October 7, 2022

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Robert Wagner on Fred Astaire, Personal Style, and How ‘Hart to Hart’ Remains in Fashion

Hart to Hart may have ended in 1984, but let me tell you: it is the perfect show for this moment. Hart to Hart has everything you want from a comfort watch in 2021. The series stars the gorgeous duo of Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as jet-set couple Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, a millionaire business man and a freelance journalist who jump from party to party, hobby to hobby, and locale to locale, solving murder mysteries at every turn. The show is full of wild surprises, campy humor, luxurious romance, and exquisite style.

Episodes of Hart to Hart feel remarkably fresh—even vital!—as the world continues to climb out of the depths of a global pandemic. And now that Hart to Hart is set to start airing (and ultimately streaming) on Ovation on November 17, the show deserves to find an audience with everyone who just needs a break.

I write all of this from personal experience, like I’m giving you life advice direct from my heart. It feels hyperbolic to say, but Hart to Hart absolutely kept me going during the Dark Ages (a.k.a. 2020). As a kid who called cable television his best friend, of course I grew up aware of Hart to Hart. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2020, at the start of our national (and my personal) great depression, that I found Hart to Hart. Specifically, I found Jonathan Hart.

Television is in our living rooms, our bedrooms, in our hands or on our laps. It’s in our hearts and minds and therefore completely capable of showing us who we are and who we can be. As a man who loves style and who’s spent decades searching for a kind of masculinity that doesn’t grip like a vice, the effortlessly debonair and open-hearted Jonathan Hart really did open my eyes, expand my borders, and low-key change my life. I did not expect to get all of that from Hart to Hart, a cheeky 1980s mystery/adventure show—but I did, and here we are!

So of course when I got the chance to talk to Robert Wagner about Hart to Hart, to commemorate the series’ addition to Ovation’s schedule on November 17, I decided to just go for it. I didn’t want to talk to him about the same old stuff—what it was like working with this guest star or traveling to that place or whatever. I wanted to talk to Wagner—a 91-year-old legend—about what his work as Jonathan Hart really means and what viewers can look for when they tune into this wonderfully bonkers show. And I also wanted to ask him about Jonathan Hart’s impeccable style.

The phone call begins with Wagner—or, as everyone affectionately calls him, RJ—asking if I’m staying safe. If you follow Wagner on Instagram, you know he’s very big on making sure everyone is taking the pandemic and vaccinations seriously. I answer affirmatively and then… well, we talk.

Hart to Hart - Jonathan and Jennifer in formal wear
Photo: Prime Video

Brett White (Decider): I started watching Hart to Hart at the beginning of quarantine, and some days having an episode to watch was all that got me through the day. And I really, really responded to Jonathan Hart’s wardrobe and also your personal style. I’ve always loved clothes and Hart to Hart really helped me refine and mature my style and try new things. This has brought me so much joy over the past year and a half, so I wanted to talk to you about it because I don’t know when else I would get the chance!

Robert Wagner: Oh, yeah. Good! Well, that’s some very nice compliments. Thank you.

The thing that I always wonder is, was Jonathan Hart’s wardrobe on Hart to Hart really just your wardrobe? How much of that was stuff that you owned?

Well, you know, Brioni did a lot of the clothes and I kept a lot of it. A lot of it was sort of stylized for me.

Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart
Photos: Prime Video

Did you have any input into what you wore? Because I know that in your personal life, you’ve always been a fantastic dresser.

Well, of course. I did have input and I had a wonderful wardrobe guy, Hughie McFarland, who helped me a great deal. He did [the 1968 ABC series] It Takes a Thief with me. I just try to create a good style.

With Jonathan Hart so similarly dressed to you, how did you differentiate an RJ look versus a Jonathan Hart? Was it easy to get into character because you were so similar?

Yeah, well, it was very similar, very similar.

