Friends, it would appear that 2020 has quite the beef to pick with us fans of classic films and television series, right? Within a week we’ve lost not only Kirk Douglas, Orson Bean (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman), Kevin Conway (The Elephant Man), but last night word reached us that we have now lost the iconic Robert Conrad at the age of 84. I realize that is naturally a long life and with 80 acting credits to his name, he left us with quite a few films and television series to enjoy as his legacy. Although getting his start in show business thanks to a chance encounter with Nick Adams (The Rebel) while visiting the grave of James Dean in 1957 – most people will recognize the actor from his role in the popular CBS series The Wild Wild West as Secret Service agent James T. West.
The Wild Wild West is certainly one of my favorite television shows and I was quite ecstatic when the entire four seasons and made-for-TV movies were packaged together affordably. In all honesty, like many films and TV series, the supporting character is typically my favorite – this is indeed the case with The Wild Wild West as Ross Martin’s character of Artemus Gordon is what I love about the series the most – an inventor with a deft hand at disguises. Of course there is much to enjoy about the series with the many popular guest stars that showed up as villains of the week as well as it’s quasi-steampunk elements too. I hope that does not sound remotely like a slight to the late Conrad, he was the lead of the series and was quite suave and heroic – portraying a “James Bond on Horseback as Michael Garrison, the creator of The Wild Wild West described the series pitch. What might surprise some fans of the series is that Conrad didn’t exactly enjoy making the show, as he shared in this 1994 interview with Larry King.
Now I would like to be clear that Conrad made a mention of not enjoying the making of the television series – he didn’t say he was not a fan of the finished product. I think one of those reasons he didn’t look fondly back on the production of the series was to help save money he was doing almost all of his own stunts – which was the reason for a mishap on January 24th of 1968 while filming the episode entitled The Night of the Fugitives. I’ve read online that while doing a leap to a chandelier from the top of some saloon steps, he lost his grip and plummeted to the concrete floor 12 to 15 feet below – landing on his head. He was obviously rushed to the hospital and was in intensive care for 72 hours – the episode was finished for the fourth and final season of the series and you can see Conrad take the painful fall. What is evident about The Wild Wild West is how the series created a lasting friendship between Conrad and Martin – along with stuntman Red West, check out how they kid around in this segment from a 1978 interview on the Everyday show.
Robert Conrad by the way was known to belt out a tune or two – releasing at least three albums in the ’60s as well as nine singles as I understand it as Bob Conrad – one of those included 1961’s ‘Bye Bye Baby‘.
Conrad had already experienced television success before The Wild Wild West with the ABC series Hawaiian Eye as Tom Lopka – a co-founder of the Hawaiian Eye detective agency and security firm. Robert would land a Golden Globe nomination and a People’s Choice Award for portraying the real life World War II combat pilot Major Greg ‘Pappy’ Boyington in 1976’s Black Sheep Squadron. Although the series started off being entitled Baa Baa Black Sheep – the series lasted for two seasons and co-starred Simon Oakland (The Night Stalker), Dana Elcar (MacGyver), Dirk Blocker (Prince of Darkness), W.K. Stratton (JAG), Jeff MacKay (Magnum P.I.), Larry Manetti (Magnum P.I.), Robert Ginty (The Paper Chase), as well as John Larroquette of Night Court fame!
Afterwards Conrad would go on to appear in the epic Centennial TV Mini-Series along with the likes of Richard Chamberlain, Donald Pleasence, Raymond Burr, and Barbara Carrera to name a few. Throughout the years the actor could be seen in A Man Called Sloane, Glory Days, High Sierra Search and Rescue, and even in an episode of Nash Bridges.
As always with these articles I will end it with that phrase I learned while working at a movie theater when news reached us of the passing of a celebrity we were fond of, “We will dim the lights in the auditorium.”