A ruggedly handsome leading man for over three decades on American television, Robert Conrad first gained audiences’ attention as detective Tom Lopaka on the light-hearted crime series “Hawaiian Eye” (ABC, 1959-1963). But his true breakout series came as the 19th-century secret agent James T. West in the tongue-in-cheek Western adventure “The Wild, Wild West” (CBS, 1965-69). The series helped to establish Conrad as an actor who enjoyed doing his own stunts – occasionally to his own physical detriment. In the 1970s, Conrad starred as real-life World War II flying ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington on the action-comedy series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (NBC, 1976-78), which he helped to rescue from oblivion by directly lobbying TV station managers after the network canceled the series. He broke out of the tough guy mold on several occasions, most notably in the epic miniseries “Centennial” (1979) and in the title role of the TV-movie “Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy” (1981), but audiences preferred him in the masculine vein of his previous screen incarnations. He enjoyed greater small-screen success as the pitchman for Everyready batteries – where he virtually challenged the viewer to knock the battery off his shoulder – than in any series or TV-movie. Still remarkably fit in his fifth and sixth decades, he continued to star as hard-nosed types in TV-movies and short-lived television shows throughout the 1990s before largely retiring at the turn of the millennium, leaving behind a legacy of tough guy roles fans could never forget.
Born Conrad Robert Falk in Chicago, IL on March 1, 1935, Conrad was the son of publicist Jacqueline Hubbard, who noticed that even at an early age, her son showed an interest in performing. A star athlete in high school, he also worked as a singer in Chicago nightclubs, but was forced to turn to drearier work as a milk truck driver and dock worker after eloping with his first wife, Joan Kenlay, at the age of 17 in 1952. After convincing himself that he was just as capable of becoming a star as any of the leading men on television, he got his first entry into the business through another struggling actor, Nick Adams, who, beginning in 1957, helped him earn an agent through small roles. Conrad – who had changed his name by flipping his first and middle names – toiled for the next few years in largely unheralded bit parts before getting a contract with Warner Bros. There, he found more substantial parts in TV series before landing his first lead as half-Hawaiian detective Tom Lopaka on “Hawaiian Eye.” Despite the show’s popularity and his newfound star status, the job paid poorly and Conrad was forced to continue logging hours in unremarkable projects to make ends meet.
When “Eye” ended its network run in 1963, he attempted to strike out on his own as a film star, but only found work in low-budget projects like “Young Dillinger” (1965), with Nick Adams in the lead and Conrad as “Pretty Boy” Floyd. He also tried to re-launch his singing career with a tour of Australia and Mexico, but the launch of “The Wild, Wild West” in 1965 proved to be the shot in the arm that Conrad’s career needed. Created by Michael Garrison, who had originally optioned Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale” as a feature film, the TV series was initially an action-packed but mostly serious Western adventure about two Secret Service agents who carried out clandestine missions for President Ulysses S. Grant.
Conrad was James West, who provided the fists and the romance, while Emmy nominee Ross Martin was Artemus Gordon, a master of disguise. As the show grew in popularity, it took on a more tongue-in-cheek tone – perhaps to match the increasingly outrageous adventures of James Bond on the big screen – with Conrad facing threats from robots, earthquake machines, and arch-villains like the diminutive Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn). Conrad could also be counted upon to engage in one or more knock-down, drag-out brawls with evildoers per episode, as well as any manner of stunts, all of which he performed himself with a team of stuntmen. This dedication to the show occasionally resulted in injury for Conrad, including a 12-foot fall from a balcony that resulted in a concussion.
While enjoying the popularity of “West,” Conrad also directed and wrote a Western, “The Bandits” (1967), which marked the film debut of actor Jan-Michael Vincent. Thought not a success, the film launched his career as the occasional director of his own television efforts. After “West” was cancelled in 1969, Conrad struggled to find a worthwhile follow-up on television. Jack Webb’s “The D.A.” (NBC, 1971-72) cast him in a documentary-style procedural about the trials of a deputy district attorney, while “The Adventures of Nick Carter” (1972) was a failed pilot that attempted to exploit his “Wild, Wild West” fan base by casting him as the famed hero of 19th century pulp detective fiction. Conrad later replaced Roy Scheider as the spymaster hero of “Assignment Vienna” (ABC, 1972-73), a drama shot on location in Europe. None of these efforts could attract a substantial audience, however, and Conrad’s attempts to generate a film career met with equal indifference. “Murph the Surf” (1975), based on the real-life exploits of jewel thief Jack Roland Murphy, enjoyed a small cult following, but for the most part, Conrad was finding more employment as pitchman for Everyready batteries. The brawny spots also made him the object of spoofs by Johnny Carson and other TV comics, which Conrad took in stride with considerable good humor.
