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Few actors were so full of themselves in an interview as was Robert Conrad, best remembered for "The Wild, Wild West" and later "Baa Baa Black Sheep." He also did a memorable series of commercials that showed him with an Eveready battery on his shoulder as he dared anyone to knock it off. Being cocky was his stock in trade. And while this could put off several people, it made for a good interview.

Conrad would prove that he was more than a pretty face with a pugnacious attitude when he played Pasquinel, the fur trader, in "Centennial," more than holding his own in a large cast of talented actors that included Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain, Sally Kellerman, Lynn Redgrave, Timothy Dalton and Richard Crenna.

In 2003 Conrad was severely injured when he drove head-on into another vehicle. His right arm was paralyzed and he was convicted of driving under the influence. While retired from acting, Conrad has for the past five years been host of “The PM Show with Robert Conrad” on CRN Digital Talk Radio.

Back in the 1960s I had two interviews with Conrad. The first interview (below) was conducted over the phone to promote "The Wild, Wild West." The show would debut about a month later, and would prove to be a hit.

 

Akron Beacon Journal, August 22, 1965

By JACK MAJOR

It’s 1876 and you’re in Deadwood, South Dakota. The town is quiet — TOO quiet, as Gabby Hayes used to say — and riding down the main street, Calamity Jane Boulevard, is a lone gunman.

He’s handsome, but tough. You can tell by the way he grits his pearly white teeth. And he’s on a mission from President Ulysses S. Grant. His orders? To destroy the West’s most notorious gang – BANG (Badmen And Nasty Guys, Inc.).

He rides slowly, but deliberately, toward the Wild Bill Hickok Saloon where he dismounts. He gazes down the street in both directions, them ambles toward the Wyatt Earp Hotel.

Suddenly he is surrounded by a bunch of BANGs. It looks hopeless.

But just as suddenly — back at the Wild Bill Hickok Saloon – our hero’s horse splits in two ... and we discover it wasn’t a horse at all, but a pair of special agents in a horse costume — and they have a Gatling gun.

This element of surprise – not to mention the Gatling gun – throws the battle in favor of the handsome hero. “You’ll all hang!” he shouts at the BANG gang.

Secret Agent James T. West has struck again!!

Get ready for it, folks, because Agent West will be doing the James Bond bit, Western style, each Friday night at 7:30 over CBS, starting September 17.

The tales may not be as far-fetched as “Bang BANG, You’re Dead in Deadwood,” but they’re certain to be the wildest stories yet spun on a TV Western, which is why the name of the show is “The Wild, Wild West.”

The hero will be aided by special gimmicks, most of which are top secret. (The network has leaked one – Agent West will have spare pistols in the heels of his boots.

Star of the show is Robert Conrad, formerly super sleuth and Connie Stevens’ babysitter on “Hawaiian Eye.” His sidekick will be Ross Martin, also playing a government agent and master of disguise.

Conrad calls his new character “Agent 001” and hopes it will springboard him to the stardom that eluded him after his first TV effort.

“I guess there were too many people in ‘Hawaiian Eye' for one actor to get all the attention,” he said. “We had Connie Stevens, Ponce Ponce, Tony Eisley, Grant Williams and then Troy Donahue.

“Besides, I was under contract at Warner Brothers and they operate on a seniority system. I started out as a second-string Troy Donahue, and that’s how I finished. If there were movies to be made, Troy made ‘em. I would have gotten a movie if he had left, but I’m the one who left. He’s still there.”

Like most Warner Brothers contract players, Conrad was unable to exploit success while it was there to exploit. By the time he was free of his contract, his popularity with the fickle public had dwindled and he had to look elsewhere for work.

Elsewhere was Australia where he accepted a nightclub singing engagement. (Conrad started out as a singer.) He returned to the United States and worked a few clubs here.

“I think I did it just so I could say that I did,” he said.

He made a few records and one of them became a hit in Mexico. So he went where the reaction was – Mexico City – and there he did three television specials.

That’s when an old friend, Nick Adams, reminded Conrad of a favor that needed repaying.

“And that,” said Conrad, apologetically, “is how I came to play Pretty Boy Floyd in Nick’s movie, ‘Young Dillinger.’ It was a terrible film, but, hell, we did it in just 17 days and I never had so much fun in my life as I did rodding around in those old automobiles.

