Thursday, 17 September 2015

The Wild Wild West Turns 50

The mid to late Fifties saw American broadcast television overwhelmed by Westerns, to the point during some seasons at least one aired very night. This cycle towards Westerns ended in 1960, but the success of The Virginian in 1962 saw a new cycle towards Western TV shows begin, one that would last until around 1968. It was in 1963 that the James Bond movie Dr. No brought the spy craze from Britain to the United States. It was not long before the American broadcast networks were overwhelmed by spies as well as cowboys. Given the popularity of both Westerns and spy dramas in the early to mid-Sixties, it should have come as no surprise when someone proposed a Western that was also a spy drama (or vice versa, if you prefer). It was fifty years ago today that a show debuted that was exactly that--the adventures of two spies in the Old West. The Wild Wild West debuted on Friday, September 17 2015 on CBS 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central.

The Wild Wild West followed the adventures of Secret Service agents James West (played by Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (played by Ross Martin) as they battled diabolical masterminds and foreign agents in the American West of the late 1800s. James West was a master combatant whose fighting style even incorporated such exotic martial arts as kung fu. Artemus Gordon was a master of disguise, con man, and gadgeteer. Together they faced off against villains who often had access to technology that was very advanced for the late Victorian Era. Their archenemy (and the only opponent they fought more than twice) was Dr. Miguelito Loveless (played by Michael Dunn). a megalomaniacal dwarf who considered himself "the Napoleon of the West".

The basic idea for The Wild Wild West originated with Michael Garrison. Mr. Garrison had begun his career as an actor, but eventually became an associate producer on such movies as An Affair to Remember, The Long Hot Summer, and Peyton Place. He graduated to being a producer, working on movies such as The Crowded Sky and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Like many in Hollywood in the early to mid-Sixties, Michael Garrison noticed the spy craze that was was overtaking the United States. At the same time Westerns continued to be popular and television was actually experiencing a new boom in Westerns due to the success of The Virginian. It occurred to Garrison that crossing Bondian spy drama with the Western (essentially "James Bond on horseback") could make for a good TV series. He pitched the idea to CBS head of programming Hunt Stromberg Jr. Stromberg agreed that it was a good idea.

Hunt Stromberg Jr. assigned CBS associate director of programme development Ethel Winant to develop the series. The concept which Miss Winant eventually worked out centred on Secret Service agent James West, assigned to fight international spies and other villains in the West of the United States. Initially they came up with the idea that West would get his gadgets from a travelling pedlar. The pedlar character eventually developed into West's partner, Artemus Gordon. Gil Ralston, who had written for Ben Casey, Route 66, and other shows, was hired to write the pilot (the episode "Night of the Inferno"). It was Gil Ralston who took Ethel Winant's idea of a travelling pedlar who provided West with his gadgets and transformed him into West's full-time partner Artemus Gordon. At this point the show was still simply known as The Wild West.

With the script for the pilot being written, casting for the roles of West and Gordon began. Initially they had wanted Western star Rory Calhoun for the role. After a screen test, however, CBS decided that Mr. Calhoun was not right for the part. Eighteen different actors auditioned for the role of James West, including Skip Ward, who would later produce such shows as The Dukes of Hazzard and V. John Derek, who had appeared in such films as Knock on Any Door (1949) and All the King's Men (1949), was supposed to audition, but did not show up. Robert Conrad was finally cast in the role of James West. Robert Conrad was already a veteran television star, having starred in the TV series Hawaiian Eye. The casting for the part of Artemus Gordon went much more smoothly. Although many actors were tested for the part, only two were ever seriously considered. One was character actor Pat Hinkle (who would later play Commissioner Gordon in the 1989 film Batman). The other was character actor Ross Martin, a talented character actor with a gift for dialects. Ross Martin had been a regular on the show Mr. Lucky and made numerous guest appearances over the years in shows ranging from Laramie to Dr. Kildare.

