Book Review: ‘A Fortunate Life’ by Robert Vaughn

Book Review: ‘A Fortunate Life’ by Robert Vaughn

Robert Vaughn’s new memoir, A Fortunate Life, is smart, smooth and slyly funny enough to have been written by Napoleon Solo.

As baby boomers will remember, Solo was Vaughn’s best-known role, the title character of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a hugely popular 1964-68 TV series that Vaughn describes as "James Bond in your living room."

But Solo was just one of hundreds of roles Vaughn, 75, has played in a lifetime as an actor, a career during which he has portrayed everything from a teenage caveman to three U.S. presidents.

A Fortunate Life begins with Vaughn’s memory of being taught to recite Hamlet’s soliloquy at age 4. He didn’t understand the sense of "To be or not to be" as a tot. "All I knew," he writes, "was that the words seemed to make people smile and applaud whenever I recited them."

His mother, Marcella, taught him the speech, declaring "Now you are an actor" once he had memorized it. (Hamlet provides the chapter headings for this book.) Vaughn’s mother, father and stepfather were all professional actors, mostly in regional theaters and radio dramas. Vaughn spent a happy childhood largely with his maternal grandparents in Minneapolis, sometimes on the road wherever his parents’ jobs took them.

That upbringing seemed to lead inevitably to an acting career. By his late teens, Vaughn was in Hollywood pursuing just that, both by studying acting at several colleges and by scrambling for as many roles as he could get, on stage, film and television.

It was a successful strategy that led him to an Oscar nomination in 1959 for best supporting actor in The Young Philadelphians (which starred Paul Newman), a starring role in The Magnificent Seven in 1960 and the role of Napoleon Solo in 1964.

Vaughn writes hilariously of how he became Solo he showed up horribly hung over for the interview and faked his way through it, scoring the role in a few minutes. The NBC spy series became a pop culture phenomenon: Vaughn and co-star David McCallum (now in the cast of CBS’s NCIS) got 70,000 fan letters a month and had to be escorted on their personal appearance tours by police motorcades to fend off hordes of screaming teenagers.

When that rocket ride ended in 1968, Vaughn had other things on his mind. By then, he had become one of the first celebrities to speak out against the war in Vietnam. His political activism grew along with his close friendship with Robert Kennedy; at one point, the California Democratic Party urged Vaughn to run for office.

Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 devastated Vaughn and haunts him still. He writes movingly of the somber train ride with the slain candidate’s coffin from New York to Washington, and one of the most startling revelations in A Fortunate Life has to do with unanswered questions about Kennedy’s death.

Acting and politics take center stage in the book, but Vaughn has lots of celebrity dish to serve up, too. He dated Natalie Wood when she was 17, taught an acting class whose students included a young Jack Nicholson and enjoyed long friendships with James Coburn, Steve McQueen (his co-star in Bullitt) and many other famous names.

Vaughn writes about his early Hollywood days with zest; it was a fantastic time to be a young, handsome, single, successful actor, and he appreciates his good fortune. He also writes with zest but discretion about his busy sex life.

Vaughn is a scholar as well as a gentleman. During the same years he was playing Solo and many other roles, he earned a doctorate in communications from the University of Southern California. His dissertation on the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s was published as a book, Only Victims, in 1972.

His fondness for research shows in A Fortunate Life, which includes quick courses on the history of the Vietnam War, acting theory and a comparison of the teachings of Krishnamurti and Eric Hoffer.

Vaughn is reticent about his family life in this memoir, mentioning his wife of 34 years and his two children only in passing. And the book focuses on the 1960s and ’70s, although he maintains an active acting career in recent years he has appeared often on various iterations of Law & Order, and he is currently starring as a genteel grifter in Hustle, a BBC series seen in this country on AMC.

But the years he focuses on yield a rich trove of stories. Some are thrilling, like the saga of how he and fellow actors George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Bradford Dillman had to flee the Soviet invasion of Prague, where they were filming The Bridge at Remagen.

Others are self-effacingly funny, like the tale of his role in Prehistoric World, a 1958 Roger Corman-directed B movie. Vaughn played a teenage caveman who, during a brief stroll through the wilds of Griffith Park, invents both the bow and the arrow.

As Vaughn writes, "You’ve got to see it to not believe it."