American actor Robert Wagner turned 86 on February 10th 2016 and he played a minor role in the 1974 film The Towering Inferno, my first ever experience of a cinema movie. Despite a plethora of big names on the cast Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Robert Vaughn, Fred Astaire and Richard Chamberlain to name a few, it was Robert Wagner who captivated my heart. A Google search suggests the film was released in the UK on January 30th 1975, so I would have just turned five when I set my adoring eyes on Wagner for the first time.
I barely visited the cinema as a child notching up five maybe six films until the age of about twenty. This particular memory is especially vivid because my Dad took me to see The Towering Inferno. Being a merchant seaman this was highly unusual, because he was frequently away for months at a time, home a matter of weeks then gone again. And I would NEVER have been minded by him, that duty normally falling to my beloved Granny. So I can only assume she had taken ill (her heath was quite poor) and my Dad had been told, “Do something with Angela to take her mind off things”. So he took me to the movies, and seeing how that all-action disaster unfolded is imprinted onto my mind to this day. Although I did fall asleep about half way through; (it is long); much to my Dad’s annoyance. But I was comfortable and fed, having enjoyed a plate of chips at the Italian run chip shop opposite the cinema, and it was dark. A guaranteed recipe for me to snuggle down to snooze but I’d spotted my man Robert Wagner long before that.
Wagner’s character was Dan Bigelow in the film and he appears in a very early scene, only to succumb to the flames later. I remember thinking how brave Dan Bigelow was at the time, but with maturity and hind-sight he behaved very irresponsibly. I’d woken before the end of the film to find Bigelow had died and I was distraught. My Mammy had to explain later that it was all make believe and that the actor would be on the TV again very soon hale and hearty, so I had nothing to worry about. But although I did see Robert Wagner on TV quite a lot after my first encounter with him, I was acutely aware he was a younger version in all of them. So my young mind remained unsure of my screen idol’s survival from The Towering Inferno, until Hart to Hart came to British TV screens at the end of the 70s. Then I was reassured beyond doubt, and happily enjoyed the unmistakeable on-screen chemistry between Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. I could easily envisage these two actors portraying Jonathan & Jennifer Hart, a couple deeply in love. My Mammy cynically commented “no married couple is ever as happy as that, and as I’ve always said TV and film is mainly make believe”. But Hart to Hart gave me a hope that maybe people could be happily married and content together, and I hung onto that notion for dear life. Because looking around me at the relatives I knew about, not one of them was a shining example for anything much, let alone a paragon of marital bliss.
During the filming of Hart to Hart, the real wife of Robert Wagner tragically died at a very young age. As I viewed pictures of the Natalie Wood funeral in the papers, my heart went out to Wagner and his daughters, particularly Courtney who wasn’t much younger than me. The look of utter desolation on her face reminded me of how I felt at losing my Granny. I wanted to write to her and say how sorry I was but where do you send such a thing?
I was a devoted reader of the “Showbiz Sam” section of the Saturday Daily Record, reading the answers to queries made about TV and film. Included each week was a write to the stars sub-section that had about five addresses for celebrities. I used these with great success to accumulate a few treasured photos of TV personalities. About three years ago I unearthed a very old address book and to my surprise found a contact for Robert Wagner. Regretfully I had never used it, words strangely failing me when contemplating writing to my screen idol. My only excuse for this over sight is that I must have acquired the information as a teenager, a period where I became so unsure of myself I retreated into my shell for several years.
When I bought Wagner’s autobiography “Pieces of my Heart” the book shop assistant positively swooned over his picture on the front cover, which made me chuckle as it wasn’t just me who found him adorable. On reading it I discovered that in 1990 Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers had appeared on the London stage in “Love Letters”. Had I known, I’d have been first in the queue for a ticket. But I had no idea the production was happening at all, so my one chance to see Robert Wagner perform live eluded me. The closest I came to my two Hart’s was in Washington DC in April 2003 when I spotted their stars and signatures outside a theatre.
Over the years I’ve reduced the amount of TV I watch, but I was delighted to see Wagner portray the father of DiNozzo in NCIS. With a shock of white hair he was undoubtedly older (as I was) but none the less the same guy I had adored from such a young age. All those years ago I had described the man on screen that had captivated my heart as “having a twinkle in his eyes, a great smile and a lovely voice (sigh) that just washed over you”. None of that has changed, and funnily enough one of those aspects was picked up on when Robert Wagner won his first studio contract. In his biography, drama coach Helena Sorrell viewed a screen test and said “Look at his smile. I think I can do something with that smile”.
The actor Robert Wagner has held a piece of my heart for most of my life and I’ve no regrets in adopting him as my first big screen idol. Thanks for the memories RJ.