Larry Weidel: Hello, I’m here with legendary actor Robert Wagner here in Aspen, Colorado. We’re talking about his career and the life lessons that he’s learned along the way. Robert is 90 years old and still working, is that right?
RW: I’m still working. It’s been a little over 70 years since I started.
LW: 70 years! How do you feel at 90?
RW: I feel absolutely fantastic. I feel so blessed. I’ve been given such a wonderful life and truly live in gratitude.
LW: Let’s talk about relationships. You have a tremendous appreciation for the other people that have been successful in the acting business.
What are some of the real powerful lessons you learned from people who were already successful and with whom you are still friends today?
RW: You know, Larry, I was thinking about that the other day.
I was honored at the Lone Pine Film Festival up in Northern California. At the film festival, they ran a motion picture that I was in with Spencer Tracy called ‘Broken Lance’ which I hadn’t seen for a long time.
I was thinking of what that did for me because I was able to meet Spencer Tracy. He thought that I had possibilities to go onward with my career so he cast me and asked me to be in the next motion picture with him called ‘The Mountain’.
He gave me co-star billing above the title which gave me my break.
I went to Europe with him and shot a movie in France at Paramount.
I met some wonderful people during that time, but when I was filming, I didn’t realize what all that motion picture was going to do for me.
This was an opportunity for me to go beyond being another good-looking guy in Hollywood doing war movies. This was a really big break for me so I was forever grateful to him. He was just such a wonderful man that I admired so much. I was even a Pallbearer at his funeral.
If you're in a project, finish it with a bang. Don't plan to just retire. Finishing opens up incredible opportunities that never appear to the people who don't get across the finish line. Click To Tweet
LW: You didn’t know it was going to have that kind of impact, right?
RW: I didn’t realize it at the moment. That’s something I think happens to a lot of people.
They don’t realize it at that time. When you meet somebody, you don’t know where it’s going to take you.
It’s just amazing, isn’t it? Life and how you deal with it and how it affects you and where you go.
LW: You said, “I’ve been very fortunate. And I think it’s largely because I was determined. You made a decision yourself. I was determined to be a working actor with an emphasis on working. I just kept going to the plate and swinging. It didn’t matter whether the reviews were great or terrible, whether the films and shows were successful or unsuccessful, I just kept showing up. Some actors go into a depressive shell when something doesn’t work as if a critical or commercial failure is somehow a reflection on them and their ability. I’ve never believed that.”
RW: I also think that nobody has any control. Do you know that when you think you can control something, you can’t really control it?
LW: As you move forward, what do you get the most enjoyment out of? Why do you continue to get enjoyment from working?
RW: Well, I really love what I do and it’s kind of a miracle about how it all happens. I just really enjoy it. I enjoy very much being with the actors and they’re very respectful of me these days.
LW: How do you keep yourself fresh and how do you keep your contacts out there? I mean, is it just a matter of waiting for your agent to get roles, or are you staying in touch with people?
You know, they say, that’s the story of the professional athlete. The minute you quit, you’re forgotten.
RW: I’m not that active anymore in town. I’m not in production now because it’s just changed a bit. The business has changed so much. There are not a lot of scripts hitting the door.
I thought if you wanted to be a good actor, you went to the people that could really help you. I went to New York and I was in a lot of different classes.
I was constantly going to coaches and having people help me. I still do if I get a character that’s really good.
I tried to use everything.
I wanted something that I could use and make fresh because you do it once, that’s it, it’s over. You can’t go back and recapture it. It’s all at the moment.
LW: It’s like photography in the sense that when you shoot a shot, you’re shooting something that’s never going to happen again.
I’ve gone back to a lot of those places again and again trying to get a better picture of the same scene.
RW: Yeah, that moment is gone.
Isn’t it amazing today that you can take a picture on your phone and send it to somebody and they’ve got it a minute later?
LW: Absolutely. When you work, you’re showing up on a new scene and creating something new. How do you get yourself into that kind of rhythm or into that zone in so many different things?
RW: Let’s bring it up to date. With NCIS they write the script, and they have the characters.
You have your character in the background with my character. I learn the script pretty well.
They have a table read and from the table read, you start to try to get the moments that you think are going to be important for the character and or the scene.
You rehearse it with the people that are all available.
You’ve also got a director, two producers, and writers.
It’s fascinating how it all works and when it works, it’s magic.
There are so many possibilities of it going in a negative direction when it could go in a positive direction. That’s why it’s magic.
It’s like with a jumping horse, you can have a champion and you take him into the ring and come up to that fence, and boom, he knocks one over. You wonder if you can pick that up.
But in our business, you can go back and try it again.
LW: People don’t realize that in a performance arena there are so many incredible variables when it actually works. The reward is greater than whatever paycheck they cut for you, don’t you believe?
RW: I do believe that very much.
LW: In terms of building relationships that last over a lifetime, you’re talking about yourself with Spencer Tracy. He gave you the lead.
That’s when relationships build by pulling off some kind of great achievement together. Nobody can ever take those things from you.
RW: No, they can’t.
LW: I really have enjoyed talking about relationships and some of the processes you’ve been through and your mindset.
I’m going to look forward to doing this again. So thanks so much, RJ.
RW: You’re welcome, Larry. It was so much pleasure.