Friday, July 15, 2011

It takes a movie star: Robert Wagner enjoying Turner Classic Movies guest stint

Robert Wagner appreciates spending some time in Robert Osborne's shoes.

As the primetime host of Turner Classic Movies begins a three-month break for what the network calls "minor surgery" and a subsequent vacation, veteran actor Wagner is the first of several guest hosts enlisted. Friday (July 15), he'll introduce several films made by Western star Tex Ritter -- father of John, grandfather of Jason -- and the next night, he'll present Clark Gable movies ("Mogambo," "Band of Angels").

"They are absolutely first-rate, top-of-the-line people," Wagner tells Zap2it of the TCM staff. "They run that organization so well, and they create such a tremendous atmosphere. They're wonderful, and so is Bob [Osborne]. We've been friends for years. We were both under contract to the Fox studio, so I go back a long time with him, and he's just one of the nicest people I've ever known. When they called me about this, I was thrilled and touched and flattered."

Still, for the vast Hollywood history that has seen him cast in everything from the 1953 "Titanic" to the "Austin Powers" spy spoofs, Wagner has no illusions about being another Robert Osborne.

"He is a master at that. It's kind of an interesting situation, because I think I'm the first person who's ever come in there (as a primetime stand-in, though Ben Mankiewicz is a daytime TCM host). I don't think he's ever missed an introduction in 17 years, and he's so highly respected by everyone."

MGM-musical veteran Jane Powell ("Royal Wedding") will be on TCM hosting duty next week, with Tippi Hedren ("The Birds") slated for the week of July 25. They're likely to draw on their own showbiz memories as Wagner has; he recalled being in the Broadway audience watching Robert Preston in "The Music Man" when he introduced the 1962 screen version Wednesday (July 13).

"They write so beautifully for those pieces," Wagner says of the TCM host segments. "I just suggested to them that I had seen Robert Preston on Broadway, so we put that kind of stuff in ... which they love, because it personalizes it."

Wagner also is able to do that with Clark Gable. "I tell the story about waiting there as a kid with his golf bag on my shoulder, hoping to caddy for him. He came out and looked at me and said, 'There's that kid again!' He was wonderful; he got me into MGM and was just so great to me. It's a nice thing to be able to add that."

Also a longtime television star through such series as "It Takes a Thief" and "Hart to Hart," Wagner -- who is married to actress Jill St. John -- is maintaining a home-screen presence through his recurring role as Tony DiNozzo's (Michael Weatherly) father on CBS' Tuesday hit "NCIS." He'll also be heard as Charlie in ABC's fall reboot of "Charlie's Angels," after having a share in the production of the original version.

"NCIS" is, according to Wagner, "the icing on the cake, to work with those people. They're just the best. They all have respect for one another, the writing is great, and I love that character. And I love Michael. I'm just crazy about him, so it's not a difficult thing to do. Our chemistry seems to work pretty well."

Working on his second autobiography now, Wagner also has been seen lately as a commercial spokesman. "Sometimes," he says, "I'll be driving down the road, and a guy will beep his horn at me and I'll look over and he'll say, 'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you.' And that's the reverse-mortgage thing. The response to me in those kinds of presentations has been very gratifying. I believe in them, and I think that helps."

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