R.I.P. Robert Conrad, star of The Wild Wild West and Black Sheep Squadron
The tough television action hero was 84.
In 1960s Hollywood, few genres were bigger than Westerns and spy adventures. James Bond and Clint Eastwood were the peak of cool and manhood, so it was inevitable that someone would think to combine the two.
The Wild Wild West can trace its origins back to Bond. The show's creator, Michael Garrison, was half of the duo that purchased the film rights to Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale, way back in 1954. They paid $600. A decade later, Garrison pitched the concept of "James Bond on horseback" to CBS.
Enter West, James West, secret agent for President Ulysses S. Grant, as played by the rugged Robert Conrad.
In combining cowboys with spy-fi, the show also pioneered the steampunk genre with its mid-19th-century gadgets. The Wild Wild West ran for four seasons, from 1965–1969, and only met its end after Congress pressured networks to tone down violence on television.
Conrad was the perfect man to play James West. The Northwestern University grad had a fascinating background, just like his character. Born Conrad Robert Falk, he eloped at the age of 17 in 1952, and the legend goes that the couple lived under the name Mr. and Mrs. Robert Conrad to avoid the detection of their parents.
The dreamy actor pursued a side career as a pop singer. "Bye Bye Baby" barely managed to bother the bottom of the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 113. In Mexico, he released a record under the moniker Tom Lopaka, which was the name of his character on Hawaiian Eye. Take a listen to "Ballin' the Jack."
The star was always ready for a fake fight. In the book A Sci-Fi Swarm and Horror Horde: Interviews with 62 Filmmakers, series stuntman and stunt coordinator Whitey Hughes fondly recalled Conrad's zeal for fisticuffs: "Bob's favorite expression was, 'Get 'em up, Whitey, get 'em up! Put the needle in 'em!'—meaning 'Get the [stuntmen's] adrenaline going."
While filming the season four episode "Night of the Fugitives," Conrad fell a dozen feet and landed on his head. The stunt called for the star to dive from the top of a saloon staircase, catch a chandelier, and swing a vicious kick into one unfortunate guy. Conrad lost his grip from the chandelier and konked his head rather severely. He was rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately, stunt coordinator Whitey Hughes was off filming a commercial that day.
Though Conrad stands at 5' 8", CBS claimed its young star was 5'10". The actor wore lifts in his shoes to compensate. Additionally, the network asked casting agents to only hire women under 5' 6" for the show. "We always put Bobby in the foreground and the other actors in the background," CBS exec Ethel Winant once explained.
The Wild Wild West was just one of many leading roles for Conrad, who also headlined series such as Black Sheep Squadron and the aforementioned Hawaiian Eye. However, his resume could have been drastically different. He was one of the finalists up for the role of astronaut Captain Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie (which eventually went to Larry Hagman) and he reportedly turned down the role of Hannibal on The A-Team.
Black Sheep producer Stephen J. Cannell — the action king behind shows like The Greatest American Hero, Hunter, The A-Team and so much more — was reluctant to cast Conrad, according to the actor himself. In an interview with Tony Medley for the book Sweaty Palms, Conrad recalled, "[Cannell] knew that I had a history of off-camera activities that were somewhat challenging. Never was I unprofessional at work. But after work with the cameras shut down, I went across the street to the bar, the tavern, and all hell would break loose… fights, pretty much barroom brawls."
No wonder he was introduced in a boxing ring on the show.
While based on history, much of Black Sheep Squadron was made up. The war series, which originally aired under the title Baa Baa Black Sheep in the late 1970s, takes place on the fictional island of Vella la Cava. Fictional characters comprised the bulk of the squadron of pilots — from Bob Anderson (a young John Larroquette in his first major role) to Jerry Bragg (Dirk Blocker).
But Greg "Pappy" Boyington? The main character? He was 100% real. The Marine Corp pilot flew his way into the history books as one of the most renowned aces of World War II. Serving in the South Pacific, Boyington led the courageous VMF-214 fighter squadron, dubbed the "Black Sheep." Boyington would serve as a consultant on the television series based on his career.
Robert Conrad was the perfect man to play "Pappy," too. He was the perfect man to play any tough guy.
Conrad died earlier this week at the age of 84, his family told People.