Robert Wagner (right) put a lot of his style into Jonathan Hart (left)Photos: Getty Images, Prime Video

I’ve always had very good luck, and having people around me that have had wonderful taste—you know, Ralph Lauren and Brioni. I just kept that sort of look. And I had Hughie with me, who dressed Fred Astaire and dressed us both on It Takes a Thief. And I just had that kind of style, I guess.

You also got to dress up a lot for episodes, especially anytime Jonathan and Jennifer went on vacation somewhere. You would dress like a cowboy, there was a gorilla costume, a barbershop quartet number, you did drag—

[Laughs] Yeah!

Did you ever say “no” to any outfits?

We just put [outfits] together, you know, see how it looked. I didn’t say “no” to [any outfits]. [Stefanie Powers and I] just tried to make it as authentic and as good as we could for the both of us.

Jonathan Hart in cowboy, gorilla, fox hunting looks
Photos: Prime Video, Ovation

By the way—yesterday was Stefanie’s birthday. And she’s in Africa right now. She’s over there with the William Holden Wildlife Foundation. She’s very much involved in that and she’s doing all right. I told her I was gonna be talking about the show, that [Ovation] had picked it up, and she was really happy about that.

The show still has a huge fandom, 40 years later! Does that surprise you at all?

Well, I think it’s wonderful, isn’t it? I’m just so, so complimented by it and so is she. We loved doing the show and the show meant a lot to us, so when people react to it in a positive way it’s a very wonderful feeling.

Yeah, and it—I mean, it’s impacted my life because I started wearing jewelry during quarantine because of Jonathan Hart.

[Laughs]

I have an ID bracelet and a signet ring on right now. What are your thoughts on jewelry? How do you choose what you wear?

Well, I’ve kind of always worn an ID bracelet, you know, so I just wore it in [Hart to Hart]. And I used to wear a signet ring, and I wore it on the show.

Hart to Hart - Jonathan Hart's jewelry
Photo: Prime Video

What was on that signet ring? I try and get a look at it because it’s in every episode.

Well, it had my family crest on it.

Oh, wow. And your ID bracelet actually had your name on it? Was it actually an ID bracelet?

Yes, uh huh.

The other thing that Jonathan Hart wears that I love, that you also wear in your personal life, are neckerchiefs.

Oh, yeah, kerchiefs. I got one on right now as a matter of fact!

So do I!

[Laughs]

Robert Wagner wearing kerchiefs in 1980 and 2018
Robert Wagner: 40 Years of KerchiefsPhotos: Prime Video, Getty Images

What was the appeal? When did when did you start wearing them?

Oh, I wore them on It Takes a Thief. Fred Astaire wore them and I just I thought it was a good look, you know?

It sounds like Fred Astaire is your Robert Wagner—like, Robert Wagner is to me as Fred Astaire is to you.

Yeah, I would say so. I really loved him a lot. He was such a wonderful man and we were great friends before [It Takes a Thief]. I mean, it goes way back.

IT TAKES A THIEF, Fred Astaire, Robert Wagner, 1968-70
Courtesy Everett Collection

So a lot of Jonathan Hart’s look did come from your own style—the neckerchiefs, the signet ring…

You know, yeah, I brought a lot of myself to Jonathan Hart. Yeah.

Speaking to that, about how you bring so much of yourself to Jonathan Hart—I think the big appeal of Hart to Hart is your dynamic with Stefanie Powers and the respect and love that Jonathan and Jennifer have for each other. And Jonathan is the kind of man that we don’t see on TV all that often. He’s very sensitive but strong, and very goofy but suave. He loves puns and he dresses well.

I love all of that! That’s great!

How much of that was just your take on the character? How much of that was written in?

Well, the character is the writers and me and everybody. It’s a conglomeration of everything, but there’s a lot of me in there. Yeah.

HART TO HART, from left: Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner, (1979), (1979-1984). ph: Robert Phillips / TV Guide / Courtesy Everett Collection
Robert Phillips/Everett Collection

Is there anything that you think that men, if they discover Hart to Hart on Ovation or all the streaming services—is there anything that you think men should learn from Jonathan Hart?

