Monday, February 10, 2020

A Tough Guy Finally Bows Out

Robert Conrad’s image may have been served poorly by some of his best-remembered TV roles. He came off as too robust, too shallowly macho, and often too arrogant to be very interesting. Yet Terence Towles Canote, writing in his blog A Shroud of Thoughts, says that the 5-foot-8 actor (born Konrad Robert Falkowski in Chicago on March, 1 1935) was also “truly a nice guy. … When he liked you no one could be better to you. He was a man who was fiercely loyal to his friends and very protective of them. Robert Conrad may have been a tough guy, but he was one with an enormous heart.”

Conrad died of heart failure this last Saturday in Malibu, California. He was 84 years old. He’d not set out to become famous; that’s just the way things happened. The Associated Press says Conrad was “a football player in school” and his “first job was loading trucks. Then at 18 he was hired to drive milk wagons. He tried boxing and nightclub singing for a time before drifting into acting and eventually moving to Hollywood, where he found work as a stuntman.” (Even after he established himself as a leading man, Conrad continued to do many of his own stunts. The Hollywood Reporter observes that “He was one of the few actors to have been inducted into the Stuntmen's Hall of Fame.”)

In 1965 the then-30-year-old actor was hired to play U.S. government agent James West in CBS-TV’s The Wild Wild West, a historical adventure series with science-fiction elements that ran for only four seasons, but—thanks to broad and continuing syndication—made Conrad’s face one of the most familiar on the small screen. (Rory Calhoun had evidently also been a contender for that role. How different history might have been had he been cast as West, instead.) Conrad went on to headline several more TV dramas, including Assignment: Vienna, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and High Mountain Rangers (1988); guest-star in shows such as Columbo (on which he played a “loathsome” fitness franchise kingpin), Police Story, the mini-series Centennial, and the Stephen J. Cannell-created crime drama J.J. Starbuck; and feature in numerous TV films, from 1970’s Weekend of Terror to One Police Plaza, based on William J. Caunitz’s 1984 novel of that same name. He also exploited his tough-guy persona in a succession of boob-tube advertisements for Eveready batteries (that had him daring anyone to knock a battery from his shoulder) and with appearances on several Battle of the Network Stars specials, in which he came off as unappealingly hyper-competitive.

Rather than repeat what has been written about Conrad and his career in recent days, let me instead post—below—the main title sequences (where available) from some of TV shows in which he starred.

Hawaiian Eye (ABC, 1959-1963): Conrad guest-starred on a variety of small-screen series, including Bat Masterson, Maverick, Sea Hunt, and 77 Sunset Strip, before joining the cast of Hawaiian Eye. This once-popular crime drama (shot primarily on Los Angeles studio lots, not in the then-new 50th state), found Conrad playing detective Tom Lopaka, the same role he’d filled in four episodes of Strip.

The Wild Wild West (CBS, 1965-1969): As a boy, I was introduced to Conrad’s work through this show (which I watched in weekend reruns, long after its original presentation). Set during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1876), it starred Conrad as an incredibly resourceful U.S. Secret Service agent, James West. Together with fellow agent—and master of disguise—Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), Conrad’s character “solved crimes, protected the president, and foiled the plans of megalomaniacal villains to take over part or all of the United States,” recalls Wikipedia. “The show featured a number of fantasy elements, such as the technologically advanced devices used by the agents and their adversaries.” A full decade after CBS cancelled this series, Conrad and Martin returned to their famous roles in a couple of rather satirical (and mediocre) TV flicks, The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979) and More Wild Wild West (1980).

The Adventures of Nick Carter (ABC, 1972): Wild Wild West ran afoul of the U.S. Congress during its fourth season, when the nation’s elected representatives pronounced themselves shocked, just shocked by the proliferation of televised violence. This series pilot was also caught up in, and doomed by, that extended frenzy. It starred Conrad as Nick Carter, a character who had debuted in 1886 as a “dime novel” detective. Planned as part of a “wheel series” called Great Detectives (which would also feature shows built around Sherlock Holmes and Hildegarde Withers), The Adventures of Nick Carter was set in the New York City of 1912 and co-starred Brooke Bundy as Carter’s quite charming assistant, Roxy O’Rourke. Its plot found Carter searching for the missing wife of a wealthy robber baron playboy, and at the same time trying to solve the murder of a close friend. Unfortunately, ABC declined to pick up Nick Carter as a series character. At last check, this pilot film was available on YouTube.

