ROBERT SMITH, Host:
In 1980, when the actor Robert Wagner turned 50, his wife Natalie Wood threw a surprise party for him, and the guest list tells you the way that Wagner was connected to an earlier age in Hollywood. That guest list included Robert Mitchum, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams and Henry Fonda. Robert Wagner has written a memoir about his years in that Hollywood, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg read it.
SUSAN STAMBERG: When he was 12 in 1942, Robert John Wagner had a crush on the movies. He lived in Bel Air near the golf club. Young RJ sat under a cluster of trees watching the players. One day he spotted some golfers leaving the 11th hole.
ROBERT WAGNER: Those men were Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. And, I mean, I was just transfixed.
STAMBERG: In his memoir "Pieces of My Heart" written with Scott Eyman, Robert Wagner says that day he saw his future passing in front of him.
WAGNER: And I - you know, I just said to myself, oh, boy, would I love to be part of that group. Would I love to be an actor. Would I love to - to have that feeling that I had, do you know, in seeing them?
STAMBERG: Well, he became part of that group a few years later, largely because of another movie icon of the day, Barbara Stanwyck.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")
BARBARA STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) I've just been taking a sunbath.
STAMBERG: Here with Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "DOUBLE INDEMNITY")
FRED MACMURRAY: (As Walter Neff) Now, about those policies, Ms. Dietrichson, I hate to take up your time.
STANWYCK: (As Phyllis Dietrichson) Well, that's all right. If you wait 'til I put something on, I'll be right down.
STAMBERG: Stanwyck was a huge star, a four-time Oscar nominee, hardworking, generous. Wagner met her when they were shooting "Titanic," the 1953 version, before Leonard DiCaprio was born. Stanwyck was 45. Wagner was 22. She was his first big love. And in their four years together in Hollywood after the war, he became friends with her friends: Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and importantly, a father figure he would make two pictures with, Spencer Tracy.
WAGNER: He put his arm around me, and he really felt that I could be somebody, you know. Before that, I was, you know, pretty much just a good-looking kid. There was so many of us around.
STAMBERG: Tracy thought the kid had talent, a big boost to Wagner's confidence. He also got to know Katharine Hepburn. Wagner's first daughter, Katie, is named for that great star. So, all these marquee pals. Bette Davies, he ended up organizing her memorial service. And he seemed so modest, unegostistical. Sometimes, you can almost hear him blush.
What was it about you, Robert Wagner? You were gorgeous, you were young, you were winning, you were funny. They liked you.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WAGNER: That's a wonderful thing for you to say. You know, that's one of the reasons that I wrote this book, because I had to acknowledge these people who have been so wonderful to me over my life.
STAMBERG: Oh, but I hear how modest you are, too. Listen to you. You're embarrassed that I gave that string of adjectives.
WAGNER: Well, but it's these people who made the difference in my life. They really did.
STAMBERG: Actress Natalie Wood made a major difference. They married in 1957 in New York. She was 19, he 27. A car dealer in Chicago offered them a Corvette. The newlyweds began driving home to Los Angeles.
WAGNER: We'd put the radio on, and it was picked up that we were driving across the United States. And so, the radio - the disc jockey or whoever we were listening to at that particular time, he said, Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner are driving across the country. They're on I-90 just outside of Lubbock, or wherever it was. And suddenly all these kids came out, and they were tailing us, and trailing us, and wishing us good luck. And, oh, it was so terrific. It was great.
STAMBERG: But the marriage went flat. They divorced, and remarried one another in 1972. Wagner writes movingly of Natalie Wood's death by drowning in 1981. Mysteries and rumors surrounded her death. Wagner believed she slipped off their boat while trying to secure a dingy in dark, rough seas. All those friends he'd accumulated in Hollywood helped Wagner and his children get through their darkest.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: Work helped too, in films, and on TV, although that took some arm-twisting. In 1968, Lou Wasserman, head of Universal, had a script written for Wagner.
WAGNER: I said to him - I said, you know, Lou, I really don't want to be a television actor. I'm a movie actor. He said, look, if it doesn't work, I'll make a movie out of it for you, and you're covered both ways. But I think this is your medium.
STAMBERG: It was. He starred as Alexander Mundy in the series "It Takes a Thief." Mundy, a debonair professional thief, won his freedom by helping the government catch spies. His father, also a thief, was played by Wagner's long-time friend Fred Astaire.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "IT TAKES A THIEF")
FRED ASTAIRE: Well, supposing you successfully steal this $10 million, how much of it will you get? Nothing. Nothing. Yeah, nothing. What is this world coming to?
STAMBERG: "It Takes a Thief" was a tremendous hit. So was a later TV series "Hart to Hart" with Wagner and Stefanie Powers as millionaire sleuths out for lots of good times.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "HART TO HART")
STEFANIE POWERS: (As Jennifer Hart) Don't you remember? I almost majored in archeology with a minor in anthropology.
WAGNER: (As Jonathan Hart) Anthropology. Oh, yeah. That's the study of man. As a member of the species, I have to tell you, you've been neglecting your studies lately.
STAMBERG: In the '70s and early '80s, Robert Wagner was a big TV star, but he drew the line at playing cops. He writes, I never wanted to play any character that could conceivably yell, freeze, police!
WAGNER: It's like being on a doctor's show, you know. You don't want to be the doctor. You want to be the patient because the patients always got the better part.
STAMBERG: But often the patient is anesthetized.
WAGNER: Yes. But if you're the smart actor, you say take the needle out of my arm.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: Robert J. Wagner, most recently in his 60-year career he has appeared as number two in the Austin Powers films. In his memoir "Pieces of My Heart," Wagner writes this about the joys and responsibilities of his profession. "Millions of people arrange their lives so that they can watch actors who mean something to them." Robert Wagner has meant much to many fans. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.