Special to CBSNewYork.com
By James H. Burns
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Imagine if today, George Clooney moved down the block from you, in your middle class, suburban town.
Or if Brad Pitt was, out of nowhere, living next door.
Because as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie continues to play in local theaters around town, it is astonishing to discover that the series’: original star, Robert Vaughn (as secret agent, Napoleon Solo), at nearly the height of his fame, was not only suddenly staying in Long Island, but may have had a hand in shaping local New York history.
During U.N.C.L.E.’s original successful television run (1964-1968), it was nearly as popular as the nation’s most successful rock bands. (Vaughn and co-star David McCallum (as Illya Kuryakin) were frequently featured not only in the era’s gossip tabloids, but the 1960s’ teen pop star magazines.)
Both Vaughn and McCallum have since had long and celebrated careers. Vaughn has starred on stage, in films and on television, including most recently in the British series, HUSTLE, shown here on A&E (and with several roles in the Law and Order franchise). He also appeared for the first half of 2014, and part of 2013, in the London West End theatrical production of 12 Angry Men. McCallum is about to commence his thirteenth season as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on N.C.I.S., on CBS.
In the late spring of 1968, just a few months after The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had ended–and only a few months before the release of Vaughn’s major motion picture, the classic Bullitt (starring his friend, Steve McQueen)–he was spending serious time on the South Shore of Long Island, in Nassau County, in Long Beach, and other neighboring towns.
“I was there to campaign for Allard Lowenstein, who was running for Congress from the Fifth District,” says Vaughn, referring to New York’s late,famed liberal political leader. “Al was brilliant, and one of the two best public speakers I ever heard. He also listened. You could tell him about something as simple as chocolate milk, and with his eloquence, he could translate that, in his own words, into something powerful. He was also one of the earliest leaders in the movement to end the war in Vietnam, which I admired.”
On some days, Vaughn would commute to Nassau County from his hotel in Manhattan by taxi, but he also spent many evenings sleeping over in the homes of Democratic supporters, and also at Lowenstein’s house, on Lindell Boulevard.
The most unusual thing we did while campaigning is that we’d walk into a beauty parlor, and I’d lift a giant hair dryer off someone’s head. I’d look at the woman, and say, ‘Hello, I’m Robert Vaughn.’ Often, the woman would scream!”
But they’d also be delighted to meet one of television’s, and Hollywood’s most eligible leading men. Vaughn visited bowling alleys, bars, other suburban locales.
“People would certainly be surprised to see me, but they were nice and gracious,” Vaughn says.
Vaughn found the campaign an instance where celebrity definitely made people willing to consider a point of view that they may have found controversial. Vaughn was actually the first major Hollywood star to consistently speak out against the war in Vietnam, beginning in January of 1966.
“Maybe if I had a family, I would have been more concerned with the possible damage to my career. But I only had to worry, at that time, about feeding myself. The turning point for me came when I visited Walter Reed Hospital, and I saw all the young men who had been so irreparably harmed by the bloodletting.”
When someone would disagree with Vaughn’s point of view–whether in Long Island or elsewhere–he would take the time to explain the history and current details of the conflict.
“I just remember the people I met being receptive to at least hearing what all of us had to say.”
Vaughn had been close with Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, who was by then the senator from New York. They had first gotten to know each other when RFK’s kids wanted to meet “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Vaughn visited Hickory Hill, Bobby Kennedy’s home in McLean Virginia, on several occasions.
“He actually asked me one day, while combing his horse–named “Attorney General” in fact–if I’d be interested in running for a Senate seat that was soon going to be opening… I told him, ‘Let’s get you in the White House first, and we’ll talk about it.’ He just kind of gave me an enigmatic Hamlet-like look.”
Vaughn says that despite rumors to the contrary, he was never interested in running for public office.
“I was always interested in public service,” he notes.
That spring, in 1968, Kennedy was running for the Democratic nomination for President. Vaughn was in Long Beach, the night that Kennedy was murdered, just after winning the California Democratic primary.
” I was sitting in Al’s house, by myself… I had just gotten a lukewarm beer from the fridge, and was watching the TV, on his old black-and-white set, to see the election results… I had to tell Al the news, when he got home, that Bobby had been shot. He was very close to him.
“Al kept calling Los Angeles, the associates of Bobby’s that he knew. He was told that it was only a matter of time before Bobby would be gone. He told me that he was flying to Los Angeles, and that after he got back he was going to drop out of the race. We went walking on the beach, early in the morning, at sunrise. I told him that he couldn’t do that, that so many people had hitched their wagon to his star. Many of us convinced Al not to withdraw.”
Lowenstein won the election, but only served for one term, when Republican gerrymandering altered the Fifth District to a far more conservative base.
Although Vaughn has referred to 1968 as “annus horribilis,” his overall memories of Long Island are positive.
“Campaigning was tiring, but it was also enjoyable. And I remember Long Beach as being very pretty.”
Vaughn had actually been on the South Shore only nine months earlier, in Valley Stream, when his U.N.C.L.E. co-star, McCallum, got married to model and actress Katherine Carpenter from Cedarhurst. The couple had met in 1965, when the U.N.C.L.E. stars participated in a photo shoot for Glamour magazine.
News of the nuptials was attempted to be kept quiet but by the afternoon of September 16, 1967, at the Lutheran Church of Our Saviour, an estimated 2000 kids (and some of their parents!) filled the sidewalks at at the corner of Rockaway and Dubious Avenues in Valley Stream.
“The number of people there was tremendous,” says Vaughn. :”It was like one of the Beatles was getting married. In fact, they used to call David, “The Blonde Beatle!”
One of those in attendance was Joan O’Neil, now 77, a fifty-two year resident of Valley Stream.
“I was nosey!” says O’Neil, smiling. “I had my one-year old son with me, in a stroller; my daughters, four and eight, and another son, age five. It was extremely crowded and I didn’t really see anything. But it was something different and exciting… A celebrity in town.”
The wedding proceeded largely without incident,although one group of teenage boys tried to scale the church’s walls. After the service, the police had to clear some kids from outside the McCallums’ limousine (after they were already inside!), and they also had to surround Vaughn (and his then girlfriend, actress Joyce Jameson), to escort them from the church steps.
But most of the gathered, thankfully, watched unobtrusively, from behind barricades.
“My family lived in Gibson, right down the block,” says Dorothy “Dotty” Dalton Amitrano, a lifelong resident of the area, who was 12 that Autumn. “My sisters and I–all seven of us!–went with the crowd. We stood on the sidewalk, and caught a glimpse of David McCallum’s blonde hair, which was a big deal back then!”
As late as the early 1970s, kids in backyards and playgrounds across the Tri-State area could still be found pretending that they were Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, pit against the fiendish forces of T.H.R.U.S.H. (the series’ international cartel of criminals, and other scoundrels)–thanks largely to the program being shown in repeats on Channel 5 (the old WNEW, Metromedia). As the decades since have demonstrated, all it ever really took for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. to be popular, was for it to be seen.
Its special blend of savoir faire, derring-do and humor remains relatively unparalleled.
Only time will tell if the remake will return the agents of U.N.C.L.E. to all these playgrounds of our minds.
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James H. Burns is a writer/actor living somewhere in Long Island