Anticipating the comic-strip-movie craze by years, a young Robert Wagner played the title role in 1954's Prince Valiant. But his resumé didn't remain two-dimensional: he went on to play roles as wide-ranging as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (opposite then-wife Natalie Wood and Laurence Olivier) and eye-patch-wearing henchman Number Two to Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers films. Other films include The Mountain, The Longest Day, The Towering Inferno, Winning, A Kiss Before Dying, Titanic (1953), and Wild Things, among many more. To some, he remains best known as the star of TV series It Takes a Thief, Hart to Hart and Switch (or for his appearance on Seinfeld and multiple guest spots on NCIS, Two and a Half Men, and Boston Legal) but Wagner has always professed The Pink Panther (1963) to be the favorite of his theatrical films (he reprised his role as George Lytton in early-'80s sequels Curse of the Pink Panther and Trail of the Pink Panther). Wagner recently came to San Francisco to participate in the Road to Hollywood arm of the TCM Classic Film Festival, an annual series of events that brings out the stars for Q&As attached to screenings of classic films. The morning of the Pink Panther screening at the Castro Theatre, Wagner and TCM host extraordinaire Robert Osborne sat down at the Ritz-Carlton to chat about the film.
Groucho: We’re going to talk about The Pink Panther. It’s one of my favorite movies, definitely.
Robert Wagner: Mine too.
Groucho: I thought maybe Mr. Osborne would start off by setting the scene in terms of the origin of the film. Blake Edwards had in mind a riff on Raffles, right?
Robert Osborne: Right, I think it was. And also I think the original plan was Ava Gardner and Peter Ustinov and the cast that he had—David Niven was kind of the central focal point of it. And for David Niven, it was something he was looking forward to because he’d always wanted to kind of have his own franchise in the films—kind of like The Thin Man franchise. And this, I think was going to be that and then everything kind of changed when Peter Sellers—Peter Ustinov—I think Ava Gardner left first –
Robert Osborne: [To Wagner:] You’ll have to clarify that for us. But didn’t Ava leave the project first and then, because she left, Peter Ustinov left? And so then Peter Sellers came into it. And then Blake Edwards was so mesmerized and tickled by what Peter Sellers was adding to the scenes that it became more and more about Inspector Clouseau than about the David Niven character. But David Niven, being the gentleman that he is, you know, didn’t put up a fuss and didn’t have a problem with it. And you can tell that part better than I.
Robert Wagner: Well, the thing with Ava Gardner I remember was that Marty Jurow brought her over, and she didn’t want to get involved with all the paparazzi. They just drove her crazy when she arrived. So she stepped back from it. And Ustinov had some objections about the script. And Blake was very much of an improvisational director and Ustinov kind of liked to have the material all laid out for him and all of that. And I think really underneath it all is Blake, really from the very beginning, always wanted to have Peter Sellers because he had seen him in The Mouse That Roared and he thought that he was the perfect choice for Clouseau. [Ed.: In Edwards' version of the story, he recalled being not as sure about casting Sellers (after losing first-choice Ustinov), having seen Sellers only in 1959's I'm All Right Jack, released the same year as The Mouse That Roared.]
RW: And he was.
RW: I mean—
RW: And when Peter came into it and you started to see the two of them develop this character—the character that David was playing just stepped back a bit, you know, because Clouseau just took over the whole—that character just took everything over.
RO: Mm-hm. Some of these questions I’m asking him are things I’m going to ask him on the stage tonight.
G: Right...So Mr. Wagner, the film was shot mostly in Rome. Is it true you were living in Rome when you were hired?
RW: Yes, I was living in Rome when I was hired. But I had known Blake before that. And it was such a tremendous opportunity for me to work for Blake. And he was just fabulous. I admired him so much, and he had been so successful over the years, you know. He had done really good things. And so this was a big opportunity for me, and I was thrilled to death to have this part.
G: And you had your name over the title. Right?
RW: Yes, I think so. Was it over the title?
G: Yeah. You, Capucine, Sellers and Niven all above the title, I think. In the credits anyway.
RO: Well, I think probably—but you had your name over the title for a long time at that point.
RW: Yes, I did.
RO: You’d worked your way up by that time.
RW: Well, I’d—the big one when I had my name over the title was on The Mountain, when Spencer Tracy gave me co-billing with him.
G: Sure. Yeah.
RW: That really pulled me out of being just a homogenized young actor in Hollywood. That was the big break.
RO: Yeah, but you were more than just another homogenized actor at that point.
RW: I was just—
RO: I was there at that time.
RW: Yes, you were.
RO: You were hot stuff. Indeed you were. Always.
RW: Very fortunate. Very, very fortunate.
G: Now I’m going to get back to The Pink Panther in a second. But I just wanted to ask about your voice. You have such a distinctive voice.
RW: Are you talking to me or to Robert?
G: [To Wagner:] Yes, to you. Well, you both do, but—
G: But you, Mr. Wagner, do you credit that voice to anything in particular in your upbringing? Was it developed in your training?
