'Hustle' turns out to be just his kind of work

Times Staff Writer

Robert Vaughn has three "rules of engagement" when it comes to picking a project:

"I need to know where it's going to be shot," he says. "I have to know how much money I am going to be paid. And then I ask to read the script after that."

If the acting assignment is in London or Paris, Vaughn, 73, doesn't even care about the script. So it was just icing on the cake that he loved the first two screenplays he was sent by the BBC producers for the lighthearted series "Hustle," which makes its U.S. television debut Saturday on cable's AMC.

AMC will air the first 18 episodes of the popular British series about a group of London con artists who prey upon the greedy and morally corrupt. Vaughn plays the charming, debonair Albert Stroller, a veteran of the "long con" and the mentor of the crew's leader (Adrian Lester).

The Connecticut-based Vaughn considers England his second home, having lived there for three years in the 1970s while he starred on a series called "The Protectors."

So working on "Hustle" -- he returns to London in August to film six episodes -- has been a perfect fit for him.

Plus, he adds, "there are nice clothes, pretty girls, gambling casinos and pretty good weather in London."

Born to show business parents in New York, Vaughn received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for 1959's "The Young Philadelphians" -- he had appeared earlier on screen in the camp classic "Teenage Caveman," which is not listed in the "Hustle" press kit. And he is the only surviving member of the band of hired gunmen in 1960's "The Magnificent Seven."

Though he's received an Emmy for the 1977 miniseries "Washington: Behind Closed Doors" and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination for his role in the 1968 thriller "Bullitt," Vaughn is best remembered as the sophisticated, sexy spy Napoleon Solo in the 1964-68 series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." Many a female baby boomer counts Vaughn, as well as his costar, David McCallum, who played secret agent Illya Kuryakin, among her first crushes.

Vaughn now puts a high priority on where a project shoots because he's worked in some pretty awful locations and encountered danger that probably would have unnerved even Solo. In the early 1970s, Vaughn found himself under house arrest in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was making a movie.

"There were four producers on the film: an American, a Venezuelan, a German and an Italian," recalls Vaughn. "About 10 days into filming, suddenly the film shuts down. I picked up the morning paper and there was the picture of the Venezuelan producer behind bars. So I said to my future wife, 'I think we are going to be leaving here quite soon.' "

That wasn't the case. "They wouldn't let us leave the country unless we paid a bribe to get out," says Vaughn. "So we were there for two weeks under house arrest and never paid the bribe. But we left the country with costumes on in the dead of night, getting on a plane that was going to Barcelona."

He had to hire a bodyguard while shooting another movie at Machu Picchu in Peru. "The Shining Path, who were Maoist guerrillas, had their main headquarters there right where we were filming," says Vaughn. "They had a habit of kidnapping Americans at that time."

So Vaughn was supplied with bodyguards who worked on eight-hour shifts.

"But inevitably, the person who came on for the night shift was drunk and he would go right to sleep outside the door holding his AK-47 on his lap as he slept. We were told to either leave where we were filming or we could be taken captive. We hung around there as long as we could and then snuck down the mountain in the middle of the night and caught a plane out of there."

Vaughn says there are still many "Man From U.N.C.L.E." fan clubs around the world that hold conventions.

"I haven't attended one but sometimes I speak on loud speaker phones to the fans in London. The fans are 40 years older, but are still hanging in."

He's still great friends with McCallum, who is a regular on the popular CBS series "NCIS."

"It's ironic that I am an American working for the BBC in London and he [is Scottish] and working for CBS," Vaughn laughs.

"We always call on each other's birthday, and I had lunch with him not too long ago. He lives in New York City and I live an hour north of New York in Connecticut and our wives know each other."

Both actors have aged gracefully over the years. When commended on his youthful appearance, Vaughn charmingly responds: "That is very kind of you. I have done nothing to deserve it. I can tell you that."

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