Film composer Dimitri Tiomkin was hired to compose the theme for The Wild West. Unfortunately Michael Garrison found the theme composed by Mr. Tiomkin, "The Ballad of Big Jim West", wholly unsuited to the show. Mr. Garrison then hired Richard Markowitz to compose the now familiar theme to The Wild Wild West. Mr. Markowitz had composed the theme to the Western TV show The Rebel and scored the films Face in the Rain (1963) and Cry of Battle (1963).

Sadly for The Wild West (soon to become The Wild Wild West) the course to making it on the air would not always be smooth. On the strength of the pilot ("The Night of the Inferno"), The Wild West was placed on CBS's 1965 fall schedule. Unfortunately in March 1965 there would be a major management change at CBS. James T. Aubrey, who had been president of CBS since 1959, was fired on  February 27 1965. It was not long after James Aubrey was terminated that Hunt Stromberg, Jr. announced his resignation from CBS, although there can be little doubt that he was pressured out of the network. The new regime at CBS reshuffled the schedule for fall 1965, bringing back some shows that Mr. Aubrey had cancelled while cancelling some of those that he had bought. Among those that were axed was The Wild West.

Fortunately, for reasons that still are not entirely clear, The Wild West was eventually returned to CBS's fall 1965 schedule. While The Wild West had been returned to the network schedule, things would still not go smoothly for the show. Michael Garrison had produced the pilot, but the new management at CBS did not particularly want him to produce the regular TV series. Much of this had to do with Michael Garrison's friendship with Hunt Stromberg, Jr., who had just been driven out of the network. Much of it also had to do with Michael Garrison's lack of experience in television production--prior to the pilot for The Wild West, he had never produced a television show. A good deal of it had to do with the fact that the pilot as produced by Michael Garrison had proven very expensive for the era,  $685,000. CBS then sought someone else to produce The Wild West, making Michael Garrison the show's executive producer. 

CBS first looked to veteran director Jack Arnold to produce The Wild West. Jack Arnold had directed a good number of films (including the classics Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man) and had already produced such TV shows as Mr. Lucky and Gilligan's Island. For whatever reason, Mr. Arnold left before he could even produce one episode. The network's next choice was Ben Brady, who had produced The Red Skelton Hour, Perry Mason, and Have Gun--Will Travel. For whatever reason Mr. Brady was replaced without ever having produced an episode after only two months by Collier Young.

Collier Young was the former husband of director and actress Ida Lupino, and had already produced such shows as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond and The Rogues. He would leave one lasting imprint on the show. Feeling that the title The Wild West sounded too much like a typical Western, he renamed the show The Wild Wild West. Unfortunately for Mr. Young, his vision of The Wild Wild West differed a good deal from that of Michael Garrison, as well as the vision CBS had for the show. In the end he was dismissed after only three episodes.

The pattern of changing producers that had been established even before The Wild Wild West had reached the air continued throughout the show's first season. The next man hired to produce the show was Fred Frieberger, who had produced Ben Casey and would go onto produce Star Trek. Mr. Frieberger was arguably the show's best producer. He established the format of the series, in which each week West and Gordon would face a criminal mastermind with some incredible plot (such as a former general seeking to establish his own kingdom in Mexico using an armour plated train, a crazed geologist who has figured out how to cause earthquakes, and a plot to rob a state of its treasury). Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Fred Freiberger's tenure as producer on The Wild Wild West was the introduction of West and Gordon's archnemesis, Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

While Fred Freiberger set the course that The Wild Wild West would maintain for the rest of its run, he did not last as the show's producer. For reasons that are not precisely clear, CBS fired both Mr. Freiberger as producer and Michael Garrison as executive producer. As it would turn out, according to their contract CBS could not fire Mr. Garrison as executive producer. Unfortunately, the same was not true of Fred Freiberger. . John Mantley, who had been the associate producer on Gunsmoke, was brought in as his replacement. John Mantley continued the series in the same vein as Fred Freiberger, with West and Gordon facing as a crazed puppeteer with steam powered "puppets" and an assassin with a body that has almost entirely been replaced by steel.

