Robert Vaughn Was The Greatest Actor-Activist You’ve Never Heard Of
You may not have heard of Robert Vaughn, who died last Friday; he was in his acting heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. But Hollywood hasn’t forgotten him. Over the past year and a half, it’s been trying — weakly — to recreate two of his most iconic roles: Napoleon Solo in the The Man From U.N.C.L.E., played by a handsome but flavorless Henry Cavill in the turgid film remake, and Lee in the film The Magnificent Seven, whose modern counterpart was played with mere competence by Ethan Hawke. What these imperfect reboots make clear is something I’ve always known: Robert Vaughn is irreplaceable as an actor.
But after hearing the news of his death at the age of 83, only days after a catastrophic U.S. election, it’s Vaughn’s irreplaceability as a public figure that I keep coming back to. I can’t think of many current stars who engaged in the kind of civic participation that he did over the course of his 60-plus year career, especially during the turbulent ’60s. And as I pore over his books again in the days after his death, I also believe we could actually learn something from the works of this strange, sharp man.
It was always going to hurt to lose Robert Vaughn. It might have been Napoleon’s dreamy and sardonic partner Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum, whose beauty actually caused a teenage riot at a Macy’s at the height of the show’s fame) who first caught my eye when I started watching reruns of Man From U.N.C.L.E. on late night Canadian cable in the mid-’90s, but it’s Vaughn himself who has increasingly earned my attention and adoration over the years. Part of the appeal was the fact that his leading man looks and charisma barely concealed the quirks and charms of a truly oddball character actor. The strange little details that he adds to so many of his performances — from inexplicably dialing a phone with a gun during his tenure on The A-Team, to his goofy expressions, to the random touches he brought to every single U.N.C.L.E. scene (wearing a flower in his hair for an extended period of time, whatever the hell it was he got up to when he was inevitably chained up, his constant background scenery-chewing) — made him a uniquely entertaining performer.
Another part of my Vaughn obsession is that I’m drawn to the parallels between his life on and off screen while making U.N.C.L.E., a show that started shooting the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. By day he fought the fictional forces of THRUSH and stopped their increasingly eccentric attempts at world domination as Napoleon Solo. By night, even as his show became an international sensation, he continued to attend college classes and actively campaign for causes he believed in as Robert Vaughn, the doctoral student who just happened to be the second-biggest heartthrob in ’60s spy television.
I’m also completely fascinated by his 2008 autobiography, A Fortunate Life, which is easily the most bizarre and best celebrity memoir I’ve ever read. Not just because it’s a wildly heady mix of personal recollection, philosophy, politics, detailed explorations of RFK conspiracy theories, and gastrointestinal issues on the set of the Magnificent Seven (everyone had diarrhea the whole time), although certainly it is that. But also because, when he’s not writing about being in Czechoslovakia when the Prague Spring began, narrowly missing being a Manson Family victim, or surviving a bad trip by reciting Hamlet to himself, he has some truly thoughtful things to say about life and politics. Things that have, rather unexpectedly, helped me frame and consolidate my own philosophical beliefs. Things I could benefit from hearing right now.
It’s particularly painful to lose Vaughn right now in the way that it stings to lose Leonard Cohen right now. Much like the poet/singer/songwriter/everything, who died the day before him, Robert Vaughn’s work and persona seemed to represent the antithesis of Trumpism, the antithesis of this new outbreak of hate crimes, dehumanization, and threats. Maybe humanity proved we didn’t deserve him. Maybe he just couldn’t live in a world gone this off-course.
Vaughn was a supporter of the civil rights movement and spent the majority of his long career mixing art with politics. Even one of his most infamous missteps — a regrettable Roger Corman film called Teenage Caveman (1958), which is mostly remembered for its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000 — had, if you can believe it, an activist pedigree. The idealistic then-25 year-old believed that he could use the picture as “some sort of protest about the abolition of nuclear weapons.” The end result — which is basically 65 minutes of Robert Vaughn running around in a loincloth and a mix of bandages trying to conceal the various brutal injuries that he suffered on set and inventing archery — is even less successful as an aesthetic statement than an anti-nuclear one, but bless his heart for trying.
But it was while he was making the spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that Vaughn became truly serious about his activism. After a member of the crew asked him his opinion on the Vietnam War in 1965, he thoroughly researched the topic — a process that included digging through everything he could find from the library, requesting and receiving information from the State Department, and visiting wounded soldiers — and concluded that he was adamantly against American action in the country.
