A Fortunate Life
By Robert Vaughn
St. Martin’s, 322 pages, $25.95
In 1972, Robert Vaughn wrote a book about the blacklist era called Only Victims. It’s basically his Ph.D. thesis—well structured, even-handed, a bit pedantic, but still invaluable, and I’ve always recommended it to people interested in that period.
It’s taken Mr. Vaughn 36 years to write another book—and it’s a memoir, A Fortunate Life.
Barring particularly interesting off-screen activities, show business autobiography invariably provokes a referendum on the career in question. So here goes: Robert Vaughn was carving out a nice niche as an all-purpose character actor with leading man looks—that Fearless Fosdick jaw!—in everything from episodic television to Roger Corman’s Teenage Cave Man (1958), when he got lucky with three parts: a preppy turned howling drunk in a Warner Bros. soap opera called The Young Philadelphians (1959), which nabbed him an Oscar nomination; a turn as the cowardly member of The Magnificent Seven (1960), one of those unusual movies that is miraculously greater than the sum of its parts; and, of course, as Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on television in the mid-’60s.
Since then, frankly, there hasn’t been much beyond a procession of performances as cold, bureaucratic pricks, kicked off by Mr. Vaughn’s performance in Bullitt (1968), although every once in a while there has been a flourish to remind you that there was an actor buried beneath all that typecasting—his turn in drag as a Robert Evans manqué in Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (1981) for instance.
Mr. Vaughn’s book does justice to the career, and he has a generous spirit about other actors, as most actors do. He’s particularly gracious about David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll, his co-stars on The Man From U.N.C.L.E, and lets slip the news that Carroll was on a catheter the entire time he worked on the show.
There’s an amusing section on the making of Teenage Cave Man, a typical Corman 10-day wonder in which the post-nuclear world was re-created in Griffith Park, and he spends a good amount of time on the making of The Magnificent Seven, and the incessant psychological jousting of its testosterone-laden cast.
All of this holds interest, but the book runs into problems as it moves into the late ’60s, when Mr. Vaughn’s career began to take a back seat to his antiwar activities. For the most part, his friendships with Bobby Kennedy and Allard Lowenstein promise more interesting material than is actually delivered, although the vignette of Kennedy kicking the family dog in anger will stay with me.
Sections on his spiritual seekings involving Krishnamurti lead to some grim boilerplate: “Man has a horror of aloneness. Is this not why a God was created by the first man or woman?” Likewise, the Vietnam war brings us prose worthy of the dullest high-school history textbook: “The stage was set for 1968, one of the most painful and traumatic years in our nation’s history—a time that neither I nor anyone who lived through it is likely to ever forget.”
Mr. Vaughn tosses off the last 30 years of his life in about the same number of pages, and some of those pages are random reminiscences of the Most Memorable Characters He’s Met—alcoholic wild men like Oliver Reed and Richard Harris.
Mainly, I would have liked more on the research that led to Only Victims. It’s not like the book is obscure; it was reprinted just four years ago, and is one of the few books about the blacklist to take a macro view. Mr. Vaughn seems proud of it, and he ought to be, but he mentions it only in passing.
Likewise, he lets us know about the stars and starlets he bedded in his bachelor days—Natalie Wood, Joyce Jameson—but there’s no portrayal whatever of his wife of 30-odd years, let alone his children.
In many ways, A Fortunate Life is an odd performance; Robert Vaughn obviously wants us to think he thinks, but he neglects to make us feel that he feels.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.