Mr. Mantley's tenure as producer of The Wild Wild West ended once Michael Garrison reclaimed his position as executive producer. Mr. Garrison wanted Fred Freiberger back as the series' producer, but CBS refused to reinstate him. Gene L. Coon was then hired as the show's producer.  Gene L. Coon had already produced the short lived Western Destry and a single episode of The Virginian. Like Fred Freiberger, Mr. Coon would also go onto produce Star Trek. Gene L. Coon continued the series in the same vein as Fred Freiberger and John Mantley, producing such episodes as  "The Night of the Murderous Spring" (in which Dr. Loveless plotted to poison the whole country with a hallucinogenic drug) and "The Night of the Freebooters" (in which a diabolical mastermind plotted to take over Baja California with his own private army). Gene L. Coon would quit the series after several episodes to accept an offer from Warner Brothers to write the screenplay for Tell It to the Marines.

After going through so many show runners, Michael Garrison finally had the opportunity to produce his own show. He produced the last few episodes of the first season as well as the first few episodes of the second season. Ultimately Michael Garrison named Bruce Lansbury as the new producer of The Wild Wild West. Mr. Lansbury was the younger brother of actress Angela Lansbury and a friend of Michael Garrison. He had worked in management at CBS and had worked on the TV series The Great Adventure for the network. He would go on to produce such shows as Wonder Woman and Murder, She Wrote. Bruce Lansbury would remain the producer on The Wild Wild West for the rest of the show's run.

Sadly, Michael Garrison would not live to see the second season of The Wild Wild West. On August 17 1966, only a little over a month after Bruce Lansbury had been announced as the show's producer, Mr. Garrrison died after falling down a flight of stairs in his home and fracturing his skull. A new executive producer was not hired to replace Michael Garrison and Bruce Lansbury took complete control of The Wild Wild West.

The Wild Wild West debuted on Friday night at 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central. As hard as it might be to believe now, CBS was concerned about how The Wild Wild West would fare against NBC's new sitcom, Camp Runamuck. As things turned out, CBS need not have been concerned. Camp Runamuck received generally poor reviews. Worse yet for NBC, The Wild Wild West trounced Camp Runamuck in the ratings. The Wild Wild West also trounced the sitcom following Camp Runamuck on NBC, Hank. The Wild Wild West even outperformed its competition on ABC, then six year old animated series The Flintstones and the new show Tammy (very loosely based on the movies Tammy and the Bachelor, Tammy Tell Me True, and Tammy and the Doctor). In the end every show that had aired opposite The Wild Wild West during the 1965-1966 season would be cancelled, even The Flintstones. As to The Wild Wild West, it ranked no 23 out of all the shows on the air.

As might be expected of a show that was simultaneously a spy drama and Western, The Wild Wild West was in many ways a very stylised show, right down to its title sequence and the graphics that closed each act. The animated title sequence was created by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, who had also created the animated title sequences for the movies The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965). They also created the animated titles for the TV show I Dream of Jeannie, which also debuted in the 1965-1966 season. The animated title sequence of The Wild Wild West was divided into four wide panels of the sort used in comic strips, with a narrow panel in the centre: in the centre panel would enter the hero figure; the lower left panel featured a robber just emerging from a bank;  the upper right panel featured a gambler drawing a card from his boot; the upper left panel featured a gun; and the lower right panel featured a woman with a parasol. The hero figure would dispatch each of these characters in turn, after which the title The Wild Wild West appeared, followed by images of a train with the credits on the train's carriages. When The Wild Wild West switched to colour in the second season, the title sequence was set against an American flag.

Just as The Wild Wild West's title sequence differed from many shows on at the time, so too did the end of each act. The frame of each scene ending an act would freeze and then replaced one of the four panels of the opening sequence. In the pilot the freeze-frame images would become line drawings, but afterwards in the first season they were made to look more like tinted photographs.  From the second season onwards the freeze frame images once more became line drawings. A company called Consolidated Film Industries was responsible the art at the end of the various acts.

