Robert Vaughn's Napoleon Solo and his partner, David McCallum's Illya Kuriyakin took the James Bond spoof TV action comedy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E (1964-1968) to the top of the TV charts, peaking in 1965, when the show and its two leads were nominated for Golden Globes in their categories. The show won, but Vaughn and McCallum, competing in the same category, cancelled each other and lost to David Jansen, the Fugitive of the eponymous drama.
Hollywood first recognized Vaughn five years earlier, for his role as a too smooth young man accused of murder in the Paul Newman soaper The Young Philadelphians (1959). The Hollywood Foreign Press Association nominated him as best supporting actor in the 1960 Golden Globes, and the Academy nominated him for an Oscar in the same category. A year later Vaughn won another Golden Globe nomination, as Most Promising Newcomer - Male (a discontinued category) for his role as one of The Magnificent Seven in the western by than name (dir. John Sturges, 1960), playing a suave character in the star-studded cast (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Yul Brynner).
Robert Francis Vaughn was born on Nov. 22, 1932, in New York City to show business parents. His father acted in radio series and his mother appeared in theater. When the couple divorced, the toddler Vaughn was raised by his grandparents in Minneapolis. “I was a complete wreck as a child, emotionally unstable, excessively prideful,” he told an interviewer. But his actress mother steered the young Vaughn to theater. At age five he could recite the Hamlet “To be or not to be” soliloquy. He was cast on radio shows, like his father, and in 1952 headed to Hollywood. While studying theater at Los Angeles City College (which recently received a million dollar HFPA grant) the young actor entered the Hollywood social life. He dated Natalie Wood, who'd just won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer for Rebel Without a Cause (1957); he drank with Bette Davis, hung out with Johnny Carson and befriended James Coburn (later his Magnificent Seven co-star). Like all these friends, Vaughn soon became a household name, but unlike them thanks mostly to the small screen.
Vaughn's signature role was that of super spy agent Napoleon Solo. For four years in the mid 1960s TV viewers all over the world tuned in by the millions to watch the weekly episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Vaughn, as a super agent from the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, battling T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity), a rival secret organization bent on dominating the world through nefarious schemes and far-fetched devices. It was a self-aware TV parody of a parody film franchise, but both managed to tune into the zeitgeist of the cold war era. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was launched after the worldwide success of two hit Bond movies, created by Ian Fleming and starring Sean Connery (indeed, Fleming served as an adviser to the TV show, and he came up with the Napoleon Solo moniker).Vaughn said that at the peak of popularity, he received some 70,000 fan letters a month, but he never took his fame or himself seriously. “The whole show is a joke." he said, "It’s an extension of the Bond joke into a gigantic cartoon in prime time”. He didn't take acting itself too seriously either: “Acting has always been very boring to me. Anyone (who is) not in television (just) to become a millionaire is a simpleton."
Vaughn's heart was in politics. He was an early opponent of President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war, and spoke publicly against the USA "... marching our legions through the countryside of foreign continents, burning homes, laying waste to the land and indiscriminately killing friend and foe alike.”
Vaughn befriended Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and was often a guest at his Virginia estate. But his Napoleon Solo alter ego was always present. "The Kennedys" Vaughn wrote in his 2008 autobiography, A Fortunate Life," were big fans... Their house was covered with U.N.C.L.E. posters inside and out, including pictures of me with my Walther P38 at the ready.”
Over his long career Vaughn appeared in more than 70 features, and many TV series. He portrayed historical figures as diverse as Adolf Hitler, Douglas MacArthur, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But most often he was cast as a powerful man - who is debonair, suave, charming - but also villainous, conniving and corrupt.
Vaughn never stopped acting. In 2012 he appeared in two TV series in the U.K., and last year he appeared in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
As he wrote in his autobiography, “With a modest amount of looks and talent, and more than a modicum of serendipity, I’ve managed to stretch my 15 minutes of fame into 50 years of good fortune.”It ran out November 11, 2016, eleven days short of his 84th birthday.