Monday, February 10, 2020

R.I.P.: Robert Conrad, Actor, Star of ‘Wild Wild West'

Robert Conrad as James T. West, with Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon
Robert Conrad, a television tough guy best known for his lead role in the mid-1960s series “The Wild Wild West,” died from heart failure on Saturday at his home in Malibu, CA. He was 84, reports The NYTimes.

In 1959, he landed the role of Tom Lopaka, a mixed-race private detective on “Hawaiian Eye,” a crime series that ran for four seasons on ABC. It also starred, among others, Connie Stevens, and both she and Conrad, a decent vocalist who had released several records, would sometimes sing in musical interludes built into the show.

Then, in 1965, came “The Wild Wild West,” a CBS series that, somewhat improbably, grafted the mania for spy fare set off by the James Bond movies of the day onto an Old West setting.

Conrad played Jim West, who was dispatched on various secret missions on behalf of the government of President Ulysses S. Grant. West had his own personal train for traveling, an arsenal of quirky gadgets — exploding billiard balls, a pistol on a track hidden up his sleeve — and a partner (played by Ross Martin) who was adept at outlandish disguises.

Conrad was born Conrad Robert Falk on March 1, 1935, on the South Side of Chicago to teenage parents.

Driving a milk truck by day and singing in hotels and clubs at night, he talked his way into the theater arts program at Northwestern University.  He bore a resemblance to the actor James Dean, and when Dean was killed in a car wreck in 1955, Conrad was drawn into the publicity campaign for the posthumous release of Dean’s film “Giant” in 1956.

In that capacity he was visiting Dean’s grave in Fairmount, Ind., when he met another young actor, Nick Adams, who was also there.  Adams urged Conrad to come to Hollywood and got him a bit part in a movie he was cast in, “Juvenile Jungle.”

He began getting small roles in shows like “Bat Masterson,” “Maverick” and “Sea Hunt.” Then came “Hawaiian Eye,” with the character he played there, Tom Lopaka, also turning up in several episodes of another ABC crime series, “77 Sunset Strip.”

If Conrad acknowledged the thinness of his “Wild Wild West” role, he was more proud of two later television efforts. One was “Black Sheep Squadron” (also titled “Baa Baa Black Sheep”), an NBC series that ran from 1976 to 1978 in which he played the real-life World War II combat pilot known as Pappy Boyington. The other was “Centennial,” a 1978 mini-series based on James A. Michener’s historical novel.

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