The following January, he became one of the first stars to publicly take an anti-war stance, denouncing President Johnson and the war at a Young Democrats dinner in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in Indianapolis. From there, he went on to become the National Chairman of Dissenting Democrats. He campaigned for Senator Eugene McCarthy, and even debated William F. Buckley on a heated episode of Firing Line.
Vaughn’s actions earned him death threats and a six-year investigation by the FBI, which suspected him of communist activities (his 140-page file, which he eventually obtained thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, largely comprised observations about his various television appearances). But he remained undeterred. In addition to his activism and the demands of being Napoleon Solo, the star also continued to work on his Ph.D. dissertation on the destructive effects of the House Un-American Activities Committee — the very committee that Newt Gingrich started talking about reviving last summer.
After almost losing his research materials during the Prague Spring, Vaughn received his Ph.D. in communications from the University of Southern California in 1970. He published his dissertation, Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting, two years later. The book, which examines the effects of McCarthyism on American theater and briefly touches on the destructive nature of “radicalism,” as exemplified by the HUAC’s anti-communist witch hunts, remains all too relevant today.
This passage from the introduction, in particular, stood out for me as I reread it after his death: “The appeal of radicalism is that it promises hope to the culturally, politically, and psychologically dispossessed.” The advancements that had been made in technology, the military, corporations, unions, and the rights of Black Americans, Vaughn says, leave some feeling left behind and ripe for exploitation by extremists:
“Many people dispossessed by changes of the twentieth century would like to reverse the trend of events. For these people history has ceased to be a history of progress. They have little to expect from the established system which appears to be continuing the prevailing trends. They want to get off and the radical groups extend to them the promise of extreme change. People who are satisfied with the present and have no confidence in the future are prone to grab at the promise of radical change even if they are not entirely certain about the nature of that change. They eagerly join in the condemnation of the system and are prone to believe in a conspiracy of some sort rather than realize the changing nature of society. It is more comforting to assume that some individuals or groups have been responsible for these changes than to deal with the complexities of modern existence. For these reasons the radical appeal and the scapegoat theory of the extremists tends to be attractive to the dispossessed.”
It’s an astute, prescient analysis that could have been published today.
Perhaps what was most admirable about Vaughn’s politics, though — especially in a world where a reality television show can pave the way to such a catastrophically dangerous presidency — was how thoughtfully he balanced and separated them from his work in entertainment.
In the final pages of his autobiography, Vaughn discusses Plato and Rousseau (really) and their apprehension about actors taking over politics. Though he recognizes the overlap between the dissembling and artifice of the theater and the dissembling and artifice of the political arena, for him, says Vaughn, there’s no chance of trading one for the other: “More than once I’ve been accused by adversaries of ‘meddling’ in politics (as if an actor doesn’t have the rights afforded to every citizen of free speech and public activism); more than once I’ve been urged by supporters to throw my hat into the political ring. I’ve resisted the temptation. I know my strengths and my limitations — and I know where my personal demos are buried.”
But, he says, “I consider the task of making this a better world the noblest human pursuit, and I reserve my highest admiration for the people who’ve dedicated their lives and talents to that task — the Robert F. Kennedys, the Martin Luther Kings, and the Nelson Mandelas of our world” — and artists can contribute to that project just as politicians can.
“Plato and Rousseau were right to point out the similarity between the arts of the actor and those of the politician. Both use words, gestures, expressions, and intonations to play on the emotions of an audience. At their most skillful, both are able to evoke intense sympathy from onlookers, even eliciting approval (at least temporarily) for words and deeds all right-thinking people would condemn. This is the power of the demagogue. . . . But this similarity is no reason to banish the actor from the perfect republic. Just the opposite. Maybe the citizen schooled in the ways of theater and familiar with the deceptive charms of the thespian is one best able to recognize and resist the lures of the would-be tyrant.”
There’s little solace to be found in the fact Vaughn, in a way, seems to have predicted the rise of Trump with his rumination, especially not when he died after the election of this particular demagogue. But I’m trying to find some hope in his belief that good artists can play such a vital role in fighting off the would-be tyrants of our times by producing work that informs us about our world, work that evokes sympathy for the people who actually need it right now — and by participating in civic duty outside of our work, as well. It’s going to be a little harder without my favorite handsome weirdo actor/writer/activist/ U.N.C.L.E. agent/ RFK conspiracy theory fan still around and contributing to the cause, but I figure doing my own part to contribute to art is one way I can help keep his memory alive.
That, and continuing to tell everyone I know that everyone on the set of Magnificent Seven had diarrhea the whole time.