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Interview with Robert Wagner: Leading Man of Hollywood’s Golden Age

Acclaimed actor Robert Wagner chatted about his respected career in stage, TV, and film.

Robert Wagner
Robert Wagner. Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Robert Wagner. Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Acclaimed actor Robert Wagner chatted about his respected career in stage, TV, and film. He has starred in over 100 movies, and guest-starred in over 150 television shows.

Henry David Thoreau once said: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Robert Wagner is a man that exemplifies this wise quote by the historic poet and philosopher.

The Golden Age of Hollywood’s Leading Man

Robert Wagner is a living legend in television and cinema in every sense of the word. He is one of the most popular and successful stars in the entertainment industry, boasting three hit television series and an impressive list of both feature and television films. He often portrays millionaire characters, and he is known for his smooth and resonant voice.

He is one of the last surviving leading men from the Golden Age of Hollywood. A six-time Golden Globe nominee, Wagner has acted in over 100 films, and he has made hundreds of television appearances throughout his illustrious career, which has spanned over seven decades (Wagner started at the age of 21).  

As a young man under contract to 20th Century Fox, Wagner was cast by Darryl F. Zanuck in With a Song in My Heart. Although the part lasted a scant minute, his performance as a crippled soldier responding to the song of Susan Hayward’s Jane Froman brought immediate public reaction to the studio.

Spencer Tracy saw his performance in Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef and requested Wagner for the role of his son in Broken Lance. Tracy was so impressed with Wagner, he cast him again as his brother in The Mountain.

Robert Wagner
Robert Wagner. Photo Courtesy of ABC Television.

Wagner’s numerous film credits includes Dragon: The Bruce Lee StoryThe Pink PantherCurse of the Pink PantherMidwayThe Towering Inferno, BanningHarper, Prince ValiantThe True Story of Jesse James, and All the Fine Young Cannibals, among many others.

Speaking of The Towering Inferno, it afforded him the privilege to work with four-time Emmy award-winning actress Susan Flannery (known for her work in such daytime dramas as “The Bold and The Beautiful” and “Days of Our Lives”). “This movie was her first start; Susan Flannery is a very wonderful woman. She is a terrific person,” he said.

The Towering Inferno was a great experience,” he admitted. “Irwin Allen and I were good friends, I really liked him. My work was done first, and I enjoyed that. It was a really good piece of work, and I liked my character,” he said.

'The Towering Inferno'
Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery in ‘The Towering Inferno.’ Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Wagner starred with Joanne Woodward in her breakthrough film debut, A Kiss Before Dying. Antonio Banderas directed Wagner in Crazy in Alabama

In 1980, he won the People’s Choice Award for “Favorite Male Performer in a New TV Program.” “I’ve gotten some very nice awards,” he said.

Background on Robert Wagner

He was born in 1930 in Detroit, and his father was a steel executive. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven years old. Always wanting to be an actor, he held a variety of jobs (including one as a golf caddy for Clark Gable) while pursuing his goal, but it was while dining with his parents at a restaurant in Beverly Hills that he was discovered by a talent scout.

After making his uncredited screen debut in The Happy Years, Wagner was signed by 20th Century Fox, which carefully built him up toward stardom. He played romantic leads with ease, but it was not until he essayed the two-scene role of a shell-shocked war veteran in “With a Song in My Heart” that studio executives recognized his potential as a dramatic actor.

He went on to play the title roles in “Prince Valiant” and “The True Story of Jesse James,” and he played a cold-blooded murderer in “A Kiss Before Dying.”

‘Austin Powers’ trilogy

In the 1990s, he was introduced to a new legion of fans with the role of Number 2, the villainous henchman to Dr. Evil, the archenemy of Mike Myers’ title character in the spy action-comedy films, the Austin Powers trilogy. “The role of Number 2 was written for me, that was really good,” he said.

“Mike Myers is a wonderful man, I keep hearing that he wants to make another one. That would be great, I still have my patch, you know,” he added.

In 2007, he played Teddy Leopold, a recurring role on the hit CBS sitcom “Two and a Half Men.”

‘It Takes a Thief’

In television, Wagner starred in three long-running series. He was nominated for the 1970 Emmy Award for “Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series” for his role as the suave cat-burglar Alexander Mundy in the lighthearted espionage series It Takes a Thief opposite Malachi Throne and Fred Astaire. “I loved it,” he exclaimed. “Alexander Mundy is one of my favorite characters of all time. I really liked doing that series.”

“I asked Bette Davis to be on the show, she liked the show very much and she liked that character. That character was created for me by Roland Kibbee, and it did a lot for me.”

Bette Davis and Robert Wagner in 'It Takes a Thief'
Bette Davis and Robert Wagner in ‘It Takes a Thief.’ Photo Courtesy of ABC Television

He described Alexander Mundy as a career-defining moment for him, and as the gift that kept on giving. “I loved playing Alexander, people would even call me that name at the grocery story,” he said with a sweet laugh. “I’ve had so many wonderful shots in my career, and the timing has always worked out very well for me.”

On his Primetime Emmy nomination for playing Alexander Mundy, Wagner said, “That was a big break, and the timing was perfect for me. I was very fortunate, believe me. I live with gratitude.”

He portrayed con man-turned-detective Pete Ryan in Switch alongside Eddie Albert and Sharon Gless. Also, Wagner became a fan favorite as the debonair and charming millionaire/amateur detective Jonathan Hart in Hart to Hart with Stefanie Powers.

