Akron Beacon Journal, Sunday, August 13, 1967
By JACK MAJOR
CHICAGO – Next category: The best performance by an actor in a newspaper interview. The envelope please. (Rip!)
And the winners is Robert Conrad for “The CBS Stars Go to Chicago to Meet a Whole Bunch of Newspaper Folks.”
CONRAD CAME to town to make a lot of noise about “The Wild, Wild West,” a TV spy show with a Western setting. This fall it begins its third season.
Network press parties are built around extravagant claims, asinine questions and pat answers. The press conference with Conrad was different, however. His performance made the 45-minute session enjoyable.
And a performance it was as Conrad fielded dumb questions and threw them back at us with a little something on them.
ASKED WHETHER he performs all the crazy stunts required of his character, James T. West, Conrad replied, “Sure I do. It’s a great way to keep in shape.”
Then he look a long drag on his cigaret, turned to a CBS flunky and ordered another beer. He mentioned the wild time he had had the night before, with emphasis on the many drinks he had put away.
So some sharp-eyed journalist wondered, by golly, if Conrad drinks so much, how could he stay in shape to do all those stunts.
“Oh, don’t be fooled by the Bob Conrad you see this weekend,” he answered. “I stop smoking and drinking every Monday morning and don’t resume until Friday afternoon. Besides, I’m steady as a rock.” He held out his right hand, spread the fingers and kept it steady for a full three seconds.
He was just warming up.
“I’ll tell you what kind of shape I’m in. I’m going to box at the Olympia Arena in Los Angeles on the third Thursday in March. It’ll be a six-round bout against a professional opponent.
“I’ve been working out for weeks. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do ... you know, to experience the things that go through a man’s mind before he enters the ring.”
IT SEEMED clear Conrad was enjoying the interview ... and why not? He was role playing. We were putting questions to John Garfield in “Body and Soul” and Kirk Douglas in “Champion.”
“I think I’ll do quite well,” he continued. “I fight a lot like Muhammad Ali. I’m quick and I’ve got a great left jab. My right hand isn’t so good, but I’m working on it, and just a few days ago I knocked out a sparring partner. That was quite a sensation!”
Does Conrad intend to go on fighting?
“No, this will be it. After the fight I’ll hang up my gloves for good.”
Has he ever fought before?
“A few times, but only in bars. The last guy who picked on me made a big mistake. He swung once – and missed. I swung once – and it was all over. They had to carry him out of the place.”
What’s his fighting weight?
“I feel best at 167 pounds.”
THROUGH it all Conrad kept a straight face. It was beautiful.
The subject switched to Conrad’s career, and he did a scene from what could have been from a show titled “The Handsome Singer From Chicago Who Went to Hollywood and Became a Star.”
“When I was 17,” he said, “I was singing in nightclubs all around Chicago. One night a club owner told me, ‘Kid, you’re a good-looking guy. You ought to be in pictures.’
“I figured, why not? I went to Northwestern University and enrolled in the theater arts department. But that didn’t last long. The teacher said, ‘Pretend you’re a match,’ and I said, ‘Forget it. I’m no match,’ and I dropped out of school and went to Hollywood.
“I didn’t like it there, either. The place was full of guys in bulky knit sweaters sitting around on their fannies mumbling about how they were going to be great actors. I didn’t want any part of them, so I went off on my own. Did great, too. I collected unemployment insurance – $39 a week – for nine months before I got my first break.”
SOON AFTERWARD he became Tom Lopaka on the “Hawaiian Eye” television series.
“But when that folded, so did my career – temporarily, anyway. I went back to singing and did some nightclubs in Mexico, where I became a big star. I still am big in Mexico. A recent poll showed I am more popular there than The Beatles.”
Afraid, perhaps, that he was laying it on a little thick, Conrad shifted gears and slipped into a scene from “Humble Pie.”
“Actually, I owe my success to luck. I know plenty of talented people who didn’t get big breaks. I’ve had two – ‘Hawaiian Eye’ and ‘The Wild, Wild West.’ “
“Humble Pie” soon gave way to “The Defiant One” when he was asked whether his big ambition was to become a movie star.
The question pinched a nerve. Many television stars, including Conrad, resented any suggestion they were second-class actors. “I’d like to see these big movie stars try to make it on television where they’d appear every week – and for free. I wonder how they’d make out,” he said, with a slight snarl.
“Another thing ... I’m a much better actor than I’ve been able to prove. The trouble is I’m always Helen Hero. Maybe it’s a mistake to play yourself all the time, but that’s what I’ve done. But I know I can play other parts. Perhaps some day I’ll have a chance to prove it.”
CONRAD IS married and has three children – two teenage daughters and a three-year-old son. Asked whether his kids are impressed with his success, Conrad swung into a scene from “Life With Father.”
“Not at all. The girls put me into the Elvis Presley category. To them I’m a tired old man. They don’t even watch my show. Friday night is their night to get together with their girl friends, usually at slumber parties where they giggle til 5 o’clock in the morning.
“My son doesn’t watch the program, either. I won’t let him. He’s too impressionable. But I took him to the set once to let him see me work. I had a fight scene that day, and my son got so upset at seeing me get him that he ran out to protect me. He actually started swinging at the fellow I was fighting. I had to pull him off the set.”
HE WAS ASKED if he’s financially secure.
“Now I am. I’ve got lots of money ... and lots of investments,” he said. “But even if things fell through, I wouldn’t be worried. Hungry actors always make out ... (dramatic pause) ... and I’m still a hungry actor.”
Laurence Olivier couldn’t have said it better.