Robert Wagner gets a bit emotional explaining how he came up with the title of the memoir he wrote with Scott Eyman, “Pieces of My Heart.”
After receiving a rough manuscript of the autobiography, he recalls, he decided to read the chapter about Barbara Stanwyck to his wife, Jill St. John, and a friend. The veteran Stanwyck and Wagner had a secret four-year relationship in the 1950s when he was in his early 20s and she was in her mid-40s. “She was a wonderful woman,” Wagner says. “She was such a big part of my life.”
Wagner got so choked up during the reading that he couldn’t finish. He says their friend commented, “ ‘It must be very difficult to write a book. It must be very painful.’ I said, ‘Yes. It’s taken pieces of my heart.’ That’s how I got the title.”
Wagner’s book has plenty of stories about his stern, demanding father, his early years in Hollywood, his friendship with such legends as Spencer Tracy and David Niven -- “you couldn’t ask for a better friend” -- and his career ups and downs.
The crux of “Pieces of My Heart,” however, revolves around his first -- and third -- wife, Natalie Wood, who died in 1981. For the first time since her death, Wagner talks publicly about the fateful night. But there are no surprise revelations in his account; he reiterates what the coroner and police concluded: Wood’s drowning was accidental.
Wagner is 78. His daughters are grown, and he’s a grandfather. He remains handsome and charming.
Known as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, the actor admits he’s astonished at the age range of his fans.
There are those who initially watched him as the hunky male juvenile in such 1950s films as “Prince Valiant” and “A Kiss Before Dying.” A whole new generation was introduced to him in the late 1960s when he played the stylish thief Alexander Mundy in the lighthearted ABC caper series “It Takes a Thief.” And then there are those who fell in love with him as the dashing crime solver Jonathan Hart in the ABC romantic mystery series “Hart to Hart” with Stefanie Powers, which aired from 1979 to 1984.
To the current generation, Wagner’s the evil No. 2 in the “Austin Powers” comedies and a frequent guest on sitcoms, most recently on “Two and a Half Men.”
Wagner has chosen the restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air for the interview. It is one of his favorite haunts. And he seems to be a favorite of everyone who works there. It’s almost like the scene in “Hello, Dolly!” when Dolly Levi goes to Delmonico’s. The chef stops by for a chat and sends over a seared tuna appetizer with his compliments. The waiters dote. One of the valets has even named his son after the actor.
Wagner has a lot of nostalgic affection for the area. As a kid, he used to caddy at the Bel-Air Country Club, where he got to know everyone -- Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby.
“There was nothing else here but the Bel-Air Hotel,” he says, pointing out that the area where the pool is located was once a stable. “There were horses and trails all around. They have taken all the horses out of Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills. Everybody had horses. The center of Sunset Boulevard was a bridle path.”
Wagner says it was “very difficult, very painful” to write about Wood’s death.
“We were such a romantic couple, actually. The highlight of our lives was when we got back together. And then this horrible tragedy . . . good God.”
Wagner and Wood first married in 1957 and divorced five years later. Both went on to marry other people -- and have children -- only to get back together and remarry in 1972. They had their daughter Courtney in 1974.
In the fall of 1981, Wood was in Raleigh, N.C., making the sci-fi film “Brainstorm” with Christopher Walken. It was the first time Wagner and Wood had been apart since their remarriage.
About a month into filming, Wagner visited the set, where he noticed he didn’t have Wood’s full attention. He describes Wood as being “emotionally unfaithful.”
Did he think she was having an affair with Walken?
“No,” Wagner says quietly. “She was involved in the picture and involved in the work . . . .”
Wagner and Wood had invited Walken to be their guest that Thanksgiving weekend on Catalina aboard their boat the Splendour. The evening of Nov. 29, the trio had dinner and drinks at Doug’s Harbor Reef. They returned to the boat and continued to drink until a heated argument erupted between the two men. Wagner says it concerned how much of one’s personal life should be sacrificed in pursuit of one’s career; he was upset that Walken was advocating that Wood give all to her art, even at the expense of her husband and children.
Wood left to go to the master cabin’s bathroom. Wagner says he and Walken eventually calmed down and said good night. When he went to bed, he says, Wood wasn’t there.
It’s believed the dinghy had gotten loose and Wood came up on deck to tie it up.
“I have gone over it so many millions of times with people. Nobody heard anything.
“It’s in the book . . . but she had marks on her [body]. All of those things lead to the belief that she had slipped and rolled into the water, which makes a lot of sense because the boat -- when they found it, it hadn’t been started and the oars were all in the same position. There was no evidence that she tried to get in it.”
These days, Wagner and St. John, who have been married 18 years, live in Aspen, Colo., and keep a pied-a-terre in L.A.
He has no plans to retire from acting, though he won’t be returning to his guest role as Holland Taylor’s paramour on “Two and a Half Men.” “I loved doing that show, but they decided to get the guest artists out of the show and go back to the original [format],” he says.
So Wagner’s character was killed off on his wedding day -- suffering a heart attack after having sex with his younger lover (Jenny McCarthy) right after marrying another woman. “I was very disappointed about leaving the show, but what a way to go -- to have Jenny McCarthy make love to me in the most marvelous ways,” he says with a wry smile.
Robert Wagner book signings
Where: Barnes & Noble, 901-B S. Coast Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Vroman’s, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: West Hollywood Book Festival, 647 N. San Vincente Blvd., West Hollywood Park, Los Angeles
When: Sept. 28