10 years after the end of Hart to Hart, Wagner served as executive producer for eight highly rated movies based on the series (five for NBC and three for the Family Channel).

‘NCIS’

Over the past decade, Wagner has introduced himself to a new generation of fans by making numerous guest-starring appearances on the number one rated television series, NCIS, where he plays the popular character Anthony DiNozzo, Sr., the father of Michael Weatherly’s character Tony DiNozzo. “That was the best experience, I love it,” he said. “I loved the whole cast, Mark [Harmon] was just the best, he runs a wonderful company. When Michael was there, I had the greatest time. I had good relationships with everyone, which is important, and I can’t say enough good things about NCIS.”

Other illustrious television performances include starring with Jaclyn Smith in the top-rated miniseries, Windmills of the Gods — based on Sidney Sheldon’s best-selling novel; Angie Dickinson in the miniseries Pearl; Audrey Hepburn in Love Among Thieves; Lesley Anne Down in Indiscreet; and Elizabeth Taylor in There Must Be a Pony, which he also executive-produced.

He appeared alongside such notable names as Philip Casnoff, Kyle Chandler, Cathy Lee Crosby, Leslie-Ann Down, and Billy Dee Williams in North and South: Book 3, Heaven and Hell

‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

Sir Laurence Olivier chose Wagner to star with him in the television adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Wagner’s wife, the late Natalie Wood, co-starred with them. The iconic Maureen Stapleton played Big Mama, while Laurence Olivier portrayed Big Daddy. “That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” he said.

“Natalie and I really loved doing ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ Laurence Olivier and I became fast friends. All of us were friends in that film. Maureen Stapleton was a special lady, I loved her, we had such great times together before the film and after the film. When I was young, I got Clark Gable’s autograph and Carole Lombard’s, and Maureen collected autographs, that was one of her things, so I gave her those. Maureen was a big motion picture fan and she loved the movies,” he shared.

Other notable television performances include This Gun for Hire, Danielle Steel’s Jewels, To Catch a King, and A Dennis the Menace Christmas, in which he portrayed Mr. Wilson. 

Aside from his movie and television ventures, Robert Wagner toured the world performing in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters with Stefanie Powers. They were the first to launch the tour internationally.

Following his tour with Powers, Wagner enjoyed the play so much, he continued performing it at charity events and around the world with his wife, actress Jill St. John. “My wife was a Bond girl, in Diamonds Are Forever, so I play James Bond in real life every day,” he said.

Away from the acting world, Robert Wagner has long been a fan of golf and boasted a five handicap. He once beat professional golfer Sam Snead in a head-to-head competition.

The digital age

On being an actor in the digital age, Wagner said, “It’s very different, very different. It’s a different time. The streaming thing is a difficult situation. Now, there is so much content out there so it’s oversaturated.”

Personal life

He resides in Aspen, Colorado, with Jill St. John, his wife of over three decades. In addition to visiting with his numerous friends around the world, he enjoys spending time with family: his wife, his three daughters, Katie (television personality), Natasha (actress and author), and Courtney (jewelry designer), as well as his two grandchildren, Riley (Katie’s son) and Clover (Natasha’s daughter), and Josh, his stepson. 

He played a pivotal role in raising Josh and his brother, the late Peter Donen, with their mother, the late Marion Marshall.

Wagner, now 92, is also the dog father of “Duke,” a German Shepard. “A dog will teach you unconditional love. If you can have that in your life, things won’t be too bad,” he said.

As a testament to his prolific work in entertainment, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame back in July 16, 2002, where he was recognized in the television category. “The star felt absolutely great,” he recalled. “I used to walk down Hollywood Boulevard and I would look at the reflection in the glass, and I was hoping that somebody would discover me, so that was a dream come true.”

Advice for hopefuls

For young and aspiring actors, Wagner encouraged them to “maintain their confidence.” “Have confidence in yourself and maintain it if you can because a lot of people will try to take it away from you, especially today,” he said.

“Also, timing is important in everything in life,” he underscored. “You can walk into a door, and you can walk past somebody, or you can bump into someone, and it can change your life.”

Regarding the key to longevity in acting and entertainment, Wagner remarked, “You need to be lucky, and you need to be as honest as you can with yourself. I was very fortunate, and I had a long run. You also need to have breaks; I had a lot of lucky breaks.”

On the title of the current chapter of his life, Wagner revealed, “Fortune.”

Success

He furnished his definition of the word success. “Success falls in a lot of categories, doesn’t it? There can be success as a movie actor and as a human being. Success is a thing that happens every moment, isn’t it? I’ve had some wonderful moments and I am very grateful for how my career turned out,” he said.

“I was very lucky, and I was with a lot of wonderful people that helped me a great deal, and I appreciated their interests in me. I’ve had some very good relationships and they’ve all added up for me. I have been a very fortunate man, and I simply live in gratitude,” he expressed.

For his dedicated fans, he said, “The fans have been very loyal, wonderful and very supportive of me. I am deeply indebted to them, and the fans mean a great deal to me.”

To learn more about veteran actor Robert Wagner, check out his official website, IMDb page, and follow him on Instagram.

Markos Papadatos
Written By

Markos Papadatos is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for Music News. Papadatos is a Greek-American journalist and educator that has authored over 18,000 original articles over the past 16 years. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, entertainment, lifestyle, magic, and sports. He is a seven-time consecutive "Best of Long Island" winner, and in the past three years, he was honored as the "Best Long Island Personality" in Arts & Entertainment, an honor that has gone to Billy Joel six times.

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