Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Late Great Robert Conrad

Robert Conrad has been a part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember. Like many in my generation I first encountered him as Secret Service agent James West in reruns of The Wild Wild West. He would later play World War II Marine fighter pilot Major Pappy Boyington on Baa Baa Black Sheep. Although very few people remember it, I have fond memories of a short-lived show called A Man Called Sloane, on which he played secret agent Thomas R. Sloane. He also played Pasquinel in the mini-series Centennial. I was always happy to see Robert Conrad on the screen and enjoyed him in the many TV shows in which he starred. Sadly, Robert Conrad died yesterday, February 8 2020, at the age of 84 from heart failure.

Robert Conrad was born Konrad Robert Falkowski on March 1 1935 in Chicago. Mr. Conrad attended various schools around Chicago, and played football. His first job was loading trucks for Consolidated Freightways and Easter Freightways. He later drove milk wagons for Bowman Dairy in Chicago. Robert Conrad had a short stint in boxing, but left the career because there wasn't a lot of money in it at a time. He then began his career as a nightclub singer at various hotels around Chicago. His friend, actor Nick Adams, persuaded him to move to Hollywood. Nick Adams got him a bit part in the movie Juvenile Jungle (1958), which marked Robert Conrad's film debut. That same year he appeared as Lt. Robert "Tiger Bob" Kiley in the movie Thundering Jets.

It was the following year that Robert Conrad made his television debut in the Bat Masterson episode "One Bullet from Broken Bow." Over the next few years he guest starred on such shows as Maverick, Highway Patrol, Lawman, Colt .45, Sea Hunt, The Man and the Challenge, and Lock Up. It was in 1959 that Robert Conrad was cast in the lead role of Tom Lopaka on Hawaiian Eye, one of the many clones of 77 Sunset Strip that Warner Bros. cranked out for ABC in the late Fifties. Hawaiian Eye centred on Tracy Steele (Anthony Eisley) and Tom Lopaka, who operated a security firm and private detective agency based out of Honolulu, Hawaii. Robert Conrad also appeared as Tom Lopaka in crossover episodes with 77 Sunset StripHawaiian Eye proved to be successful, so much so that it was the most successful of the 77 Sunset Strip clones. It ran for four seasons.

Following Hawaiian Eye, Robert Conrad guest starred on The Gallant Men, Temple Houston, and Kraft Suspense Theatre. In the Sixties he continued to appear in films, including Palm Springs Weekend (1963), La nueva Cenicienta (1965), Young Dillinger (1965), Ven a cantar conmigo (1967), The Bandits (1967), and Keene (1969). What may have been his biggest claim to fame also came in that decade when he was cast as Secret Service agent James West on the hit TV series The Wild Wild West. Created by Michael Garrison, The Wild Wild West combined the then current craze for Bondian spy dramas with the Western. The Wild Wild West centred on two Secret Service agents, tough guy James West and master of disguise Artemus Gordon (played by Ross Martin), who were assigned to protect the United States' interests in the far West. To this end, James West and Artemus Gordon faced a succession of diabolical masterminds with technology that was decidedly advanced for the Victorian Era. The most notable of their opponents was their archenemy, Dr. Miguelito Loveless (played by Michael Dunn), who returned again and again to face the pair. The Wild Wild West proved to be a hit and when CBS cancelled the show it was not due to its ratings. Instead it was cancelled as a scapegoat in the then current moral panic over violence on television. In 1969 he guest starred on an episodes of Mission: Impossible and Mannix.

Robert Conrad went from playing a Secret Service agent to playing Deputy District Attorney Paul Ryan on the short-lived 1971 drama The D.A. He went almost immediately from The D.A. to another series, Assignment Vienna, on which he played spy hunter Jake Webster, who owned Jake's Bar & Grill in Vienna all the while he was working for American intelligence in fighting spies and international criminals in the city. Unfortunately, Assignment Vienna only lasted one season. His next television series would be somewhat more successful. Baa Baa Black Sheep was loosely based on the real life exploits of Marine Attack Squadron 214, known as "the Black Sheep," during World War II. Robert Conrad played their commander, Major Pappy Boyington. Baa Baa Black Sheep was retitled Black Sheep Squadron with its second season. NBC cancelled the show after only two season. Given it was a consistent target of anti-violence watchdogs, there are many (including Robert Conrad) who believe it was cancelled due to its allegedly violent content.

