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Robert Vaughn taught me the meaning of 'star quality'

Gate Theatre artistic director Christopher Haydon pays tribute to the remarkable actor Robert Vaughn, who passed away last week

Robert Vaughn in Twelve Angry Men

"Legend" is an overused word. I've heard it applied to everyone from Justin Timberlake to that bloke's mate who drank too much last night. But when I spent the autumn of 2013 rehearsing Twelve Angry Men, it was hard to find another way to describe one of the actors who sat at the heart of that company: Robert Vaughn.

Throughout the rehearsal process he was as easy going as they come

At the age of 81, he played Juror number 9 – the old man who is the first juror to change his vote in response to the coolly rational arguments of Juror number 8 (a role made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film and played with genial authority in my production by Martin Shaw). Before we began rehearsals, I was unsure how to approach Robert – how do you give notes to The Man from U.N.C.L.E? What do you do if one of the Magnificent Seven disagrees with you?

If I'm honest though, it wasn't either of these iconic roles that intimidated me most. As a child in the 1980s I was a huge fan of the Christopher Reeves' Superman films, and it was Robert's role as the villainous Ross Webster in Superman III that has stuck with me most. In fact, it took some time for me to mentally align the sweet but dryly witty old gent in my rehearsal room with the debonair but maniacal businessman of that film.

Yet despite his age, and the mountain of experience that came with it, he was as easy going as they come throughout the rehearsal process. You can tell when an actor really knows how to pace themselves through both rehearsal and performance. And whilst it took him a little longer to learn the lines than some of the more youthful members of the company, he had a gentle and focused presence in the room. It was remarkable to watch how he came alive in front of an audience. I didn't really understand what "star quality" was until I saw how people reacted to his presence on stage. He had by no means the most lines in the play, but people would really hang off every word. His was a charisma that drew goodwill from everyone before him – the twinkle in his eye was dazzling.

His was a charisma that drew goodwill from everyone before him

He was a laconic man by nature – and modest to a fault. But occasionally, when prompted, he would come out with remarkable nuggets and anecdotes that connected you to a whole other world. He once mentioned, in passing, that his office at MGM had been directly above Elvis's. ("A nice man, always called me Mr Vaughn" he told me in his gravelled American drawl).

It was particularly poignant for me to hear of his passing on the day that the US elected a demagogue as its next president. Not only does Twelve Angry Men serve as a stark warning against that very bigotry and ignorance which Trump embodies, but Robert himself was a staunch democrat and liberal. He was one of the first well-known actors to oppose the Vietnam war, and he even wrote a book, Only Victims, which was a defence of the First Amendment in the face of the communist witch hunt and blacklisting of 1950s Hollywood.

I will miss Robert, and I will always feel deeply honoured to have worked with him. He was an inspiration both artistically and politically and we can only hope that his principles survive long in to the future. I am sure he would be the first to say that, right now, they need defending with as much energy and ferocity as we can muster.