"Happy Anniversary, R.J.!"
July 7th, 2020
In the summer of 1977, I witnessed something I’ve never experienced before or since. I was holding court in a Century City hotel where CBS shuttled their primetime stars in and out of my suite for two straight days. I was there to tape interviews that we could broadcast back home on our local affiliate, and the network stars were there to boost ratings for their series. As the days wore on, my tech crew got so used to seeing celebrities stroll into the suite, that they would casually talk among themselves and fiddle with equipment as each actor entered.
Then it happened. Robert Wagner arrived for his appointed interview, and the room went dead silent. There was no talking, no clanging of light stands, just complete silence. All of us, men and women alike, were mesmerized by his old-style Hollywood elegance and boyish smile. On that day, R.J. was there to promote Switch, a private eye drama co-starring his friend Eddie Albert and a young Sharon Gless before she rose to stardom in Cagney & Lacey. We talked about a lot of things that day, but my memory is clouded by the passage of 43 years and the fact that I was star-struck to begin with.
What I do know is that in the years since, I came to realize that R.J.’s elegance, charm, and kindness were 100% genuine. For example, 30 years after our first meeting, R.J. rushed from the set of Two and a Half Men and grabbed a red-eye flight here to Winston-Salem to help our Humane Society raise money for a no-kill animal shelter. Thanks in part to R.J.’s celebrity draw, the shelter was eventually built, and in a very short time, we increased our save rate from 36% to over 70%.
Earlier this year, R.J. turned a youthful 90, and this summer, he celebrates his 70th year in show business. Recently, while everyone was still sheltering at home, R.J. and I had a socially-distant phone conversation about his remarkable career, which began with a cameo as a baseball player in 1950’s The Happy Years.
JL: You were only in the movie for a few seconds, but it looked to me as though you could really play ball.
RJ: Well, I had played baseball in school, but I give credit to the editor for making me look good [laughs]. Actually, Bill Wellman gave me that break. My father knew Bill from the Bel-Air Country Club, and he said, “My son wants to be in the picture business. Is there anything you can do?” And Bill gave me that shot.
Young Wagner also made a lot of high-profile friends of his own at the Club, including Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and Clark Gable, who helped to open doors for him. Before long, R.J. was under contract at 20th Century Fox, where he played everything from a soldier to a prince before landing a game-changing role in 1954’s Broken Lance, a western starring Spencer Tracy.
RJ: That was my favorite picture, and it did so much for me. Mr. Tracy gave me co-star billing above the title, and that took me out of being just another guy in Hollywood. It put me in a whole different position. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Broken Lance changed my life completely.
Wagner went on to appear in over 60 films, but landed his first lead role on television in 1968 with It Takes a Thief, co-starring his friend Fred Astaire.
JL: You wrote in your book, Pieces of My Heart, that Fred once advised you to just “keep going.” What did he mean?
RJ: Just don’t let anything stop you. If you get turned down—if you get rejected, which is all the time, I mean, actors get rejected constantly—he said, “just keep your head up and keep going.”
And that’s what R.J. did after Thief was canceled. He starred in Colditz, a short-lived WWII drama, then co-starred with Eddie Albert in Switch, all the while taking on supporting roles in such films as The Towering Inferno and Midway. Then, in 1979, R.J. struck gold with Hart to Hart, which ran for five seasons and spawned eight TV movies, and a lasting friendship with Stefanie Powers. One of R.J.’s other co-stars in that series was Freeway the dog.
RJ: Most Hollywood dogs work on hand signals, but Freeway didn’t respond to that, so his trainer would be off-set while Stefanie and I were in the middle of a love scene, and all you’d hear from the trainer is, “Come on, come on, come on.” I’d be like, “Darling I love you,” then we’d hear, “come on, come on.”
JL: Was there a lot of panting during that scene?
RJ: Yeah, from me and from the dog.
JL: You’ve always been sort of the romantic lead, but was there ever a time when your good looks kept you from getting an acting job, or from being taken seriously as an actor?
RJ: Oh, I don’t know. It’s possible. But a guy wouldn’t come up to you and say, “We wouldn’t cast you in this picture because you’re a good-looking guy.” [both laugh] I mean, I never had that happen. But I’ve been very fortunate with all that.
JL: Well, you certainly had the looks to play a great James Bond. In fact, you and Cubby Broccoli talked about your becoming 007 after George Lazenby dropped out. Why didn’t you take that role?
RJ: Because I’m too American. I think I would have had to do it with an accent; besides, Roger (Moore) was a perfect choice.
JL: But if you had been James Bond, aren’t there some villainous studio heads or critics that you’d like to have put in your ejector seat?
RJ: Oh, God. [laughs] That’s a good question.
JL: You’re not going to name names, are you?
RJ: No, I don’t think so.
JL: Are there any TV or movie roles you turned down that you wish you hadn’t?
RJ: You know I was offered Westworld, and that would have been interesting, but I was doing something else at the time.
At that point in our conversation, I mentioned it was our friend Richard Benjamin who took the role in Westworld, and that prompted R.J. to comment on Dick’s participation in the recent documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, which was produced by Wagner’s daughter, Natasha.
RJ: Did you see the documentary?
JL: I did, and it was superb.
RJ: I’m so glad you reacted the way you did because what Natasha wanted to have happen out of that documentary is for people to remember her mother as she lived, not as she died.
JL: Natasha’s film was really a breath of fresh air amidst the stink of today’s tabloid media who thrive on sensationalism, but let’s face it, there have always been trash magazines that went after Hollywood celebrities.
RJ: But we weren’t free-game then. Now we’re free-game, and anybody can write anything they want to, and not source it or attribute it.
JL: You once said that your friend Cary Grant worked hard to achieve a sense of ease about his celebrity. Has it been the same for you? Or, did that sense of ease about your celebrity just come natural?
RJ: I don’t feel uneasy about it, but I feel very grateful, very grateful. I’ve been so fortunate in my career, and I really haven’t done a hell of a lot to get that. I’ve just been very, very lucky, Jim.
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