Following Baa Baa Black Sheep, Robert Conrad appeared as French Canadian trapper Pasquinel in the mini-series Centennial. This was followed by two short-lived shows, The Duke, on which he played a boxer turned private eye and the aforementioned A Man Called Sloane. During the Seventies Robert Conrad also guest starred on the TV shows Adam-12 (as Deputy D. A. Ryan from The D.A.), Columbo, and Laugh-In. He reprised his role of James West in two TV reunion movies, The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980). He appeared in the films Murph the Surf (1975), Sudden Death (1977), and The Lady in Red (1979).

In the Eighties Robert Conrad starred on the short-lived series High Mountain Rangers, which also featured his son Christian Conrad. The show, centred on rangers in the Sierras, lasted only a single season. It was followed by a spin-off/sequel TV show titled Jesse Hawkes. On Jesse Hawkes Robert Conrad reprised his role from High Mountain Rangers, with the character tracking down criminals in San Francisco. Mr. Conrad's two sons, Christian Conrad and Shane Conrad, also appeared on the show. It only lasted six episodes. During the Eighties Mr. Conrad also guest starred on the show J. J. Starbuck and appeared in such TV movies as Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, Hard Knox, The Fifth Missle, Charley Hannah, and One Police Plaza. He appeared in the movies Wrong is Right (1982) and Moving Violations (1985).

In the Nineties Robert Conrad starred on the short-lived series High Sierra Search and Rescue. The show centred on volunteers who conducted rescues in the Sierras. He guest starred on the shows Just Shoot Me and Nash Bridges, as well as the TV movies Mario and the Mob, Sworn to Vengeance, and Two Fathers: Justice for the Innocent. He appeared in the movies Samurai Cowboy (1994), Jingle All the Way (1996), and Dead Above Ground (2000).

In 2008 he began hosting the twice-weekly radio show The PM Show with Robert Conrad on CRN Digital Radio. The show ran until July 18 2019. On the who Mr. Conrad talked about his career and talked with such guests as Angie Dickinson and Barbara Bain.

There can be no doubt that Robert Conrad will always be remembered as James West on The Wild Wild West. The show proved to be a hit as a syndicated rerun and it is still shown in syndication to this day. And given the nature of most of his roles, Mr. Conrad will probably always be viewed as a tough guy. Indeed, a series of Energizer battery commercials in the Seventies capitalized on that image. That having been said, he was a talented actor capable of more than tough guys. He was very impressive as Pasquinel in the mini-series Centennial (I am told by Canadian friends that his accent, contrary to popular belief, was dead on). And while he played mostly good guys, he could play bad guys very well. He was Pretty Boy Floyd in the movie Young Dillinger and John Dillinger himself in the movie The Lady in Red. Of course, he was famous for performing his own stunts, so much so that he is one of the few actors to be inducted into the Hollywood Hall of Fame. Of course, here it must also be remembered that he starred in a succession of television shows, some of which are remembered to this day. Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, and Baa Baa Black Sheep remain popular even now.

Of course, Robert Conrad was known as a tough guy off screen much as he was on screen. He was well known for the various fistfights he got into over the years. In an interview in 2008 he commented, "I am only 5-feet-8 and only weight 165 pounds as of this morning, so I'm not the world's meanest guy. If you treat me nicely, I'll treat you nicer. If you're rude to me, put on your headgear. Here it comes." Despite his image as a tough guy, from many reports he was truly a nice guy. In an interview in 2000, Phoebe Dorin (who was Michael Dunn's singing partner and played Dr. Loveless's companion Antoinette on The Wild Wild West) said of both Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, "Oh, I adored them both." She said specifically of Mr. Conrad, "Part of the reason I liked Bob Conrad was because Bob Conrad adored Michael. He adored him. So that anybody who was with Michael or working with Michael was treated in kind. He catered to us--he treated us like royalty."

Miss Dorin's words are confirmed by people I know who have met and worked with Robert Conrad. When he liked you no one could be better to you. He was a man who was fiercely loyal to his friends and very protective of them. Robert Conrad may have been a tough guy, but he was one with an enormous heart. I suppose one could expect nothing less of James West himself.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

A lovely tribute to Robert Conrad with very interesting information.

I used to get in more fights with folks on the IMDb message board who did not understand how well Conrad nailed the Quebecois accent in Centennial. Grrr!

A few years ago, the hubby gave me The Wild Wild West DVD set for Christmas. I made my daughter watch a fair portion and we both got a kick out of the steampunk sensibility. She was particularly fascinated with Loveless.

I keep hoping one of those YouTubers will make a clip featuring all of the openings to all of Robert Conrad's show. I think that would be fun. As fun as watching his Columbo sometime this week. Yep, the hubby gave me the Columbo set for a different Christmas.