Robert Vaughn, suave ‘Man from UNCLE’ star, dies at 83

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New York (AP) — Robert Vaughn, the debonair, Oscar-nominated actor whose many film roles were eclipsed by his hugely popular turn in television’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” died last week at age 83.  Vaughn passed away Friday, Nov. 11 after a brief battle with acute leukemia.

Actor Robert Vaughn is shown portraying superspy Napoleon Solo in this undated press photo for television’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” series. (AP Photo, File)
Actor Robert Vaughn is shown portraying superspy Napoleon Solo in this undated press photo for television’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” series. (AP Photo, File)

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was an immediate hit, particularly with young people, when it debuted in 1964.  It was part of an avalanche of secret agent shows (“I Spy,” ‘’Mission: Impossible,” ‘’Secret Agent”), spoofs (“Get Smart”), books (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”) and even songs (“Secret Agent Man”) inspired by the James Bond films.

Vaughn’s urbane superspy Napoleon Solo teamed with Scottish actor David McCallum’s Illya Kuryakin, a soft-spoken, Russian-born agent.

The pair, who had put aside Cold War differences for a greater good, worked together each week for the mysterious U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) in combatting the international crime syndicate THRUSH.

“Girls age 9 to 12 liked David McCallum because he was so sweet,” Vaughn said in a 2005 interview in England.  “But the old ladies and the 13- to 16-year-olds liked me because I was so detached.”

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” aired until early 1968, when sagging ratings brought it to an end.  Vaughn and McCallum reunited in 1983 for a TV movie, “The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in which the super spies were lured out of retirement to save the world once more.

McCallum said he was “utterly devastated” after learning of Vaughn’s death.

“Robert and I worked together for many years and losing him is like losing a part of me,” he said in a written statement.

In recent years, Vaughn had starred for eight seasons on the British crime-caper series “Hustle,” playing Albert Stroller, the lone Yank in a band of London-based con artists. “Hustle” also aired in the U.S.

“I imagined that Napoleon Solo had retired from U.N.C.L.E., whatever U.N.C.L.E. was,” Vaughn recalled in 2006.  “What could he do now to use his talents and to supplement his government pension?  I imagined Stroller as Napoleon Solo, The Later Years.”

Before “U.N.C.L.E.” Vaughn made his mark in movies, earning an Oscar nomination in 1959 for his supporting role in “The Young Philadelphians,” in which he played a wounded war veteran accused of murder.

The following year, he turned in a memorable performance as a gunfighter who had lost his nerve in “The Magnificent Seven.”

Making that movie, Vaughn recalled in 2005, had presented the cast with a vexing problem: no script.

“We had to improvise everything,” he said.  “I had to go to the costume department myself and choose the black vest and the black hat.”

Vaughn was drawn to politics in several of the TV roles he chose.  He portrayed Harry S. Truman in “The Man from Independence,” Woodrow Wilson in “Backstairs at the White House” and a presidential aide in the 12-hour “Washington: Behind Closed Doors,” for which he won an Emmy.

He also toured in a one-man play “F.D.R.” about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s battles with polio.

Vaughn remained active in movies in later years, usually in character roles.  Among his films: “The Venetian Affair,” ‘’The Bridge at Remagen,” ‘’Julius Caesar” (the 1970 British version starring Charlton Heston), “The Towering Inferno,” ‘’S.O.B.,” ‘’Superman III” and “Delta Force.”

Long among Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, Vaughn married actress Linda Staab in 1974.

“The breaks all fell my way,” said Vaughn in 2006.

But was he really as cool as he appeared to his adoring audience?

“Not according to my wife,” Vaughn chuckled.  “She’s married to the guy who doesn’t take the garbage out on Tuesday evenings, the guy she battles with to get me out of my jumpsuit and running shoes.  She doesn’t allow me in public unless I wear a tie and a coat.”