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Busy, Ageless Robert Wagner Sits Down for a Heart to Heart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may be hard to believe, but Robert Wagner has been making movies for 50 years. Under contract for 12 years to 20th Century Fox, he appeared in such classics as “Titanic” (the 1953 version), “Broken Lance” and “A Kiss Before Dying.”

To baby boomers, he’ll always be the super-suave con artist Alexander Mundy in the lighthearted 1968-70 ABC adventure series “It Takes a Thief.” Wagner also starred with Stefanie Powers as rich, sophisticated amateur married sleuths in the 1979-84 ABC series “Hart to Hart.”

Wagner has also kept busy on the big screen, starring as the nefarious Number Two in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” and returning for the upcoming sequel, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” as well as the 1998 erotic thriller “Wild Things.”

His latest project is “Fatal Error,” TBS’ first original movie, which premieres Sunday. In the cyber-thriller, which stars Antonio Sabato Jr. and Janine Turner, he plays a powerful media mogul whose company has developed a deadly computer virus. Relaxing in his suite at Pasadena’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Wagner, an ageless 69, is friendly, funny and utterly charming.

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Question: You’ve worked with some of the greatest screen legends, including Spencer Tracy, Fred Astaire, Bette Davis.

Answer: And Barbara Stanwyck. What a gift! When I was signed, I was making $75 a week, and I took home 55 bucks. I was in the movies, and that’s all I wanted to be. I wanted to be in front of the camera. I knew nothing about it, but I was a fan. [Under contract] I could stand on those sets and watch Tyrone Power and Gregory Peck work.

I started off as an ingenue. I was 19 years old. I was the boy next door. But you always felt you could work your way up, that you could have a better part in the next picture. [Head of Fox] Daryl Zanuck was always placing me in different positions.

You were part of 20th Century Fox. You felt proud of being part of the organization. When I wasn’t working, I was on the road, going out and selling movies or dancing on the stage and meeting the public. They never let you rest.

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Q: Do you think movies were better when you began?

A: It was the Golden Age in the sense that [the movies] were a discovery--an adventure. Everything was new. But there are so many good actors that are around today and so many good movies.

Q: Speaking of movies, you seem to be having a good time playing the bad guy in “Fatal Error.”

A: This guy is an interesting guy because he is not a heavy. He is very concerned about his stockbrokers, very concerned about his company, and when somebody challenges him, he is surprised, really.

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Q: Well, you have to admit Number Two in “Austin Powers” is a heavy.

A: Yes, but he’s totally controlled by Dr. Evil. In this one, while Dr. Evil has been frozen, I begin a program to clone him. It is so much fun to be involved in a picture like that. I walked in the other day and Mike Myers was doing a scene with Michael York where he was in the hospital and he lost his mojo. The nurses have these electrodes on his nipples and he goes, “Oh, baby. Oh my God, don’t stop!” It’s so outrageous, and it’s so much fun. Michael’s fabulous.

Q: Will we be seeing any more “Hart to Hart” TV movies?

A: No. I was going to go forward with it. But Stefanie wanted to go into the theater. I said that was the end.

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We had great joy making it. [Co-star] Lionel Stander was a tremendous contributor, and when he died, we lost something, and losing [the dog] Freeway was also something. It was a long run and a good one, and I am very grateful for it.

Q: Weren’t you going to do a series for the Family Channel?

A: I created an idea called “The Lancasters"--a fourth-generation auction house family. I have offices all over the world, and it puts us into every kind of situation you can imagine. I developed it for the Family Channel, and then it was sold to Rupert Murdoch and Saban. They are going for a different type of programming.

Q: What other projects do you have coming out this year?

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A: I just did the picture “Crazy in Alabama,” and what a director Antonio Banderas is. I saw somebody who worked on it, and they went to a screening and they said everybody came out crying. I play this agent in Hollywood.

I did a picture for Ron Shelton called “No Vacancy” with Christina Ricci. I have a cameo. I play a guy named Mr. Tangerine.

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* “Fatal Error” premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on TBS, with encore showings Tuesday at 5:05 p.m. and April 4 at 2 p.m. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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