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.

Bruce Lansbury, WWW and M:I producer, dies

Bruce Lansbury (left) with siblings Angela Lansbury and Edgar Lansbury

Bruce Lansbury (left) with siblings Angela Lansbury and Edgar Lansbury

Bruce Lansbury, a prolific television producer and executive, has died at 87, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The younger brother of actress Angela Lansbury made his own mark in the entertainment business.

His credits included The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, Wonder Woman, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and his sister’s series, Murder, She Wrote. Bruce Lansbury was also a television executive at Paramount during the 1970s.

Lansbury came aboard as producer of The Wild Wild West part way through the show’s second season. He initially worked under executive producer Michael Garrison, the show’s creator.

However, Garrison died as the result of injuries from a fall in August 1966. Lansbury took command of the series, a mix of spy fi, sci fi and, on occasions, outright fantasy. He would stay for the rest of the show’s run.

Lanbury didn’t lack for things to do. He joined Mission: Impossible during that show’s fourth season. M:I was a series that chewed up producers under the best of circumstances.

By this time, M:I’s best ratings were behind it. Paramount wanted cost cuts and tensions ran high between the studio and executive producer Bruce Geller.

Lansbury was Paramount’s choice to take over as M:I producer, according to The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier by Patrick J. White. Part of the reason why Lansbury’s experience with The Wild Wild West.

During Lansbury’s reign, Peter Lupus as Willy, the Impossible Missions Force’s strongman, was phased out for a time. Lupus’ popularity forced the production team to change course.

Also, Paramount, after a series of disagreements with perfectionist Geller barred the M:I creator from the lot. Geller continued to collect fees and be credited as executive producer. But he was blocked from working on his own show.

Despite all that, Lansbury kept the M:I machinery going. He left the series during the sixth season, when Paramount promoted him to vice president of creative affairs.

Later in the 1970s. Lansbury returned to being a television producer, with credits extending into the 1990s.

Lansbury was born Jan. 12, 1930 in London. He was the twin brother of Edgar Lansbury, a theater producer.

A director reflects on making episodes of spy TV

From The Night of Big Blast directed by Ralph Senesky

From The Night of Big Blast directed by Ralph Senensky

Ralph Senesky directed a lot of episodic television, including installments of 1960s spy-related television series. In 2009 and 2010 ON HIS BLOG, Senensky described some of the episodes he helmed in detail.

For example, there was The Night of the Druid’s Blood, a first-season episode of The Wild, Wild West. At this point, the series producer was Gene L. Coon, who “told me that because of the uniqueness of the series, he rewrote most of the scripts; that he used the writer’s first draft submission as a frame for him to build on.”

One of the guest stars was Don Rickles. “Don was always on, with his incredibly sharp wit and acute skills of observation. It seemed almost no one was safe. Robert Conrad was not the tallest creature on the planet, but according to Rickles he barely reached the height of Billy Barty.” However, the director also wrote all that ended when the cameras started to roll. “he was fanatically serious about his work.”

Senensky was back a few months later for a second-season West episode, The Night of the Big Blast. Gene Coon was gone, with Michael Garrison (who had been executive producer) in the producer’s chair. There was one other big change: the series was now being made in color.

To save money during those early years of filming in color, not all of the daily rushes would be printed in color. For each sequence only one setup would be printed in color (it was usually the master shot for the scene). The rest of the takes for that sequence would be printed in black and white. Therefore the work print of the film would bounce back and forth from color master to black and white closeups. It wasn’t until the final answer print that we got to see the entire film in color.

Senensky also describes the work habits of old Hollywood (guest star Ida Lupino) and the then-newer variety during the first day of filming.

The crew reported at the usual 7:30 am; filming was scheduled to begin at 8:00 am. Five minutes before 8, Ida Lupino reported to the set, in costume and makeup, ready to film. At 8:25 am our Miklos, MIchael McCloud, arrived; at 8:50 am Robert Conrad showed up and we were able to start filming. Allthough these late arrivals were not standard practice throughout the television industry, they also were not sole occurrences.

(snip)

But studios and production companies, in the age of television were at a disadvantage. Once an actor was established as a bona fide star of a successful network series, they seemed to hold the stronger hand. If the studio fired Vince Edwards, how does BEN CASEY continue on the air? Or Peter Falk on COLUMBO? Or Robert Blake on BARETTA? It was a different world. I know of a show (which shall remain nameless) where the producer challenged one of the show’s stars. Guess who was the one dismissed! I remember the stunned look on the face of the show’s story editor when he came into the office of the production manager (I was present) and announced, “I’ve just been made the producer.”

At the same time, Senesky describes how Conrad and the stuntmen arranged and rehearsed fights, with Conrad not needing a double being a big help. As for co-star Ross Martin, his “wide range as an actor proved invaluable for Ross to assume many, various identities. In this episode he had the rare chance to be the romantic hero, since Jim West has allegedly been eliminated from the story.”

You can read Senensky’s full posts about Druid BY CLICKING HERE and Big Blast BY CLICKING HERE.

There’s also a post about a late first-season episode of Mission: Impossible (filmed as star Steven Hill was being phased out) that you can view HERE and a second-season episode of The FBI involving an espionage story HERE. Senensky also directed an I Spy episode, but didn’t write about it on the blog.

45th anniversary of TV spy mania part II: spies and cowboys

In the fall of the 1965, CBS wasn’t about to let rival network NBC gain a monpoly on spy-oriented entertainment. But the Tiffany Network’s choice was a little unusual: it opted to air a spy show set in 1870s America.

The result, of course, was The Wild Wild West. That wasn’t always the planned title. The version of the show’s pilot shown to network executives was just called The Wild West. At one point, CBS was keen on 6-foot-3 Rory Calhoun to play Secret Service agent James West but ended up casting the much-shorter Robert Conrad. The memorable animated main titles depicted a tall, lanky James West, who seemed to more closely resemble Calhoun.

Versatile character actor Ross Martin got the odd nod as fellow agent Artemus Gordon, a master of disguise who also dabbled in advanced science.

The show had a rocky first season, with no less than six men (Michael Garrison, Fred Freiberger, Collier Young, Philip Leacock, John Mantley and Gene L. Coon) getting either a producer or executive producer credit. Garrison produced the pilot (also taking the creator credit even though the pilot was written by Gilbert Ralston) and would retake command late in the first season. Garrison died during the second season, and Bruce Lansbury would see the show through the rest of its four-year run.

HMSS has written before how the original series captured lightning in a bottle, something was extremely difficult to do with 1980 and 1981 TV movie revivals and a 1999 theatrical move.

Anyway, here’s a 1965 CBS promo for the series. That includes music from Richard Markowitz, who composed the show’s catchy theme but would be denied a credit for it (Markowitz would only get credits for individual episodes he scored). It’s followed by the “boxes” of the original verison of the pilot leading into commercial breaks: