Robert Francis Vaughn appeared in well over 100 movies, tv and stage productions in both the US and Great Britain in an entertainment career that spanned some 60 years. He co-starred with some of the most iconic names during that period, such as Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and Angela Landsbury. He portrayed US Presidents Franklyn Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson. He won an Emmy and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (for his portrayal of “Chester Gwynn” in The Young Philadelphians in 1959), and was also nominated for several Golden Globe, BAFTA, Laurel and Photoplay Awards. Yet, for all of that, he is remembered primarily for one role – his portrayal of “Napoleon Solo” in the tv series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
U.N.C.L.E., an espionage show, ran from 1964 -1968. Vaughn played smooth, suave, debonair Napoleon Solo, a spy modeled after James Bond. He co-starred with a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. Young fans may know McCallum as the medical examiner “Duckie” on NCIS. Few people had heard of Vaughn before then, but he and the show became very popular, particularly with young fans. It was a top-rated show for five years, and it spawned a spin-off show, a movie and considerable merchandising worldwide.
Vaughn was born in New York City on November 22, 1932. Both of his parents were actors – his father on radio and his mother on the stage. His parents soon divorced, and Vaughn was raised by his grandparents in Minneapolis, MN. After high school he briefly attended college at the University of Minnesota, then moved to LA to live with his mother to pursue a career in entertainment. It should be noted that he also continued his education, eventually earning a Ph.D. in communications from USC in 1970.
Vaughn made his screen debut in the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments. It was not a particularly momentus role. It was uncredited. He appeared in the background in two scenes – as a “golden calf idolator” and in the chariot race. One would have to look really carefully to find him. But, I suppose you have to start somewhere. His break-through role in Philadelphians came just three years later, and he was off.
Vaughn was a high profile political activist. He was an early critic of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, he was very active in the anti-war group “Another Mother for Peace” and was a co-founder of another anti-war group called “Dissenting Democrats.” In addition, he was a strong supporter of and campaigner for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy and both JFK and RFK.
Vaughn passed away on November 11 from acute leukemia. Rest in peace Robert. We will miss you.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, U.N.C.L.E. stands for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement,” quite a mouthful.