Conrad finally struck paydirt in 1976 with “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” a World War II series about a group of misfit fliers battling the Japanese in the South Pacific. Buoyed by impressive footage of real aerial dogfights from the Department of Defense, the series found favor with male audiences. For his work, Conrad won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Male Actor as well as received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance. The accolades were not enough to extend the show’s lifespan beyond its debut season, however and NBC pulled the plug on the show at the end of the 1976-77 season. Conrad was unwilling to let the series die without a fight so he attended a meeting of NBC affiliates and made direct appeals to station managers in an attempt to drum up support for the show. The grass roots effort paid off with a revival in 1977 under a new title, “Black Sheep Squadron,” which ran for another season before once again taking the plunge in 1978. Conrad would direct numerous episodes during the show’s network run, and cast his daughter, aspiring actress Nancy Conrad, in a semi-regular role as a military nurse.
During his run on “Black Sheep,” Conrad was also a regular presence on “Battle of the Network Stars” (ABC, 1976-1986), a regular series of TV specials which pitted the stars of each network’s programs against each other in often silly Olympic-style competitions.
Conrad captained the NBC team six times between 1976 and 1980, and was the focus of an embarrassing incident that saw him pitching a public fit over his team’s loss to ABC in the 1976 special. He challenged ABC captain Gabe Kaplan to a face-off that would decide the winner of the event, but was defeated by the star of “Welcome Back, Kotter” (ABC, 1975-79) in a foot race. In 1979, Conrad returned to series work in another spy series, “A Man Called Sloane” (NBC, 1979-1980). It failed to find its niche with viewers, but Conrad rebounded with an impressive turn in the ambitious 26-hour miniseries “Centennial,” based on the novel by James Michener. Robert Blake and Charles Bronson were originally considered for the key role of the French Canadian Pasquinel, but Conrad eventually inherited the role, which was among the meatiest parts of his career. An opportunistic trapper and panhandler with two families – one white; one Native American – he pays for his gold lust with his life, but not before fathering two sons who become leaders of the Indian tribes whose competition for land with white settlers comprises much of the miniseries. The role allowed Conrad to show his depth as an actor – something that few of his previous efforts had done.
Conrad got a second chance at exploring a complicated character when he took on infamous Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy in “Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy” for television in 1982. An avowed admirer of Liddy, who served as technical advisor on the project, Conrad threw himself into the part, winning some hard-fought critical respect for his performance. For a brief period in the early 1980s, Conrad appeared to be pursuing opportunities in comedy – he hosted “Saturday Night Live” (NBC, 1975- ) and appeared in the dark political satire “Wrong is Right” (1982) for director Richard Brooks. But his action hero past was never far behind him, thanks to the success of the reunion TV-movies “The Wild Wild West Revisited” (1979) and “More Wild Wild West” (1980), so he settled once again into regular rotation as tough cops and detectives in unmemorable TV-movies.
Conrad returned to series work on three separate occasions during the 1980s and into the following decade. The first was “High Mountain Rangers” (CBS, 1988), with Conrad and his real-life sons Shane and Christian as members of an elite emergency rescue team. Daughter Joan also served as executive producer on the show, which lasted just three months. Remarkably, the show spawned a spin-off, “Jesse Hawkes” (CBS, 1989), which only aired six times before its cancellation.
“High Sierra Search and Rescue” (Hallmark, 1995), with Conrad’s second wife, LaVelda Fann, among its cast, also enjoyed an equally brief run. The following year, Conrad made his first appearance in a major theatrical release in over a decade with a brief appearance in the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy “Jingle All the Way” (1996). His dry sense of humor was put to excellent use when he attended the 1997 Golden Raspberry Awards – which celebrated the worst in film entertainment – to accept all three of the trophies awarded to the big-screen adaptation of “The Wild, Wild West” (1997). Conrad had been a vocal opponent of the film version, which cast Will Smith in the role of James West.
The Best of Robert Conrad airs Sundays at 8am Pacific on CRN1.