One of the most popular and successful stars in the entertainment industry, Robert J. Wagner has had a fascinating career span with three hit television series, an impressive portfolio of movies for film and television, all capped by his New York Times best-selling memoir Pieces of My Heart (William Morrow). While Wagner was still a young man under contract to 20thCentury Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck cast him in With a Song in My Heart. The part was perhaps a minute's duration, but in that minute, the tears pouring from Wagner's eyes as he played the role of a crippled soldier responding to the singing of Susan Hayward's Jane Froman, brought immediate reaction pouring into the studio from the public. That one-minute part established Wagner as a major star, and he has been working ever since. In his charming, funny, and highly entertaining solo show, "Pieces of My Heart: An Evening with R.J." he recounts nearly six decades in show business, including friendships with the old guard of Hollywood, romances with celebrated beauties, and his journey through modern American film, television, and popular culture.
In “Pieces of My Heart: An Evening with R.J.” Wagner candidly chronicles his enthralling six decades as an actor, sharing a behind-the-scenes look at his life in and out of the show biz spotlight. Speaking with humor, compassion, an eye for self-discovery, and his trademark charm, Wagner delves straightforwardly into the memories of his legendary life in show business – from his glory days on the Hollywood A-list through the dark patches of doubt and despair to a happy-ending marriage to actress Jill St. John.
Wagner has dazzled audiences as the star of TV hits including It Takes a Thief (co-starring Fred Astaire), Switch (co-starring Eddie Albert), and Hart to Hart (co-starring Stephanie Powers), and in over 50 films, including A Kiss Before Dying, The Pink Panther, The Towering Inferno, and most recently in the Austin Powers series in the role of “Number Two,” the villainous henchman to Dr. Evil, a cryogenically revived special agent who squares off against the title character. He has been a reoccurring guest star on the CBS comedy Two and a Half Men, and has previously appeared in the series Hope & Faith, and Boston Legal. Recent films include A Dennis the Menace Christmas, New Line Cinema’s Hoot with Luke Wilson, No Vacancy with Lolita Davidovich and Christina Ricci, Play It To The Bone which co-stars Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas, the Sony release, Crazy in Alabama, directed by Antonio Banderas and starring Melanie Griffith, the suspense thriller titled The Road to Santiago, in which he co-stars with Anne Archer, Anthony Quinn, and Charleton Heston, and the cult classic Wild Things, starring Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon.
Wagner’s career began serendipitously. As a teen he caddied for Clark Gable. He was mentored by Spencer Tracy and befriended by golden-era greats including Gary Cooper, James Cagney, and Bette Davis. He dated everyone from Debbie Reynolds to Joan Collins, had a relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, and a secretive four-year love affair during his early twenties with megastar Barbara Stanwyck, then in her mid forties. And from the time he fell for adored actress Natalie Wood in 1956 to her shattering death in 1981, he lived an epic love story that stirred the depths of his soul.
From their first date on her 18th birthday, “we sparked to each other,” Wagner says, and vividly recalls falling in love with Wood aboard his boat as “the moment that changed my life.” One year later a totally smitten Wagner took her to Romanoff’s, where he had placed at the bottom of her champagne glass a diamond and pearl ring with the inscription, “Marry me.”
The passionate marriage, divorce, and remarriage of Wagner and Wood is one of the truly great Hollywood love stories – on screen or off. Beginning with the couple’s first wedding in Scottsdale and euphoric cross-country honeymoon in a grey Corvette, Wagner takes audiences inside their romance from its youthful heyday to a painful separation when they started new lives with other partners – he wed actress Marion Marshall and she married British TV producer Richard Gregson. The flame never went out, however. And in 1972, after reconnecting at a party, Wagner and Wood remarried. He calls their second time around, “the most exciting, paradisiacal time of my life.” During this period the couple celebrated the birth of their daughter Courtney and created a flourishing blended family with his daughter Kate and her daughter Natasha.
The world was shocked to learn the terrible news that on November 28, 1981 Wood drowned off Catalina Island where she and Wagner were weekending on their yacht the Splendour with actor Christopher Walken as their guest. While the swirl of mystery surrounding that night generated an onslaught of media, Wagner never spoke publicly about about it until his memoir was published. He candidly reveals the specific details of what happened aboard the Splendour, including his stormy argument with Walken, the horrifying moments when he discovered Wood was missing, and the agony of that long night during the Coast-Guard search for her.
Wagner talks of the unspeakable sorrow that followed, the “emotional pain so intense it was physical.” Implications by tabloids that he was in some way responsible deepened his desolation. “She was my love. She was the woman who had defined my emotional life, both by her presence and her absence,” he says, “and now she was gone and this time there was no getting her back.”
During the long healing process, a heartbroken Wagner eventually found solace with Jill St. John, his wife since 1990. She understood his considerable baggage and became his savior. Without her “I do not believe I would be alive today,” he says. “There’s a reason my pet name for her is ‘Magic.’”
Today, Wagner and St. John enjoy an abundant life at their home in Aspen, Colorado where they relish time with their children and grandchildren. Wagner continues to thrive as an actor, appearing in recurring roles on primetime hits Two and a Half Men and Boston Legal, as well as in several upcoming film parts. In addition to movies and TV, Wagner is a successful producer whose credits include Madame Sin with Bette Davis and There Must Be a Pony with Elizabeth Taylor, as well as being one of the original owners of Charlie’s Angels. He has also toured the world appearing onstage in A. R. Gurney’s heartrending play Love Letters, most recently opposite St. John. Reflecting on the remarkable trajectory of his career – from the glamour days of old Hollywood to current roles in “crackling good shows” – Wagner is characteristically generous. “I think my ability to sustain a long career has been at least partially a result of my ability to sustain long [business] relationships,” he surmises. “And then there are the friendships that have lasted longer than most people have been alive.”
Wagner provides an evening full of tender and hilarious moments in which one of Hollywood’s true class acts brings his magnetism and charm to every stage.
Praise for Pieces of My Heart:
“Pieces of My Heart is a treasure...Wagner’s portrait of [Natalie] Wood is adoring and poignant...With admirable strength and honest self-awareness, Wagner makes plain that there’s much more to him than his handsome face.”—Washington Post
“[Wagner’s] is the best of the three [male Hollywood star] memoirs by far, with its wonderful glimpses into the older generation of screen stars who became his friends and mentors – Spencer Tracy, David Niven, Frank Sinatra –and it’s always astute delinations of how exactly Old Hollywood worked.” —Newsweek
“In a plethora of charming, funny, anecdotal autobiographies by such acting stars as Tony Curtis, George Hamilton, Christopher Plummer, Roger Moore and Robert Vaughn, R.J.’s work stands out. It is so well-written. . . The book not only has a star-studded success story to tell about Hollywood’s golden era but includes a true tragedy (the death of R.J.’s wife, the famous Natalie Wood) and his recovery from that blow. He doesn’t pull any punches and is extremely candid.”—Liz Smith