Given that The Wild Wild West was conceived as "James Bond on horseback", it should come as no surprise that it featured plenty of gadgets. In fact, James West and Artemus Gordon even had their own equivalent to James Bond's gadget laden cars. The two of them travelled in a specially equipped train. The train featured in the pilot was Sierra No. 3. Built in 1891, Sierra No. 3 had made its first appearance on film the Tom Mix serial The Terror in 1920. Afterwards it appeared in several films and later TV shows, including The Virginian (1929),  Duel in the Sun (1946), High Noon (1952), and Petticoat Junction (where it was the Hooterville Cannonball). For the regular series another train was used, the Inyo. Like Sierra No. 3, the Inyo also had a long history in film. It had appeared in the Marx Brothers' movie Go West (1940), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Red River (1948), and and McLintock! (1963).

Because even train passenger carriages tend to be rather narrow and impractical  for shooting a TV show, the interiors of West and Gordon's specially equipped carriage were built as a set at a reported cost of $35,000. As might be expected, West and Gordon's train carriage had some amenities that other train carriages of the era did not. The billiards table featured some very special cue sticks (ones with concealed blades and others that fired bullets), as well as some very special cue balls (namely, they were explosive). The desk in the carriage featured two concealed pistols, and a shotgun was hidden beneath a table. The carriage's fireplace contained a secret escape hatch. When The Wild Wild West shifted to colour with its second season, the train carriage was slightly redesigned.

Of course, West and Gordon had access to gadgets besides those on the train. The one that most frequently appeared may have been James West's sleeve gun. West also had a lock pick hidden in his hat, a throwing knife in his jacket, a spring loaded knife in his boot, and breakaway Remington derringer also hidden in his boot.

Of course, in keeping with the idea of The Wild Wild West as "James Bond in the Old West", West and Gordon typically faced bigger than life opponents. This was particularly true of the only villain they faced more than twice. Dr. Miguelito Loveless may have been short of stature, but he was truly bigger than life. Dr. Loveless was the creation of producer Fred Freiberger and writer John Kneubuhl. The two of them seized upon the idea that actor and singer Michael Dunn would make a great villain for the series. They hired Mr. Dunn and Mr. Kneubuhl set about writing the first episode to feature the doctor, "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth." Michael Dunn was a veteran actor, who was both diminutive in height and enormous in talent. Among his works could be counted his role in the movie Ship of Fools. The role of Loveless created for him was that of a mad genius with a gift for science, bent on world conquest. The back story Kneubuhl created for Loveless was that he was probably part Mexican and part Anglo. His mother was a landed descendent of Spanish dons. His father was an American who robbed Miguelito of his inheritance. Because of this and his small stature, Loveless is essentially angry with the whole world. Dr. Loveless appeared in all four seasons of The Wild Wild West and the episodes featuring him are among the show's best. Among Loveless's plots were one in which he sought to regain the land his ancestors owned in California with the world's most powerful explosive, a plot to destroy all life in the West with a special chemical, and a plot to assassinate the leaders of the world powers by using paintings through which living beings can be moved in and out.

West and Gordon would only face one other opponent more than once. The success of Dr. Loveless led to the creation of another villain who was meant to recur on the show. Count Carlos Manzeppi (played by Victor Buono) was a diabolical magician who put his skills to use in committing crimes. He first appeared in the premiere episode of the second season, "Night of the Eccentrics", in which he was involved in a plot to carry out an assassination. He appeared one last time in "Night of the Feathered Fury". Count Manzeppi was not particularly well received by critics and CBS did not believe Count Manzeppi was popular with the show's fans. It is perhaps for that reason that Count Manzeppi only appeared twice. Of course, Victor Buono would soon be playing King Tut on the hit TV show Batman.

Essentially being a spy drama set in the Old West, The Wild Wild West quite naturally involved a good deal of stunts. Early in the run of the show stunt doubles substituted for Robert Conrad for the more dangerous stunts. As Robert Conrad did not like the use of very many stunt doubles, it was not long before he began performing many of the stunts himself. It was largely because of Robert Conrad that more exotic martial arts than one might see in most Westerns (or shows set in the Sixties, for that matter) began to appear on The Wild Wild West. Quite simply, Robert Conrad was into kung fu as well as boxing. After a fall from a  chandelier during the shooting of the third season episode "The Night of the Fugitives" from which Robert Conrad received a concussion, CBS insisted on the actor using a double for the most dangerous stunts for the remainder of the show's run.

