There is no little irony in the casting of Robert Vaughn to play the Halde-manesque character of Frank Flaherty in this week’s TV miniseries Washington: Behind Closed Doors.
For while Vaughn, 44, is best known for cashing in his Bondmanship on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., he also gained notice and sometimes notoriety as an activist Democrat, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. He’s even still politician enough to deny Flaherty reflects Haldeman at all, even though the series is based on John Ehrlichman’s novel The Company. Vaughn says that if he were playing Haldeman, he would have read everything he could find about him—”including his political science papers at USC.” Flaherty, he says, is just “a snotty, cold bastard, like the roles I used to play before Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
Vaughn began acting at the age of 12. After a brief sportswriting stint at the Minneapolis Star-Journal, he earned a B.A. in 1956 in theater arts from Los Angeles State College and four years later won a best-supporting-actor Oscar nomination for The Young Philadelphians. But it wasn’t until U.N.C.L.E.—which debuted in 1964 and lasted four seasons—that he won star status and a platform.
Beginning in 1966, he delivered more than a thousand speeches against the Vietnam war, inevitably getting dubbed the “Man from K.R.E.M.L.I.N.” in the process. When he met President Johnson, Vaughn recalls with a grimace, “LBJ boomed, ‘So you’re the speechmaker!’ He put his enormous arms around me, gave me a vicious bear hug and then flung me away.”
Vaughn fared better with the Kennedys. He had campaigned for JFK in 1960, and when Robert’s children joined the U.N.C.L.E. craze, he was invited to Hickory Hill, RFK’s Virginia estate. The house turned out to be plastered with posters of Vaughn as Napoleon Solo. He recalls with horror what ensued: “They got me up at 6 a.m. and put me on their father’s horse, Attorney General, the biggest, fastest, meanest horse I’d ever ridden. I can ride movie horses—they move forward when the director yells ‘Action!’ and stop when ordered to. But this horse took off at a gallop. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.”
Vaughn was working on a Ph.D. in communications at USC while shooting U.N.C.L.E. (his dissertation on ’50s blacklisting in Hollywood was later published as Only Victims). He was even beginning to think of running for office. But the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 so shocked him he spent most of the next five years out of the country. “I lost heart for the battle,” he says.
Despite a 1965 Hamlet staged in Pasadena that one critic called “incredibly badly acted,” Vaughn’s post-U.N.C.L.E. career wandered into projects like Bullitt, a Solo reprise on TV called The Protectors and The Towering Inferno. But he also made a visit to Chicago in 1970 to act in The Tender Trap with actress Linda Staab. A devoted Hollywood bachelor who had escorted Natalie Wood and commedienne Joyce Jameson, among others, he did not exactly overwhelm Staab. “I thought I’d met a warped man who couldn’t discuss anything but RFK,” she recalls. “But after a while we discovered we weren’t discussing politics.” They lived together for four years, traveling around Europe where Vaughn worked, then married in 1974.
Vaughn has become a devoted father to son Cassidy, now 1½. (His own parents, a radio actor and stage actress, divorced when he was 6 months old.) An admitted “capitalist at heart,” he has also been happy to let Linda indulge her decorating talents in their country-French chateau in Beverly Hills.
These days Vaughn seems content to give up active politics. And while he supported President Carter—”the keenest intellect of any President since Wilson”—Vaughn did no campaigning. But he has turned his political instincts to advantage, playing Harry Truman in a 1974 TV movie, the Flaherty role and now Franklin Roosevelt, whom he will portray in FDR, a one-man show scheduled to open on Broadway next year.
Says Dore Schary, who wrote Sunrise at Campobello and the new play: “He has the breeding, the style, the sarcasm and the irony that FDR had. Look at that profile, that patrician nose. I didn’t have Robert in mind while I was writing the play, but the minute I heard his name, I said, ‘Yes!’ ”
Vaughn is so intent on making the play a success he has been immersing himself in FDR studies, down to working out with a wheelchair and crutches. Now that Vaughn is back on the boards, he is not eager to return to a TV series. “Now,” says Linda, “he feels like an actor again.”