Gone In 2016: Robert Vaughn – Role Model For Boomer Reinvention

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Way too many Boomer icons passed away in 2016


Every month in 2016 brought news that another Boomer music, TV or movie icon had passed away; the sudden deaths of Carrie Fisher and mom Debbie Reynolds rounded out the list in late December.

They joined, to name just a few, Alan “Mr. Ed” Young, Bobby “Take Good Care of My Baby” Vee, David Bowie, Florence “The Brady Bunch” Henderson, Glenn Frey (The Eagles), both Greg Lake and Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), Prince, Gene Wilder, Hugh “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” O’Brian, Leon Russell, both Patty Duke and William Schallert, her dad, in The Patty Duke Show and Robert “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Vaughn.

While most occupied a particular time in the Boomers’ lives, Robert Vaughn’s long career seemed to run on a parallel track with our evolution from a youthful inward focus to a broader – some might say more adult – worldview.

Robert Vaughn: taming the Wild West one movie at a time

The Internet Movie Database credits Robert Vaughn (1932-2016) with 226 acting appearances between 1955 and his death in November.

robert-vaughn_magnificent-sevenBefore his signature role as super-spy Napoleon Solo in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (NBC, 1964-1968), he had twenty or so TV and movie westerns under his gunbelt.

Vaughn’s most famous western role was Lee, the conflicted gunfighter in The Magnificent Seven (1960). The movie lifted him, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn to stardom and vaulted Elmer Bernstein’s musical score to #8 on The American Film Institute’s list of all-time greats. You’ve probably heard it many times since, used to evoke Old West imagery including, when such things were permitted, TV commercials for Marlboro cigarettes.

Although they looked back to a mythic idealized past, westerns also served as a metaphor for the confident America of the Boomers early years. This was a world of opportunity, self-reliance and no nonsense values – good guys, white hats / bad guys, black hats – in which adventurous men and women could achieve a better future through courage and hard work.


And with President Eisenhower’s recently approved interstate highway system (1956), three TV networks homogenizing national news, mores and entertainment and glamorous California in focus as the ultimate end-of-trail destination, distant horizons – physical, social and financial –seemed closer and more accessible.

Robert Vaughn and the spy plane that changed Hollywood

Much as young Boomers loved westerns, by the sixties our worldview was expanding beyond the wide open spaces, dusty cattle drives and rowdy frontier towns of yesteryear.

nuclear-attack-posterThere was this Cold War thing going on.

Wailing nuclear attack sirens were tested on the last Friday of every month, DIY air raid shelters were constructed in suburban backyards and little kids were taught to duck-and-cover at the first sign of danger.

Call us biased, but we Boomers had to deal with situations way more trying than when the cable goes down just as another gratuitous Game Of Thrones orgy is about to begin.

Cold War tensions ramped up in 1960 when the Soviets shot down a CIA U-2 spy plane and paraded its pilot in a show trial that embarrassed the nation. Until then, spying had been mainly portrayed as the realm of sneaky traitors and subversives employed by the “other side” to undermine the American way of life.

Now, it seemed, not only did we have our own spies but they were inept.

james-bond_sean-conneryAll that quickly changed after the blockbuster success of James Bond: Dr. No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964) showed American audiences a side of the Brits they had never seen before.

Out were gritty working class types and stuffy elites muddling through together on their way to postwar social accommodation – in were exotic international settings, high tech gadgets and a sexy secret agent kicking butt and taking names on a global scale.

With a huge amount of money on the table, Hollywood jumped in. Almost overnight, the U.S. went from denying the existence of spies to jostling for the title of coolest spies on the planet.

man-from-uncle-w-logoThe Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the first of several home grown espionage/intrigue shows to update the CIA brand with trendy secret agents whom no evil empire adversary could outwit – including:

  • I Spy (1965-1968)
  • Get Smart (1965-1970)
  • The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969)
  • Mission Impossible (1966-1973)
  • The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (1966-1967)

Meanwhile, Dean “Matt Helm” Martin and James “Derek Flint” Coburn spoofed their way through half a dozen babe and booze laden movies, more double-entendre than double-o-seven.

In the face of all of this competition, Robert Vaughn/Napoleon Solo had a secret weapon. This was the era of pop music’s British Invasion – She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah and all that – and his co-star was David McCallum, on screen a Russian agent but in real life a cute young Scottish actor. McCallum’s mophead hairdo earned him the nickname “the blond Beatle” and his boyish persona generated thousands of letters a week from besotted young fans.

Note to Gen Z: if you ever wondered what grandma’s dreamy teenage smile looked like, just ask her about Illya Kuryakin.

Reinventing Napoleon Solo: the Globalization Affair

The seventies and eighties gave the Boomer generation a full education in globalization.

There was a boatload of foreign crises – the fall of Saigon, oil embargoes, revolutions, regional conflicts, constant Cold War threats – but there was also a more personal fallout. We deserted Detroit for European, Japanese and Korean cars, discovered ethnic foods and – thanks to airline fare deregulation – embraced international tourism.

reagan_gorbachovIn time, we even learned some Russian words: perestroika and glasnost ushered in peace, trade and opportunity, first in Europe and then China.

No surprise, by 90s, enterprising Boomers – some folks called us greedy yuppies, like that was a bad thing – were internationalizing business, finance and industry on massive scale. U.S. brands, franchises, banks and entertainment reached around the world and goods flowed into America from places we still can’t pronounce.

In the process, we became as comfortable sipping a vodka martini – shaken, not stirred – at London’s Canary Wharf as downing three fingers of red-eye in Deadwood City.

Of course, Robert Vaughn was ahead of the game here too.

hustle_robert-vaughnAfter Napoleon Solo, in addition to his Hollywood career, Vaughn starred in two British series, making over 100 appearance in The Protectors (1972-1974) and (personal favorite) Hustle (2004-2012). And, at age 79, he showed up as a love interest in thirteen episodes of the iconic UK soap, Coronation Street. 

Well, there’s a lesson here, a teachable moment for brands: lifelong reinvention is an indelible Boomer trait. But we don’t just shuck off our old skins; we add, we absorb, we evolve – our decision-making today reaches all the way back to our inner cowboys and cowgirls and our inner Men and Girls From U.N.C.L.E.

Step outside the 18-49 demo and – with a little help – you’ll find us somewhere between the Long Branch Saloon and half a world away.


Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published as a Boomer-Plus Consulting Group post; in September, 2017, we up-branded as Boomer / neXt to welcome the 4 million Gen Xers who join the Boomers in the 50+ space each year.

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