Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Chat with Robert Wagner

Robert Wagner was born in Detroit, but moving to Los Angeles with his family when he was 7 helped him avoid following his father into business. In Detroit in the '30s, Wagner's father sold the lacquer that was applied to the windshields of Ford cars. He also built houses in Palmer Woods. (The Wagners lived on Fairway Drive, by Detroit Golf Club.)

In Los Angeles, the elder Wagner was in the steel business, while his son caddied at the Bel-Air Country Club for film stars like Clark Gable, Randolph Scott and Fred Astaire. Gable got the youngster a screen test, which led to a career as the handsome, sensitive stud in movies like "Titanic," "With a Song in My Heart" and "A Kiss Before Dying." He jumped to TV starting in the '60s with "It Takes a Thief," and later, "Hart to Hart" with Stefanie Powers.

Wagner has written a surprisingly vulnerable autobiography, "Pieces of My Heart" (Harper Entertainment, $25.95), out this week. He describes a fractious relationship with his hard-driving businessman father, and is very frank about his romantic relationships, including a secret May-December affair with the elegant, worldly (and much older) actress Barbara Stanwyck. He was married twice to Natalie Wood; they first broke up when she became emotionally entangled with Warren Beatty. At one point, Wagner lurked outside Beatty's house with a gun, out of his mind with grief.

Wagner and Wood married a second time, in 1972, and had a daughter, Courtney. (Each had a daughter from an earlier marriage.) Then in 1981, Wood died in a tragic fall from their boat, Splendour, off Catalina Island. Because the couple and their guest, actor Christopher Walken, were drinking and arguing, the cause of Wood's death remained murky. In the book Wagner, 78, describes what he remembers, and how he and his daughters endured the loss. He married actress Jill St. John in 1990.

Do you remember much about living in Detroit?

It was a long time ago. I remember Traverse City, and all that. It was so beautiful, God, fishing and riding. I live in Colorado, and I'll go through the forest there and say, "It smells just like Michigan." I went to camp in Petoskey when I was a little boy. I have such great memories of Northern Michigan, what a beautiful place. When I come back (to Detroit), I go over there (Fairway Drive) and it's still beautiful. I saw one of my first shows at the Fisher, a Christmas play, and I was astounded.

Why did you decide to write the book?

I wanted to acknowledge the people who were so wonderful in my life and were responsible for me being here, and doing what I wanted to do. It's always been a bit of a mystery to me, how I've sustained a career. I've had a wonderful life, a wonderful family and now it's all down on paper.

How did you remember details of things that happened 30, 40 or more years ago?

I went back to phone books, I went back to my old cars. For guys, when you get your first car, it's very meaningful. You can kind of push your dates together from what cars you had.

Your relationship with Barbara Stanwyck is a surprise.

She was absolutely wonderful to me. I was so very fortunate to have that love come into my life, at that age.

You had a special bond with Spencer Tracy, with whom you made Broken Lance in 1954.

I did two pictures with Spencer Tracy, and he was wonderful to me. I was very fortunate that he put his arm around me and said I could go someplace. I was very young; I was so happy to be in the picture business, but I didn't know if I could sustain it or not. He was a major person in my life as far as that. We all need that; people need mentors.

You managed to see all the jazz greats in the '50s and '60s, including Billie Holiday.

I followed her, yes. Jimmy Rhodes was a good friend of mine, and he played for her. It was very exciting, but very sad at the end when she was in the hospital. They were treating her for pneumonia, for Christ's sake, they weren't treating her for the right thing. I think in another time, she would have survived.

When you moved from movies to TV in 1968 with It Takes a Thief, you were a pioneer. Was it hard to make that transition?

I didn't know if the transition would work. But I had a wonderful character, Alexander Mundy, who was created for me, and the public embraced me as that.

Was it hard to write about Natalie's death?

It was hard to go back there, and I wanted to get it right, as right as I could. It was a long time ago, 27 years -- can you imagine? It seems like yesterday, and I've gone over and over it in my mind a million, two million times. It was sad, and my girls, we all held on to each other. Everybody has tragedies in their life, and this was a confirmation that you can get through it, somehow. That you can put one foot in front of the other and keep going.

Did your wife, Jill St. John, really talk you out of appearing on Dancing with the Stars?

She didn't think that would be the right step -- not to be cute. That show is quite hard to do, it's not a walk in the park. I don't know if it's because of the way I dance with her (laughs), but I accepted it because she's very good with me.

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