In the oily waters of books about film, Cleveland native Scott Eyman has earned a reputation as a writer of intelligence, perception, knowledge and accuracy. Over nine books about such titans of moviemaking as Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford and Louis B. Mayer, he's demonstrated that he not only gets his facts and people straight, but that he gets what essentially made them - and the Hollywood they created - tick.
Now Eyman has taken a working vacation by serving as a hired pen to squire a lesser dream-factory veteran, Robert Wagner, through an autobiography labeled, in Lifetime Channel-ese, Pieces of My Heart. Its title page bears the enigmatic creative credit "with Scott Eyman," whom the book's subject later terms "my literary collaborator." But Eyman's contributions most likely consisted of sitting down with Wagner and a tape recorder, prompting him through his recollections with questions aimed at bringing out their most saleable elements, and then fashioning the results into professionally efficient and focused prose.
That last task is neatly accomplished. The text is clear, direct and eminently readable. The life, however - and the actor's ruminations about it - are other matters. Younger folks are apt, solely and anonymously, to recognize the 78-year-old, still-lively Wagner as the Austin Powers series' No. 2 villain. But he's had a six-decade career in movies and television that, if hardly distinguished, is undeniably notable for its uninterrupted persistence and longevity.
The teenage Wagner started out as a 20th Century Fox contract "pretty boy" at a time when the waning studio system still ruled the industry. Despite his inexperience and acting deficiencies, Fox threw the eager lad into a raft of pictures - largely because of his looks and (a critical factor throughout his life) his shrewd cultivation of influential industry stars, directors and even moguls. Beyond a raft of usable contacts, this traditional apprenticeship honed his ability to turn in decent performances that traded on the boyish amiability that stabilized the film persona he projects to this day.
As the title hints, Wagner dramatizes his life and career as an edifying saga filled with equal parts joy, tribulation, tragedy and ultimate triumph. To us regular mortals, however, it seems - with one striking exception - more of a privileged existence filled with high living, the indulgences of fame, and incredible fortune of both the monetary and fateful kinds. The exception is the controversial 1981 death, in unsavory circumstances, of his wife, Natalie Wood, which became an international tabloid sensation. It's to be hoped the husband's account of this is not the main reason people want to read the book.
Pieces' real appeal is rather as an insider's compendium of Hollywooden anecdotes about the stars Wagner supposedly bedded (the throng includes Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins and a four-year affair with Barbara Stanwyck), his male-bonding with immortals (Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire) and gossipy revelations, like how Jack Warner was less pissed at finding Eddie Albert screwing Warner's wife than at the fact that they wouldn't stop.
For his part, Eyman has seen his client safely up and down a foothill, and will now undoubtedly use the fee to get back to scaling more challenging heights.
Pieces of My Heart By Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman HarperCollins Publishers $25.95, 326 pages