Sixty years is a long time to do anything, but Robert Wagner knew being an actor was his only road. The 78-year-old actor known for numerous movies and TV shows takes you on a journey in his anticipated memoirs titled Pieces of My Heart. Wagner addresses the hardest times of life that includes stories of dozens of the industries best including the death of his wife Natalie Wood, considering the possibility of killing Warren Beatty, and even being told to marry his co-star Terry Moore.
Listen to the Robert Wagner interview:
Chris Yandek: He has many decades of success as a Hollywood actor on television and in movies. You probably know him more recently from the Austin Powers movies. He’s got probably one of the most honest portrayals out, his autobiography, it’s called Pieces of My Heart, legendary actor Robert Wagner thank you for joining me today. How you doing?
Robert Wagner: “Thank you. I am doing fine Chris. I love that introduction (laughs) to my work. I had a lot of help with this though you know, my co-editor and co-writer in Scott Eyman. I know you’re familiar with his stuff because he wrote the book on L. [Louis] B Mayer, and [John] Ford, Sight and Sound, and he knows Hollywood. We were able to really connect and he was able to drop me into Hollywood and help me with going through the struggles of becoming an actor and walking around the streets of this great city.”
CY: You starred alongside Paul Newman in the movies Harper and Winning. What are your memories of him?
RW: “He was such a special, wonderful person. I did three pictures with him, but I knew him. I’ve known him for over 50 years. He was just the most special of people you could ever want to meet. He had great talent as you know. We all experienced that, but behind that was a true gentleman and a man who had great empathy, great feelings for people, great love. He was a wonderful father, wonderful husband. We all know about his philanthropy. Believe me, the world, they were lucky to have him, and it’s a loss to all of us that he’s gone, but he left such great memories for all of us.”
CY: Is there any one [memory] in particular that you have of him?
RW: “Well, we spent a great deal of time together. When we were making Winning that’s when he started to really becoming involved in racing and he took that over like everything he did. He really grabbed it with a passion. One thing that I really remember about him is that when he really engaged himself in something he really put everything he had into it and did everything to make it the best it possibly could be for him and everybody around him.”
CY: Now focusing on your book. It’s very honest, very detailed, but is there anything you wish you didn’t say that’s in it?
RW: “No. I don’t think so. I worked a long time on it and there were quite a few choices I could have made. I could’ve gone into some other stories, but those were really the highlights of what I felt. I wrote it to acknowledge the people who have been really so wonderful to me in my life and have been so responsible and there for me when I was in need of that. I had so many mentors and people who cared for me. I wanted to be able to put it down and acknowledge that and thank them and tell them how grateful I am because I am one of the blessed guys in the world you know. I have had terrific fortune and great luck and the people who’ve been around me and in my life are responsible for me being where I am here.”
CY: What are the biggest changes from Hollywood when you started sixty years ago?
RW: “Well, there is more people in the world. I had a very interesting experience Chris the other day. We were in New York. The Broadcasting Hall of Fame had a kinescope of a show that Jill [Wagner] had made called Junior Miss. It was made in 1956. Live, in color, CBS, musical, all of these things. It was Joan Bennett, Carol Linley, Jill, Diane Lynn, David Wayne. I was sitting there looking at it and one of the things I was so impressed by and kind of like a wave hit me was we weren’t in a war then. We weren’t in a conflict then. There was no AIDS. There were no drugs. There were less people. It seemed to be a much more peaceful time. I think all of us who are in any kind of industry, or any kind of business have felt a tremendous change because corporations have become involved, there is more people, there are more committee decisions. It’s very hard to get a one on one situation going. With my kids I find it very difficult to be able to – that we can all be together at the same time. Everybody seems to have so many things to do. Then at that time people were more engaged with each other on a personal level.”
CY: Yeah. There wasn’t text messaging and all this other crazy stuff to distract you. Honestly, there have been some amazing technological advances with time, but we look at this and say maybe it’s not all so good cause we’re all distracted and we’re not all paying attention to each other.
RW: “Well, it’s very hard to get somebody to take their eyes off that screen and look at you and take their hands off that keyboard or sit in the theater and just concentrate. Have that focus. We were very fortunate that we had that.”
