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The Wild Wild West starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin.

The west was never wilder than with Robert Conrad as James T. West and Ross Martin as master of disguise Artemus Gordon on 104 episodes of CBS’ hour long “The Wild Wild West” which aired on Friday nights in the 7:30-8:30 time slot from September 17, 1965, to April 4, 1969.

Developed by Michael Garrison at a time when the TV western was losing ground to the spy genre, “The Wild Wild West” was conceived as James Bond on horseback. West and Gordon were written in as Secret Service Agents for President Ulysses S. Grant
Michael Dunn as Dr. Miguelito Loveless. shortly after the Civil War. They operated out of a railroad car, The Wanderer, stocked with a compliment of high-tech (for the time) weaponry, allowing them week after week, with plenty of humor, to foil the plans of delusional and megalomaniacal villains—in particular Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played to the nth by diminutive Michael Dunn (left).

Although never credited, an imaginative theme by jazz composer Richard Markowitz (he wrote “The Rebel” theme) and a unique approach to the main title and commercial breaks, “The Night of the Inferno” set the stage for the most stylish and bizarre TV Western ever
Wild Wild West logo. aired.

Oddly, the series almost didn’t make it to the air. A sweeping change of regime at CBS ousted much of the management that had given the green light to “The Wild Wild West”. Fortunately, saner heads eventually prevailed and restored the show to the ‘65-‘66 season. However, CBS wanted no part of creator Garrison. The fact remained Garrison owned a large part of the series, so to remove him as line producer, CBS upped him to executive producer. He was replaced by Collier Young who didn’t see eye to eye with Garrison’s original concept. After three tries Young was replaced by Fred Freiberger who got the series on the right track. Change struck again after 10 Freiberger produced episodes. CBS, in an evident power play, fired him and evicted Garrison. Apparently, CBS felt Bob Conrad was getting too much control and that Freiberger and the crew would only listen to him. At any rate, John Mantley, formerly associate producer of “Gunsmoke”, was named producer and Phillip Leacock, former producer of “Gunsmoke”, was made executive producer. The backstage infighting was possibly greater than what was on the screen. After six weeks of a legal battle, Garrison trapped CBS on a legal technicality and was restored to executive producer with Gene Coon named producer…at least for a while. By the end of the first season Garrison was once again the on-duty producer of a hit series which was a huge ratings success against “The Flintstones” and “Tammy” on ABC and the forgettable “Camp Runamuck” and “Hank” on NBC.

CBS ok’d the move to color and bigger name guest stars for the second season (Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Darrow, Agnes Moorehead—who won an Emmy for “Night of the Vicious Valentine”). Garrison was seven episodes into the second season when on August 17, 1966, he fell down a flight of stairs at his home,
Bruce Lansbury. fractured his skull and died. He was 43. CBS brought in Bruce Lansbury (right), head of programming in NY, to produce the remainder of the season. He carried on in the tradition Garrison intended for two more seasons.

In the second season for competition, NBC put Roy Ely’s “Tarzan” up against “West” and ABC tried “The Green Hornet” at 7:30 and “Time Tunnel” at 8. ABC then countered with movies for the Fall of ‘67. By September ‘68 NBC moved “The High Chaparral” from Sunday to Friday opposite “West” and ABC offered “Tom Jones”.

Although surrounded by a great stunt team headed up by stunt coordinator Whitey Hughes and including Dick Cangey, Red West, Bobby Herron and Jimmy George, Bob Conrad insisted on doing his own stunts whenever possible. In the fourth season episode, “Night of the Fugitives”, the script called for him to jump from a balcony onto a chandelier and swing into the bad guy (stuntman Jerry Laveroni). It was supposed to end with Conrad kicking Laveroni. Unfortunately, Laveroni stepped back too soon; Conrad over-extended and jerked himself loose from the chandelier and landed on his head on the floor suffering a serious whiplash. After Conrad’s injury CBS insisted on a regular stunt double.

Charles Aidman.Also during the fourth season Ross Martin suffered a heart attack on August 17, 1968, necessitating Charles Aidman (right) be brought in as agent Jeremy Pike for four episodes. William Schallert guested as agent Frank Harper in the two-part “Night of the Winged Terror” and Alan Hale Jr. was Secret Service agent Swanson in one episode (“Night of the Sabatini Death”) which featured a couple of “Gilligan’s Island” in-jokes.

Despite high ratings and 393 action packed fights in 104 episodes, “The Wild Wild West” was cancelled after four seasons as a concession to Congress over television violence after the slayings of Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy. AP reported, “Shows like ABC’s ‘Outcasts’ and NBC’s ‘Outsider’, which depended heavily on violence, were scrapped. CBS killed ‘The Wild Wild West’ despite high ratings, because of criticism. It was seen by the network as a gesture of good intentions.”

But “The Wild Wild West” refused to die. In the Summer of ‘70 CBS used the series as a summer replacement on Monday evenings. That Fall CBS put “West” into syndication, giving it new life across the country. By the Spring of ‘73 it was on 84 stations. Its ongoing popularity prompted two TV movies, “The Wild Wild West Revisited” in ‘79 and “More Wild Wild West” in ‘80, followed by a bastardazation theatrical movie in ‘99 for which Will Smith apologized to Conrad in 2009. “I made a mistake on ‘Wild Wild West’. I could never understand why Robert Conrad was so upset with my ‘Wild Wild West’. Now I get it. It’s like, ‘That’s my baby! I put my blood, sweat and tears into that!’ So I’m going to apologize to Mr. Conrad for that because I didn’t realize.”

Over the ensuing years “Wild Wild West” has seen airings on TNT, the Hallmark Channel, ME TV and various local stations. Now the entire series, including the two made for TV movies, is available in a gorgeous box set.

For a detailed, in-depth look at the series, locate a copy of Susan Kesler’s 1988 book, THE WILD WILD WEST.

Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon and Robert Conrad as James West.

D'ja Know:

Robert Conrad was not the first choice to portray James T. West. Rory Calhoun was originally cast in the role. It’s rumored Calhoun had a friend who was trying out for the role of Artemus Gordon and Rory felt he could possibly help his friend secure the part by offering himself as a popular star to boost the series then use his influence to help his friend. The rumor went on about how casting hired Calhoun but CBS didn’t feel he was right for the part and fired him.

 

D'ja Know:

On “The Wild Wild West” the interior of West and Gordon’s train was used in an episode of “Gunsmoke” (“Death Train”) and two episodes of “The Big Valley” (“Last Train to the Fair” and “Days of Wrath”). All three series were filmed at CBS Studio Center (the old Republic lot) and shared interior and exterior shots.

 

 

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