Sunday, November 23, 2008

PIECES OF MY HEART, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman

A parade of senior thesps is rolling through Manhattan bookstores this season promoting their autobiographies, including Christopher Plummer, Roger Moore, George Hamilton, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine, Don Rickles, William Shatner, Robert Vaughn, and the subject I’ll get to in a minute, Robert J. Wagner with Pieces of My Heart, with Scott Eyman. A quick digression on Robert Vaughn: he appeared in the office of my old publisher to sell his manuscript, originally titled FLYING SOLO (he played Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). I looked over the wall and saw the top of his head as he headed into the conference room, his deep voice and charm filling the small hallway. They offered him an extremely small advance for a man of his substance and he took his business to another house, with a different title for the book: A Fortunate Life.

Pieces of My Heart, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman

This is a lusty and entertaining tome and Wagner leaves no one out. HarperCollins should have at least provided a name index (Tony Curtis has one). Pieces is a story of a boy well-born in 1930, too young for World War II, and comfortably caddying his way through his teens for Hollywood royalty such as Gable, Astaire, Niven, to name a few legends. Beautiful ladies abound and the biggest revelation was his four-year affair with Barbara Stanwyck, making them the Ashton-Demi of their time, except in those times it was scandalous for an older woman to be with a man half her age. Their affair was intense and known only to their friends.

Wagner talks very little about acting or the details of any project he was involved in. The real theme in the book (the jacket flap writer alludes briefly to a father who wanted him to quit acting and join the family business of real estate and building) is a man in search of a father figure. He found one directly in Spencer Tracy and in other degrees in David Niven and Fred Astaire. My favorite chapter is titled “Fred!…Fred!…Feed!” When Wagner would “get down about…my career, he would take me aside and tell me, ‘Don’t ever get negative. There are a lot of bumps in the road; you’ve got to keep your chin up. The most important thing is to keep going.’” Wagner half-apologizes that, “None of this is profound, but all of it is true, and the fact that it was coming from Fred Astaire forced me to take it seriously.” Hey RJ, you’re a good dad, and you must know by now, that’s what a dad is: unconditional love and support. Their teamup on It Takes a Thief was priceless. The anecdote about Astaire making his first appearance on set, spontaneously breaking out into a dance as the crew welcomed him with infectious rhythmic clapping, is goosebumpy and worth the cost of the book.

For the general reading public the parts about Natalie Wood seem to draw the most interest. I imagine the ladies from The View will key on that. As far as I can tell, no new ground is broken, except for the fact that this is Wagner’s first full public statements on the events leading to her tragic accidental death.

RJ is serious about his art but not himself. His most recent comic turns in the Austin Powers series and in TV’s Two and a Half Men attest to that.

A note on profanity: the table of contents has the chapter titles, each extracted from a line from that chapter. For a class actor, I was surprised to see the f-bomb, the c-word, and the other c-word so prominent in the contents. My wife suggested that I Wite-Out the offending words before passing the book to Mom. She’s almost ninety. Recently I gave her a book that I hadn’t read and after reading it she asked me with arched brow, “Did you read this book?” This usually means she’s found something offensive. Odd, it never stops her from reading the rest of the book.

Next up: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, President-Elect of the United States

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