Robert Vaughn does the 'Hustle' for AMC

To most people he'll always be the debonair Napoleon Solo, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." But Robert Vaughn has found a new outlet for Solo. As the astute patriarch of a team of con men on AMC's "Hustle," he's taken his savoir faire to new heights.

A co-production with the BBC, "Hustle" leans heavily on wit and sagacity - as it turns out, just Vaughn's cup of tea.

"The British press asked what I thought of this character," says Vaughn, sliding into a booth in a coffee house here.

"I said, 'Suppose the man from U.N.C.L.E. is retired. And suppose he tried to live his life as a normal man, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't fly first class, couldn't stay in the four-star hotels, his life was drastically changed. What could he do to earn a living that could use his knowledge from being an international secret agent?' I'm making this up as I go along," he winks.

"I said, 'Well, a con man, if he's a legitimate con man, he's not taking money from people who can't afford to lose it. He's taking it from wealthy people and the wealthy people once they know they've been conned never call the police. They're too embarrassed. So that was the story I made up for the English press."

It's as good as any to explain this moxie little series, which begins its fourth season on April 18.

Vaughn and his wife of 32 years live in Connecticut and were planning a trip to Scotland with no thought of work when his British agent phoned telling him that the producers of "Hustle" were considering him for a principle role. He flew to England to meet with them. "So we had a lovely, long lunch at a French restaurant in London, kissed each other goodbye and came back to America."

Four months later the East Coast was cloaked in a prolonged blackout and Vaughn had heard nothing from his English friends abroad. "We often have blackouts and are used to them," he says.

"We learned that, during blackouts, one telephone works in our house. We don't know why, we've never touched it ... So we're sitting there in that semi-darkness and the phone rings. It was Sunday night at 9 p.m., 2 a.m. in London. My agent was on the phone and she said, 'They definitely want you. They want you to leave tonight.' I said, `I can't leave tonight, there are no planes out of here after midnight.' So I did fly the following night and that's how it came about."

Vaughn admits that, in spite of a PhD in communications, acting is the only thing he's qualified to do. "My mother, father and stepfather were actors. My grandparents on my mother's side were actors and my great grandparents in the 19th century in France were part of commedia dell'arte, so it was a family business," he says.

When he was 4 he learned the soliloquy from "Hamlet," and was urged to recite it one evening for John Barrymore, who roared, "More, lad, more!"

"At the age of 12 I performed on stage for the first time and got into radio just before it started to end on the West Coast. My mother always said to me, 'You don't want to be an actor, you ARE an actor.'"

He wasn't a struggling actor either. Two months after he graduated from college he was doing a play when an agent from Columbia Pictures came to observe. "He turned in a report to Columbia Studios: 'Definitely NOT contract material.' But he was also working with Burt Lancaster and told him to come see the play. So Burt saw the play, signed me to a two-year contract - all within 30 days of graduating college. So I had a 30-day struggle," he smiles.

While he was in college he toiled for the Red Arrow Bond and Messenger Service. "Also working there at that time was James Coburn and Zev Buffman, who became a successful producer on Broadway. The three of us delivered mainly teeth and movie scripts," he chuckles.

Despite other roles, it was "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" that immortalized Vaughn. He was starring in a TV series called "The Lieutenant" and shooting at Camp Pendleton when he got a message from producer Norman Felton.

"The message said: 'When you get home there will be a script for you at the main gate at MGM. I'd like you to read it and see me tomorrow morning at 9 in the office.' The script's name was 'Solo.' So I went out that night clubbing, as they say, with Gary Lockwood. We picked up a couple of girls and I got home at 5 o'clock in the morning. So I knew exactly how long it took to get to MGM so I read the script on the way during the red lights. I went to see Mr. Felton. He said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'It's wonderful. It's James Bond on television, isn't it?' He said, 'That's exactly right.' He said, 'Do you want to do it?' I said, 'Absolutely.' This is how I was cast."

Vaughn, 74, had no idea the show was a hit until he and co-star David McCallum launched publicity stops in various U.S. cities and London.

"David went to London the week before I did and there was all this stuff about thousands of girls at Heathrow Airport to greet him. I thought, 'Well, he looks younger than I am and he was called the 'blond Beatle.' So I went a week later and the plane got in at midnight on a Sunday night. I didn't expect anybody to be there. Well, there were loads of girls there and I have a series of pictures - I'm all dressed up. I got a tie on, a beautiful suede overcoat on and I'm waving. I didn't realize at that point that there were any girls there. Through the whole sequence of pictures, finally the Bobbies put me in the rest room so they could handle these girls. The last picture you see of me getting into the car, my tie is over my shoulder, my hair's a mess, my face is cut and my shirt is hanging out and I'm doing one last wave as I got out. That's when I knew something big was happening."