An Exclusive Report on Robert Conrad — Star of “The Wild Wild West”
It Was An Honor To Have Him Guest On My TV Show
“I’m not debonair. I’m not suave. I did wear tight pants, though, because I found out that it worked.” — Robert Conrad
Robert Conrad — you were one tough nut to crack.
But I loved having you on my show, “Then Again with Herbie J Pilato,” which ultimately became your final on-screen appearance.
What an honor — and what a blast it really was.
You joked — and you razed me, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Rest well, tough guy.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Whether in fiction or in reality, no male TV character of the 1950s, ’60s, and ‘70s came any tougher than Robert Conrad as James West on the unique sci-fi western, The Wild Wild West, which originally aired on CBS from 1965 to 1969.
The fact that Conrad portrayed a character named West on a series that was set in the Old West served both as a metaphor and as a wink to the program’s loyal fan-base who came to love the show’s frequent use of self-deprecating humor and style. As Conrad once said about the series, which displayed ingenious, whimsical stories, sets, props, and performances, “It was just so elaborate and so luxurious. We had every gadget imaginable…[like] the little gun that [popped] out of [West’s] shoe.”
The show arrived on TV just as the western genre was giving way to the spy game. In fact, according to Susan E. Kessler’s book The Wild Wild West: The Series, show creator Michael Garrison once described it as “James Bond on horseback.”
Television and media historian James Knuttel succinctly credits and summarizes Conrad’s appeal as the key to Wild’s success, while also comparing the actor’s star quality to other small-screen male legends:
“I liked Conrad as James West because the role required him to take on two types of heroes rolled into one: the stalwart westerner … such as Matt Dillon [as played by James Arness on Gunsmoke] and the suave spy/secret agent … such as Napoleon Solo [as played by Robert Vaughn on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.]. Conrad handled this superbly, being charming with the ladies and tough-as-nails with the bad guys, and he did it in the tongue-in-cheek manner that fit the mood of the series. Likewise, he was a handsome man who looked great in the somewhat dandified outfits that he wore … like silk vests, bolero-style jackets, and extremely tight-fitting pants. Add to that, of course, he possessed a muscular physique that made him well up to the challenge of doing a large among of stunt work.”
More About The West
Set during the administration of President Ulysses Grant (1869–1877), Wild covered the exploits of a Secret Service agent team headed by Conrad’s West and Artemus Gordon, played with amusing aplomb by Ross Martin (and later, Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike). They deciphered crimes and mysteries, protected the president, and thwarted the schemes of myriad evil opponents, scientists, and the like, each of whom was bent on conquering any or every part of America, if not the world (including the diminutive-in-size but masterfully talented Michael Dunne as the diabolical Dr. Lovelace).
The Wild series, with its significant fantasy qualities, and high-tech mechanisms (utilized by heroes and villains alike) became a stand-out TV entertainment showcase. The use and display of Jules-Verne-like apparatuses, in particular, led some to christen the show as one of the more “visible” origins of the steampunk subculture. Such elements became even more pronounced in director Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1999 feature film edition of the series that starred Will Smith and Kevin Kline; a movie that did not at all please Conrad. As the actor explained at the time, he never had anything against Smith. In fact, he once heralded the multi-talented music and performing star of TV’s Prince of Bel-Air as “cool.” “My kids [even] have his CDs,” Conrad gleamed.
Instead, he credited what became the film’s unsuccessful fate to Sonnenfeld, with whom he had met before the big picture was set in motion. “Barry let his ego go out of control,” Conrad recalled. “[Sonnenfeld] told me that he had to do something to make it his film.” To which the actor replied, “Well, Barry, it’s your film. If it rises or falls, you’re the man.”
Needless to say, the movie bombed. It was not the triumphant remake envisioned by anyone, critics or hardcore West fans, much less Sonnenfeld himself (who had faced a similar outcome with his failed attempt to redo ABC’s 1977–1984 Fantasy Island series for the network’s 1998–1999 season).
Through it all, Conrad stuck to his guns, so to speak, and retained his bold bravado and stoic persona, off-screen. For, like James West, he was never one to back down from confrontation (as evidenced by his famous Eveready battery commercials from the 1980s).
Born Konrad Robert Falkowski on March 1, 1935, in Chicago, Illinois, Conrad attended Northwestern University. His parents were Leonard and Joan Falkowski. He was married twice: Joan Kenlay (from 1952 to 1977) and LaVelda Ione Fann (from 1977 to 2010). His children include Christian, Nancy, Shane, and Joan Conrad (from first marriage); and Kaja, Camille, and Chelsea Conrad (from second marriage).
Before playing James West on Wild, he portrayed Tom Lopaka for four seasons of the series Hawaiian Eye (1959–1963) and also on some “crossover” episodes of 77 Sunset Strip. After Wild, he was deputy district attorney Paul Ryan for one season of the series The D.A. (1971–1972), and Nick Carter in the TV-movie The Adventures of Nick Carter (1972). He also later starred as Jake Webster for one season in the series Assignment Vienna (1972–1973), and found more consistent success as Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington for two seasons in the series Baa Baa Black Sheep, later retitled The Black Sheep Squadron (1976–1978).
After that, he was cast as French mountain man Pasquinel in the mini-series Centennial (1978–1979) and performed as Thomas Remington Sloane III for one season in the series A Man Called Sloane (1979). His last series role was that of Jesse Hawkes for one season in the series High Mountain Rangers (1987–1988).
As Conrad once assessed his tough persona, “They only see what I want them to see, what I’m selling — an image.”
An iconic image that’s held up incredibly well over time.
— — — — — — — — — — — -
This material is an edited excerpt from the book, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR: TV’S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ’50s, ’60s AND ’70s. For more information, visit www.HerbieJPilato.com To watch Robert Conrad’s final on-screen appearance, on Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, click on the following link: https://www.amazon.com/Then-Again-Herbie-Pilato-Livingston/dp/B07STKCZ2V/ref=sr_1_1?crid=11ASG91R2SDGX&keywords=then+again+with+herbie+j+pilato&qid=1564272299&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Then+Again%2Cstripbooks%2C180&sr=1-1