Robert Conrad Revolutionized the Action Genre

Robert Conrad in a 1965 publicity shot for The Wild Wild West (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Obituaries for Robert Conrad properly noted the actor’s prowess as a pugilist-stuntman.

However, the press failed to recognize how Conrad essentially invented the modern action genre in the late 1960s as the star of The Wild Wild West.

Other TV Westerns resolved conflicts quickly with pedestrian, perfunctory gunplay, but The Wild Wild West featured action as the main attraction, with at least two knockdown, dragout barefisted brawls every episode.

Conrad co-designed each week’s fight sequences and performed his own stunts, creating a demand for muscular, athletic actors who could execute complex fight choreography.

Thus, Conrad the boxer and karate student paved the way for martial artist action heroes like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Jackie Chan, and for bodybuilders like Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger. As action movies became Hollywood’s most lucrative genre, the success of these highly-skilled physical freaks forced regular actors to get ripped and train to perform their own stunts in order to land leading roles in top-grossing blockbusters. So, Conrad shaped the career trajectories of Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Angelina Jolie, etc.

On the Cultural Significance of The Wild Wild West

Conrad revolutionized the action genre as the star of The Wild Wild West on CBS from 1965–1969. The show revitalized the tired Western genre in several ways:

First, the series anticipated steampunk by enriching its 19th-century setting with strong infusions of science fiction, fantasy, and even horror; a few episodes evoke a Twilight Zone vibe.

Second: Inspired by the success of James Bond movies, the series cast Conrad as President Grant’s 007, a smooth Secret Service agent who seduced beautiful women while thwarting the Byzantine schemes of dastardly villains by using clever gadgets crafted by a Q-like sidekick.

Third, that sidekick — Artemus Gordon, played by accomplished character actor Ross Martin — provided welcome comic relief as a master of disguise. Every week, Martin debuted one or more new personas and accents, hamming it up with yet another inventive, outrageous, scenery-chewing caricature. Describing the division of labor between the two male leads, Martin quipped, “Robert does his own stunts, and I do my own acting.”

Conrad did not take offense; he knew his puglisitic prowess constituted the series’ fourth and finest selling point. Previous Westerns had emphasized gunfire over fistfights, but the writers kept pistols and rifles scarce on The Wild Wild West, forcing Conrad’s character — James West — to defeat his foes in barefisted brawls — and to do so bare-chested whenever possible, to display Conrad’s impressive physique.

How Robert Conrad Reinvented Fight Scenes

Before Conrad, actor-stuntmen were rare, but ranked among the most bankable movie stars. In the silent era, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd devoted their considerable physical gifts to comedy, while Douglas Fairbanks pioneered the action-adventure format. Later, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas performed some of their own stunts with guidance from expert stunt coordinators, but their films were more dramas than action movies.

Through the mid-’60s, stunts and fights on television generally lacked ambition. Westerns abounded, but mostly resolved conflicts with brief, boring gunplay. The era’s most popular Western, Bonanza (1959-73) featured few fistfights, and those were poorly executed, despite extensive use of stunt doubles. Action sequences in non-Westerns like The Adventures of Superman (1952-58) were similarly uninspired.

The Wild Wild West changed all of that. Anticipating modern action flicks, the producers built each episode around its action sequences. Typical episodes featured at least two major action set pieces. Oddly, the screenwriters generally did not bother to storyboard these epic brawls; they merely specified duration and desired outcome, delegating the design of fight choreography to Conrad and veteran stunt coordinator Whitey Hughes.

Conrad and Hughes rose to the occasion, developing endless variations of the same formula: Always outnumbered, often outsized, James West fights and usually defeats gangs of bad guys through toughness, tenacity, and occasional displays of acrobatic skill. Punch, kick, tackle. Glass shatters. Furniture breaks. People fall down stairs. Magnificent mayhem.

Of course, these heroics took a physical toll on Conrad and the rest of the cast. Stunt work involved far greater risk before CGI, green screens, and OSHA workplace safety regulations. With gallows humor, The Wild Wild West crew commenced fight takes with the battle cry, “Roll the cameras and call the ambulances!” The weekly bumps and bruises added up. Serious injuries struck occasionally: professional stuntmen broke arms, legs, skulls; Conrad and other actor-stuntmen suffered comparably.

Frequent guest star Michael Dunn, who played recurring arch-villain Dr. Loveless, had to do his own stunts — despite serious health impairments — because CBS could find no 3' 10" stunt doubles; Dunn suffered a serious head injury and sprained his spine.

Ross Martin — who rarely attempted his own stunts — busted a thumb while horseriding, then missed several episodes in 1968 after tripping on a rifle and fracturing his shin. A heart attack extended his hiatus.

Earlier that year, Conrad had cracked his skull in a botched stunt. Swinging from a chandelier, Conrad fell 14', landed headfirst, and concussed himself on the concrete floor, suffering a 6" hairline skull fracture. That traumatic brain injury ended Season 3 two episodes early, as it took months for Conrad to heal and recover. To ensure his sacrifice was not in vain, the producers used footage from the actual fall when they finished and aired the episode in Season 4; that footage appears thirty seconds into the following highlight reel.

