Aspenite warms up role of coldhearted producer in ‘Man in the Chair’
ASPEN — Robert Wagner likes to delve below the surface of things.
In “Man in the Chair,” which opens Friday at the Wheeler Opera House, Wagner plays the smug Hollywood producer Taylor Moss. When we first see Moss, at his Hollywood mansion, we also see in the background the second (or possibly third or fourth) Mrs. Moss — hot, young and bikini-clad. It would be easy to see Taylor as the caricatured coldhearted, materialistic movie mogul — a perfect part for Wagner, who has a reputation for warmth, to play against type.
But what Wagner enjoyed was the layer of complexity writer-director Michael Schroeder built into the role. In a confrontation with his old nemesis Flash Madden, the subject of the former Mrs. Moss comes up. Flash notes that the old Mrs. Moss had also been Mrs. Madden, and Flash, a predictable curmudgeon regarding all other matters, shows his soft spot, reflecting that his ex-wife, stolen by Taylor, was the finest person in the world.
Taylor could simply harrumph, shunning the idea that there is anyone in the world worth such praise. Instead, Wagner gives Moss a sentimental twinkle in the eye as he agrees, yes, the late Mrs. Moss was, indeed, a special human being. The coldblooded producer does have a heart.
“I like that he was involved with Flash on that basis of the ex-wife,” said Wagner. “That was an interesting dynamic. He came in on another level. The character was well-defined.”
Wagner casts a similar eye on the town he calls home: Aspen. A ski junkie who first came here in 1949, lived in Aspen intermittently for more than 20 years, and been a full-time resident for a decade, the 77-year-old has seen enormous changes in the town. But he shrugs off the outsider’s notion of Aspen as a shallow playground for the rich. To him, the heart of Aspen is in such institutions as the Aspen Institute and the local residents he has come to know.
“There are all sides of Aspen,” said Wagner by phone, as he drove around town. “I think the fact that it’s such a desirable place to come to, and that the skiing is the best in the world, and you’re an upscale resort, it’s very easy to get criticized. But we all know that’s a balance that gets exceeded a lot.”
Wagner, best-known for starring roles in three successful TV series — “It Takes a Thief” in the ’60s, “Switch” in the ’70s, and “Hart to Hart” in the ’80s — was first lured to Aspen by the skiing. “I love the mountain, and Colorado, Aspen, was the place,” he said. “I came here and fell in love with all the benefits that are here. I fish the rivers, ski the mountains.”
His wife, actress Jill St. John, already had a home here for 16 years when the two were married in 1991. “She introduced me to an Aspen I didn’t know,” he said. “I was really able to meet some people who were the basic foundation here.”
Wagner keeps a second home in Los Angeles, to be close to his four children, and to maintain his acting career. He appears as the recurring character Teddy in the current sitcom “Two and a Half Men,” and recently filmed a pilot, “Pretty Handsome,” which co-stars Joseph Fiennes and Carrie-Anne Moss. Wagner played Mr. Wilson in the direct-to-DVD project “A Dennis the Menace Christmas.” And he has appeared in all three “Austin Powers” films.