Saturday, September 17, 2005

40 Years of The Wild Wild West

Among my favourite series of all time I count The Wild Wild West. The series was a unique combination of Bondian spy drama, Jules Verne style science fiction, and Western action. It ran from 1965 to 1969 on CBS here in the United States and in syndication ever since. The show debuted forty years ago today.

The Wild Wild West was the brainchild of Michael Garrison. Garrison had started out 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, Garrison observed the spy craze that had overwhelmed both movies and televisiion at the time. The Bond movies were doing big box office in theatres, while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. became one of the sleeper hits of the 1964-1965 season. At the same time television was in the midst of a new cycle towards Westerns, spurred by the success of Bonanza and The Virginian. It occurred to Garrison that crossing Bondian spy drama with the Western 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 and assigned CBS associate director of programme development Ethel Winant to develop the series.

The concept which 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 peddler. The peddler chracter eventually developed into West's partner, Artemus Gordon. While West was the man of action in the partnership--the man who was always handy in a fight--Gordon was the master of disguise, con man, and inventor of gadgets. Gil Ralston, who had written for Ben Casey among other shows, was hired to write the pilot (the episode "Night of the Inferno").

With the script 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 Calhoun was not right for the part. Testing several actors, they finally cast Robert Conrad as James West. Conrad was already a veteran televison star, having starred in the 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 Comissioner Gordon in the 1989 Batman). The other was character actor Ross Martin, who had a gift for dialects.

Unfortunately, The Wild Wild West would have a rocky start. On the strength of the pilot, The Wild Wild West was placed on CBS's 1965 fall schedule. Unfortunately, in March 1965 CBS saw a change in the company's upper management. Both CBS's president, James Aubrey, and head of programming, Hunt Stromberg Jr., were fired. With the change in upper management also came changes in the network's fall schedule. Many series that were slated for the network's fall schedule were cancelled. Among those cancelled series was The Wild Wild West--cancelled before even one episode had ever aired! Fortunately, CBS soon had a change of heart and reinstated the series to its fall schedule.

This would not be the end of problems for the Wild Wild West, however, as the series would go through no less than seven producers in its first season. The show's original producer, Collier Young, was a veteran of The Adventures of Superman. Young's vision of The Wild Wild West departed considerably from the way Garrison saw the series, and Young was dismissed after producing only three episodes. It was then that Fred Frieberger, who had worked on Ben Casey and A Man Called Shenandoah (and would later go onto produce Star Trek) was brought on board the series. 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 Freiberger's tenure as producer on The Wild Wild West was the introduction of West and Gordon's archnemesis, Dr. Miguelito Loveless (more on him later).

While 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 Freiberger as producer and Michael Garrison as executive producer. As it would turn out, according to contract CBS could not fire 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. Mantley's tenure as producer of The Wild Wild West once Garrison reclaimed his position as executive producer. Garrison wanted Freiberger back as the series' producer, but CBS refuesed to reinstate him. Gene Coon was then hired as the show's producer. Like Freiberger, Coon would also go onto produce Star Trek. Coon continued the series in the same vein as Freiberger and Mantley. Indeed, he produced what may be the best Wild Wild West episode of all time, "The Night of the Murderous Spring," in which Dr. Loveless plotted to poison the whole country with a hallucinogenic drug. Gene 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. Garrison produced the rest of the season's episodes himself, as well as the first few episodes of the second season, until Bruce Landsbury was hired as the series' final producer.

The format of The Wild Wild West was different from any other series on the air at the time. West and Gordon were Secret Service agents assigned to fight threats to the United States in the West. To accomplish this they were equipped with a marvelous train called the Wanderer. The Wanderer was equipped with an arsenal of guns and knives hidden behind a panel, as well as a billiard table with cues that could be used as rifles and billiard balls that could be used as bombs. West and Gordon had an array of gadgets at their command. Among the most used was the derringer which West kept hidden in a sleeve, which could be brought swiftly to his hand through a spring loaded device. Gordon was a master of disguise whose makeup kit was never far from his person. In many episodes West would be captured by the villain of the moment, only to be rescued by Gordon in some disguise. As might be expected, there were plenty of fight scenes on The Wild Wild West. The fights were meticulously choreographed. What is more, The Wild Wild West not only utilised such traditional fighting techniques as boxing, but Asian martial arts as well. In fact, The Wild Wild West may well have been the first American series to feature kung fu.

Of coruse, The Wild Wild West was also set apart from other shows of the time by its villains. The villains on the series were truly larger than life. Their plots often involved the conquest of a territory of the Old West or even the entire United States (or Mexico, for that matter). Often they used technology that was decidedly advanced for the 19th century. Indeed, The Wild Wild West can be considered a forerunner of the genre called steampunk, in which advanced technology is combined with Victorian settings.

