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R.I.P. Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. star

Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Robert Vaughn, the star of ’60s spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and an actor who appeared in more than 200 TV shows and films across a 60-year career, has died. Vaughn was 83.

Vaughn’s early resume reads like an encyclopedia of influential ’50s TV shows, with single-episode appearances on everything from Dragnet to Gunsmoke to Playhouse 90. In 1960, he landed his first major film role, playing fearful veteran Lee in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. (He played more-or-less the same role 20 years later, for Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond The Stars, and appeared in several episodes of the Magnificent Seven TV show from the late 1990s as well.)

In 1964, Vaughn leveraged his dissatisfaction with the size of his role on NBC’s The Lieutenant into a starring series of his very own. Initially titled Solo—after Vaughn’s character, international enforcer Napoleon Solo—the series was forced to change its name after complaints from the James Bond film franchise. Re-dubbed The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the series became one of the most influential shows of the Cold War era, spreading Vaughn’s face—and that of his co-star, David McCallum—around the world, even beyond the Iron Curtain. The wry American foil to McCallum’s icy Russian Illya Kuryakin, Vaughn’s performance mixed cool James Bond swagger with a strong vein of self-deprecating humor, one that kept things from getting too grim or serious for TV.

By the time U.N.C.L.E. ended in 1968, Vaughn was essentially TV royalty, bouncing from series to series for guest star roles and occasionally settling on a film or regular gig. He appeared in movies like Bullitt—playing the ambitious senator who tasks Steve McQueen with protecting a federal witness—and The Towering Inferno, and starred in the private eye series The Protectors for British network ATV.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Vaughn’s performances tapped more openly into one of his secret weapons as an actor, a strong line of silliness that had always lurked beneath his straitlaced persona. He lent a note of campy menace to villain roles in films like Superman III, and as the uncredited voice of the psychotic computer Proteus in The Demon Seed.

Vaughn’s roles often came with a raised eyebrow, a barely concealed smirk, and a deep amusement lurking behind the eyes, making him an ideal choice for playing ludicrous heavies in comedies (or while heckling Conan O’Brien, as he often did from the audience of the early run of O’Brien’s Late Night, starting each monologue with an angry “You people sicken me.”) He continued to work steadily through the ’90s and well into the new millennium, appearing in everything from regular appearances on Law & Order to the bad guy role in Louis CK’s Pootie Tang. His most recent regular role was on the British crime series Hustle, where he played the aging mentor to a team of London conmen, and on the long-running British soap Coronation Street.

Vaughn died on Friday, while suffering from acute leukemia.

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