Anticipating the comic-strip-movie craze by years, a young Robert Wagner played the title role in 1954's "Prince Valiant." But his resume didn't remain two-dimensional. He went on to play roles as wide-ranging as Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (opposite then-wife Natalie Wood and Laurence Olivier) and eye-patch-wearing henchman Number Two to Dr. Evil in the "Austin Powers" films.
To some, he remains best known as the star of the TV series "It Takes a Thief" and "Hart to Hart." (Or for his appearance on "Seinfeld" and multiple guest spots on "NCIS," "Two and a Half Men" and "Boston Legal.")
But Wagner has always professed "The Pink Panther" (1963) to be the favorite of his theatrical films. Earlier this week, Wagner came to San Francisco to participate in the Road to Hollywood arm of the TCM Classic Film Festival, an annual series of events that brings out the stars for Q&As attached to screenings of classic films.
In an exclusive chat, Wagner spoke to the Palo Alto Weekly about his showbiz memories, especially those surrounding "The Pink Panther." He booked the project while living in Rome, where director Blake Edwards shot the film.
"But I had known Blake before that," Wagner said. "And it was such a tremendous opportunity for me to work for Blake. And he was just fabulous. I admired him so much, and he had been so successful over the years, you know. He had done really good things. And so this was a big opportunity for me, and I was thrilled to death to have this part."
Reminded of his train ride to Cortina d'Ampezzo to shoot ski-resort sequences, Wagner said: "Let me tell you something. Every ride that we took -- whether it was on the train or wherever -- they were all great. It was the most wonderful picture I ever worked on. And we all had a tremendous time; we were all very close. A big joy."
But it wasn't all wine and roses: An on-set accident left Wagner temporarily blind. The industrial-strength soap suds used for a bath gag with co-star Capucine stung something fierce.
"The results of that were very frightening because I'd burned the corneas of my eyes and I was blind for three weeks. And they were thinking about taking me out of the movie, and Blake and David and Peter said: 'Absolutely not. We'll shoot around him.' But I was tapping my way around Rome. And I was a bit frightened, I can tell you that.
"And it was a big mistake on this guy's part, you know. When lights hit suds, they have a tendency to melt. So there wasn't a lot of water in there. It was all suds, and I was in there for a long time. ... You know who else got severely burned was Cap. Cappy. She got burned quite badly. ... Funny sequence, though. Funny sequence."
Happier memories concern the then-harmonious working relationship of Edwards and soon-to-be movie star Peter Sellers. Edwards, Wagner said, was the kind of director who started off with a concept in his mind, then supplemented it with incidents that would happen, and what the actors brought to the table.
"He'd start off and start to fill it and improvise it. He had the concept of what he wanted to do. But then -- you know, the thing with the hook on the door and me going around and all that -- the sweater -- those were all things that came up as we went along. They weren't on the page.
"And sometimes that can be rather frightening to the people that are producing the movie. Not to the actors and to the people who are creating it. I mean I was on the set when Peter spun that globe and put his hand on it and did that fall. And you knew from then on. I mean, it was just gonna be an amazing romp."
Wagner's 63 years in showbiz might well be described the same way.