RIP Robert Vaughn: Another Magnificent Actor Gone

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The Grim Reaper continues his onslaught on 2016, taking another classic star with him to Valhalla. Robert Vaughn , last survivor of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and ultra-suave star of TV’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E, has died at age 83, closing the books on a magnificent career in film, television, and the stage.

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Born to acting parents on November 22, 1932, Vaughn acted in small roles before landing the lead in Roger Corman’s unintentionally funny TEENAGE CAVEMAN. A year later, he was Oscar nominated for his performance as accused murderer Chester Gwynn in THE YOUNG PHILIDELPHIANS… what a difference a year makes! His role as Lee, the gunman who loses his nerve in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, is a standout among that all-star cast. Vaughn continued to act in both movies and TV parts before landing the part that made him a pop-culture superstar.

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THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) debuted September 22, 1964 in the midst of the James Bond craze, and was a huge hit. Vaughn’s smooth Napoleon Solo was the small screen’s answer to 007, aided by his partner, the Russian Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum of today’s NCIS fame), taking on the villainous organization known only as THRUSH. Veteran Leo G. Carroll played their boss Mr. Waverly, sending the agents on missions of international intrigue, with plenty of beautiful girls and super-spy gadgets along the way. Vaughn and McCallum became teen idols, appearing in all the mags of the era, and the merchandisers went wild with paperbacks, comics, and toys (I had the attaché case compete with badge, gun, and secret gadgets… wish I still did!). The series inspired a spinoff THE GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. starring Stefanie Powers as female agent April Dancer, which lasted a season. Some of the two-part episodes were expanded into eight (yes,eight!) feature films, and Vaughn reprised his Solo role for cameos in the TV sitcom PLEASE DON’T EAT THE DAISIES and the Doris Day spoof THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT. Vaughn and McCallum reunited two decades later for the TV Movie THE RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: THE FIFTEEN YEARS LATER AFFAIR.

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After U.N.C.L.E.’s four year run, Vaughn kept busy as mainly a supporting actor. He was Steve McQueen’s antagonist in BULLITT , Casca in JULIUS CAESAR, the doctor in THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES, the senator in THE TOWERING INFERNO, the professor in STARSHIP INVADERS, Gelt in BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (playing off his MAG7 role), and an evil millionaire in SUPERMAN III. He costarred with Nyree Dawn Porter for two seasons in THE PROTECTORS on television, had a recurring role as General Stockwell in THE A-TEAM, and played a veteran con man in the British series HUSTLE. His TV guest-starring resume reads like a list of classic television shows through the decades: GUNSMOKE, PLAYHOUSE 90, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENT, THRILLER, WAGON TRAIN, BONANZA, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, COLUMBO, HAWAII FIVE-O, THE LOVE BOAT, MURDER SHE WROTE, and LAW & ORDER. Vaughn did a ton of TV mini-series too, winning an Emmy for WASHINGTON: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, and adding his thespic abilities to CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE, CENTENNIAL, and THE BLUE AND THE GREY.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Robert Vaughn was one of the most reliable actors of the past sixty years, working steadily in every genre, and doing it with both style and substance. He was always a welcome presence in movies and TV, and he will certainly be missed.

It’s the original THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN- or is it? (United Artists 1960)

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There’s a large hue and cry about the upcoming remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (and remakes in general) among classic film fans. “How dare they”, it kind of goes, “Why, that’s blasphemy!”. The truth is, Hollywood’s been cannibalizing itself since almost the beginning, and remakes have long been a staple of filmmakers. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Japanese film SEVEN SAMAURI, moved to the American west by producer/director John Sturges . And while quite frankly most remakes can’t hold a candle to the originals, this 1960 action epic can stand on it’s own as one of the great Western adventures.

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Sturges assembled a macho cast to tell the tale of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village, and the seven hired guns who take on the job of defending them. Top billed is Yul Brynner as Chris, the black clad gunslinger who puts together the crew. First among them is Steve McQueen   , star of TV’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and on the cusp of film stardom after appearing in 1959’s NEVER SO FEW. McQueen plays Tanner, honing his ultra-cool persona in this breakthrough role. He also gets the best lines, like “We deal in lead, friend”. Cool indeed!

