Robert Vaughn is cool.
He’s cool enough to have prospered in show biz for the past 50 years and made it look easy. Cool enough to certify his coolness as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” a generation ago, then to hold his own now with cool co-stars less than half his age on “Hustle,” a comic caper series premiering on AMC at 10 p.m. EST Saturday.
Vaughn is sufficiently cool at 73 to look dapper in his pink pinstripe shirt, pink tie and a double-breasted jacket with what seems like a battalion of brass buttons. His jawline seems borrowed from the prow of a yacht. He speaks in a hearty purr.
Is he really as cool as he appears?
“Not according to my wife,” Vaughn chuckles. “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.”
That all may be, but coolness is no con job with Vaughn in his latest role: a con man who deftly separates London’s greediest marks from their cash.
Vaughn plays Albert Stroller, the lone Yank in a band of scammers also played by Adrian Lester, Marc Warren, Robert Glenister and the comely Jaime Murray.
This is a lovable, all-for-one crew with a wily insistence that each hand-picked victim was just asking for it. “You can’t cheat an honest man” is their self-absolving mantra as they carry out their lighthearted schemes, having almost as much fun as the viewer.
A swank, high-sheen romp, “Hustle” is already big on the BBC, where it premiered in 2003.
Vaughn says the show was already in production when he got the call at his Connecticut home that he was chosen to be Stroller. He was on the set two days later, which didn’t give him much time to fashion his character. By necessity, he drew inspiration from his ’60s spy spoof.
“I imagined that Napoleon Solo had retired from U.N.C.L.E. — whatever U.N.C.L.E. was,” Vaughn says. As a suave secret agent, Solo was accustomed to glamour, intrigue and derring-do. “What could he do now to use his talents and to supplement his government pension? I imagined Stroller as Napoleon Solo, The Later Years. That’s basically who I’m playing.
“But it’s always been some variation on that,” he adds with a laugh, “whether it’s comedy, drama, no matter which side of the law I’m on. I don’t play a lot of roles that Robert Duvall would play.”
A life in actingThe son of a radio-actor father and a stage-actress mother, Vaughn has been playing roles since he was a toddler.
“When I was two or three years of age, my mother taught me the ’To be or not to be’ soliloquy from ‘Hamlet.’ From that point on, I was an actor in my mind.”
He earned a theater degree from Los Angeles State College and, starring in a stage production only weeks after graduation, he was seen by Burt Lancaster, whose production company signed him to a contract.
Soon after that, he was drafted, “but they paid me the whole time I was in the Army. I was a well-paid private.”
After his discharge, he landed a costarring role with Paul Newman in “The Young Philadelphians” (1959), then a year later joined such stars as Steve McQueen and James Coburn in “The Magnificent Seven.”
More films and TV followed. Then in 1964, after a late night socializing, Vaughn arose at 7 for a 9 a.m. meeting to discuss a new series.
“The script was called ‘Solo’ then,” he recalls. “I read it at red lights driving to the studio.”
When he arrived, the veteran producer Norman Felton asked if he was interested.
“‘Absolutely,’ I said, and Felton picked up the phone and called New York and said, ‘Vaughn’s interested.’ A 10-second phone call and that was that.”
Riding the James Bond wave, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” which NBC aired from 1964 to ’68, made a global star of Vaughn as well as boyish heartthrob David McCallum (who now, at 72, plays Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the CBS drama “NCIS”).
But while foiling exotic foes on TV, Vaughn went back to school. By 1970 he had earned a Ph.D. in Mass Communication at the University of Southern California. His published thesis — “Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting” — remains in print.
At about the same time, Vaughn’s bachelor status was nearing an end. He had once been quoted dismissing marriage as “a very dull meal, with the dessert at the beginning.” But in a chance booking, he was cast opposite an actress named Linda Staab in a stage production of the aptly titled comedy “The Tender Trap.”
They have been married for three decades.
“The breaks,” Vaughn sums up, “all fell my way.”
Just more confirmation of his coolness?
“The first year of ‘U.N.C.L.E.,’ the new cool show, I was asked, ‘What’s YOUR definition of cool?’ And off the top of my head I said, ‘Serenity in the midst of chaos.’ But I think I do operate that way: The more chaotic things get, the calmer I become.
“I can’t allow myself to be caught up in chaos,” Vaughn says with a charming smile. “It makes me crazy.”