Robert Conrad is tough.
He might even be tougher than James West, the rough-and-ready secret agent he played on television in the CBS series The Wild Wild West, and he’s got a busted skull to prove it.
Remember, Conrad is the guy who used to challenge TV audiences to knock Eveready batteries off his shoulder. “I dare ya,” he’d say, with that kid-in-the-playground glare.
Conrad did well, coming out of one of the rougher parts of South Chicago, working his way into reoccurring characters on shows like 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye after kicking around in Westerns and cop shows.
Lightning struck when it handed him the lead in The Wild Wild West, a show as tailormade for his skill set as the Bolero jackets and skin-tight pants he wore on the series. The show was set in post-Civil War America, and, like the James Bond movies that inspired it, his character West went up against one world-conquering, cackling supervillain after another, aided by his best friend, walking encyclopedia and master of disguise Artemus Gordon, played by the late Ross Martin.
James Kirk had Spock in Star Trek, Napoleon Solo had Illya Kuryakin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Kelly Robinson had Alexander Scott in I Spy and West had Gordon; the mid-1960s was the golden age of the buddy adventure series on American Television.
Conrad went on to act in several other series when the show ended abruptly in 1969, but he’ll likely be best remembered for West, and for playing the legendary WWII fighter pilot Pappy Boyington in the series Baa Baa Black Sheep (a.k.a. Black Sheep Squadron) which ran from 1976-78.
Today, at 81, Conrad has lost none of his terse Chicago edge; talking with the guy is a little like talking with your high school football coach. His fans can listen to, or call in to talk with him, on his weekly two-hour radio show (“The PM Show with Robert Conrad”) on CRN Digital Talk Radio.
True West: When people call your radio show, do most of them want to talk about The Wild Wild West TV series?
Robert Conrad: Yeah—Baa Baa Black Sheep gets a lot of play too.
Pappy Boyington or Jim West—which character was the most fun for you?
Different times of my life. When I did Hawaiian Eye, it was a territory of Hawaii; it wasn’t a state yet, and I learned to surf. I was young, and I was surfing, and that was great.
Then when I did the Wild West, I did all my own stunts. And I’m the only actor who’s ever done all of his own stunts—some of us will say we did, but we’re kidding—but I did ‘em all and that was exciting—really, really exciting.
I had a magnificent horse called Superstar. I gave that horse away to my daughter when she turned 16, and she loved that animal. Then when I did Black Sheep Squadron, I learned how to fly airplanes—and I bought two! That was fun.
But different ages, different times of my life.
Are actors usually discouraged from performing their own stunts?
Well, the insurance companies won’t let you. But I ignored that.
Did you get banged up much?
I broke my skull! Six-inch lineal fracture, a high-temporal concussion.
How do you heal from something like that?
God heals ya.
Any brain damage?
Yeah, there was a little brain damage.
How can you tell?
I can’t, but the doctor said there was some significant damage to my brain from this accident. He said, “You’re lucky—there doesn’t seem to be any residual effects.”
I suppose a broken skull beats a broken neck—
Uh, yeah. I would guess so. Yeah.
How did it happen?
I was jumping off the second story in a bar, and I was supposed to drop from the chandelier and continue fighting on the main floor. The stunt man was supposed to come running toward me. He was late—his timing was off—so I lost my grip on the chandelier and I fell 15 feet to the cement.
Did you bounce your head off the cement?
Yeah. I was knocked unconscious.
There is a guy who has broken down the Wild West, the entire series, and cut all the stunts together into a montage that’s on the Internet. My daughter showed me, and I thought, “Oh my God! That guy’s nuts.”
The stunt that broke your skull—did they keep that footage in the episode?
Yeah! I came back three months later and finished the fight sequence. I was down for three months. I was like 31 at the time.
The show had a great concept—part Western, part James Bond, and it hit at the peak of the Bond craze. The show was quite successful.
Well, I guess so. It’s the most syndicated show on TV right now. And we never called it a Western, ’cause it isn’t.
Well, it’s a mixture of a number of genres, isn’t it?
Yeah, I would say it is. Absolutely.
You’d done mostly crime shows prior to Wild Wild West. When you went in to audition for a high tech Western, what was your impression?
I didn’t have an impression. I was one of 18 guys who were tested and I didn’t think I was gonna win. I got the role—I was surprised—and the rest is television history.
When did it occur to you that you were part of a quality series?
Well, we knew when we got a 44 share the first week it debuted that we had a show the audience was interested in. And it got cancelled with a 33 share, which is unheard of.
But women against violence in television were able to get Sen. [John O.] Pastore from Rhode Island to be their spokesperson, and the show got cancelled.
I was doing a benefit for the Shriners in Rochester, New York, and I got a phone call from the then-president of CBS. I said, “Thank you for a wonderful association with the network,” and life moved on.
Have you heard of “Steampunk?”
It’s a kind of retro-Science Fiction genre usually set in the 19th century. The Wild Wild West Steampunk convention is going to be held at the Old Tucson Studios in March.
Sounds like a pretty cool thing to me.
Steampunkers are often attracted to the 19th-century West because of the Will Smith version of Wild Wild West. Did you see it?
No. I had kind of a problem with one of
From what I heard on your radio show, I’m guessing you’re talking about Jon Peters?
That’s the guy.
What’s the story?
He was dating my 17-year-old daughter, saying he was divorced when he wasn’t.
That doesn’t sound like a nice thing to do.
It wasn’t. And I told him that. He’s a hairdresser. Come on. And his Wild Wild West movie was the least successful film of the year. It won a Razzie for worst picture and Will Smith got one for worst actor, so they got their just dues, I thought.
Have you heard the show is coming back, with top shelf producers behind it?
Ron Moore and Naren Shankar. I’ve spoken to them. I’m going to have a meeting with them in a couple of weeks.
Would you want to play Ulysses S. Grant?
Uh, no, that’s not something I would do. I told them I wouldn’t do a role in it, but that I would do a cameo if it was something that perked my interest. But no, not Grant. A one-time cameo, maybe.
The show’s a classic—I know what I’m talking about—and I applaud them for going ahead with it, but the actor who created that role is very much alive. That remake of Hawaii Five-0, those original actors are unfortunately not around anymore.
Do you think it will be hard to find a character actor with the versatility of Ross Martin?
Yeah, and they’re going to have to find an athlete, too, to be as versatile as Robert Conrad.
Well, at least you didn’t say as good lookin’.
No, I didn’t say that, did I [Laughs.] But you can always brag on yourself. There’s nothin’ wrong with that.