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theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Robert Vaughn

The former Napoleon Solo tries to keep his temper as Reginald Rose's 'Twelve Angry Men' comes to the West End

The Arts Desk: Q & A with Robert Vaughn - Robert Vaughn
The jury's still out: Robert Vaughn as juror number nine in 'Twelve Angry Men'
photo by:Robert Day.
New York-born actor Robert Vaughn achieved massive popular success when he starred as the sleek secret agent Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which ran for four seasons from 1964 to 1968 and exploited the then-new James Bond mania to ratings-busting effect. Prior to that, Vaughn, both of whose parents were actors, had racked up a long string of minor credits in American TV and movies, the most prestigious of which was an appearance in John Sturges's 1960 cowboy classic, The Magnificent Seven. The latter also starred Steve McQueen, with whom Vaughn became friendly, and this led to him being cast in a leading role in the McQueen vehicle Bullitt (1968), an important step in launching Vaughn's post-Man from U.N.C.L.E. career.

For such a seemingly all-American performer, Vaughn has also worked extensively in the UK. In the early Seventies he played the unfeasibly affluent globe-trotting sleuth Harry Rule in Gerry Anderson's series The Protectors, and even though Vaughn apparently considered the show to be "tasteless junk" it was nonetheless a ratings hit. Spin forward three decades and we find Vaughn as one of the regulars in BBC One's Hustle, which ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. And also in 2012, Vaughn popped up briefly as Milton Fanshaw in Coronation Street.

The Arts Desk: Q & A with Robert Vaughn - Robert VaughnIt seems we can't keep him away, because this week Vaughn begins a season in Reginald Rose's legal drama Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick Theatre. Amid a cast which includes Martin Shaw, Nick Moran and Jeff Fahey, he plays juror number nine, embroiled in the fraught deliberations over whether a teenage delinquent should be given the death sentence for killing his father. "It's a wonderful cast of actors, and I'm proud to be associated with them," says Vaughn. He'll turn 81 on 22 November, but as the following conversation reveals, he has all his wits about him and his interests extend beyond stage and screen to politics, history and academia (Right-Vaughn in The Magnificent Seven).

ADAM SWEETING: When this part came up, was Twelve Angry Men a piece you were familiar with?

ROBERT VAUGHN: I was acquainted with it because it had been done in America on television and on stage, and also there was a movie made of it in 1957 with Henry Fonda playing the principal role, which Martin Shaw is playing in this one. So I read it and I thought this is the best darn play I've read in a long time, all 12 of the people are so sharply defined in the script and it's really fascinating.

Some of them are very flashy dramatic roles but in the midst of it was one that appealed to me. He's juror number nine and he's referred to as the Old Man, and he's supposed to be between 75 and 80. In effect, although it doesn't appear on the first reading or even on the first viewing of the movie - which I did view several times - that he solves the problem facing the jurors, and that's how I came to choose that particular role.

This play is daunting because all 12 actors are onstage every minute, every night. It's like 'Groundhog Day'Who played him in the movie?
It's an actor named Joseph Sweeney and I don't know who he is. Everybody else in the movie is very well known, but Sweeney I never heard of before or since.
Does it say something important about the way the law works?

Well yes. We had the wisdom of our forefathers, the Brits, built into our Constitution. That if you are voting to put a man to death, and I guess they were hanging people in the 18th century, the forefathers decided that the 12 men of the jury had to be unanimous. Otherwise even if there was a slight possibility that one of the jurors believed the accused is not guilty of this crime then that's reasonable doubt and it's the end of the trial. They would then have a hung jury and they'd start over again. But I know there have been a couple of times when a group of lawyers got together to examine the script of Twelve Angry Men, and these lawyers proved to each other at any rate that they could have twisted the evidence in such a way as to reach the opposite verdict than the one in the play.

Some of the angry men in the play aren't as angry as others, are they?

No, they have less to be angry about. One guy just wants to get to the baseball game on time, he's gonna miss the game, that's his reason for voting guilty. Which is true of juries - you get people who have no good reasons at all to really vote, other than something like "I like to see my wife at seven o'clock instead of 11 o'clock so it's easier if I vote guilty."

The Arts Desk: Q & A with Robert Vaughn - Robert VaughnHave you ever served on a jury?

I have not, no. I avoided it as long as I could until I was too old and I didn't have to avoid it any longer. I just didn't want to get stuck in a six-month trial about somebody stealing apples from a cart or something, y'know.

You've done most of your work on camera, so is a stage play a daunting prospect?

Well I did a great deal of stage acting when I was young. In fact I played Hamlet twice, I played Franklin D Roosevelt, and I did Inherit the Wind, which is a wonderful play which Spencer Tracy did as a movie. But this play is particularly daunting because all 12 actors are onstage every minute of the play, every night of the show. Its kinda like Groundhog Day, you know that movie? Onstage at night I feel like the lights come up and there we are sitting there as we sat 24 hours earlier and 24 hours before that, and we will be doing this play until the end of February, sitting round this same table saying these same lines.

Interview continues:
The Arts Desk Q & A with Robert Vaughn Part 2

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