Of course, the villain West and Gordon faced the most was Dr. Miguelito Loveless. 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 Dunn and 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 e moved in and out.

The Wild Wild West proved to be a fairly popular series. It ranked in the Top 25 shows for the 1965-1966 season. It also received its share of attention from the Emmy awards. Ted Voigtlander, the show's Director of Photography, received a nomination for his wor on the episoden "The Night of the Howling Light." Agnes Moorehead would receive a Best Supporting Actress award for her role in the episode "The Night of the Vicious Valentine." Ross Martin would be nominated for best supporting actor during the show's fourth season.

Although The Wild Wild West would not see the kind of upheaval it had in its first season, the following seasons would see more changes and problems for the series. In its second season the show made the shift from black and white to colour. It was also in the second season that the show lost its executive producer. Michael Garrison fell to his death on the stairs of his Bel Air Home in late 1966. Without The Wild Wild West was then deprived of its creator's guidance. Bruce Lansbury would continue as the series' producer for the remainder of its run..In its fourth season The Wild Wild West faced yet another crisis. It was during this season that Ross Martin suffered a heart attack. As a result, Artemus Gordon was absent from the series for several episodes.

A big change for hte series came at the start of its fourth season because of renewed outcry over television violence in the wake of the the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. For the 1968-1969 season, the networks introduced new restrictions on acts of violence on television. CBS restricted the producers of their series 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 not silence the outcry over television violence. It was in March 1969 thta CBS cancelled The Wild Wild West due to exceesive violence. The cancellation was unexpected for the show's cast and crew, as the series was still doing fairly well in the ratings and they felt that the show was not overly violent--they viewed it as a comic book on film. It seems likely that The Wild Wild West was simply being used as a scapegoat in the controversy over television violence. Curiously, the much more violent (and higher rated) series Mannix remained on the air.

The cancellation of The Wild Wild West was not the end of the series. During the summer of 1970, CBS reran specially selected episodes of The Wild Wild West, with some of the more "violent" scenes cut out. The show then went into syndication where it has been ever since. At various points it has been regularly shown on both TBS and TNT. In the late seventies there would be two reunion movies featuring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin as West and Gordon. The Wild Wild West Revisited aired in 1979, pitting the two agents against Dr.Loveless's son. More Wild Wild West aired in 1980, with West and Gordon facing a villain who has planted bombs in every captial of every world power at the time. Sadly, Ross Martin died in 1981, thus ending any possibilty of further reunion movies.

In my humble opinion The Wild Wild West was one of the most imaginative series of the Sixties. It deftly blended Bondian spy drama, Western action, and science fiction in a way that did not seem silly or strained. It is no surprise to me that it remains a series with a cult following to this very day.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Robert Wise 1914-2005

Director Robert Wise died of a heart attack Wednesday at the age of 91. Wise directed 39 films, the two best known of which are probably West Side Story and The Sound of Music. He had started as an editor, his best know work in editing being the movie Citizen Kane.

Robert Wise was born in Winchester, Indiana in 1914. He dropped out of college to take a job at RKO, where his brother was an accountant. He served as a sound effects editor on such films as ThThe Gay Divorcee and Top Hat. The first film he edited was Bachelor Mother in 1939. AT RKO he would edit such classic films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons. It was when he was working with producer Val Lewton that he got his first directing credits. For Lewton he directed Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Wise would go on to direct the classic science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent Run Deep, West Side Story,. The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and The Andomeda Strain.

Robert Wise was nominated for Oscars seven times. Among those nominations was his work as editor on Citizen Kane. He won the Academy Award for best director for both West Side Story and The Sound of Music. He also served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and the Directors Guild of America.

While Robert Wise was best known as a director, I always thought that he was at his best as an editor. His work on such films as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Devil and Daniel Webster was impeccable. Arugably, I think he was one of the greatest editors Hollywood ever produced. As director Wise directed some of my favourite films. While I am not a big fan of West Side Story or The Sound of Music, I have always loved The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and The Body Snatcher. At any rate, it is a sure thing that Wise will be remembered for his work on Citizen Kane, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Rubber Soul

This weekend I replaced my copy of The Beatles album Rubber Soul. The album was released in 1965 when The Beatles were at the height of both their creativity and their popularity. It features some of their best known songs, including "Drive My Car," "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," and "You Won't See Me." It also includes some of my favourite Beatles songs. I have always loved "Nowhere Man," and I honestly think "In My Life" is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written (provided I ever marry, I want it played at my wedding). I also love the song "Michelle," for no particular reason. Sadly, not many of the songs from Rubber Soul are to be found on the Web. Otherwise I would give you a taste of some of the album. I already used "Nowhere Man" in an entry quite a while back, so I'll go ahead and let you listen to the other song from Rubber Soul that I have found online. So here is "Michelle," by The Beatles.

"Michelle"--The Beatles