The D.A. (NBC, 1971-1972): Dragnet’s Jack Webb cast Conrad as hard-nosed Los Angeles assistant district attorney Paul Ryan in two teleflicks— The D.A.: Murder One (1969) and The D.A.: Conspiracy to Kill (1971)—before launching a Friday-night series around that same protagonist. This drama employed a half-investigation, half-prosecution format that had been used in the earlier Arrest and Trial, and would be used again to maximum effect in Law & Order. One regrettabe decision was to make this program only half an hour long, which caused problems when it came to explaining difficult court cases. Only 15 episodes were broadcast before cancellation.

Assignment: Vienna (ABC, 1972-1973): One of three hour-long Thursday-night series rotating under the umbrella title The Men, this spy show-cum-detective drama found Conrad in the role of Jake Webster, the owner of a classy watering hole in Vienna, Austria (the eponymous Jake’s Bar & Grill), who also happened to be a U.S. intelligence operative “involved in tracking down various spies and international criminals,” as Wikipedia explains. Charles Cioffi played his U.S. government contact, Major Bernard Caldwell. I enjoyed this series immensely, partly because of its Vienna backdrop, and was sorry to see it cancelled after just eight episodes.

Baa Baa Black Sheep (NBC, 1976-1978): Taking a break from crime and espionage programs, Conrad signed on with legendary TV screenwriter-producer Stephen J. Cannell to star in this sometimes poignant World War II-era drama about a squadron of fighter pilots, all “misfits and screwballs” (hence their name, Black Sheep), who were stationed in the South Pacific. Conrad portrayed their commanding officer, Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, a role based loosely on that of a real-life combat pilot and “fighter ace” of that same name. Among the actors playing members of his crew were James Whitmore Jr., Dirk Blocker (son of Bonanza’s Dan Blocker), John Larroquette, and Larry Manetti. Thirty-seven episodes of Baa Baa Black Sheep (also known as Black Sheep Squadron) were broadcast.

The Duke (NBC, 1979): I don’t remember ever watching this short-lived series, but it was again produced by Stephen J. Cannell, and cast Conrad as Oscar “The Duke” Ramsey, a 38-year old Chicago prizefighter who, following some bad turns of luck, decides to quit the ring and open a bar and grill. But after his business partner is killed, “The Duke swings into action, solving the murder, and finding himself with a new occupation, private eye,” according to The Thrilling Detective Web Site. I wasn’t able to track down this show’s main title sequence online (too bad, since it apparently included theme music composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter), but I did manage to dig up the NBC promo for The Duke embedded above.

A Man Called Sloane (NBC, 1979): This half-season wonder starred Conrad as Thomas R. Sloane III, a freelance spy and “Top Priority Agent” for UNIT, described by Wikipedia as “a secret American intelligence operation run by The Director, played by Dan O’Herlihy.” In these adventures, Sloane was assisted by Torque (played by Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a large man boasting an equally oversize mechanical hand equipped with interchangeable parts (saw blades, drills, and such—often useful in their high-stakes escapades), as well as by Effie, a computer that spoke with the voice of actress Michele Carey. Of Sloane, comic-book writer Christopher Mills recalls: “Though the format harkened back to the ’60s and shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it was still very much a product of its time, with ludicrous plots, lots of cheesecake, and Conrad’s patented macho swagger. Needless to say, I loved it as a kid.” Mills was such a fan, in fact, that he posted reviews of all 12 episodes of this series here. The opening title sequence embedded above comes from the show’s second installment, “The Seduction Squad.” At least one full episode of Sloane is available on YouTube: “The Venus Microbe,” guest-starring Morgan Fairchild as a novice private eye.

READ MORE:Television’s Tough Guy: Robert Conrad,” by David Hofstede (Comfort TV).

1 comment:

HonoluLou said...

A very nice tribute. I'd forgotten a few of those series he played in. And who among us after watching an episode of The Wild Wild West, didn't jump out of their chair, feign a karate move, then dive over mom's favorite chair breaking the left-hand arm rest! Ah did that too, right? R.I.P. Bob.