Too Far, Too Fast?—Robert Wagner
There’s a standard gag about Bob Wagner that is going the rounds of the 20th Century-Fox lot: “I sure feel sorry for that Wagner kid. He’s had to overcome an awful lot of obstacles in life. Do you know that when he was born he almost choked on that silver spoon in his mouth?”
The satirical reference, of course, is to the fact that young Wagner comes from a well-to-do family.
His father is a successful steel magnate who has seen to it that his two children have always had the best of everything—fine clothes, nurses, private schools, cars, country club memberships, the whole works.
Now this relatively high standard of living is the expected order in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the Wagner home bailiwick, and no one gives it a second thought. But in Hollywood, for a movie star to be born into a wealthy family is an almost inexcusable error in tactics, an almost insurmountable obstacle in the obtainment of good public relations.
It is a tribute to Bob Wagner’s warm and friendly personality that despite his background, he’s managed to win the acclaim and interest of the movie-goers everywhere.
“I know it sounds impossible,” one press agent really cracked, “but the fans like Bob even though he did come up the easy way.”
“Dale Robertson who has played opposite the 23-year-old star and knows him well, says, “Wagner’s a regular guy, very like-able and down-to-earth, no airs or anythin’, that’s why everyone goes for him. A swell kid.”
Debbie Reynolds’ mother, who saw a good deal of the tall, brown-eyed Wagner when he was going more or less steadily with her daughter, generates the same sort of enthusiasm when she discusses Bob. “He’s a wonderful boy,’ she explains, “well-bred and well-mannered, the kind of boy a mother knows she can trust her daughter with. He is every inch a gentleman and a wonderful reflection of good, substantial upbringing. He’s always welcome in our house.”
These quotations are typical of the high regard in which Wagner is held in Hollywood.
Throughout the country he rates similarly—that is, if his fan mail is any indication—and it always is.
When Titanic is released, and Wagner finishes. Twelve-Mile Reef with Terry Moore down at Tarpon Springs, Florida, it is highly probable that his fan mail will double. All of which leads us to the vital point of discussion—is this friendly, good-looking young actor with the moneyed background and the winning smile becoming too famous too fast?
Like on every question in Hollywood there are two schools of thought on this one. Those who believe that Wagner should be held in check and those who think the boy is doing just fine and should be given his head.
Students enrolled in the first school claim that young Bob is feeling his oats, that fame has gone to his head.
A girlfriend of Debbie Reynolds says, “Debbie still thinks R.J.’s a dreamboat, but I’m not that gone on the boy. As soon as he got a little successful what happened? He bought himself one of those fancy racing cars, a low slung MG. He started seeing less and less of Debbie, more and more of Susan Zanuck and girls like that, you knew the boss’ daughter.
“He cracked up his car, bought a new one, moved out of his folks’ home in BelAir. He started making the rounds with Dan Dailey, even got an apartment next to Dailey’s. One of those bachelor setups where you can be alone and play records and show etchings.
“I like R.J. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a swell fellow, but I honestly feel he’s reacting to success the way any other young man would.
“He doesn’t want to get married, and he makes no bones about the fact. He’s playing the field, and he’s giving his career everything he’s got—and that’s plenty.
“I’m sure he’s got enough background to keep both feet on the ground, and I certainly hope he’s not going to move into Dan Dailey’s league.
“Dailey’s an operator, you know. He came to Hollywood out of burlesque, and he’s strictly show business, and fellows like that—well, they’re tough on girls. Look at what happened to Liz Dailey and Beetsy Wynn, and then there was Dan’s first wife back in New York.
“I don’t want to sound like one of those females who dips her tongue in sulphuric acid each morning, but I don’t feel that the combine of Dailey and Wagner is such a hot combination.
“Dailey himself needs an older well-adjusted man to guide him, maybe a psychiatrist, and R.J—I know he thinks th world of Dailey. They go up to Arrowhead and Water-ski and all that—but let’s face it, Dailey isn’t the same basic type that Wagner is—in age, background or upbringing.
“I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but just want to go on record as saying that to me Bob Wagner is no young god. He’s got all the foibles and weaknesses of other young men. I guess that’s why we girls love him.
“I think fame has hit him in the head, and while he’s trying awful hard not to let it run away with him, still, it’s showing.
“Another thing. I’m no expert in the movie business; but I think it’s best to go slow with a guy like Bob. Just because the public likes him, don’t push him into too many pictures. Dale Robertson, he’s another pal of Bob’s—well, I think he’s been put in one movie after another. I think he should be paced. I guess the studio’s got to take advantage of an actor when he’s hot, but the public is very fickle and tires very quickly.