Well, I always felt that he was very positive. And, you know, [Jonathan and Jennifer] had a wonderful relationship together. They were very much in love and nothing interfered with that. No matter how they tried to get us to have a domestic squabble or another person involved in our marriage, or somebody breaking us up, we never went for that.

One of my favorite stories about classic television is how on The Bob Newhart Show, Bob Newhart was adamant that he never have children. And anytime they would try to bring children in, he would be like, “Who are you gonna get to play Bob?” Was that similar to how you and Stefanie approached it, if the writers ever brought up the idea of having Jonathan and Jennifer fight a little?

No, we didn’t get into any domestic kind of fights at all. We were gonna have a child [in Season 6]. We were going to go to France. We had about six or seven, maybe ten, scripts ready to go for the next season. And then unfortunately they cancelled us.

Hart to Hart - Jonathan and Jennifer in carriage
Photo: Prime Video

I also wanted to ask you about Mart Crowley, because I’ve written about him and his work on The Boys In the Band. I always love seeing his name in the credits of Hart to Hart.

Oh, wasn’t that wonderful? Yeah, I asked him to be involved with the show and he got involved with it. And he created a lot of stuff for us, a lot of really good writing. And we were very, very close friends. I mean, he was the man that was gonna take care of our children. He was a very, very, very, very close, intimate friend of ours and our family. As a matter of fact, he left most of his things to to our daughter, Natasha.

That’s so beautiful.

Oh, yeah, he was. Did you ever meet him?

No. I really wish I could have because I’ve written so much about him and I’ve read so much about his life.

He was a wonderful, wonderful person. I couldn’t say enough about him. Very courageous, very talented and he gave a lot to Hart to Hart—he and Tom Mankiewicz really created really created Hart to Hart.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 30: Robert Wagner and Mart Crowley attend 'The Boys in the Band' 50th Anniversary Celebration at The Booth Theatre on May 30, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/WireImage)
Photo: Getty / WireImage

Who was responsible for all the puns and clever wordplay? Was that Mart or you or…?

Well, that was Mart and Tom both. Mart was a tremendous creator for that. And we made a movie together called There Must Be a Pony with Elizabeth Taylor that he wrote. He was a tremendous contributor to Hart to Hart.

Jonathan Hart was a very physical character. You had to do a lot of fighting and running and jumping while wearing beautiful suits. Did the suits make it difficult?

Well, I had a lot of guys around that were helping me, you know? Stunt guys, but I did a lot of that stuff.

HART TO HART, Robert Wagner, Leigh McCloskey, 1979-84, episode 'Hartland Express' aired 11/3/81, (c)Columbia Pictures Television/courtesy Everett Collection
©Columbia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

You know, I just loved doing the show and I love the show, Stefanie and I both. I mean, Lionel [Stander] was so wonderful in the show. He was the real glue.

Well, I’ll wrap up by asking—as if it isn’t obvious, I really just admire not only the way you dress, but what you brought to Jonathan Hart. I think he’s such a good role model for for men that are looking for a way to be smart and fun and well-dressed, etc.

Oh, well, thank you very much. You’re making my day.

[Laughs] You’re making my day. My life.

[Laughs]

Hart to Hart - Harts in PJs
Photo: Prime Video

Do you have any advice about dressing well, that you’ve learned through your years of sartorial excellence?

Well, you know Brett, it’s how you feel. It’s how you feel comfortable, how you feel in the clothes, and what you feel comfortable wearing, and how you can carry it.

You carry it well and you’ve shown me that I can carry a lot of this stuff well, too, so thank you.

You made me feel wonderful. And I’m so happy you have this kind of interest in all of this. It’s really wonderful. Makes me feel great. Makes me feel really wonderful.

HART TO HART, Robert Wagner, 1979-84
Courtesy Everett Collection

Hart to Hart premieres on Ovation on Wednesday, November 17 at 7 p.m. ET

Stream Hart to Hart on Tubi

Stream Hart to Hart on Prime Video