Violence eventually killed The Wild Wild West. By the late ’60s, Americans suspected televised mayhem contributed to rising violent crime, annual urban riots, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Facing increased public pressure to reduce violence on TV, CBS sacrificed Conrad’s successful show to save less violent action shows with even higher ratings, like Gunsmoke (1955–75) and Mission: Impossible (1966–73).

Conrad did not rue the cancellation; four seasons of The Wild Wild West had proved an unrelenting, draining grind. “The physical demands were extraordinary,” he recalled. “Ross Martin and I worked 70 hours a week without letup. We rarely got our scripts in advance. When I look back, it’s like a bizarre dream we floated through.”

On the Enduring Influence of The Wild Wild West

Though cancelled after just four years, The Wild Wild West had already begun to revolutionize action entertainment.

Conrad’s show premiered in September 1965, and immediately inspired imitators. In January 1966, ABC countered with Batman, which — like The Wild Wild West — built its episodes around set piece fight scenes, though the superhero series lightened its less polished brawls with a cartoonish, campy pop art vibe. By September 1966, NBC entered the fray with Star Trek—where Captain Kirk, like Conrad, often fought shirtless — while ABC added The Green Hornet, featuring Bruce Lee, a superior martial artist on an inferior show, canceled after just one year.

Of course, Lee went on to make several acclaimed action flicks in Hong Kong, which — like The Wild Wild West — were built around spectacular fight scenes. Lee’s films fueled the growth of an enduring martial arts movie industry that gained a large American following and eventually reshaped Hollywood’s approach to action cinema. An appearance in Lee’s Way of the Dragon (1972) launched the career of Chuck Norris, who made several popular action movies in the ’70s and ’80s before moving to television for Walker, Texas Ranger (1993–2001). For TV, Lee helped develop the martial arts Western series Kung Fu (1972–75), though ABC betrayed him by denying him royalties and giving the starring role to a white actor.

Echoes of The Wild Wild West reverberated beyond Kung Fu throughout ’70s action TV, from the oft-shirtless Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78) to Lou Ferrigno’s body-built absurdity in The Incredible Hulk (1977-82). Ferrigno’s television success opened the door for another bodybuilder — Arnold Schwarzenegger — to dominate action cinema in the ’80s and ’90s.

On the Failure of Baa Baa Black Sheep

After The Wild Wild West ended, Conrad found work where he could. He starred in a few Hollywood flops, some made-for-TV movies, and two weekly dramas—as a prosecutor in The D.A. (1971), as a spy in Assignment: Vienna (1972)—but both failed.

Then, NBC gave Conrad an opportunity to reprise his Wild Wild West success with another action series: Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976–78), a World War II drama set in the Pacific Theater. Conrad played Pappy Boyington, a real-life Marine Corps misfit who led the Black Sheep Squadron, a motley crew of hard-drinking, brawling Marine Corps flyboys.

On paper, the project seemed promising. Its Midas-like creator, Stephen J. Cannell, had penned innumerable acclaimed scripts for Ironside (1967–75), Adam-12 (1968–75), and Columbo (1971–78), then created smash hits in The Rockford Files (1974–80) and Baretta (1975–78). Cannell brought on Boyington as a historical consultant; Conrad befriended the veteran, spent considerable time with him, and even learned to fly planes so he could portray the historical figure with maximum verisimilitude.

Sadly, the show failed on every level: Casting, acting, directing, writing, ratings.

For an action show, it lacked action. The aerial combat scenes were dull, the brawling merely decent, the acting generally lackluster. Despite investing quality time with Boyington, Conrad’s portrayals of Pappy and James West proved virtually indistinguishable. Presumably, Baa Baa Black Sheep’s directors shared some blame for this, but Conrad himself directed several episodes. The problem was more general: none of the show’s characters were at all likeable, including John Larroquette, who, like Conrad, proved compelling and charismatic in later work.

Poor scripts were the root of the problem. Clearly, Cannell’s prior success in cop and PI shows did not yet translate to writing riveting action/comedy scripts featuring an ensemble cast. Later, Cannell would crack the code with The Greatest American Hero (1981-83) and The A-Team (1983-87), but he lacked the touch to salvage Baa Baa Black Sheep in the mid-‘70s.

After the show failed to find an audience in Season 1, Cannell and NBC resorted to desperate measures: they moved it to a new night, renamed it Black Sheep Squadron, and — to compete with the sex appeal of rival Charlie’s Angels — augmented the original sausagefest cast with a cute, curvy quartet of nurses condescendingly dubbed “Pappy’s Lambs.” (One of the lambs was Conrad’s daughter, Nancy.)

Those desperate measures failed. NBC put the show out of its misery the next year.

How Conrad Rose from the Ashes to Carry Centennial

The cancellation of Black Sheep Squadron boded ill for Conrad’s career, but NBC threw him a lifeline by casting him in a major role in the miniseries Centennial (1978–79).