RW: Well, I really had as a young man—I had a very high—kind of high voice. And there was a wonderful vocal coach at MGM called Gertrude Fogler. And I worked with her for a while. To kind of get it placed, because it—the era I was brought up in, everything was [in higher-pitched head voice:] "Hey man, how are you, how’s everything going?" It was all up in your head. And also [Vittorio] De Sica helped me a great deal. I worked with a Professor Scuri in Rome that he knew, that dropped my voice down because it wasn’t resonating. But thank you very much for that compliment. I appreciate that.
RO: So he’d be able to start dubbing Lauren Bacall in the future.
RW: I think I could do that.
RO: You could do that.
RW: I could do her. Yeah.
RO: [in deep raspy voice:] Yeesss.
G: You filmed on location in the Italian Alps as well.
G: You took a train up with the company. I can imagine that train ride must have been kind of memorable.
RW: Let me tell you something. Every ride that we took—whether it was on the train or wherever—they were all great. It was the most wonderful picture I ever worked on. And we all had a tremendous time—we were all very close. A big joy.
RO: Why was that, do you think?
RW: Well, Blake, you know, kind of brought everybody together. And gregarious people, you know. David Niven was a marvelous man. We’d have dinners at night. The cast was all together. And I think also, Bob, we kind of felt that this was—
RO: You knew?
RW: Gonna be something special. I mean—it was a very expensive picture to make. You know, the Mirischs were having plaid rabbits back in Hollywood, you know, because they were all so concerned this picture was not going to—they were just dumping a lot of money into it.
G: They put a lot of trust in Blake Edwards because I know Walter Mirisch didn’t particularly want him to make this movie next.
RW: He didn’t want him to what?
G: Well, I think Walter Mirisch was kind of lukewarm on the idea of The Pink Panther but he trusted—that was their deal—Blake Edwards would bring him—
RW: Well, Blake had been pretty successful—Operation Petticoat, you know, that thing—that picture made a lot of money. That was a big-time film. [To Osborne:] We should have been in that, you know? You and me.
RO: We could have done that.
RW: We could have done that.
RW: But he was on a roll. And what that roll is—it’s not a Kaiser, you know, it’s a roll that is—if the pictures are successful, they let you go. When you have ones that are not so successful, then there’s a question.
RW: Always that. But Blake had a real good run.
G: Yeah. Had you been an experienced skier prior to—because you did some skiing in the film.
RW: Yeah. Mm-hm. Yeah, I had skied before then.
G: No process shots in that movie. It’s all shot for real.
RW: No. It was the real stuff.
RO: And you’re still skiing, right?
RW: No, I hung the skis up when [wife] Jill [St. John] got hurt. You know, Jill was really a very, very good amateur skier—one of the best—and she got hurt. And when I saw her immobile—
RW: I said to myself, "I’ve skied enough rounds I think. I think I’ll just step away from this."
RW: And also the sport’s changed a great deal. You know, now it’s a lot of snowboarding and moving everybody very quickly and multiple quads and it’s a different—
G: Who needs it?
RW: Well, no, it’s a wonderful sport. I love it. I live up in the mountains. It’s great. But when I saw her like that, I thought, "Well, I’ve been—"
RW: "Lucky." Very.
G: So Peter Sellers obviously became legendary for his comic performances. And of course Blake Edwards was so brilliant staging, like the farce for example of the hotel room sequence. What do you recall about the way a sequence like that was put together in terms of what Blake Edwards would throw out and how Sellers would respond to it?
RW: Well, you know, Blake was the kind of director that—he had it in his mind. But he used a lot of what happened and what the actors would bring to it. And he’d start off and start to fill it and improvise it. He had the concept of what he wanted to do. But then—you know, the thing with the hook on the door and me going around and all that—the sweater—those were all things that came up as we went along. They weren’t on the page.
RW: And sometimes that can be rather frightening to the people that are producing the movie. Not to the actors and to the people who are creating it. I mean I was on the set when Peter spun that globe and put his hand on it and did that fall. And you knew from then on—I mean it was just gonna be an amazing romp. And Blake and Peter—they—he kept pulling him back a bit because you know, you can go over the—you can keep going. And Peter was such a talented man. I loved him. He was great. A lot of fun. Had a great time with him.
G: And he also gave you—helped you with your stage fright. I think you talked about it in your book, right?
RW: Oh yeah. Yeah, I had a—well, there was pretty good company I was in, you know. Between Niven and him. Yeah, he did help me with it. I mean, I think all actors have a little touch of that along the way. You get a little—your confidence may get a little weak. And he helped me a great deal with that.
G: Mm. One time you said Sellers was "full of madness" but maybe "in his own world" a little bit. What was your read on him as a person? You know, on the set, was he—?
RW: My read on him, I wasn’t really thinking about reading him. I was just enjoying him, and he was great. I mean we all had just such a wonderful—he had a wonderful sense of humor. And you know, we were all at it for the first time. That was the first trip around for him with that character.
RO: I don’t think at that time he was particularly—
G: In the American market he wasn’t really a star yet.
RO: —showed signs of being so complicated.
G: Oh yeah. Right.
