An Exclusive Interview With Robert Wagner
“A Photoplay reporter sat watching me on ‘The War Lover’ set in London. I was reading a cable from Hollywood, and I somehow got the impression that she was curious about its contents.
Being a gentleman, I handed it over to relieve her suspense! It was from my publicist, Warren Cowan, and the message read: ‘Have just seen preview “Sail a Crooked Ship.” Terrific audience reaction. Pic will open up new career for you in comedy . . .’ I waited.
“My visiting guest glanced up from the paper. Her look was thoughtful. ‘You’re really turning over a new leaf, aren’t you . . . in more ways than one?’
“My answer was brief: ‘I’ve got to.’
“It’s a point that everyone reaches sooner or later. Sometimes, both sooner and later. It’s happened to me before. It will probably happen again.
“You find you’re standing still—and not intentionally. You’re getting nowhere. You have to move. You have to grow. You have to flip that page or flip your lid. I chose to do the former.
“Leaving Hollywood was a good beginning. Elizabeth and Eddie Fisher, a pair of wonderful friends, were still in California when I left. They gave me the farewell party. Barbara and Warren Cowan, Frances and Abe Lastfogel, John Foreman and my mother and dad drove me to the airport. As departures go, it was a quiet one. There were no flashbulbs, no last-minute checks to see if Baby-Grand or Rolls-Royce-type star trappings had been loaded aboard. It was my second trip abroad, so there was no last-minute advice on what to see, where to see it, how to get there. There was no entourage. The studio had suggested sending someone with me, but I wanted to travel by myself. So I left alone. I just got on that plane and got out.
“I brought nothing with me, nothing permanent. As a matter of fact, that’s what I have today—nothing. I left everything in storage. My house is up for sale. I sold my car. I gave away my dog. Things could change, but as the situation stands now, it looks as though I’ll be away for a long. long time.
“If all this appears pretty drastic, let me tell you how it was. And how it is. Just for a minute, let me go back. . . .
“When I first started in Hollywood, I won an award—the Photoplay ‘Choose Your Stars’ medallion. I don’t think I’m crowing to say that my acting had something to do with it, though I was new at the game. The parts I was getting were good, especially the soldier in ‘With a Song in My Heart.’ Parts like that were right for me—at least at that stage of my career. And as for publicity, I was being pushed as the new ‘Hollywood Heartthrob.’ I thought everything was great.
“But then, when nothing changed, when my roles and my publicity and me kept going along in the same old rut, I began to worry. ‘What’s next?’ I’d wonder. ‘I can’t go on being the most promising newcomer year after year. Will I get good pictures? Will I be able to live up to them?’
“As it turned out, I had reason to worry. After awhile, I found that I was on the special studio treadmill for contract players. Since you’re there—and theirs, all theirs—they put you into anything. Before long, I had a career that was in very bad shape. Spencer Tracy helped me out of the slump back in 1955 when he got me away from the studio to film ‘The Mountain’ in Switzerland and France. After that, things looked up for a time. Then? Down again.
“It’s been said that it might have helped if I’d been more cooperative publicity-wise during my career slumps. But when Natalie and I were married in 1958, we blamed the ‘togetherness’ publicity photos for many divorces. We knew, better than most, how important publicity can be, and we were grateful to our fans for their interest in us—but we wanted to start our marriage away from the glare of the spotlight. Look at it this way: Imagine being a newlywed and setting up housekeeping in Grand Central Station.
“Maybe we were too abrupt about our announcement. Maybe if we’d never been cooperative, wanting more of this time to ourselves wouldn’t have seemed such a staggering idea to others. And maybe it wouldn’t have resulted in so much anger. Who knows?
“In the time that followed, there were more movies. Good, but not sensational. Then came the actors’ strike. During those weeks I went to New York where Natalie was on location making ‘Splendor in the Grass.’
“I thought I was waiting to do the proposed picture, ‘Solo.’ It showed every promise of being the film I’d been waiting for. I spent eight months on it, trying to help develop it for production. The part was perfect. I even learned to play the piano. Andre Previn was set to do the music. Dick Powell was going to produce and direct.