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Charles Bronson had been around awhile before taking on the role of O’Reilly, and his scenes with the adoring Mexican children who idolize him are standouts. Bronson would do a bunch of these all-star actioners (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE DIRTY DOZEN  ) before becoming a solo action icon in a series of 70’s films. Lanky young James Coburn was just beginning to get noticed in movie and TV appearances when he was cast as the knife-throwing Britt. Robert Vaughn   was another up-and-comer at the time, essaying the part of Lee, an outlaw who’s losing his nerve. (That would never happen to Napoleon Solo, his star-making role in TV’s THE MAN FROM UNCLE!) Brad Dexter was a veteran actor, usually cast as the heavy; he adds humor to the part of soldier of fortune Harry Luck.

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Horst Buchholz, “The German James Dean”, was already a star in Europe when he took the role of Chico, a cocksure young gun out to prove himself with these seasoned professionals. Buchholz was just beginning to branch into English-speaking productions, which later included Billy Wilder’s ONE TWO THREE and the excellent NINE HOURS TO RAMA. He probably would’ve been a bigger star if he hadn’t turned down the part of The Man With No Name in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Clint Eastwood is forever grateful for that!

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These seven take on bandit chief Calvera, played to perfection by Eli Wallach, foreshadowing his Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. While the rest of the cast plays it low-key, Wallach’s over-the-top bad guy offers a nice contrast, dominating every scene he’s in. Veteran Vladimir Sokoloff as the village elder gives a solid performance. Familiar Faces include Whit Bissell, Val Avery, Bing Russell, Robert Wilke, Jim Davis, and Victor French in minor roles. Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros is also on hand as the love interest for Buchholz.

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William Roberts gets credit for the screenplay, but it’s a bit more complicated then that. Blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein did the original adaptation, which was rewritten by Walter Newman. Roberts made some changes while on location and asked for a co-credit, prompting Newman to ask for his name to be removed from the credits. I’m not sure just who wrote what, only that the screenplay works as one of the all-time action greats. Charles Lang’s majestic cinematography is a work of art in itself, as you’d expect from the man behind the camera on such classics as THE BIG HEAT  and SOME LIKE IT HOT. Speaking of works of art, Elmer Bernstein’s score is one of Hollywood’s best known and best-loved. That theme has been sampled in countless movies, TV shows, and recordings, enjoying a second life as the theme for countless TV commercials for Marlboro cigarettes in the 1960’s.

So the question is, will I go see the new version? Probably not. I’ve seen the trailers, and it looks okay. It might even be pretty cool. But it won’t be Steve McQueen/Charles Bronson/James Coburn cool. And there lies the rub as far as remakes of classic films goes. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is the perfect action flick in every respect, and it’s hard to top perfection. The 1960 movie does it by bringing Kurosawa’s samuari original to the Old West, adding a new spin to the story. But for the most part, remaking a classic (or even semi-classic) film seldom works. Now, if they had put the new Seven epic in outer space, we might be having a completely different conversation about this latest Hollywood remake!

*Author’s Note: TCM is showing this movie tonight (9/22/16) at 8:00PM EST. Watch and enjoy!

 

 

 

The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)

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Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

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Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross is attacked in the seedy hotel room he’s being hidden in, causing the death of a cop. Ross survives, barely, and another attempt is made at the hospital. When he succumbs to his injuries, Bullitt and partner Delgatti stash the body in the morgue, and begin their investigation. Chalmers demands to know where Ross is, thinking him still alive, but Bullitt won’t give in until he completes his search for the truth.

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Frank Bullitt is the prototype for D’Antoni’s “Maverick Cop”. Cool as a cucumber, always butting heads with authority, breaking the rules, and of course driving like a maniac! McQueen’s just right for the part, with his ice-blue eyes revealing nothing and his naturalistic acting style. His iconic dark blue turtleneck, tweed jacket with elbow patches, and desert boots set a style trend among men who wanted to be like Steve, but there’s only one Steve McQueen!

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And that car chase set the style for literally dozens of cop films to come. Bullitt’s green ’68 Mustang GT goes up against a ’68 Dodge Charger in one of the wildest chase scenes ever filmed. McQueen drove in the close-ups (he was a race driver of note), but the heavy lifting was done mostly by stuntman Carey Lofton and motorcycle racing champ Bud Ekins (who also doubled for McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Bill Hickman, stunt driver extraordinaire, was behind the wheel of the Charger,  and choreographed most of the sequence. The action takes us from Fisherman’s Wharf, through Midtown, and ends just outside San Francisco on Guadalupe Canyon Parkway. Frank P. Keller deservedly won the Oscar for best editing that year largely due to this exciting chase.

