[Editor's Note: We asked director Victoria Negri to share her memories of working with Robert Vaughn on her film 'Gold Star'.]
Robert Vaughn had a square jaw, strong features and a booming voice, and so for many years, he played powerful men. Whether it was in serious, classic dramas such as Bullitt, alongside Steve McQueen, superhero movies like Superman III, or his signature role as Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E, he was cool and suave, an actor with immense range and gifts.
When he signed on to star in my debut feature film, Gold Star, we had a frank conversation about what made him right for the role. After all, he was playing a character inspired by my father, a retired art school teacher recovering from a debilitating stroke that left him almost completely paralyzed. And he would be playing my father opposite me, as a version of myself. The part had no lines; every bit of the character had to be conveyed in subtle, physical moments. It was certainly a new direction for him.
Victoria Negri and Robert Vaughn on the set of 'Gold Star'Credit: Ben Jarosch
In our first meeting, Robert asked me, "What made you think of me for this role?" I replied, "I watched your films, particularly The Magnificent Seven, with my dad when I was growing up, and you have the same sparkle in your eyes that he did."
It's that quality, the fullness and joy in his work, that I knew my film needed. It's there in his performance in The Young Philadelphians, for which he was Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated. In that film, he's a forceful presence alongside Paul Newman. It's there in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which showed his immaculate ability to radiate charisma by using the fullness of his instrument. It's there in countless other movies and TV shows that collectively reveal a man who could seamlessly become anyone, anywhere, in wholly convincing fashion.
He challenged me to turn this scene I'd written based on something real into that real thing itself.
In our work together, I quickly came to understand what made him so great. Robert was someone who listened. He took close and careful notes when we discussed the script and he intuitively grasped the art of playing off his scene partner. He knew how to take everything he saw and heard and processed into a performance that conveyed a lifetime of experiences, emotions and ideas without a single line of dialogue. It is a rare gift to be simultaneously vulnerable and larger-than-life; to convey a towering personality while also seamlessly embodying the most subtle contours of the human spirit.
Robert Vaughn in 'Gold Star'Credit: Ben JaroschIn one scene in my film, I move Robert's immobile character from his wheelchair to a couch and back. We blocked the scene together and I explained to Robert how I would lift my father, and how he could barely support his own body weight. Without hesitation, Robert trusted me. I felt his body go limp in my arms; he challenged me in the moment, in take after take with sweat pouring down my back, to turn this scene I'd written based on something real into that real thing itself. He was fully committed and generous, even brave.
It's hard to expose yourself like that onscreen, to be that willing to examine the darkness of aging and death. Robert went there on a micro-budget film that he didn’t need to do, when he was 81-years-old and had already accomplished so much on stage and on screen. He certainly didn't need to do it for a first-time filmmaker that he trusted just because he believed in me, my work and what I had to say. If that’s not the truest testament of what it means to be a consummate actor, I don’t know what is.
Anything that happens with my film, his last, and in my career going forward, I will owe directly to him. I will love and miss him forever.