Centennial represented NBC’s effort to replicate ABC’s success with Roots (1977), the African-American history miniseries that became an unexpected ratings juggernaut and cultural phenomenon.

For Roots, ABC had adapted Alex Haley’s 1976 family history novel into a 12-hour miniseries; NBC countered with Centennial, a 26-hour retelling of Colorado’s history based on James Michener’s bestselling 1974 novel.

Wags mocked Centennial as “the white Roots.” Most protagonists were indeed Caucasian, but Michener’s saga included sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans, a black cowboy, and immigrants from Mexico and East Asia.

Conrad played one of those minority roles, portraying Pasquinel, a Quebecoi fur trader of mixed white and native (Métis) ancestry, a character Michener based loosely on fur trader Jacques La Ramee, the namesake of Laramie, Wyoming.

NBC bet big on Conrad, as Pasquinel is the first major protagonist of the miniseries. His character dominated the first five hours, so the fortunes of the entire production depended on his performance. The network settled on Conrad after bigger stars — Robert Blake, Charles Bronson, James Caan — had passed on the role.

Long derided as a wooden actor, Conrad vastly exceeded expectations as Pasquinel. He mastered a French-Canadian accent and committed totally to the character, exuding charisma as he vanished entirely into the role of a roguish, charming, grasping bigamist 19th-century fur trader. Michener marveled that Conrad played the character of Pasquinel better than he had written it. (Having read the novel, I concur.) Conrad — a capable singer who had cut records in English and Spanish — even taught himself to sing inexpertly in French, because mountain men should not, as a rule, sing beautifully.

Of course, Conrad also nailed Pasquinel’s fight scenes. Asked by Michener why he declined to use stuntmen like other actors, Conrad explained that delegating the physical work to body doubles would be like letting understudies recite his lines on-camera. He saw himself as a complete actor, and viewed actors who used stuntmen as deficient in their craft.

Though excellent, Centennial did not match the ratings success of Roots. Viewers stuck around through the first few episodes, but began to lose interest after Conrad and Richard Chamberlain’s characters passed the torch to less compelling stories and actors.

Conrad’s Career Faded as Action Flicks Conquered Hollywood

Sadly, showing unsuspected thespian depth on Centennial failed to reignite Conrad’s acting career. Ignoring his newly-demonstrated versatility, Hollywood refused to revise its prejudices, evidently dismissing Conrad as a once-pretty, but now washed-up human action figure, a mere stuntman with limited dramatic range.

Unfortunately, the gigs Conrad took tended to confirm this impression: He made good money but invited mockery by pitching Eveready batteries with swaggering conviction, and proved overzealously competitive as the perennial (and often winning) NBC team captain on Battle of the Network Stars.

Conrad and Martin reprised their roles in two Wild Wild West reunion made-for-TV movies in 1979 and 1980. The terrible scripts tarnished the legacy of the series, but the airings nevertheless attracted large audiences. Martin’s 1981 death ended plans to continue with annual reunion shows.

For the next decade, Conrad appeared in some TV movies and tried to launch several new series. None succeeded.

As Conrad’s career foundered and faded, the action genre he had reinvented continued to thrive and came to dominate Hollywood.

The legacy of the Wild Wild West still loomed large on TV, from imbecilic fistfights on The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) to silly fight choreography on TJ Hooker (1982-86) to the unbridled mayhem of Stephen J. Cannell’s The A-Team (1983-87). Cannell reportedly offered the role of Hannibal Smith to Conrad, who — snakebit by Baa Baa Black Sheep — unwisely turned it down; George Peppard gladly took the job. (Dwight Schultz’s dramatic range and many disguises as “Howlin’ Mad Murdoc” could be understood as an homage to Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon.)

Meanwhile, big action franchises completely conquered the big screen: Indiana Jones, Rambo, Lethal Weapon, Terminator, Die Hard, Mission: Impossible, Tomb Raider, etc.

The process came full circle with Barry Sonnenfeld’s big budget remake of The Wild Wild West (1999). On paper, the project seemed like a solid idea: The Men in Black team updates the beloved action show with top-shelf special effects and an all-star cast: Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Salma Hayek, Kenneth Branagh. Tragically, they skimped on the script. The resulting movie is brutally brainless, painfully unfunny, a cinematic train wreck, a shocking waste of talent, and a total betrayal of the original’s spirit. Conrad hated it. So did moviegoers; it barely broke even, failing so utterly that it likely dooms any prospect of a Wild Wild West revival in our lifetime. The film’s only redeeming outcome was giving Hayek some seed money to produce her transcendent Frida (2002). To his credit, Will Smith ultimately apologized to Conrad for the movie’s poor quality.

Smith — and all who star in, make, or enjoy modern action entertainment— also owe Conrad fulsome gratitude as a Founding Father of the genre.

Conrad put his whole heart into everything he did, but on February 8, 2020, that heart finally gave out. He was 84.

James West boarded the glory train, Pappy soared into the wild blue yonder, Pasquinel paddled down the Platte one last time.

Whatever Conrad finds on the other side, he’ll be doing his own stunts.

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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