Saturday, February 21, 2009

Actor Robert Wagner still wows the crowd in Stuart, FL

Tina Bowerman, center, talks with Robert Wagner during a luncheon and book signing of Wagner's book "Pieces of My Heart," Friday in Palm City.

Tina Bowerman, center, talks with Robert Wagner during a luncheon and book signing of Wagner's book "Pieces of My Heart," Friday in Palm City.

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PALM CITY - Film and television star Robert J. Wagner talks with guest who came out for the signing of his book, "Pieces of My Heart," at a luncheon in Palm City. The luncheon was to benefit the Blake Library.

— He's a movie star and a television heartthrob. Depending on your age, you remember him as a teenage heartthrob, the stylish rogue in "It Takes a Thief," the romantic leading man in "Hart to Hart" or the evil No. 2 in the Austin Powers movies.

Robert Wagner's career spans more than 60 years.

"Natalie Wood and I came to Stuart for our honeymoon," he told a crowd of more than 400 women and a sprinkling of men gathered at a luncheon at the Harbour Ridge Yacht and Country Club in Palm City to raise money for the Blake Library. "We didn't stay too long. It was before Stuart was what it is today. Natalie wanted something a little more romantic."

Wagner, 79, oozes romance. Dressed in khaki slacks, cashmere sports coat, yellow shirt and dark tie, he held the crowd's attention for almost two hours. Interviewed by the co-author Scott Eyman of their best-selling book "Pieces of My Heart: A Life," Wagner talked about his road to fame. Seated at his side was Jill St. John, who looks so much like the Jill St. John of 20 years ago it's a bit surprising.

With her trademark red hair tousled in a poodle cut, a white suit with peplum jacket and black suede heels to match a silk flower at her throat, she enthusiastically carried on conversations at her lunch table and watched her husband intently as he told stories of the good old days.

Wagner's desire to act was ignited when he was only 10 years old and working as a caddy at the Bel-Air Country Club.

"The only thing I wanted to do was be in the movies," he said. "I caddied for Clark Gable. I used to wait for him in the parking lot, run around and get his clubs and be ready for him. He helped me out at MGM."

Wagner started out working the test stage at MGM, which is where he met Marilyn Monroe.

"She was a very unusual lady," he said. "She had a great sense of humor. It is amazing how her legacy has gone on."

Working with legends James Cagney and Spencer Tracy were pivotal to Wagner's career. Both men looked out for him, set him straight when needed, and helped him get roles.

"I was doing 'What Price Glory,'" he said. "I was 20 years old and dying on screen in Jim Cagney's arms. I couldn't get over it. He was a wonderful man and I admired him so much. John Ford was the director and he picked me out to be the boy he picked on. Cagney held my hand a lot."

Barbara Stanwyck held his hand, too, in a secret relationship that lasted four years.

"I was working on 'Titanic' with her and Clifton Webb. I don't know if it was timing. We just looked at each other and things started. I fell in love with her. She was 44 and I was 22. That wasn't accepted in those days."

Although that night off Catalina Island aboard the Splendour when Natalie Wood mysteriously fell to her death must have been on the audience's mind, Wagner only talked about working in "All the Fine Young Cannibals" with the woman he married twice.

"She was a tremendous professional," he said. "She started in the business when she was 4 years old with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. Working with her was a wonderful experience."

Anecdotes about Peter Sellers and the making of "The Pink Panther," his friend David Niven and a recent experience on the set of "Two and A Half Men" involving lipstick and a hoo hoo kept the audience laughing.

Wagner said he was surprised at his book's success; It's been on the New York Times bestseller list for a month. "It's extraordinary going around the world and people know about your life and career," he said. "And they are glad to see you."