Rubin: Robert Wagner, a doo-wop quartet, the Korean War

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Unless you remember the Korean War, you’re not going to remember Steve Antos.

But Robert Wagner, the actor? Wagner never forgot him.

Therein lies a story, of course, and we’ll begin it at the end: Antos, 84, died Sunday in Las Vegas, where he moved to be with his sons a few years ago after the dementia took hold.

Steve Antos

He’ll be buried here, where he first harmonized with his brother and a boyhood buddy, and where a pretty darned good career was born.

Steve was the baritone. Peter was the tenor. Their parents owned the somewhat oddly named Sanitary Restaurant on Saginaw Street in Pontiac, which lasted into the late 1960s — almost a decade after the brothers’ career was bulldozed by rock ‘n roll.

Steve, Peter and Kenny Davis sang together around town, joined the Army together and were shipped off to Korea together.

Jason Vines, who’s married to Peter’s daughter Betsy, points out that none of them were drafted. Their country said hey, we have this thing going on in Asia, and they all said OK, I guess we’d better go help.

Overseas, they started singing with another soldier, Louis Tulianello. The four of them started entertaining the troops, which had to be better duty than slogging through the mud even if they were doing it in combat zones.

Often, they’d sing their doo-wop with visiting stars. It was Eddie Fisher, in fact, who named them the Four G.I. Joes — a name they shortened to the Four Joes when they came home, cut some records and started opening for the likes of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.

It was a great gig while it lasted, which was basically until Elvis Presley and Little Richard started picking up the pace and doo-wop got bumped to the lounge at Howard Johnson’s.

Starting over

Steve came home and took sales jobs with Thomas Furniture and then a biomedical lab. Peter, who also dealt with dementia and died in 2009, wound up at the same drug company.

They still sang whenever someone asked, and they told stories whether you asked or not — like the one about Robert Wagner.

Betsy and Jason Vines could recite it along with them.

Performing in New York, the Four Joes met a scuffling, Detroit-born actor and loaned him $20. The actor went on to become a debonair leading man, frolick with Elizabeth Taylor, marry Natalie Wood twice, and stay busy as a character called “Number Two” in all three Austin Powers movies.

The Four Joes got their name from superstar Eddie Fisher, center, while serving in Korea. Left to right, they were Louis Tulianello, Peter Antos, Steve Antos and Kenny Davis.

“We thought they were full of it,” Jason says. Bla bla, Robert Wagner, sure you did.

Then Jason, at the time a Ford communications executive, helped the producers of “Austin Powers in Goldmember” acquire the Jaguar roadster they renamed the Shaguar.

That landed him and his wife at the movie premiere in Los Angeles, where Betsy asked Wagner if maybe, in the deep recesses of his memory, he had a faint recollection of some guys who —

“Are you talking about the Four Joes?” Wagner said.

Sometimes a story you accept as gospel turns out to be a fake, and you’re crushed. This was a story told by people who could have sung gospel, and it was real.

The moral is ...

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that you might as well believe your dad and your uncle, because it’s more entertaining to be fooled than to be floored.

If there’s a lesser lesson, it’s that the Korean War generation might not have been called the Greatest, but it wasn’t half bad.

“These Greek kids from Pontiac,” Jason Vines says. “What did they owe the Koreans?”

Not a thing, but they crossed the ocean prepared to fight. Getting to sing instead was just a cosmic thank-you gift.

Funeral arrangements for Steve Antos remain in flux; check online with Donelson Johns and Evans in Waterford, or call (248) 673-1213.

Davis is the only surviving Joe, Vines says, and he’s dealing with dementia as well.

It’s an unfortunate plague, but maybe sometimes he pictures himself in New York in the late 1950s, when he and his friends were riding high and a fresh-faced nobody named Wagner needed a hand.