ARCHIVE: It Takes a Thief…of Hearts!

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit February 17, 2009)

04LVbkcalIn the current issue of Vanity Fair, beneath a large script headline reading “Children of Paradise,” there’s a photo of a very young Robert Wagner, posed shirtless and beaming and showing off his car, what may have been a brand new 1947 Cadillac convertible. In the accompanying article, Todd S. Purdum quotes the actor forever known as “RJ” on life as a teenager in the rarefied air of what were then the tight-knit communities of Bel Air and Beverly Hills — a time when, Wagner says,

“You’d get down to the beach… and the water was blue and the beaches were white, and there weren’t that many people… it was an adventure. Everything was there and available. My God, you know? California!”

From the time his real estate developer dad moved the family from Michigan to the comfortable (but not crazy-ostentatious) hinterlands of Hollywood, RJ Wagner played the California card as well as anyone in history — from his first jobs seeing to the needs of the legendary at the Bel Air Stables and Country Club, through his expert captaincy of a career that’s taken him from flavor-of-the-month contract player, to well-heeled paragon of timeless movieland mojo — an instantly recognizable figure that cuts across the generations.

Really, ask some of the old timers in the family who thrilled to his starring turns in Fifties flicks like The True Story of Jesse James and the original Titanic. Track his household-name star wattage through such hit TV series as It Takes a ThiefSwitch and, of course, Hart to Hart. Even those born after Hart stopped beating know him for frequent guests turns on Two and a Half Men, and as Doctor Evil’s “Number Two” in the Austin Powers movies.

It hasn’t been all champagne wishes and caviar dreams, of course. There were the requisite amount of scandals, recriminations and rumors, much of it deriving from his long-playing relationship with the much-older screen star Barbara Stanwyck. There was a “divorce” from his old studio and his manager, as well as a major lawsuit against his TV producer Aaron Spelling (claiming a fifty percent stake in the Charlie’s Angels franchise). And above all else, there were his two marriages to Natalie Wood, a high-profile Hollywood love story that ended tragically with Wood’s drowning death in 1981 — a mystery that spurs major blog blather to this day.

Wagner addresses this and other matters for the first time in print with Pieces of My Heart, his recently published memoir (with Scott Eyman) from HarperCollins. He’s been promoting the book through numerous personal appearances — one of which brings him to Red Bank on February 24 for a signing event and catered reception at the Two River Theater; a swanky to-do brought to you by the folks at BookIt!

Life for the 79-year old star these days looks to be a pleasant series of charity golf tournaments, well-paid endorsement deals for senior-oriented products and services, and full mornings of phone interviews at the home that he shares with the ever-stunning Jill St. John, to whom he’s been married since 1991 (and with whom he made a visit to Red Bank a few years back, in their touring production of A.R. Gurney’s play Love Letters).

Briefly interrupting our conversation to ask an assistant to “see if Miss Jill needs something for her head,” Mr. Wagner — can we call him RJ now? — fielded our questions as we steered away from the more familiar turf, and onto topics like T.H.E. CatLime Street and Edmund Purdom(?!). Read on…

RED BANK ORBIT: We’ve been told that you’re going to be arriving at the event in a new BMW X-6, courtesy of a local dealer. Now, as an ambassador of Hollywood, a man who’s always comported himself with the elegant and dignified air of a classic movie star, how important is that grand entrance? And what were some of your more memorable arrivals?

ROBERT WAGNER: Well, I’m going to have to think about that one — there were times when I’ve ridden in on a horse. But I think my most memorable entrance was a complete surprise for me, when I walked into a surprise birthday party. I had no idea. I had the ‘grand entrance’ turned back on me.

You, and a couple of your contemporaries — Tony Curtis comes to mind — are among the last generation to really grow up in the old studio system. You guys get what being a star’s all about; you know there are protocols of behavior and a certain understanding of what the fans expect of you. Who was it that really taught you those ropes in the early stage of your career?

That more than anything else is what my book is all about — it’s my recollection of the people who mentored me in life and in my career; the ones who made a real difference.

I know you were friends with David Niven for many years, and I think of him as a master of the memoir — his writing really set a new standard for the Hollywood autobiography. Did you take inspiration from him when you sat down to pen your own memoirs?

He’s a very big part of the book. A tremendous actor and yes, a great writer. Those two books of his were wonderful — warm, funny, touching and very human. And he was a real friend who stayed by my side when I was going through the most tragic times in my life — he was there for me all the way.