CY: There is a passage in the book, which is your outlook on being in show business and you write, “There’s a certain reality of show business that the public doesn’t understand: it’s a business for whores, especially when it comes to actors. We have to put ourselves out there for those few good parts that come along, even if those parts are controlled by people we don’t like, and who may not like us. But we put on our best clothes and try to sell ourselves. Not pleasant, but reality.” So to be successful in any form of show business you have to put yourself out there?
RW: “Absolutely! And you do. That’s the wonderful thing about it. I feel so compassionate towards actors, producers, and directors. You’re putting yourself out there. You’re laying yourself right out. It’s a big commitment, but it’s like falling in love with somebody. It’s the same thing. You know?”
CY: But do you think maybe today’s actors, maybe today’s young stars aren’t putting themselves out there enough? Maybe the general population fears the idea of rejection, failure, and takes it too personally?
RW: “I don’t think so. The younger actors that I know are very committed and they take great risks. Some of these actors I am telling you are just amazing. Don’t you find that to be true?”
CY: I think to a point there are certain people who really appreciate the work and work very hard and put themselves out there. We go back to what you talk about in the book, the entitlement factor. Well, I deserve this and I don’t have to audition for this or I think I am good enough for this kind of mentality. I am not saying that’s the majority Robert. I don’t, but I think there is still a part of show business that has an entitlement factor out there. I think you can agree with me on that one.
RW: “Yes. I do.”
CY: I want to look back at the studio situation. Your co-star Terry Moore got pregnant by Howard Hughes and the studio tried to force you two to marry. How crazy was that part of the studio system back then? Reflecting back on it?
RW: “Well, how crazy was it? It wasn’t anything new. Apparently, it was new me. They had just suddenly linked us up together. It was something we were both very upset about.”
CY: But can you imagine a studio telling you to marry a co-star today? I couldn’t see that happening.
RW: “I don’t think that would happen today, but don’t forget in those days we were all under contract doing pictures, but that’s a marketing ploy. That would be considered a marketing ploy today right? That would be considered branding something right?”
RW: “Those terms. If we can get some action and some exposure by linking up two people that are in our movie, we’ll take advantage of that.”
CY: Was it the mentality of let’s do this for a little while and see how it goes, or they wanted you to legally get married?
RW: “Well, when they announced it they put us in a position of legally getting married. That’s happened before.”
CY: Well, speaking of Howard Hughes, I can’t imagine him chasing after you outside a home just because you were seeing a woman he liked. What are your reflections of him?
RW: “My reflections were keep running. My reflection was that I was very happy that I was aware he was around and I could get out of there.”
CY: But were many people intimidated by him or didn’t want to deal with him? What was it in particular about him?
RW: “Well, he was a very reclusive man. I didn’t have any one on one contacts with him or conversations or business with him, but he was a brilliant man. He was brilliant and he was highly respected. He had many women under contract to him and he was a very highly respected man. Later on he became, it’s all a conjecture because nobody was really there. He was such a reclusive man and his behavior was certainly bizarre. In many cases he was a great pilot and a great businessman. He really had his hand on the pulse I think don’t you?”
CY: Yeah. I think he definitely had a vision if Leonardo Dicaprio can play him in a big movie and can have a movie dedicated to yourself that’s a box office success I definitely think you had some influence on Hollywood and the different era of show business of course the beginning of the airline industry.
CY: A lot of the book is dedicated to your two marriages with Natalie Wood. Why do you think show business marriages are so difficult?
RW: “Well, they’re open. People are looking in at them. People feel they can share a piece of it. You don’t really have the privacy that you would have if you weren’t in this business. That’s part of it. The other thing I think is with all the adulation and all of the things coming at you, and the tremendous responsibility of carrying a movie.”
CY: But when you look at these couples today and just how they are under a microscope. We can use Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for an example. Do you think it’s just gotten ridiculous?
RW: “Well, I think they’re handling it very well. I am sure they work out times where they can be alone and not exposed, but I don’t think they can go out of their house without being photographed can they or anywhere? Everybody’s got a camera. Everybody’s got a website. It’s very difficult to move today under that kind of scrutiny. They’re so popular and they’re so wonderful. They’re wonderful people. They’re doing so much. He’s such a fine actor. I like his work.”
CY: Well, this is probably a very difficult question and I know every love is different and special in its own way, but you say Natalie [Wood] was the love of your life or that first real love of your life?
