Robert Wagner is in a reflective mood.
“Movies last forever,” noted the veteran actor (“Broken Lance,” “The Pink Panther,” the “Austin Powers” series), but the Hollywood he once knew has all but disappeared.
“I turned around, and it was all gone,” Wagner, 84, said recently in Beverly Hills.
Known as R.J. to his friends and colleagues, he’s dapper, charming, handsome and very much cut from the same cloth as the suave characters he played in the TV series “It Takes a Thief” and “Hart to Hart,” in which he and Stefanie Powers played a wealthy crime-solving couple.
“I was so shocked one day when I went by Jimmy Stewart’s house and it was knocked down and [a new house] was built right up to the curb,” he said. “The thing is, if somebody buys a house, they can do anything that they want.”
Including doing nothing at all.
Seven years ago, he and his wife, actress Jill St. John, sold their Cliff May-designed house in Mandeville Canyon. “And nobody has been in since the day I sold it,” said Wagner, who moved there with his three daughters soon after the drowning death of his then-wife, Natalie Wood, in November 1981. “It’s just been sitting there.”
In his new book, “You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age,” Wagner and his collaborator Scott Eyman offer a humorous, poignant and sometimes juicy view of a vanished era.
His book talks about the legendary stars’ grandiose mansions — the majority of which have suffered the same fate as Stewart’s — and takes us inside the era’s famed restaurants such as Chasen’s (where Bob Hope once rode through the dining room on a horse) and the Brown Derby and the glittery nightclubs such as the Cocoanut Grove, all of which have closed because of changing times and tastes.
The book gives us an intimate look at such famed movie industry locales as the Beverly Hills Hotel and shows how the stars maintained their high style in everything they did, from their hobbies to their clothes (Wagner always favored Italian tailors).
Wagner, who began at 20th Century Fox at age 18, got to know Hollywood’s elite, including Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable and David Niven.
“It was the era,” said the grandfather of two, who has a recurring role as Michael Weatherly’s ne’er-do-well dad on CBS’ most popular series, "NCIS.”
Young actors he’s worked with recently as well as friends of his daughters are always asking him about the old Hollywood.
“They don’t know anything about it,” said Wagner, who lives in L.A. and Aspen with St. John and their German shepherd, Max. “They don’t know Fox had a young talent group of 40 young actors. There was a school there to educate people, a place where you could go and study with coaches and do scenes.”
Though some actors chafed under the studio contract system, preferring to pick their own parts instead of having their bosses select their roles, Wagner found it satisfying.
“It was such a wonderful time,” he said. “Those people at Fox were like family to me. I was signed there when I was 18 and I left when I was 30. They really cared for me.”
He played his roles well, both on screen and off, following the studio’s guidelines. He went to premieres and parties to promote films, often on the arm of an ingénue chosen to be his date for the event. He would dutifully show up at the house of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who could make or break an actor’s career, for an interview, carrying flowers and chocolates as gifts.
“You played the game,” he said. “You were a property. You were someone they were grooming. You were protected. Motion-picture actors and actresses were thought of as royalty, and to be taken into that fold and to be nurtured by those people was wonderful.”
It was Astaire who mentored him from a young age. He later became Wagner’s golfing buddy and played his father on “It Takes a Thief.”
Wagner was in grade school when he first met the legendary star of such musicals as “Top Hat” and “Swing Time.” He had never even seen any of Astaire’s films.
“I went to the Hollywood Military Academy and Fred’s stepson Peter went there,” said Wagner. “I was a boarder. Boarders would go to families’ houses for the weekend. I remember Fred Astaire came, picked me up and put me in his car. He was always so kind to me.”
And that kindness continued for five more decades.
“I remember being at the Bel-Air Country Club and I told him I got a chance to be under contract at Fox,” said Wagner, who used to be a caddy at the golf course.
“He said, ‘That’s wonderful. Get in there and do it.’ The man couldn’t have been more encouraging.”