Thursday, May 03, 2007

Wagner still punching in ‘Hustle’

Robert Wagner shows up on BBC1 tonight in the first episode of the fourth series of the popular con artist show “Hustle” (below left, with Jaime Murray, Robert Vaughn and Marc Warren). He plays a wealthy collector of movie memorabilia who is conned into thinking he can buy the Hollywood Sign. The episode is the first in the series to be shot in the United States where it is carried by AMC. Wagner, however, did make a TV series in the United Kingdom a long time ago for the BBC and Universal Pictures titled “Colditz.” It was a prisoner of war drama set during World War II costarring Jack Hedley, Richard Heffer and Edward Hardwicke, shown standing behind Wagner and David McCallum below. The series ran for 24 episodes in 1972-74 but the American actor appeared in just 14 of them. This is what he told me about it:

I liked the opening, the first year, but then we had a very difficult time. It started out as a kind of documentary but in the end they had the prisoners out sitting on deck chairs and they’d be singing away. The guys in Colditz never sang; they were starving to death. I said, ‘What is this, a bloody musical?’ I turned my back on the camera and walked out because they took something that could really have been great and put it in the toilet. The reason I reacted so strongly was because I really loved doing it, and I hated to see it wasted.”

The Detroit-born actor started in movies in Hollywood in 1950 and appeared in some decent films along the way such as “The War Lover,” “The Pink Panther” and “The Towering Inferno.” His biggest successes were on TV, however, playing a reformed cat burglar in “It Takes a Thief” (left) which ran for three seasons from 1968, and the suave Jonathan Hart opposite Stephanie Powers in “Hart to Hart,” which ran for five seasons from 1979. He also played Brick opposite his wife Natalie Wood and Laurence Olivier in a TV version of Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

He showed up this year in a pretty good picture about filmmaking titled “Man in the Chair,” starring Christopher Plummer, but he is probably best known to young moviegoers as No. 2 in the Austin Powers pictures. I’ve interviewed Wagner several times and found him to be a classy gent, the kind who would write a note to your editor if he liked something you’d written. Promoting a 1987 TV movie titled “Love Among Thieves,” he introduced me to his leading lady, Audrey Hepburn, which was a treat. The actor had a clear idea of his abilities when he spoke about his career, and that is always endearing in a Hollywood star. Here are some comments from an interview I did with him in 1983:

I always knew that this was what I wanted to do but I never knew if I would make it. I had a lot of people stroking me over the years — a lot of good people like Spencer Tracy and Elia Kazan who boosted me. I could have gone down. I had a lot of enthusiasm but I don’t think I was really so talented. I don’t think I’ve had all that talent within me that was bursting loose, that couldn’t wait to be seen and captured on the screen. I think I was really fortunate.

I know what that sounds like but it’s the truth. It’s the truth. I mean, you look back at some of those pictures and you say, ‘Whew!’ But I kept going and in some of the stuff I was good, you know? Some of the stuff, I was O.K. I look back, and some of it wasn’t so bad for the time.

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. It’s not been particularly a case of not getting the parts that you want but of not working at all. When I came back from Europe in the early ’60s, I had a soft spot for a while. I was out of work for a long time.

The guy who pulled me out of it was Paul Newman in ‘Harper.’ I think I loosened up a little bit in that film too. I’ve been really fortunate to have worked with people who have encouraged me, who’ve said, ‘Come on, you know it’s not gonna be that bad. Do it.’

I was sitting around the other day with a guy who started out in the picture business the same time I did and, I don’t know, it’s a real phenomenon: if you’re there and you keep going, if you just keep punching at it, somehow you stick around.

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