The Towering Presence of Robert Vaughn…
I’m really hating 2016, losing so many much-loved names and now sadly it was the turn of Robert Vaughn, one of my first crushes as a teen.
The Towering Inferno Trailer, eigayokoku1212, http://www.youtube.com and photos © 21st Century Fox
For my tribute to Robert Vaughn, I’m remembering my favourite of his films, undoubtedly the best of the 1970s disaster movies, The Towering Inferno (1974). The disaster being that an undetected fire breaks out in a 138 floored skyscraper. This fire is due to faulty wiring endangering the lives of a senator, mayor, his wife and other big name guests at the big opening night party held on the 80th floor. And it’s literally a hotbed of drama underneath the surface. The film however has the honour of being best known of the 1970s disaster movies and was a joint production between Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox. Cast with a wealth of acting talent from that time, Vaughn starred with then Hollywood heavyweights (and lightweights) including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner and Fred Astaire. Ladies in the cast include Faye Dunaway, Susan Flannery, Susan Blakely and Jennifer Jones.
Like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Swarm (1978), also all-star disaster movies of this time, it was produced by Irwin Allen. Allen was nicknamed “The Master of Disaster”. And looking at his filmography, he definitely earned this title. The film was described as “The Poseidon Adventure in the Sky”. This movie – like the other Irwin productions mentioned was filmed with a fabulous all-star 1970s cast – this time appearing in scenes involving fire and other hazardous situations. Cast members Paul Newman and Steve McQueen reportedly carried out many of their own stunts too.
When one particular scene was being filmed, in which at least 3 well-known cast members carried out a particular stunt – of which I won’t reveal anything for spoiler reasons – one actor joked his then wife could get his pick up truck if he doesn’t make it through the scene. Losing the lives of the A-listers in these scenes was also – not surprisingly – a concern of the crew and the film’s insurers. These scenes are extremely impressive for this time and still are, particularly as this was the days before CGI. They are more realistic, and there are many behind the scenes internet pages about this film – which I personally try to avoid so as the film doesn’t lose that authentic feeling.
The film was nominated 8 times – including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Fred Astaire – and won 3 Oscars. Oscar nominated Music for the film was created by the well-known composer, John Williams. Oscars included those for Best Editing and Best Cinematography. The film also had an Oscar-winning song – sang by Maureen McGovern called ironically “We may never love like this again”. McGovern was the same lass who sang The Poseidon Adventure’s theme. Which gets stuck in your head for days after, or maybe that’s just me. This song is actually sung in the film, by the lady herself – in a bit of shameless pop promotion – and a feature also noted in Dracula 1972 AD (1972),. However this film has the added bonus of Fred Astaire dancing to it. Vaughn plays a nice wee role, as the much-loved Senator Gary Parker.
Parker seems a good man, and Vaughn dons a 70s ruffled shirt and tuxedo throughout his all too brief on-screen appearance. His character is also handy in a fire as he follows instructions well and helps rather than hinders proceedings, unlike some other characters in the movie. Sadly, Vaughn doesn’t have much else to do in the movie, although Parker tries to be a hero twice – with both times what seemed like good ideas thwarted by other’s actions. Mentioning one, such as Parker tries to stop the bad guy when he goes all Billy Zane from Titanic (1997) – ie “Fuck everyone else! I’m outta here!” in his bid to escape the oncoming fire…
There is very little written about Vaughn’s appearance in this movie online with many of the stories concentrating on Dunaway, Newman and McQueen. Vaughn was reportedly cast after previous choices of John Forsythe and James Franciscus were dismissed as the former two resembled the current politicians of the two main parties. It’s also one of a number of films Vaughn made with his good friend Steve McQueen with other films being Bullitt (1968) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Vaughn had also acted with Newman in The Young Philadelphians (1959) for which Vaughn received a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
So here’s the gist of some of the plot. Doug Roberts (Paul Newman), architect of the Glass Tower returns in his chopper – with Duncan Enterprises emblazoned on the side in a garish 70s orange – for the opening of this new building and met by Jim Duncan (William Holden) the building’s owner. We know this as the entire opening credits cover his journey on return to San Francisco. The not so-natty slogan of the office being “We Build for Life”. So on his entry to the office, girlfriend Susan (Faye Dunaway) is waiting for Roberts and leads him to his back office, an orange themed bedroom. As this 1970s orange theme continues to almost ghastly proportions with similarly coloured underwear and strategically placed towels? Really, watch in horror! Dunaway and Newman in matching orange attire..
We also meet Fred Astaire as Harlee, entering the building with some flowers and a spring in his step (or is that just him). We are introduced to Lisolette (Jennifer Jones) – the object of his affection – and learn she’s a painter with a cat. She is teaching another occupant of the building’s daughter how to paint. We learn this lady is deaf as the daughter uses sign language when she picks up this daughter after her class. And her brother has the coolest 1970s personal stereo ever looking like a wee alien.
A wee fire breaks out in the utility room and Security doesn’t notice it. Roger Simmons (Chamberlain) is accused of using cheaper materials for wiring the building, but he assures the architect the building is up to standard (confessing later to Duncan later that he cut some corners to save on the budget). Turns out Simmons is the dastardly son-in-law of Duncan, falling out of love with his wife Patti (Blakely). Flirting with Susan and…. Smoke is seen on the 81st floor where offices stop and apartments start. The Fire Department are contacted with Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (McQueen) in charge. Everyone’s getting ready for the big party – apart from deaf lady and kids who aren’t going – Astaire’s sorting out his rented tuxedo and the crowds are appearing at the building to spot the rich and famous. There’s the Mayor and his wife and Senator Parker (Vaughn) and a multitude of extras…
Meanwhile P.R. Relations Officer Dan Bigelow (Wagner) has popped in to let his work colleagues home and bed his secretary, Lorrie (Flannery). He also has a handy “back office” where she can take down his particulars. And he asks the phones be switched off as you do. What happened to putting phone off the hook? And then the fire breaks out more, with more explosions. While that fateful curse song is sung, Duncan is advised by the Fire Chief to move the party else where, so he does creating panic with the partygoers. However in a surprise move by the script, two of the more well-known cast have snuffed it…
If this film ignites your passion for a Robert Vaughn movie or TV appearance, I would definitely recommend his The Man from U.N.C.L.E TV Series (1964-1968) and the franchises’ movies, as an almost tongue-in-cheek Bond type character. I have great memories of watching Robert Vaughn in these movies as Napoleon Solo alongside David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin with my dad. Later, Vaughn would appear in more favourite 1980’s TV such as The Love Boat (1977-87) and Hotel (1983-1988).. not forgetting 13 episodes of The A-Team (1983-87) and these combined with his previous Oscar nomination, the Superman III (1983) film and his films with McQueen under his belt. Vaughn took later roles in two memorable British TV series’ Hustle (2004-12) and in Coronation Street (1960-). But in all his appearances, the suave, handsome Vaughn set the screen alight.