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TELEVISION

They know what it takes

Robert Wagner, once of `It Takes a Thief,' and Robert Vaughn, of `The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,' pull off a `Hustle.'

January 21, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

IN the 1960s, they were the sauve and debonair private eyes and spies who drew millions to TVs for weekly tongue-in-cheek adventures. Now, Robert Vaughn ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") and Robert Wagner ("It Takes a Thief") have reunited for a single episode of AMC's "Hustle," a slick "Ocean's Eleven"-type con series, in which the still-charming actors, both in their 70s, will match wits and tailors to charm a new generation of viewers.

Vaughn stars in the ensemble British series, co-produced by AMC and BBC, as the only American member of an elite group of con artists specializing in the "long con" -- an elaborate sting whose marks always deserve it. In this episode, shot in Hollywood and airing in April to launch the show's fourth season, the group travels to California to trick Wagner, a shady millionaire, into thinking he can buy the Hollywood sign from them.

"They set me up beautifully. I pay 5 million bucks," said Wagner, dressed to perfection in aviator glasses and mustache, between takes on the Beverly Hills location last month.

Wagner said he was drawn to the show because of "the whole idea. It's a tongue to cheek, and it's played so well." What's more, its intricate structure was written so solidly, he said, "it's like you're walking into a kind of Rolls-Royce." Wagner exuded an old-fashioned graciousness that, heightened by his signature smooth voice and humor, had clearly won over cast and crew, some of whom took pictures to show their parents.

Wagner, 76, rose to television stardom in "It Takes a Thief" as playboy spy Alexander Mundy and also starred as the rich and witty sleuth Jonathan Hart in the popular 1980s series "Hart to Hart." He was introduced to a new generation in later years by Mike Myers, who worked with him on "Saturday Night Live" and cast him as Number Two in the "Austin Powers" movies.

He said he rarely guests on television shows, but his appearance in the finale of "Boston Legal" last year, where he played Denny Crane's counterpart in the Los Angeles law offices of Crane, Poole & Schmidt, led some to hope he would return in his own spinoff.

It was "Hustle" that revived Vaughn's career, still highlighted by his portrayal of spy Napoleon Solo in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." Recently, the 74-year-old actor had been seen in several guest spots on "Law & Order" and in a string of commercials for law firms when he was tapped to play hustler emeritus Albert Stroller in the series.

"The BBC wanted to have it all British people, and the production team wanted me," Vaughn said. By the time he was cast, shooting had already begun, he said. "Suddenly I got a call from my British agent saying, 'You have to leave for London tonight.' I took the next flight and I was working the next morning."

Having the work is great for a few reasons, said Vaughn, looking dapper in a three-piece suit and speaking in his own trademark speech, a posh mid-Atlantic accent. One reason is that the crew is the most social he's ever worked with. ("We've all been together all the time. They're wonderfully funny.") The other is that "any time you're on television every week for an extended period of time, everybody else says, 'Oh, he's alive and working. He's not dead.' That's always good."

Vaughn said he hadn't been to Los Angeles since 1997, when his star was installed on Hollywood Boulevard. Taking the British cast around to his old haunts proved disappointing, though. "Everything had disappeared, gone, everybody had died. The only person remaining alive is this person here," he said, waving at Wagner, who was passing by his trailer.

A 'Towering' partnership

IN 1974, Wagner and Vaughn worked on "The Towering Inferno" but never shared any scenes.

"This is the first chance we've had to work together, but we've known each other for a very long time," Wagner said. "A very long time," Vaughn emphasized.

Vaughn said he hasn't played a hustler before and has become knowledgeable about how it works. "First of all, you can never con an honest man, because the man is actually knowingly participating in the con. The interesting thing about a con is that people who are conned are usually wealthy to begin with. They can afford to lose some money. But even when they lose the money, they're so embarrassed, being a well-known person, they never tell the law."

His crew never robs the poor, he said. "We steal from the rich and keep it all. That's our theory."Because there are only a limited number of variations on a con and a limited number of moneyed venues to exploit in England, the producers decided to travel to the States, said actor Robert Glenister, who plays one of the hustlers. Fortunately, as it turned out, since Vaughn's character has an American back story, there could be a reasonable explanation why the gang would go to Hollywood and Las Vegas.

Whether they will return to the States, or whether Wagner will reappear in the cast, or whether there will be another season all have yet to be decided.

Working with Wagner was a "great thrill," Glenister said. "Not just for me, but for all of us. He's wonderful and such a nice man; he's almost part of the gang. We feel as if we've adopted him really."

Marc Warren, whose character became the gang's leader after actor Adrien Lester left, said he learned much about acting and professionalism from Vaughn and Wagner.

Warren said he'll never forget watching the sunset from the Hollywood sign with Wagner and Vaughn and afterward driving with them in a convertible down Hollywood Boulevard. "That was amazing."

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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