“Then came the blow. Fox decided to turn it into a rock ’n’ roll epic—with me and Jayne Mansfield—and shoot it in about fourteen days.
“I walked out. Fox was going to sue, then decided to offer me a new deal. Six pictures and a million dollars. ‘And go through all this again?’ I asked.
“I’d been with the company for twelve years, grown up there—but no one seemed to know that Id grown up. Leaving Fox was one of the hardest times of my life, but I felt that I had to do it. It was one of those times when making a decision wasn’t too easy.
“It’s been suggested that one reason for Natalie’s and my separation was professional jealousy, career problems. There was no trouble on that score in our marriage. Ever. But there are no guarantees in anyone’s life. Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you expect them to, but you must go on as a person and as an individual.
“As far as getting married again, I don’t know whether I will or not. Life goes on you know, and sometimes things happen and that’s the way it goes. Nobody is to blame, one way or the other—that’s just life.
“Sometimes people are raised very idealistically and you find that in life, as you get older, all those ideals don’t always hold up. And that’s when the person himself or herself has to come in and stand for it.
“But you can’t get bitter. When I was married to Natalie, I was very happy. But I’m very happy now, too. It’s just an adjustment that has to be made. Nobody gets married with the idea of not staying married, but sometimes, as I’ve said before, situations or things happen and they don’t work out.
“People talk about being married to an actress and career problems and all. Well, I was married to an actress and I didn’t find it very difficult. If I get married again, I wouldn’t go out and say, ‘I’m not going to marry an actress.’ My mind just doesn’t work that way.
“If I fell in love with a girl who was an actress and I wanted to get married to her, I would certainly get married to her, if she wanted to get married. Actresses are wonderful people; they’re very exciting and very wonderful. But they’re also very ordinary people with the same problems everybody else has got. Some of them are magnified, to a certain extent by others, and some are not. But they’re not apart from other people. This is something that, unfortunately, many people don’t stop to realize—the simple fact that actresses are only human beings.
“As for my departure for Europe, a set of circumstances brought it about. Marital status: separated. Career status: great picture offers abroad. The timing was a coincidence, a lucky break.
“Short hours after my plane left Hollywood, it put down in Copenhagen. And, believe me, that city is everything they say. I did the town and must have eaten e very variety of Danish sandwich known to Dane. Then I drove to France for my part in ‘The Longest Day.’
“To avoid questions from the press, I sneaked into Paris. A few days later, I left, just as quietly, and took off for Normandy to begin working. Shades of Hollywood! Fabian, Paul Anka, Tommy and Nancy Sands were all there. Fabian and Paul had their managers with them. Nancy was with Tommy. Me? I felt a little like an orphan, but I was so busy, I didn’t have much time to brood about it. And that was another good thing. There’s nothing for your morale like being busy.
“As soon as my part was wrapped up, I caught a DC-3 for England for pre-production work on ‘The War Lover.’ Again, I ducked reporters—this time by flying into Gatwick instead of London Airport, then taking a train into the city.
“I hadn’t planned to stay here in England at that time, but I got so involved in preparations for the picture that I couldn’t seem to leave. I settled into a Brompton Square house that’s the greatest. I’m not much for coming home to hotel lobbies.
“The place belongs to David Merrick, the producer. Cary Grant, Alec Guinness and Katharine Hepburn had all lived in it at various times and had told me about it before I left California. I took it sight unseen and discovered that a dream of a housekeeper came with it. There’s a butler, too, and frankly, I’m overwhelmed by the whole setup.
“The house itself is about ten feet wide and five stories high. Recently, I jokingly remarked that I was going to paint the rooms black and turn it into a night club. ‘I might as well,’ I said, ‘because it’s always crowded. It swings every night.’
“This may sound as if I’m living it up over here to the exclusion of work. Not so. I’ve been working hard. Of course, I have been getting around a little. Some night, I have dinner at elegant places. Other nights, I may stop by a pub for a few drinks with guys from the studio. Most nights, however, I have a few people in for dinner—writers, directors, friends in show business.