“I hope RJ. won’t make ten pictures in two years which is just about Robertson’s record.”
That particular opinion of Bob Wagner is biased and unobjective. The girl who gave it very much resents the fact that Debbie Reynolds and young Wagner aren’t as close as Debbie would like.
Women gang up, even in Hollywood, and it comes as no surprise that a female press agent at MGM, Debbie’s home studio, recently exclaimed to a writer. “Oh! That Bob Wagner! How could he break that little girl’s heart! I’m telling you when he threw Debbie over, he broke her heart, broke it right in pieces. And what for? Just so that he could buzz around from one girl to the next. I thought he had more sense than that. I really did. He didn’t know when he was well off. Well, I guess, he’ll just have fo grow up.”
The simple truth is that Bob Wagner has already grown up. He has a pretty good idea of what he wants in life and how to get it.
Wagner knows just where he’s going. He’s always wanted to be a movie star and now that he is, he hopes to work hard, maintain his popularity, level off eventually into an actor like Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy.
“I don’t think I’ve gone any place in the industry yet,” he says. “I’ve just had some lucky breaks. The studio took me three years ago and signed me, $150 a week. By April I’ll be making $350, and I’ll have been in nine, ten pictures.
“I’m glad I’ve caught on with the public, but there again, luck’s had a lot to do with it. The movie magazines have been real socko to me. They’ve given me one break after another, and I sure am indebted to them; columnists have been great too.
“Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me that I’m the same guy I was ten months ago. I can’t control how much or how little the public likes me. I just try to go along with the tide.
“I figure if I work hard, and mind my own business, if I continue to get good pictures then I’ve got a fair chance of amounting to something in this game. If I goof up, then it’s my own fault.
“As for getting my own apartment, heck I’m not a kid anymore. I’m 23. I’m earning my own living, and it’s only right that I should be self-supporting and not living off my folks. That’s why I have my own place. Also it’s very convenient. Only a few blocks from the studio. Nothing to write home about, just one of those bachelor jobs.
“When am I going to be drafted? There again I’ve been lucky. I was in the Marine Reserves but I transferred out. Now I’m with the 311th Logistics outfit, part of the National Guard setup. When they get called up, I go along. Nothing I can do about it.
“As to the effect my little success has had on me, I can honestly say I’m very grateful for my luck and for all the help the people at the studio have given me. I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked before and loving every minute of it, but on $250 a week—and you know movie contracts call for employment in only 20 out of every 26 weeks—after I get through paying my agent, taxes, insurance, rent, food, car upkeep, and the rest of it, I give you my word, there’s not enough left to be any kind of a playboy.”
Where Wagner is concerned the truth really is that he lived more of the Hollywood routine before he got into the business than he does now.
During those years he dated girls like Virginia Reed, Sue Moir, Melinda Markey, Gloria Lloyd, Michele Farmer, the daughters of wealthy industrialists, or famous movie stars. And he took them dancing and playing tennis at the Racquet Club in Palm Springs or any of the swanky hotels around town.
He was sent to one private school after another, Urban Military, Fairburn, Black Foxe Military, Harvard Military, Cal Prep—in all of which he was an infinitely better athlete than scholar. He also attended a few public schools, Emerson Junior High and Santa Monica High where he was elected President of the senior class.
He also went through the hot rod stage, buying a souped-up Channelled roadster with a high-powered motor. “Later,” he recalls, “I bought a Chrysler from my dad—it was a ’46, and I traded that for a ’50 Ford convertible.” It was in this particular car that Wagner and Susan Zanuck, daughter of Darryl Zanuck, chief of 20th Century-Fox, were riding when it was crashed by another car on the Pacific Coast Highway two Easter Sundays ago. Luckily, neither of the kids was seriously hurt.
Bob’s next motor outfit was an old Cadillac convertible which he turned in for an MG, then wrecked the light little British car.
You can see from this that our boy has had it, that he’s really been around, that $250 a week hasn’t changed him from a shy, underprivileged, callow youth into a jaded, rah-rah playboy.
Bill Wellman, the director who gave Bob his first chance in a picture, says, “This kid’s got too much character to be spoiled by money. Money usually spoils those youngsters who’ve never had any. This kid has had enough all his life.”
The prevailing opinion in Hollywood is that young Bob Wagner has enough common sense to take anything in stride—work, women, fame, and money—no matter what their rate of speed.
In the words of Clifton Webb who acted with him in Stars And Stripes Forever, “This young man has both feet on the ground. In such circumstances he can’t ever get into any serious trouble.”
—BY IMOGENE COLLINS
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE JUNE 1953