MY NEW PAL R.J.
“Hello, Mr. Oliver?” the warm, well-trained voice on the other end of the line queried. I immediately became suspicious; the only people who call me “Mr. Oliver” are bill collectors and people trying to convince me to refinance my house.
“Yeah?” I answered, barely able to hear over the din of the bar at the W Hotel here in Montreal where I was taking a “meeting” (and if by “meeting” you read “martinis” you’d be right) with my production designer, the brilliant Paola Ridolfi.
“This is Robert Wagner,” the voice said. “Sorry to bother you but-“
Sorry to bother ME? Robert Wagner?? “RJ” to his friends? OMIGOD!
I immediately straightened up and signaled for the surrounding riff raff to quiet down, I was talking on the phone to an honest-to-god member of Hollywood Royalty!
Robert has agreed to play “Mr. Wilson” for us in “A Dennis the Menace Christmas”, the movie we start shooting in less than a month, and frankly I couldn’t be more excited. In this line of work, one meets many, many celebrities, but rarely does one meet a Legend.
We chatted only briefly, discussing some wardrobe and styling issues – imagine, ME talking style with RJ Wagner?? – before the noise in the lounge became too loud to hear. I guess I gushed a little bit about how I’d loved his work over the years, and couldn’t wait to meet him in person. He was utterly gracious and every bit the gentleman I’ve always imagined him to be, and when we finished the call he actually APOLOGIZED to me for calling so late in the evening, having thought I was still back in LA on west coast time. I assured him he could’ve called me at four in the morning and I wouldn’t have minded one bit.
For those of you who only know Robert from his hilarious turns as Austin Powers’ boss in “The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Goldmember” et al, let me give you a quick refresher in Pop Culture History 101.
RJ – now that we’ve talked on the phone, I feel I can call him that! -- was Brad Pitt, Cary Grant and Tom Cruise wrapped into one elegant package. One of the last of the studio-groomed stars, he moved effortlessly from light comedic roles into darker, braver material – who can forget watching him charm an heiress to her death in “A Kiss Before Dying” (needlessly remade some years back with Matt Dillon in the lead – who WOULDN’T suspect Matt Dillon of murder, at least of the English language?).
At the time he was a tabloid target for his off and on marriage to the beautiful Natalie Wood – they were the Brad/Jen/Angelina/Ben/Jen hyphenates of the day -- and even though the headlines became crueler and more intrusive as the years passed, and the unavoidable dramas of a life lived added up, Robert Wagner always seemed above them all.
When the big studios began to dry up, Mr. Wagner made the (at the time) practically unheard of move into television roles and became an icon of polished wit on shows like “Switch” (delirious fun with Eddie Albert) and of course “Hart to Hart” which redefined the Nick and Nora “Thin Man” aesthetic for the 80’s.
In fact, many of the reviews of my own movies “Third Man Out” and “Shock to the System” refer to them as a “gay Hart to Hart” ; I’m not sure the reviewers meant that as a compliment or an insult, but I frankly couldn’t be prouder to be mentioned in the same breath as RJ and Stephanie Powers.
I have to admit I've always felt a kinship for Mr. Wagner -- oops, I meant "RJ". When I bought my house in Palm Springs some years back, I was delighted to discover the historic Racquet Club - the hangout for all the coolest Hollywood folks back in the day - was just at the end of my street. I even had the chance to toss back a few cocktails at the legendary Bamboo Lounge before they shuttered the place. And there, hanging on the walls, were gorgeous black and white photos of all the stars who frequented Charlie Farrell's "clubhouse", including of course Robert, looking tanned and movie star perfect in the desert sun.
But my connection with Robert Wagner goes back even further than that.
In one of his earlier tv outings, he played a reformed cat burglar on a series called “It Takes A Thief”, where he worked for a shadowy government agency using his nefarious skills for “good”, all the while dressed to the nines in the most exquisite wardrobe this side of Edith Head. As a nine year old kid who dreamed of a life beyond my bleak little Canadian village, I was immediately hooked on the show, and the outfits; I spent fourth grade getting the crap beat outta me because I insisted on wearing an ascot to school. But it was worth it – every black eye, every bruised lip, felt like a badge of honor as I defended not just my sartorial choices but also my hero – RJ.
So it all seems preordained I suppose, that now, many years later, and several Belvederes into the evening, I would receive that phone call – “Hello, Mr Oliver? This is Robert Wagner…”
This movie gets better and better every day…