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.

50th anniversary of The Wild Wild West’s best episode

End title images for The Night of the Murderous Spring

End title images for The Night of the Murderous Spring

April 15 is the 50th anniversary of what may be the best episode of The Wild Wild West, The Night of the Murderous Spring. If not the series’ best outing, it’s in the conversation.

It was the next-to-last episode of West’s first season and the fourth to feature Michael Dunn as Dr. Loveless.

The episode, written by John Kneubuhl (creator of Dr. Loveless) and directed by Richard Donner, removed all of the limits from the villain’s initial encounters with U.S. Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin).

Loveless is determined to kill humanity to restore Earth’s ecological balance. The villain has come up with a chemical, when mixed with water, will spur men to hallucinate and go into a murderous rage.

Loveless’ first test subject is James West himself. The Secret Service agent imagines he kills his partner.

That’s just the start. Loveless conducts another test where his lackeys kill each other. Loveless does so simply to demonstrate to West and Gordon he means business.

As an aside, one of Loveless’ thugs is played by Leonard Falk, the real life father of Robert Conrad.

This was not Loveless’ final appearance on the show. But it was arguably the most memorable. The only significance weakness was the episode didn’t have an original score, forcing music supervisor Morton Stevens to dip into the music library of CBS. Among the music used is the original Dr. Loveless theme, composed by Robert Drasnin, who scored the first Loveless episode of the series.