A Heart-To-Heart Talk With Robert Wagner

The Hollywood icon shows he really has heart; pieces of which belong to his grandson

By Julia Halewicz

One would expect Robert Wagner's wife, actress Jill St. John, to be biased in favor of her husband's star power. And when she told A&E's Biography, "You can't look in those eyes and see that smile and not smile yourself," she pretty much summed up the actor's magnetism that reaches across generations.

Chances are, the man you knew as Bud Corliss from the 1956 film A Kiss Before Dying, or Jonathan Hart, from 1979 to 1984, who exuded that calm, old-Hollywood charisma in Hart to Hart, is the same star your older grandchildren may know as the smarmy Number Two from the Austin Powers film series or Teddy the con-man from CBS's Two and a Half Men.

Wagner has managed to survive Hollywood's changing moods that have vanquished other actors and propelled them into virtual oblivion. In his new memoir, Pieces of My Heart (HarperCollins), Wagner explores how he became a household name and his many personal triumphs, failures, and tragedies, including his early love affair with Barbara Stanwyck and the death of his first wife, Natalie Wood.

In a phone interview with Grandparents.com, the 79-year-old actor talks about living life to the fullest, and the latest love of his life, his grandson, 2-year-old Riley John Wagner-Lewis.

Grandparents.com: You raised three girls but finally got some backup when your daughter, Katie Wagner, gave birth to Riley John. Were you excited to have a boy enter the family?
Robert Wagner:
Very excited. As you know, my friends call me RJ, and my daughter took my initials for his name. It was a wonderful honor.

GP: Is Riley John old enough to call you something?
RW:
Yes, he calls me "No No." The reason that he has found that name is because I am often saying, "No no, don't do that. Watch out for that, no no."

GP: So, you are a worrier?
RW:
I am a watchful one. I am worried about him falling over and hitting his head on the corner of a table or running into something.

GP: How often do you get to see him?
RW:
Quite a bit. As we all know, they change so much. We see each other at least once a month — we have an apartment five miles away from him in Los Angeles, and he has been to our home in Colorado a few times. He loves the snow.

GP: What do you and your grandson play together?
RW:
My wife and I have a little drawer for his own toys. He's got a great sense of discovery, as all young children do. He is into one book that teaches [him] animal sounds, so I make monkey and giraffe sounds. I talk to him in quick, fast sentences to make him laugh. We watch a little television — nature shows. I don't run cartoons. I like to watch things with him that have value.

GP: Do you express your preferences, like no television, to your daughter or give her advice?
RW:
None. Absolutely none. I think that she is Riley John's biggest influence and I don't want to get in there and say why don't you do this or that. I think that's a little overbearing in a way to have the presumption to have authority over how your kids raise their children.

GP: What has your grandson taught you?
RW:
What is always refreshing is that he is looking at life for the first time. To be able to feel that is really great.

GP: You've just spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on your own life in Pieces of My Heart. In it you write that your father told you about your grandfather's cold disposition. Does that image of a grandfather play any role in your relationship with your grandson?
RW:
I don't know. My father didn't experience a lot of demonstrative feelings. I don't think my grandfather put his arms around my father and hugged him. I am trying to look at this young, wonderful boy and react to him as honestly as possibly.

GP: Some women might have raised an eyebrow if their husband said he was going to write a book with many pages devoted to his past loves. How did Jill react?
RW:
She reacted in a very positive way about it. They were all wonderful relationships. I never had any kind of hesitancy.

GP: You've had a long and varied Hollywood career. Which movie or television series of yours would you like your grandson to watch first?
RW:
The Pink Panther. Clouseau is a joyous and wonderful character. I would like very much for him to have a sense of humor because if he has a sense of humor he can get through anything.

GP: George Lytton in The Pink Panther is only one of your many memorable roles. Recently you guest-starred on the hit comedy Two and a Half Men. What was that like?
RW:
It was fantastic, I loved it. I love doing comedy and working with that whole cast that is so well-oiled and brilliant.

GP: Is it hard to find good experiences like that these days? What's the biggest obstacle in Hollywood today?
RW:
I think its very important now to try to maintain a kind of individuality which is hard to do because you have so many people telling you what to do.

GP: Is that also a message for your grandson? What legacy would you like to leave him?
RW:
Values are very important. Just to say you worked hard doesn't mean anything. You can't say to someone, "Just work hard and you'll be there." You've gotta have the intensity and the compassion that go with it. Just don't go and punch the clock and work hard all day. You have to look around and take it all in. I am very much for being in the moment. For him to be a person that takes life in and shakes it a little bit would be wonderful.

 

See our interviews with other celebrity grandparents: Ed Asner, Tony Danza, Cokie Roberts, and Diahann Carroll.

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