RO: I think the things we heard about him later being rather complicated and all of that happened as he got more successful and all of that.
G: And this was before he really had the worst of his heart trouble.
RO: This is kind of what helped him. You know, the same year this came out also was the same year that Dr. Strangelove was released and also The World of Henry Orient and he—my God, all of a sudden you have these three terrific films.
RO: And he’s terrific in all of them. You know, that has to—if you’re—if you have those genes—no matter what, it’s going to complicate your life somewhat.
RW: It’s true.
RO: Because it exposes you to a whole world you never had before.
RW: I think you’re very right about that.
RO: Yeah. So I don’t think at that time he was known to be a particularly complicated fellow. We were all just kind of discovering him while sitting in theaters. [To Wagner:] Probably the same for you making the film.
RW: That’s very true, Bob. Yeah.
G: Tell me about your relationship with Blake Edwards. He says on the commentary to The Pink Panther that you’d call him every couple of years and tell him—he says you’d call him up and tell him, "I love you," and you’d tell him a bad joke.
RW: Yeah. More than a couple of years. I mean, I’d call him sooner than that. [Laughs.] Yeah. I loved him. He was great. And he gave me a tremendous, tremendous break. I mean I had a great ride with him. And he was very generous to me onscreen and offscreen. We spent a lot of time together and had a lot of firsts with him.
RO: Robert Wagner isn’t somebody who forgets his friends. He stays in touch with his friends, and he’s very generous with his friendship if he likes you. And it’s one of the great qualities of him. And that’s why everybody likes him. Because he stays in touch and does all of that. So I think that would be very much a Robert Wagner trait—to stay in touch with somebody like Blake Edwards.
RW: Thank you very much.
RO: Well, I don’t really like you.
RO: That’s kind of the way it goes. We tell the truth here.
G: Now, we should really talk about the most—in that iconic hotel scene, when you had to be submerged in the bubble bath, that was intense industrial stuff that you were in.
RW: Well, yeah. You mean the chemical that they were using in there?
RW: And we didn’t know that. Capucine and I didn’t know that at the time. But the results of that were very frightening because I’d burned the corneas of my eyes and I was blind for three weeks. And they were thinking about taking me out of the movie, and Blake and David and Peter said, "Absolutely not. We’ll shoot around him." But I was tapping my way around Rome. And I was a bit frightened, I can tell you that.
G: Yeah, I can imagine.
RW: And it was a big mistake on this guy’s part, you know. When lights hit suds, they have a tendency to melt. So there wasn’t a lot of water in there. It was all suds, and I was in there for a long time...You know who else got severely burned was Cap [Capucine]. Cappy. She got burned quite badly...Funny sequence though. Funny sequence.
G: [Chuckles.] Yeah. You put it all on the screen. I wanted to also ask just briefly about—later on you came back and reprised your role from The Pink Panther, right?
RW: In a couple of the films.
G: Yeah. In a couple of the films. What do you recall about coming back and doing that?
RW: Loved it. Just couldn’t—I mean—I’d clear the decks for that anytime. I just enjoyed being with Blake so much. I mean, I did a small little pilot with him with Julie which was a great deal of fun. He was a very creative man, you know. Lots of—so talented. I mean when you think of his body of work, you know, like S.O.B. and—
RO: And the mix. I mean Days of Wine and Roses and The Pink Panther.
RW: Oh yeah.
RO: You know. Operation Petticoat. And Experiment in Terror. I mean, it’s amazing the variety of things—
G: The range.
RO: That he did so well.
RW: Big range. And he loved the business.
RW: He really loved movies. He was a very special man. Very special guy.
G: I’m nearly out of time here so I want to ask—over the course of your career you’ve worked with so many other great people. Was there anyone who ever made you star struck?
RW: Anyone who ever made me star struck?
RW: Well I worked with a lot of—I was pretty star struck over Spencer Tracy. And Jimmy Cagney. I mean, I died in Jimmy Cagney’s arms when I was twenty-one years old. Hello, I never thought that would happen. And I had a tough time getting that out of my mind—thinking, you know, I’m working with Jimmy Cagney. God, can you imagine? And John Ford directed that movie. It was very exciting. I’ve had some tremendous, tremendous highs in my career.
RO: Susan Hayward.
RW: Susan Hayward. Sensational.
G: Bette Davis.
RW: Yeah. Sophia [Loren]. Audrey Hepburn. I made a picture with Audrey Hepburn up here [1987's Love Among Thieves]. I adored her. She was such a wonderful person. Very exciting. Very exciting. I’ve been very blessed. Believe me.
G: It’s exciting for me to get a chance to talk to you guys; it’s been fantastic.
G: Welcome to town. I hope that the screening is a big hit.
RO: Yeah, I think it will be. It’s such a—it’s one of those movies that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you know—it’s like a page-turner in a book. You can’t turn away. And also to be able to see it on a big screen.
G: Oh yeah.
RO: Which a lot of people haven’t seen. And to get Robert Wagner there at the same time.
RO: It’s a treat.
RW: To be there with Robert Osborne.
G: Thanks very much.