“But at the moment, nothing’s permanent, and I’ll have to admit that this brings problems. I like things . . . so much so that if I see something I really enjoy, like a piece of furniture or a painting, it’s hard for me to walk away without it. Sometimes I go to Portobello Road in London’s Flea Market, where there are so many wonderful things. I find decanters and a dozen other items, and it’s tough not to buy them.
“And sometimes I see a kid with a puppy and I wonder how Conroy’s getting along. Giving up my dog wasn’t easy, but in England the rules for admitting canine aliens are rugged. I knew Conroy would be happier with my friends in San Fernando Valley than he would be spending six months over here in quarantine. So I left him behind.
“Unfortunately, among the things I didn’t leave behind are the rumors and the gossip that goes with it. My answer: Frankly, I never really left the rumors, even when I married. You just don’t in this business. They go right on. And now I see in the papers one week that I’m having a romance with Joan Collins. The next week, I’m carrying a torch for Joan Collins, am nuts about Linda Christian and am falling in love with Marion Donen. That would keep a guy pretty busy.
“To be honest, I’m crazy about all of these girls. I’ve known them for years, and we’ve dated since I’ve been here. I first met Joan when she came to Hollywood to test for ‘Lord Vanity’ with me. She’s marvelous and we’re good friends. I knew Marion when she was under contract to Fox and Paramount. She lives in Rome now and we go out when I’m there or when she’s in England.
“But my concentration has been centered on ‘The War Lover.’ Steve McQueen and I had been wanting to do a picture together for a long time. We’d been looking for something special. Steve was signed for the film before I was. He pushed to get me into it, and I pushed just as hard to get in.
“The reaction to our work together has ranged from the ridiculous to what’s pretty sublime for an actor. One day, we launched into a scene and fully expected to be stopped. Nothing happened. On we went. Still nothing. Finally, the director yelled, ‘Cut!’ and we heard murmurs like ‘Great!’ . . . ‘Good show, chaps!’ McQueen and I consider it a real tribute. Everyone was so taken by our performances that no one noticed I’d been saying Steve’s lines while he was saying mine! Pretty ridiculous, but pretty great, too.
“The rushes are in the sublime department. They’re shown each evening and the whole thing’s incredible. We walk into the projection room and the place is packed. There’ll
be sixty or more people—people from all over the studio. McQueen and I may be in the cast, but that’s no assurance that we’ll find seats! It’s really a gratifying feeling.
“Whenever I have time off, I head for Rome. My first visit was last September when I went to talk to Dino de Laurentiis about a picture. I fell in love with the entire city . . . the people, the colors, the piazzas, the way of life. There’s no contest. There are no aggravations. The Romans love life and love to live it to the hilt. If you want to live among them, fine. If you don’t, forget it.
“I’ve friends who are on the look-out for an apartment for me . . . one in the old section. preferably overlooking the Forum. And, somehow, whenever I mention that I’m going to rent a flat there, the word comes out “buy.” But I’ll worry about that later.
“Right now my work’s cut out for me. I’ve been called back for more scenes in ‘The Longest Day’ and the studio’s really done right by me in this one! I’ve one picture to go on my Columbia deal, one more for Fox. And I’m forming my own production company in England. Natalie and I had a company, but I gave it to her when we separated as it’s more to her advantage to have it.
“I have three picture prospects on the continent, but as yet I don’t know which is going to break first, or where or when. So I’ll probably take a leisurely drive through Switzerland and down to Italy. Or I’ll join a friend on a yacht trip and sail around the Greek Isles. Or both. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
“I can’t wait!
“Life’s a ball!
“Or I may just buy out Portobello Road and catch the next plane to the Eternal City. After all, I’m a businessman and I’ve an awful lot of lire invested in the legend of the Trevi Fountain. . . .”
—as told to BEVERLY OTT
Bob stars in 20th’s “The Longest Day” and in “The War Lover” for Columbia.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE JUNE 1962