, but it went off the air when I was a toddler, so I wasn’t there for it. I am of the Mission: Impossible generation! But I did see Vaughn in much else over the years, including his work in the AIP weirdie Teenage Caveman (1958), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Bullitt (1968), The Towering Inferno (1974), two great Columbo episodes (1975,76), Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), Centennial (1978), Backstairs at the White House (1979, as Woodrow Wilson), Inside the Third Reich (1982), The Blue and the Gray (1982), Superman III (1983), and towards the end, some episodes of Law and Order: SVU. He of course has hundreds of credits beyond these, most of them in television, but this stuff I know I’ve seen.

Vaughn was a second generation actor; both of his parents were professionals, though they divorced when he was young and he was raised by his grandparents. One interesting thing to know about him is that at the height of his career, he took time off to get his Ph.D. in communications from USC (1970). His thesis was published in book form as Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. A chapter in the Cold War that never made it onto The Man from U.N.C.L.E.!