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

Cashing in on the James Bond craze of the early ’60s, a television series about spies was launched that made a pop idol of actor Robert Vaughn.

Actor Robert Vaughn

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—FromThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.”  by Don Freeman, in the June 19, 1965, issue of The Saturday Evening Post

Robert Vaughn is inclined to shrug off his role as Napoleon Solo. “I just play Mister Slick,” he explains, “and I know what I’m doing — I’m making money and doing a job. And no matter what any critic may say, I’m not like Solo; I’m not fearless and I’m not insane. Solo is insane. He laughs when he exposes himself to death. He laughs his way through a cartoon existence.” On a recent afternoon at the Metro studios, where the U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) series is produced for NBC, Vaughn was discussing, of all things, a Greek philosopher. “Aristotle was the first man who described politics as the master art, the highest pursuit of mankind.” υ

At precisely this moment, the director summoned, and Vaughn strode over to the set. As the cameras rolled, he stepped into a boudoir to embrace a lush, negligeed Viennese actress named Senta Berger. They nuzzled passionately until Vaughn, glancing over her bare shoulder, spotted the approach of two enemy agents, each armed with a stiletto. Vaughn felled one of the blackguards with a judo chop, tripped the other, and then, after kicking a revolver out of the treacherous hand of Miss Berger, he dived through an open window, landed on a third villain, and dispatched him with a graceful karate slash. “Cut!” the director ordered. “Beautiful. Print it.”

Actor Robert Vaughn in a production of Hamlet
The real deal? Vaughn as Hamlet at a Pasadena theater. He labels his Napoleon Solo spy role as commerce, Hamlet as art. (© SEPS)

Vaughn flicked dust from his Italian suit and returned to his visitor. “Now, where were we?” he said. “Yes, Aristotle. Both he and Plato believed that the good politician is also the good philosopher.” He shook his finger for emphasis. “And I agree with them.”

Vaughn’s friends will tell you, without smiling, that he wants to be President of the United States. Vaughn scoffs amiably at such an extravagant notion. “Oh, come on,” he says with a teasing grin. “Sure, I want to run for political office someday — but a 32-year-old actor saying he wants to be president! It sounds insane, psychotic, ridiculous!”

Nonetheless, in 1960 he made speeches for Kennedy, and in 1964 he campaigned for Pierre Salinger. Vaughn also has strong opinions on civil rights and on what most experts term America’s “mixed economy,” which Vaughn describes as “integrating certain aspects of socialism with our free enterprise, the way Russia is integrating certain aspects of free enterprise with their socialism. That’s the word, socialism, and why the hell is everyone so afraid of it? I believe in a government that helps people who can’t help themselves, but without discouraging private initiative and enterprise.

“I’ve become a humanitarian. I want to serve,” concludes the actor. “We’re in an age of cynicism, the far end of the Renaissance,” he says, and from the sound of things, he’d like to change all that.

The first page of the article "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
Read “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” by Don Freeman from the June 19, 1965, issue of the Post.

This article is featured in the September/October 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: © SEPS

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