Another thing that had to have a tremendous effect on your career was your time as a caddy at the Bel Air Country Club. Growing up like that among showbiz people; making connections and getting a sense of what these folks were like — did that serve to give you a leg up on other young hopefuls?

It really did. I open my book with a story from my caddying days; when I met four gentlemen walking down the 11th fairway at Bel Air. They were Cary GrantClark GableFred Astaire, and (the great Western star) Randolph Scott. And just to see such a sight — I said to myself, I want to be in that world. You can have this life for yourself.

And years later you would work with Fred Astaire. He played your father on It Takes a Thief, right?

That’s right. The show was written for me, it was my first series — it’s available on Hulu now. I played Alexander Mundy, a guy who was a thief and the son of a thief. The premise was that he was in prison and the government comes to him and says, you work for us now.

‘I’m not asking you to spy — I’m asking you to steal.’ It kind of fit in with all the cool secret agent shows in the 1960s, maybe a little bit with Mission Impossible— or T.H.E. Cat, with Robert Loggia.

Bob Loggia is another fine actor — he directed me, you know; directed some Hart to Hart episodes.

We hear a lot about Thief, Hart to Hart and Switch, but I wanted to ask you about a very short-lived series called Lime Street.

Lime Street, yes. My co-star was a young girl named Samantha Smith. She had become famous for writing a letter to (then-Soviet premier) Andropov; a plea for our people to get along with each other — she was cast as my daughter, and all of us on the show just fell in love with her. But she and her father were killed in a plane crash — we filmed in London and they flew back to New York, then they got on another flight and went down somewhere between New York and Maine. It was a terrible tragedy, and production of the show stopped then.

Another name that probably doesn’t get mentioned too much is Edmund Purdom, the British actor who was in Titanic with you. I mention him because I actually corresponded with him in his last months; one of his old films, The Student Prince, was the first movie my parents saw on a date, and for their 50th anniversary party I read them an email greeting from old Edmund…

Edmund Purdom! He had a brief career as a Hollywood leading man, but he wasn’t, I guess you could say his heart wasn’t in it. He left us, you know, just a few weeks ago. He was a friend; he lived for many years in Rome and I would see him when I was there. I put him in a show in Rome; he was in It Takes a Thief.

I have a story for you. Purdom was married for a while to a wonderful girl, who was with him during a time of financial difficulty. She did everything for him — cooked, washed his clothes, combed his hair. Then, for whatever reason, he divorced her.

We were all kind of worried about her — she was so devoted to him that we thought she might take her life. But about a year later she came out of it, and married a man who died not too long after that. And it turned out he was the heir to the Singer sewing machine company, and she inherited a fortune and what was then a big business. That was wild.

And that’s not in your book?

No, it isn’t. That’s for your story.

An exclusive! Cool. Dave Wyndorf, of the rock band Monster Magnet, would like me to mention his favorite of your old pictures, Between Heaven and Hell.

Right, that was a good one, directed by Richard Fleischer. Good music also. I made other war movies — The Longest Day of course, and I started in The Halls of Montezuma, with Richard Widmark. That was the first time I was ever credited on screen. Quite a cast, too — I worked with Dick Widmark, and Jack PalanceRichard BooneJack Webb — everyone in the film really became very successful in movies or TV. Later, Marty Milner and I stopped in to see the director, Lewis Milestone, to have a drink. He told us, if I had ten percent of all you guys, all that you’ve done, I’d be a very rich man.

Well, here’s a question. You’ve navigated the unpredictable currents of a Hollywood career as well as anyone has; you’re always mindful of how you present yourself in public, here in an age when TMZ cameras are lurking in every parking lot. How do you do it? What are the qualities that make for a long life in high style? Civility, intellectual curiosity…?

Well, certainly curiosity is important. And humor, about yourself and things in general. But an intellectual curiosity is the most important thing to possess in life. Other than that, I can’t worry too much about TMZ and how I look to them.

You’ve got the unshaven thing going on with the cover of your book. Was that ’studio stubble?’

No, that was real 1960 stubble. The photo was taken in France, in a tent, when I was doing The Longest Day. Years later I gave the picture to my daughter and she said, if you ever do a book this has got to be the cover. And now here we are.

And here you’ll be on the 24th.

I look forward to seeing you then. And make sure you don’t miss my big entrance!

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