While Robert Conrad spent time in hospital after the fall from the chandelier, Ross Martin would experience a health crisis unrelated to the show. On  August 17 1968 Mr. Martin had a heart attack while sailing with his daughter in Marina Del Rey, California. For a time doctors only gave him a 50/50 chance at survival. With the fourth season about to begin production, it was decided to have various guest stars play characters who would substitute for Artemus Gordon (who it was explained was in Washington) while Ross Martin recovered. Charles Aidman (playing character Jeremy Pike), William Schallert (playing character Frank Harper) and Alan Hale, Jr. (playing the character Swanson) were all partnered with Robert Conrad as Jim West. Fortunately, Ross Martin recovered and was able to return to the show.

The Wild Wild West did not receive a large number of awards while it was on the air. In 1967 Agnes Moorhead won the Emmy for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Drama for her guest appearance in "The Night of the Vicious Valentine". In 1969 Ross Martin was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.

The Wild Wild West never again ranked in the top 25 shows for the year following its first season, but it still maintained fairly good ratings. In fact, most of its competition on the other networks were cancelled after one season or less, including The Green Hornet and Off to See the Wizard on ABC. Tarzan on NBC managed to last two seasons. During its fourth season The Wild Wild West was still doing well. It received a 33 share in the Nielsens for the year, which would have almost guaranteed it would be renewed. Unfortunately it was not to be.

The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 1968 and Robert Kennedy on June 5 1968 had renewed outcry over violence on television. With the renewed outcry over television violence, the networks quite naturally took measures to curtail violence on the small screen. For the 1968-1969 season, then, the networks introduced new restrictions on acts of violence on television. CBS restricted the producers of their shows on the use of firearms, fighting in close quarters, and even such stunts as falling off a horse. For a series such as The Wild Wild West, which had always depended on a lot of action in its episodes, this made things very difficult.

Unfortunately, the new restrictions that the networks had put on shows did nothing to silence the outcry over television violence.Worse yet, The Wild Wild West was considered one of the most violent shows on television by various watchdog groups. Accusations that The Wild Wild West was overly violent had persisted since its first season. In an article in the October 29 1965 issue of the Ottawa Citizen about the return of violence and sex to the small screen, Joan Crosby included The Wild Wild West among the examples of television violence. In February 1967 the National Association for Better Broadcasting (NABB) denounced The Wild Wild West for "its brutality and ugliness." In a survey of incidents of violence on television conducted by The Christian Science Monitor in early 1969, The Wild Wild West was determined to be the second most violent show on American television after British import The Avengers.

With the ongoing outcry over television violence, CBS cancelled The Wild Wild West in February 1969. Producer Bruce Lansbury would later say of the cancellation, "It was a sacrificial lamb." Even everyone at CBS did not agree the cancellation of The Wild Wild West. William Tankersley, the head of CBS's Standards & Practices at the time, later said of the show's cancellation in an interview with the Archive of American Television, "There went a harmless show, with a lot people being unemployed, because of some group that claims to be so expert when really weren't."

The watchdog groups would continue to plague The Wild Wild West even after it left the air. In November 1970 that a group called the Foundation to Improve Television filed a lawsuit to prevent WTOP-TV in Washington D.C. from showing The Wild Wild West before 10:00 PM, contending it violated "the constitutional rights of child viewers" in exposing them to alleged violence. In January 1971 the lawsuit was dismissed in U.S. District Court. In 1973 the National Association for Better Broadcasting pressured Los Angeles TV station  KTTV into an agreement to issue a parental guidance warning before 81 live action series the NABB considered violent. Among the 81 shows was, as might be expected, The Wild Wild West.

