Robert Conrad, who mixed spies with cowboys, dies

James West (Robert Conrad) has his first encounter with Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn)

Robert Conrad, who made the concept of spies with cowboys work, has died at 84, Deadline: Hollywood reported.

Conrad played U.S. Secret Service agent James T. West in The Wild Wild West, the 1965-69 series as well as two TV movie revivals in 1979 and 1980.

The concept originated with producer Michael Garrison. For a time, Rory Calhoun was a contender to play West. But Conrad emerged as the choice.

The Wild Wild West was steam punk (“genre of science fiction that has a historical setting and typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology”) before the term was coined.

Conrad and Ross Martin, as West’s partner Artemus Gordon, made the concept work. The athletic Conrad looked like he really could fight a roomful of villains. Martin’s Gordon dabbled with inventions but could still hold his own during fights.

The intrepid agents encountered many menaces in 19th century, especially Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn), whose rage against the world knew no bounds.

Just another day at the office for Robert Conrad’s James West in The Night of the Eccentrics.

In the fourth Dr. Loveless episode (The Night of Murderous Spring), near the end of the show’s first season, one of Loveless’s mute goons was played Leonard Falk, Conrad’s real-life father.

Conrad already was a television star, having been in Hawaiian Eye, the 1959-63 series that was part of the family of Warner Bros. private eye shows on ABC. Still, James West was the actor’s defining role: a man of action and a ladies man.

The Wild West West wasn’t an easy series to make, with stunts that went wrong, including one where Conrad was seriously injured.

The Wild Wild West was canceled in 1969 amid concern about violence in television generally.

Conrad remained busy, including playing the leads in series such as The D.A., Assignment: Vienna and Black Sheep Squadron. In the fall of 1979, NBC aired A Man Called Sloane, starring Conrad, which a cross between The Wild Wild West and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It only lasted 12 episodes.

Conrad and Marin did get a chance to repeat their Wild Wild West roles in two TV movies, The Wild Wild West Revisited and More Wild Wild West.

In January 2013, there was a tribute to Conrad with fans attending. It consisted of long video clips from his long career followed by a question and answer session.

The Wild Wild West was very much like catching lightning in a bottle, mixing fantasy, spies and, as noted above, steam punk.

Robert Conrad, along with Ross Martin, who died in 1981, made the concept work. Conrad’s passing closes the door on an era we won’t see again.

5 Responses

  1. “Conrad’s passing closes the door on an era we won’t see again” (regarding TV history, David McCallum is alive) but it’s very true that we will never see an spy genre era like that again.

    The WWW was often called a “fantasy/action/adventure” show with characters who happened to be special agents for the “Secret Service” branch of President Ulysses Grant’s Administration. Falling under the general umbrella of espionage! Fascinating employment of “Steampunk” gadgetry. The Wild, Wild West and similar shows required a playful suspension of belief! Not in the heavy handed approach of today’s (make believe) productions. But created a world that seemed “adventurous” to escape to! It was character driven, meaning the personalities of the actors made it work! The plots were incidental. But the personal chemistry was the key. And that’s what made it so fun!

    We can be sad for the loss Mr. Conrad’s family is experiencing. But in no way for the incredible enjoyment he gave so generously to his fans! They were madly devoted followers, who loved Mr. Conrad’s deep appreciation for them as well. As he repeatedly thanked his fans for calling into his Radio/Podcasts during his later decades. He was a fighter, not only of the body, but in mind and spirit. There were few actors of his time who were simply as naturally gorgeous to watch! Including those extensively choreographed action scenes which he performed elegantly. His famous line is that Mr. Martin was the actor, but he was the “Stuntman.” And proudly so!

  2. I remember “The Man Called Sloan”. It was pretty bad. NBC was trying to restart the spy craze which had died a natural death more than 10 years earlier.

  3. One of the contributors to A Man Called Sloane was writer-story consultant Peter Allan Fields, who was one of the major UNCLE contributors as well.

  4. I am truly saddened by his passing. My Dad and I both loved the WWW and we would watch it together, even the re-runs shown many years later. RIP, James T West. He’s off to team up with Arty to ride that wonderful train in the sky.

  5. I remember back when AOL was a thing, he was doing a live Q&A, and he answered my question. I asked if he felt himself typecast in action roles, he said yes, but it was of his own doing.

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