Actor Robert Vaughn, best known in Gerry Anderson circles as the star of The Protectors, passed away on Friday, aged 83. He had been suffering from leukaemia for a short time and was surrounded by his family when he died.
The Man From UNCLE gave him his most well-remembered role as secret agent Napoleon Solo, but his career as a Hollywood star was long and illustrious. He was a big name by the time he came to England to make The Protectors in 1972. It’s fair to say that expectations about how the production would go were not met for Vaughn, or for producer Gerry Anderson.
The basic premise for the series was devised not by Anderson but Lew Grade who gave it to the newly formed Group Three Productions to develop. The Protectors was a traditional ITC action-adventure series which saw three wealthy heroes travel all over Europe to protect innocents from criminal activity. Certainly not the usual science fiction or fantasy escapades of a typical Gerry Anderson production. Grade even had a part in casting two of the three leads, one of whom was Robert Vaughn as the main protector, Harry Rule.
Production on the series required constant travel throughout Europe, something which Anderson had not co-ordinated since his days working with Nicholas Parsons on the travel documentary Blue Skies Ahead in 1960. The travel schedule for The Protectors was, however, much more punishing and chaotic. So high was the cost of all this location shooting that the decision was taken to shoot on 16mm film rather than 35mm, reducing the quality of the series from the pristine standard set by previous Anderson series.
There was friction behind the scenes between Robert Vaughn and those running the show including Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade. Robert Vaughn’s business partner, Sherwood Price, was part of the problem, but Vaughn had openly voiced his dissatisfaction with the crew, almost leading to Gerry and ATV sueing him, and Vaughn threatening to return to California. A later interview revealed that he was particularly unhappy about the slow pace of shooting and the union rules which governed how much work could be done in a day. Anderson thought Vaughn acted like a Hollywood prima donna, refusing to get along with the other actors. Eventually the tension eased and work was able to continue. Along with many a stressful situation, there were also some happy times during the production as the cast and crew travelled across Europe to complete the glamorous series.
The writing of the show was very restricted by the fact that episodes were only half an hour long, often making the plots very simple and stripped of complex storytelling or characterisation. Vaughn later said that The Protectors was “tasteless junk.” Indeed, the series was very much a case of style over substance, and if you’re not too keen on the 1970’s kitsch style then there isn’t much left to appeal.
Despite all this, The Protectors was very popular and earned itself a second season giving the series a total of 52 episodes broadcast between 1972-1974.
Like many other Anderson fans, I must admit to previously giving the series a wide berth. I only recently got hold of the series on DVD but haven’t gotten around to watching it particularly attentively. When the news of broke of Robert Vaughn’s passing I decided to watch a few carefully selected episodes. The first episode, 2000ft to Die; The First Circle guest-starring Ed Bishop ; … With A Little Help From My Friends penned by Sylvia Anderson and her only major contribution to the series; It Could Be Practically Anywhere On The Island directed by Robert Vaughn himself; and Zeke’s Blues which was written by and guest starred Shane Rimmer.
It was certainly a varied bunch with all sorts of different antics going on, some of them thrilling, some of them a bit nonsensical, and one of them complete and utter rubbish. In all cases Robert Vaughn appears to give the best performance that he possibly can given the material. Had the episodes been twice as long they probably would have been able to offer complex stories and bold style. The latter was chosen over the former in most cases. Vaughn does, however, play the part of Harry Rule well and tries where he can to give him some personality and depth when the scripts allow. I can understand Vaughn’s disappointment with the show. The Protectors was his chance to make a name for himself globally as an absolute superstar. He was ready to come over to Europe and work hard on a series that would enable him to demonstrate his acting ability to an even wider audience. Instead he was with a crew that he perhaps felt didn’t work as hard as they should and scripts that didn’t give him much of a chance to shine. And that’s the thing, when the scripts are good and give him plenty to work with, you can tell he’s really engaged in giving a good performance, putting ego aside to work hard and do a decent job.
Then you have the likes of the episode It Could Be Practically Anywhere On The Island which is about nothing but ego, and not just Vaughn’s. He may have directed the episode but it was clearly orchestrated very heavily by his apparently tasteless business partner, Sherwood Price with whom Gerry Anderson and many others took issue with during the production. The episode is complete garbage from beginning to end and is a reflection of how bad things could have gotten if Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade hadn’t kept firm control over the series. It Could Be Practically Anywhere On The Island is not a fair representation of what The Protectors was about or trying to achieve. Robert Vaughn was undeniably the star of the show and the best episodes of the series allow him to do with that without a lot of fuss. His co-stars, Nyree Dawn Porter and Tony Anholt supported him well and gave Vaughn the strength of being the star, but also allowed him to shine as part of an ensemble.
Many years later, starting in 2004, Robert Vaughn worked in the UK on the BBC series Hustle, playing experienced grifter Albert Stroller with many other talented British actors forming a team of con-artists. If you haven’t seen this show before, I heartily recommend you take a look at it. It’s an ITC series for the 21st Century, wrapped up in fantastic plots, great characters, strong performances, and plenty of thrilling intrigue and humour. Vaughn is wonderful as the loveable Albert and gives the character such authority and charm that you can’t take your eyes off him. Hustle is an absolute gem and gave Vaughn the scripts that he deserved. Like The Protectors, it gave him an ensemble that he worked extremely well with.
You may love, loathe, or be completely indifferent to The Protectors, but Robert Vaughn certainly had a great presence on screen and was able to carry the show well despite some of its flaws. His charisma was apparent in so much of his work, and the fact that he kept working until the very end of his life demonstrates his passion for film and television and striving to keep working hard.