Monday, December 06, 2004
Relative Values: Robert and Courtney Wagner
The career of the actor Robert Wagner, 74, has spanned five decades. He has appeared in over 100 films and television shows, including The Towering Inferno, A Kiss before Dying, the Pink Panther movies, and the hit TV series Hart to Hart. More recently, he played Number Two to Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films. He lives in Brentwood, Los Angeles, with his third wife, the actress Jill St John. His wife Natalie Wood was found drowned after disappearing from their yacht in 1981. Courtney, 30, his only child by Wood, lives with him in LA. She designs jewellery for Wagner & Ko, the company she formed with the handbag designer Anita Ko. Courtney has two half-sisters.
COURTNEY: Growing up with Mum and Dad felt like being in a fantasy world. I was always entertained — quite mesmerised — by them. Maybe it was because they had this real connection and great love, and it was always so much fun. I'm not sure that I really understood the magnitude of who they were. Even now I'm not sure, so I sometimes compare them to, say, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, or Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder.
I remember there were so many people around, it was kind of crazy. Paparazzi were all over the place, and I didn't like that at all. I just knew it was wrong. It felt invading, and I wanted to ask them to leave us alone.
We did get some alone time, though. And we always did things together, like camping in Aspen and travelling a lot.
It was kind of a big posse, including my nanny and Dad's secretary and my other two sisters, Katie and Natasha.
My dad loves life and meeting people and doing activities. He's engaged in it all. He'll take me for a drive in his car up the coast just to watch the clock tick over 500,000 miles, or he'll come and get me if he sees a spider weaving a web in the yard. Or we'll see someone on the street that's really unfortunate, and he'll say: "Imagine what that person's perspective is." He instilled in me the need to have care and compassion for others. Not that we weren't spoilt. I always got great toys, and I got a car when I was 16, but he wanted me to make sure I had a manual gear so I'd pay attention to the road.
I don't remember very much about my mother. I do remember her laugh and the way she smelt, and I remember her hands — things like that that made me feel close to her. Today it's strange to see her in, say, Splendor in the Grass, as I didn't know her then. But to see her in my favourite movie of hers, The Cracker Factory, which was made after I was born, that's what I remember her to look like.
When she passed away I was seven.
I remember feeling I was watching all this stuff happen. My father and I and my sisters started travelling a lot. We went to Switzerland and spent a lot of time there, which I think was important. I think that everything Dad did then — like not being around this crazed atmosphere in LA with the paparazzi — was a good idea. It brought us all closer together. And I always had compassion and respect for him for keeping the family together — it could easily have fallen apart.
Dad got together with Jill soon after my mother passed away, though they didn't get married until I was 16. And I appreciated that stability. I think it would have been a real mess if a bunch of different women had been coming in and out of the picture, and that was never the case. I'd say that in the past three years I've developed a relationship with Jill that's been worth the wait. She's one of the smartest people I know. She knows anything about anything, and she's very funny. When I was younger I had a nanny, though — Willie Mae. She raised me, and is really more like my mother. I was glued to this lady like you've no idea, and that's maybe why things didn't seem as horrific for me as they did for other members of my family.
Willie Mae still lives with my dad, and I moved back myself recently, as I'd just sold my house. My sister Katie and I kind of rotate staying in his guest house, and it's nice being back close to Willie Mae and my father. Of course, I have moments where I think: "Oh God, am I stepping backwards here?"
But I feel it's important to stay in the moment. I don't think there are many people that have the relationship with their father that I and my sisters have with mine. He's a father, he's a friend, and he's been such a strong male role model that it's a concern, because I don't think I'll ever find anyone like him. And if I were to search for it, I'd find myself a very lonely lady. I tease him and tell him to freeze his sperm. I'm just joking — but not really. My sister thinks I'm sick for saying that. But I think if I was to find somebody who cared like he does about the Earth and humanity and feelings and family, then that would be good.
A lot of people ask me if there's any pressure living up to the Wagner name, but I don't think so. The only pressure
I would ever feel is, I would always want my family to be proud of me. I just want my dad to feel he raised a solid person to be compassionate and care about the things that he cared about.
ROBERT: Marriage and family were always very important to me. It was the real core, the most important thing in my life. If you've got the right relationship, one that's very strong, interference from things like your career won't affect it. The relationship takes priority.
It was most important for Natalie and me to have a child, and so exciting. Courtney's arrival was a very special moment in our lives. Our priorities were to try to spend as much time as we could with her. It was the most intense time of my life. When you have the privilege of having a child and watching her grow into a woman, it's a big-time odyssey — about the biggest trip you can have. And a journey where you have absolutely no control. I'm sure there were times when I was distracted by my career. Luckily, I managed to take my children with me on location, and I think that was an interesting education for Courtney — better in many ways than school, because I was able to take her to different countries.
Courtney was always very definite about what she wanted, and she was always looking for something different. She had a tremendous gift for art from an early age. Everybody thinks their child is so special, and they are — but she had a gift from around four years old. But I didn't try to push a brush in her hand — she found all the things she's been interested in for herself. I'd support her whatever she wanted to do.
I think it's a wonderful thing what she's doing with the jewellery — I have a few pieces. I wear a ring she gave me around my neck on a chain. She started that business all on her own, and I'm just glad to have a jeweller in the family.
I think I was as good a father as I could be. I was there for her, and am there for her, though there's often times where you think you could have done better here or there. What I tried to impress upon her was to love well. If you love well, everything falls into place in your life. In everything, if you have a feeling of love, things are good.
Courtney's mother loved her dearly. She was at a very young age when her mother left her, just seven. The loss of Natalie created a tremendous void for all of us. We all had to help each other, be together and try to get through the loss. We had a lot of wonderful people who helped, and we all hung onto each other. It brought us very, very close. And, thankfully, Courtney got on with Jill really well. She'd been around quite often and loved the girl — a lot of people love Courtney. She's a very special kid.
I think Courtney would be a wonderful mother. If she was happily involved in a relationship that was meaningful to her, I'd like to see her married. Though I think I might be scary to some of the boyfriends. Boyfriends are always a little on guard with the father, and there's been some I've disapproved of.
But I do absolutely nothing. There's nothing I can do. I don't think what I say would do any good, because it's not
my life — why should I get involved in her relationships? If she sees something in a guy, I might think he's an absolute asshole, but I can't say that. It's not my right to say that, unless I'm asked.
I've found that when your kids come to making choices, there's nothing you can do. I'm along for the ride — and I've been on the ride since she was a young woman. I'm just hanging on here.