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The cast features Robert Vaughn (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E) as Chalmers, as grandstanding politician (is there any other kind?). Vaughn had costarred with McQueen in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and the two men work well together here. I love this bit of dialog- Chalmers:  “Frank, we must all compromise”. Bullitt: “Bullshit”. Vintage McQueen! Jacqueline Bisset’s on hand in the role of Bullitt’s sensitive artist girlfriend (“With you, violence is a way of life, violence and death”, she tells him). Don Gordon plays Bullitt’s partner Delgatti; the two were friends offscreen and appeared together in PAPILLION and THE TOWERING INFERNO. Simon Oakland is Bullitt’s tough boss, like he was Darren McGavin’s tough boss in THE NIGHT STALKER (both the movie and TV show). George Stanford Brown (THE ROOKIES), Norman Fell (THREE’S COMPANY), Vic Tayback (ALICE), Felicia Orlandi, Ed Peck, and Al Checco are also among the supporting cast, as is young Robert Duvall in a small role as a cab driver.

Director Peter Yates was recommended by McQueen after the star saw his British film ROBBERY, which also involved a car chase. Yates would go on to make interesting films, including THE HOT ROCK (based on a Donald Westlake novel), THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (an underrated crime drama starring Robert Mitchum), THE DEEP, the bicycle racing saga BREAKING AWAY, EYEWITNESS (another underrated film), THE DRESSER, and SUSPECT. William A. Fraker’s cinematography is stunning, and Lalo Schifrin adds another solid jazz score to his resume.

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Everything works together to make BULLITT (along with BONNIE AND CLYDE) one of the most stylish American films of the 1960’s, and one that holds up well today. I only wish Philip D’Antoni had made a few more; with BULLITT, I’ve completed covering his cop trilogy. That’s alright, though. Now I can watch them again without taking notes, and just enjoy them as a fan!

Spies Like Us: THE VENETIAN AFFAIR (MGM 1967)

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Robert Vaughn played superspy Napoleon Solo on TV’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. from 1964 to 1968. The series was inspired by the James Bond craze, filled with outlandish gadgets and evil supervillains. Vaughn’s popularity led to a starring role in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, a Cold War spy thriller with a much more adult theme. Here, he plays Bill Fenner, ex-CIA agent, now a hard-drinking reporter who gets caught up in international intrigue.

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Fenner is sent to Venice after a U.S. diplomat supposedly sets off a bomb at an international nuclear disarmament conference. He soon learns the assignment was arranged by his former CIA boss, “Rosey” Rosenfeld (Edward Asner). Rosey wants to use Fenner to smoke out old flame Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), a Communist agent with a mysterious link to the bombing. Fenner’s odyssey takes him through double-and-triple crosses in the world of international espionage he once left behind.

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Boris Karloff is on hand in his last non-horror role as Dr. Vaugiraud, whose report holds the key to the mystery. Karloff, looking every bit the scientist, does well with the part, giving a very understated performance. German actor Karl Boehm (PEEPING TOM) plays the main villain, Wohl. The rest of the cast includes Roger C. Carmel (STAR TREK’s Harry Mudd), Felicia Farr (wife of Jack Lemmon), Luciana Paluzzi (Bond girl Fiona in THUNDERBALL), and Joe DeSantis (THE PROFESSIONALS, COLD WIND IN AUGUST). Director Jerry Thorpe handles the film with restraint, keeping things realistic. He was best known for his television work, having won an Emmy for the series KUNG FU. DP Milton Krasner had long been a top Hollywood camera ace, lensing everything from THE BANK DICK to GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SCARLET STREET to ALL ABOUT EVE, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (Oscar winner) to THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, HOW THE WEST WAS WON to THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, to his last, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. Lalo Schifrin’s score is sufficiently moody enough for the shadowy goings-on. Schifrin of course is remembered for composing the theme for another 60’s TV spy show, MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE.

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THE VENETIAN AFFAIR is closer to THE IPCRESS FILE or THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD than any James Bond or Man from U.N.C.L.E. shenanigans. It’s a taut, well paced Cold War thriller, with gorgeous location scenery. While it may not be the best or gaudiest of spy thrillers, it’s certainly worth a look (especially for Boris Karloff buffs). It’s one of those movies that’s not bad, not great, but  pretty entertaining. And who could ask for anything more?