PASADENA, Calif. — Robert Wagner perfected a suave persona on popular TV series such as "It Takes a Thief" (1968-'70) and "Hart to Hart" (1979-'84). He returns to familiar territory at 9 tonight as a bigger-than-life Texan on the fourth season premiere of AMC's clever caper drama "Hustle."
Wagner plays a collector of Hollywood memorabilia who can't wait to score possession of the Hollywood sign and transplant it to his Texas property. That makes him a mark for Robert Vaughn's team of London con artists, who are on the prowl in the U.S.
With half a century of film and TV work, from his 20th Century Fox contract player days in the 1950s in films like "Broken Lance" to recent projects like the "Austin Powers" movies, Wagner, who just turned 77, has learned it's well-written scripts and memorable characters that appeal to him, not the size of dressing rooms and other perks.
"I've really been mostly concerned about the work and who is there and what's — how it's going to happen," he said during a news conference to promote the series. "I had seen 'Hustle,' several of them. I admired the cast very much, and I liked this character a great deal, and it was very well written — all the things that an actor enjoys."
The Los Angeles location filming of "Hustle" was a reunion of sorts for Wagner and Vaughn, who starred in disaster king Irwin Allen's 1974 blockbuster "The Towering Inferno."
"We didn't have any scenes together," Wagner says. "I was at the top of the building trying to get it on with the young lady (Susan Flannery), and where were you?"
"I was hanging out with Bill Holden downstairs," Vaughn says.
While this episode of "Hustle" was shot in Hollywood, its base is London, the site of one of Wagner's most memorable working experiences.
"I've really been very fortunate to have worked with some wonderful people," he said. "One of the highs was doing 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' (a 1976 NBC movie) with Laurence Olivier and my late wife, Natalie Wood. We did that in England and had a five- or six-week rehearsal. Tennessee Williams was there. It was a highly charged, emotional time for all of us. Very exciting. I've had a lot of highlights, but that kind of stands out right now."
After the news conference, Wagner talked about a couple of things he hasn't enjoyed, including ABC's three-hour Natalie Wood biopic in 2004. The legendary actress' tragic drowning death off Catalina Island, Calif., on Thanksgiving weekend 1981 was a major part of the plot.
"I chose not to watch; I didn't want to," Wagner said, adding with a bit of a condescending tone: "I heard Peter (Bogdanovich, the director) needed the work."
And he sounds a bit miffed that bootleg copies of "It Takes a Thief" are circulating on the Internet while the series' owner, Universal, sits on the original negatives.
"I'm having meetings at Universal to see what their plans are for releasing 'It Takes a Thief' on DVD," he said. "I think it would sell well.
"Also, I've got some ideas on how to revive it, to bring it forward to 2007, but in a limited series form."
Wagner and his wife, actress Jill St. John, celebrate their 17th anniversary next month. One of their professional highlights as a couple was starring in A.R. Gurney's popular play "Love Letters."
Wagner became a grandfather in September when his daughter, TV personality Katie Wagner, had her first child, a boy named Riley. His other children are daughters Courtney and Natasha Gregson Wagner, an actress.
Ten years after his friend James Stewart's death, Wagner continues to host and promote the annual Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon, which has raised more than $8 million since 1982 for St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica.
Wagner's civic-mindedness was noted on April 5 in Los Angeles when he was honored — along with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, fitness guru Jack LaLanne and a few others — as Treasures of L.A. at a luncheon where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised his philanthropy.
Filmgoers will soon be treated to the spectacle of Wagner playing a vampirish U.S. President James Garfield in "Netherbeast Incorporated."