RW: “That’s rather a hard question to answer. I married Natalie. We met when she was 18 and we rather grew up together. I was 27 and she was 19 when we got married the first time, we went through a lot of growing together. A lot of emotional connections. We found each other. I would say that was my first big love. Yeah.”
CY: You had your differences during the first marriage and Warren Beatty was part of that. You say, “I was hanging around outside his house with a gun, hoping he would walk out. I not only wanted to kill him, I was prepared to kill him.” I know you and Warren have since patched things up, but at that period in your life do you really think you could’ve done something so drastic?
RW: “No. I don’t think so. As I look back on it and I did look back on it I don’t think I could’ve done that. I really don’t, but at that moment I was pretty – I was trying, hoping this marriage would get back and we could get it back together. I say in the book, which is true, you have a chance if there is only two people, but if there is three people it’s very difficult.”
CY: I agree Robert, but those are some very deep things to say and share with the general public. I don’t know how many people honestly would share that even looking back, no I wouldn’t have done that, but still I guess as you were putting this book together at that time in your life it was a very difficult period. You were not living at your house. You were living with different friends. It must’ve been a very difficult time period.
RW: “It was a very tough time for me. I felt very alone and I felt very frustrated. It was a very dark time for me.”
CY: Not trying to continue here with dark times, but the passing of Natalie [Wood], how unbelievable was it for you to get so many well wishes whether it was from the Reagans to Queen Elizabeth to Princess Margaret? How did that feel during that difficult time for you? What was it like?
RW: “Well, Chris, the people all over the world grew up with Natalie. They were so involved with her. They really felt for her and felt about her and cared for her. When this tragic accident happened the people were just absolutely shocked. They were stunned. We, my girls and myself, we were absolutely catatonic. It was just an unbelievable moment in our lives. I couldn’t even function. You know?”
CY: Yeah. How are your children today? How are their lives going? How difficult was it raising three children before you married Jill?
RW: “I had a lot of people helping me as you know in the book. My girls have all stepped forward. They have lives and they’ve been able to bring their lives together after losing their mother. We were all so close and all so together. She was so happy and was looking forward to watching her children grow, have babies, and all of that, and it didn’t happen. She was taken from us and we all held on to each other and we went forward. That is one of the things I tried to get in Pieces of My Heart that we all have tragedies. All of us are gonna have tragedies in our life. Somehow you can get through it if you hold on and you have people in your life that you care about and can take you by the hand and help you a little bit forward and you can go a little bit backward, but it’s possible if you have that. It’s got a sense of hope to it. The thing that happened for me in this book is I wanted people to know that if you have a belief and you really care about what you do and care about what you’d like to have, you can have your dream come true and it happened for me. Also, you can get up and somehow keep going. Somehow time is the factor and people can help you and you can make it. You can go forward.”
CY: You admit in the book you turned down the television hit Dancing with the Stars. What do you still want to do when it comes to work? Would you ever consider any other reality television or what would you like to still do?
RW: “I don’t want to say never, but I am not a real fan of reality television. I don’t want to say never, but I don’t think I’d particularly get involved. I am involved in producing a couple of movies. I have a couple of parts that people have offered me that I may do. I love working. I love being in the industry and it’s always what I wanted to do. I don’t have any kind of particular desire to retiring.”
CY: Well you say in the book I love being a working actor and use the word working by saying it’s what I do, this is who I am. You say, “In any case, I’ve been an actor for nearly sixty years and nobody with that kind of career has any cause to complain. I’ve been very fortunate and I think it’s largely because I was determined to be a working actor, emphasis on working.” Why is there so much emphasis on working?
RW: “I like to be working. I like to be busy. I like the action. It’s always a challenge. There is always something different. You’re meeting new people. I don’t believe in retirement. I believe it’s an interesting thing to keep yourself busy. You don’t have to knock yourself over and be compulsive about it, but working is great fun. It keeps you alive. It keeps me alive anyway.”
CY: What would you like to say to your fans whether they were from the television shows or the movies over the years? What would you like to say to them about where you are in your life right now?
RW: “I would like to say to them that I am very appreciative of them because they’ve put a lot of energy into me and that I love what I am doing. If I can give them anything back that they’ve given to me I am there for them.”
You can check out Robert Wagner’s official website at http://www.robert-wagner.com/. It includes all of Robert’s upcoming appearances.
You can find out more information about Pieces of My Heart at the following link: