If there's one thing you can say about Robert Wagner, it's that he has no desire to play Macbeth. If you ask him what appeals to him about a particular role, he will talk about the number of locations the character could conceivably be filmed in, or whether he feels "comfortable" with the story.
"I'm not trying to be something I'm not," he said, sitting in his trailer during filming in Middleburg for his forthcoming ABC television series "55 Lime Street." "I'm trying to do something with myself that could be more of what I've got . . . I go by instinct, and whether I have good feelings about a project. That helps a lot for me personally. Some people enjoy fighting through these things, to have a lot of tsoris. You understand tsoris [suffering], right?"
Sure, he's done Tennessee Williams (he played in a 1976 television production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" that costarred his late wife Natalie Wood and Sir Laurence Olivier), but the reviews for that were so bad he has the good sense not to suggest that the experience was the height of his career. And he's made a foreign film ("The Condemned of Altona," directed by Vittorio de Sica in 1963) and one foray onto the stage, playing the title role in "Mr. Roberts" the same year.
No, Robert Wagner's bread and butter -- an estimated $2 million a year's worth during "Hart to Hart" -- has been the lighter fare, the roles that call for a handsome face, a suave manner and a slightly tongue-in-cheek delivery that indicates none of us is so stupid as to take any of this too seriously.
John Standing, a British actor of good repute but, as he puts it, "stunning anonymity" in this country, was filming a scene last March with Wagner, who plays his partner in "55 Lime Street." They were at the Washington Monument, "arctic weather, in the middle of the night," Standing recalled, and there was a line of 80 girls, ages 9 to 24, ogling Wagner. The star had been staring into the Reflecting Pool, and suddenly he looked up so that his face was visible.
"All 80 girls screamed, at once, from the crotch," Standing said. "That's the only way I can describe it. It was simply incredible."
It may have been incredible to Standing, but for Wagner it was simply business as usual. At 55, with a few gray hairs and a soft middle to prove it, Wagner is one of the few durable television stars, with three successful series since 1968. His heartthrob quotient is as high now as it was 35 years ago, when as a young movie studio stud he had his clothes torn off by adoring females.
He has been in town recently filming two episodes for his fourth prime-time series; this time he plays an insurance investigator ("I am not an insurance agent," he emphasized), with an office in Washington, a home in Middleburg and a partner (Standing) in London.
"I'm a reactor," he said. "It a good part gives me a chance to be with some different characters and people and the ethnic part of where they are -- without being heavy. I mean, I'm not talking about doing a street show, like 'Hill Street Blues.' I want to take people out of the 6 o'clock news."
The voice is smooth, like syrup. He sounds like a guy who was born knowing how to ask a girl for a date. And one from the era when guys actually did ask girls for dates. He has a reliable sexuality, country club suavity and quintessentially Middle-American good looks; he's common denominator handsome. There is nothing the least bit ethnic about him, and he manages -- perhaps through the softening effects of age -- to not appear slick. His manner is sincere, confiding and friendly -- one reason, perhaps, he is so popular.
"He has a tenderness, a gentleness and yet a genuine masculinity," said Standing. "He's St. George, the defender of the faith -- he's highly athletic and can ride and ski and shoot, all the things that women expect a man to be able to do. And with a woman in his arms he's very tender -- and funny. "
As an actor, Wagner is a true Hollywood product. He moved to Los Angeles at age 9 and grew up with the sons and daughters of film stars and producers, wanting only to be a movie actor. For five years he was a contract player at 20th Century-Fox, performing small roles and screen tests with young actresses. He traveled all over the country on promotional tours, groomed like Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter for "bobby sox idol" status, with hopes of inheriting the mantle of Cooper, Gable or Tracy. His first attention came with a one-minute part in "With a Song in My Heart" (1952) when, as a shell-shocked soldier, he weeps when Jane Froman sings.
"I was just a good-looking guy walking around," he said.
"He's a practical actor," said Harry Thomason, who with his wife, scriptwriter Linda Bloodworth, and Wagner produces "55 Lime Street." "He will go out of his way to sign autographs. He's accessible, patient, never out of sorts. He understands he should be nice to his public, and a lot of people in this business fail to understand that."
Not that in his 37 years in Hollywood he hasn't had his ups and downs. He played "Prince Valiant" (1954) in what one critic called "a vacant monotone," and another called him "needlessly unpleasant" in "The Mountain" (1956). But he was acclaimed in "Broken Lance" (1954), in which he played Spencer Tracy's son, and later in "The War Lover" (1962).
Meanwhile the publicity mills found him an agreeable product, and his profile as "most promising actor" and "brightest new face" was high, culminating in his storybook romance with Wood. He looks back on his career as at an old dance card.
"The '60s were bad for me," he said. "I had some bad movies ["Say One for Me," "All the Fine Young Cannibals"]. Then I went to Europe ["The Condemned of Altona"]. Then I got "The Pink Panther," and I was up. Then my career was down again. Then came "Harper." In the '70s I was busted again, and then I came up again."
At that moment a bee flew into the trailer. Wagner escorted it out with a newspaper, quietly and calmly. "Come on, come on," he cooed to the bee, coaxing rather than chasing it out. The bee left.
"I'm not a super-talented guy -- but I'm getting better, " he mused. "I'm being myself more. Early on I was trying to be everyone else -- Gable, Tracy, Cooper -- instead of finding my own identity . . . But I've always had enthusiasm. They can't get you for that. Critics can kill you, but if you're enthusiastic you can sit back and say, 'Okay, you do it.' "
Wagner did not want to take a job in television when "It Takes a Thief" was first suggested to him in 1967. He saw it as something of a comedown after 30-odd movies and was uncertain he could sustain "the exposure . . . being in people's living rooms week after week." He played a convicted cat burglar recruited by the CIA to steal for the government in glamorous foreign locations where there were plenty of beautiful women for him to woo.
The show ran 2 1/2 years, which television defines as success. He made television movies like "The Cable Car Mystery," "Madame Sin" and "Killer by Night" for a few years, before being recruited for "The Switch," about another ex-con who teams up with an older one (Eddie Albert) to form a detective agency. Again, the plots required a lot of travel.
After a few more formula movies like "Towering Inferno" and "Midway," he found his most successful series yet: "Hart to Hart," playing a self-made millionaire with a clever and glamorous wife (Stefanie Powers) and a bent for amateur sleuthing in foreign countries. The series ran for a phenomenal five seasons and was 12th in the ratings when canceled last year by ABC, the victim, Wagner thinks, of a new cadre of studio executives.
"I was very disappointed at the cancellation of 'Hart to Hart,' " he said. "We'd been together so long. I mean, Stefanie and I had even picked the wallpaper for our TV living room. What really upset me was that they waited until the last minute to do it."
Even now the show is syndicated in 55 countries. "It Takes a Thief" and "Switch" are syndicated, too, making Wagner one of the most viewed faces in the world.
"55 Lime Street" will draw, once again, on Wagner's fondness for exotic locales, but there are some unusual aspects to it, Wagner and Thomason say. "For one thing, only 60 per cent of any show will be taken up with the caper of the week," Thomason explained. "The other 40 percent will be about his personal relationships with his children, his father, and other people." There's no calculated demographic reason for this, he says, just an effort to make the show distinct. "Have you ever noticed that in all action-adventure series nobody ever calls home?"
Wagner plays a divorced father whose ex-wife lives in Washington. He lives on a horse farm "somewhere west of Middleburg" with their two daughters ("my 'ex-wife' and I decided it was better for the kids") and his father, played by the redoubtable Lew Ayres. Wagner's character, J.G. Culver, has an English partner (Standing), also middle-aged, also divorced, who similarly lives on an estate near London.
Culver is a blueblood but not rich -- he has to work to keep the farm going, Thomason said. He flies his own plane, but it's not a jet. He travels all over Europe, but not first class.
"When we first started developing this show we had a lot of discussion with the network," Thomason continued in a soft Arkansas drawl. "Sometimes they got rather heated. They said people in America expect to see Robert Wagner in a tuxedo. And there's some validity to that. We said that's fine, but you're also going to see him in blue jeans and cowboy boots back at his home base. Of course even in blue jeans he looks elegant."
Whether or not Robert Wagner wears blue jeans may not seem like an earth-shattering issue, but since each episode of "55 Lime Street" costs about $1 million, the question takes on at least a momentary significance.
Setting the show at least partially in Washington was also an effort at being different, Thomason said. "And the possibilities of what we can photograph here are enormous," Wagner said. About 18 local actors have been hired for small roles, and scenes have been shot downtown, in a fishing boat in Annapolis and in Baltimore, as well as in Middleburg.
Not all Middleburg residents have been enchanted by the Hollywood invasion, however. "They just took over the town as if they owned it," said Penny Reed, who owns P.H. Reed's, a store a half block off the main drag that specializes in Ralph Lauren clothing. "The least they could have done is hire a local caterer . . ."
A hunt country newspaper reported that the film company had agreed to pay the town for lost revenue from parking meters and would donate leftover food to the poor.
"I don't think it does the town any good to talk about it," said another shopkeeper, Punkin Pinnell. She said the local business association would be drafting guidelines for future film invasions, whether it be the "Lime Street" crowd or another. "We've had people fancier than that here and we will again."
It was to work that Wagner turned in 1981 after Natalie Wood drowned near their 60-foot yacht. By all accounts he was heartbroken at her death. No questions about her were permitted in this interview.
Wood and Wagner had been a match made in Hollywood when they first wed in 1957. They divorced five years later. After both remarried and had children, they were reunited in 1972 and had a daughter. He lives now with all three children, Katherine, 21, Natasha, 14, and Courtney, 11, who sometimes travel with him on location abroad.
The fact that he is a single father and the character he plays on "Lime Street" is a single father is merely a coincidence, Wagner said. "I am not a single father by choice," he said tersely.
A month after Wood's death, Wagner told a friend, who subsequently told the New York Daily News, that he thought she had drowned after slipping on the rungs of a boat ladder at night while trying to tie a rubber dinghy to the yacht so it wouldn't bang. Los Angeles medical examiner Thomas Noguchi reported after an autopsy that Wood was "slightly intoxicated" when she died and that Wagner and their guest, actor Christopher Walken, had been arguing during the evening. He ruled the death a "tragic accident."
Wagner has since sold the home he shared with Wood and moved to a two-acre ranch. He has called actress Jill St. John his "girlfriend," but that seems to be as far as it's going. When asked what most engages his passion, he said "nature." He enjoys the out-of-doors and likes to ski, play tennis and ride; he raises chickens, gardens a little and has invested in a horse-breeding syndicate.
"Acting's a rather privileged profession, isn't it?" he said. "To be able to entertain, to play out your fantasies. To play the kind of characters I play . . . In my career so many people have helped and advised me when something worked -- Spencer Tracy, David Niven. Natalie did that for me, helped me to see what worked and what didn't. Niven loved me . . . It's hard to do that without breaking someone's spirit . . . Sometimes something just comes along and you grab it and it carries you and you just hang on. It's all knowing when to make your move."