Despite various watchdog groups' distaste for the show, The Wild Wild West continued to be popular after it left the air.  During the summer of 1970, CBS reran specially selected episodes of The Wild Wild West, with some of the more "violent" scenes cut out, at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central Monday nights.  The Wild Wild West proved very successful as a syndicated rerun. Airing on around 57 local stations in 1971, by 1973 it was airing on 84 stations.

The continued popularity of The Wild Wild West led to a reunion movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited, with James West and Ross Martin returning as James West and Artemus Gordon. Since Michael Dunn had died, Paul Williams played Miguelito Loveless Jr. Perhaps because violence was less acceptable on Seventies television than it had been in the Sixties, humour was played up more than it had been in the original series. Regardless, The Wild Wild West Revisited proved to be a hit in the ratings when it aired on CBS on  May 9 1979.

In fact, it was successful enough that a second reunion movie was made, More Wild Wild West. More Wild Wild West featured  Jonathan Winters as Albert Paradine II, who had developed a formula for invisibility. More Wild Wild West relied even more on humour than it predecessor, but still did well in the ratings when it aired on October 7 and October 8 1980. Sadly, there would be no more adventures of West and Gordon when Ross Martin died on July 31981 of a heart attack.

Regardless, The Wild Wild West would continue to be popular. In 1985 it was still airing on 74 stations throughout the United States. In 1994 TNT began airing The Wild Wild West for several years. The series would later air on Encore Westerns as well as the classic broadcast network ME-TV.

The continued popularity of The Wild Wild West would also result, perhaps unfortunately, in a big budget feature film adaptation of the show. Wild Wild West starred Will Smith as James West and Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon, along with  Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless (who only took his name from Dr. Miguelito Loveless and nothing more). Wild Wild West was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The film departed from the TV show a good deal, with comedy playing a much more pronounced role. It not only received largely negative reviews from critics, but it was reviled by fans as well and Robert Conrad himself. The film failed at the box office.

Despite the motion picture, The Wild Wild West has remained popular to this day. The entire series has been released on DVD. In 2010 it was announced that producers Ron Moore and Naren Shankar were planing a reboot of The Wild Wild West, but nothing ever came of it.

The continued popularity of The Wild Wild West seems most likely to be due to the fact that it was different from anything that aired before or since it. Although often described as "James Bond in the Old West", The Wild Wild West was much more than that. The show not only blended elements of the Western and spy dramas, but also Jules Verne-style science fiction and the occasional use of outright fantasy. In many respects this made The Wild Wild West a very pioneering show. With its occasional use of steam technology and Jules Verne-type devices, The Wild Wild West can be considered a forerunner of steampunk, if not one of the first clear-cut examples. With its use of science fiction and even occasionally fantasy elements, The Wild Wild West can also be considered one of the earliest examples of the Weird West genre, which combines the Western with elements of horror or fantasy. In many respects The Wild Wild West can be considered the forerunner of everything from DC comic book character Jonah Hex to the TV show The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. to the manga and anime Steam Detectives. While there may have been examples of steampunk and Weird West earlier, The Wild Wild West may well be the most prominent forerunner, if not early example, of both genres.

Of course, even as The Wild Wild West pioneered ground, much of its popularity may be simply due to the friendship of James West and Artemus Gordon. Along with Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, they had one of the most enduring friendships on television in the Sixties. The two complimented each other perfectly--James West, the man of action, and Artemus Gordon, the master of disguised. Very few heroic duos were ever so perfectly matched. In addition to the team of West and Gordon, much of the continued popularity of The Wild Wild West may be due to the bigger than life villains that appeared. Such well known character actors as Burgess Meredith, Martin Landau, Keenan Wynn, Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Victor Buono, and Agnes Moorehead all played villains on the show. Arguably Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by the incomparable Michael Dunn, is one of television's greatest villains of all time. Indeed, it seems possible that the reason Loveless never successfully killed West and Gordon is that he enjoyed matching wits with them too much.

The Wild Wild West had remained popular for fifty years now. Neither the anti-violence watchdogs nor a horrible film adaptation have done anything to decrease its popularity. One has to suspect it will continue to be popular for another fifty years.

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