“The picture netted a tremendous profit, but it should have. I think we made it for $1.75. I really didn’t want to do it, but Nick was right — I owed him something. I just wish he had found another way of collecting.”

It was Adams who found Conrad singing in Chicago and suggested he try movies instead. And it was Adams who changed Konrad Robert Falk’s name to Robert Conrad. Adams also was responsible for getting Conrad into the Screen Actors Guild.

“So when he asked me to be in his movie, I couldn’t say no.”

After he finished “Young Dillinger,” Conrad began sifting through television pilot scripts that had been offered him. The real trick is to select one that will be sold. Any actor can make a pilot film — hundreds do each year — but few have the gift for selecting the right show.

Conrad had five offers. Luckily he selected the right one. None of the others were picked up by a network.

Conrad said “The Wild, Wild West” is facing the same problem that stumped “The Man From UNCLE” last season. No one is quite sure whether to play it straight, or tongue-in-cheek.

In the first episode, President Grant sends Agent West to Mexico to break up a revolution. West does it almost single-handedly, and his work comes to an explosive climax when he destroys the revolutionists’ headquarters.

“I’ve decided to play it straight,” said Conrad, “because I think this is really the funniest way. After all, here I am, one little guy who thinks he is Superman. When I stop the revolution and blow up that building, baby, I’m gonna believe it.

“And if that isn’t funny, I don’t know what is.”

 

Two years later Conrad went to his hometown, Chicago, with stars of other CBS television shows to drum up publicity for the 1967-68 season. This was done through a series of group interviews – press conferences, if you will. These are the worst kinds of interviews because each reporter from the various newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations often has a separate agenda.

In this kind of setting, it's not unusual for an actor to say something intriguing (" ... so there I was, just out of the Army, looking for work, living in a cardboard box in an alley, so close to starving that I had made up my mind to rob a bank ... ") only to be interrupted by an over-anxious reporter who asks, "Have you ever been to Sheboygan?"

Conrad handled his question-and-answer session perfectly. It probably helped that he loves to talk. In that way he's a bit like George Maharis, who never heard a question he couldn't answer. Both speak with apparent candor and neither is shy when it comes to praising themselves. However, Conrad, at least, occasionally did so with a wink in this 1967 session:

 

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.

Conrad wasn't kidding about doing his own stunt. He's now in the Hollywood Stuntman's Hall of Fame.

Neither was he kidding about his boxing. Only five-feet-seven, he should have been a welterweight, but with his claim that 167 was his his fighting weight, that would make him a middleweight on the cusp of light-heavyweight status. He went through with that Los Angeles fight and won. Which doesn't necessarily mean anything ... because I have no idea who fought him.

Not surprisingly Conrad was involved with at least one of the "Battle of the Network Stars" competitions that ABC used to televise on weekend afternoons. Conrad captained the NBC team in 1976 when he was starring in "Baa Baa Black Sheep," the World War II series retitled "Black Sheep Squadron" when it was syndicated.

Conrad's relay team was penalized in one event, giving victory to the ABC team captained by Gabe Kaplan, of "Welcome Back, Kotter." Conrad disagreed with the decision and somehow talked Kaplan and the event's officials into settling the matter in a two-man, 100-yard dash. Conrad jumped out to a short lead, but Kaplan overtook him and won by a large margin.

Also, Conrad did have a chance to act in the 1978 mini-series, "Centennial," and delivered a marvelous performance.

 
Robert Conrad on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)

 

Also . . .
Don Adams Patty Duke Ricardo Montalban
Herb Alpert Richard Egan George Montgomery
Dana Andrews Jack Elam Joanna Moore
John Astin Linda Evans Mary Tyler Moore
Frankie Avalon Pat Finley Ozzie and Harriet Nelson
Barbara Barrie Eric Fleming Hugh O'Brian
Bill Bixby Peter Fonda Pat O'Brien
George Burns Anthony Franciosa Gene Pitney
Michael Callan Annette Funicello Martha Raye
Richard Chamberlain Zsa Zsa Gabor Della Reese
Leslie Charleson Beverly Garland Carl Reiner
Petula Clark Jackie Gleason Barbara Rush
Dabney Coleman Merv Griffin Robert Ryan
Robert Conrad Mark Harman Henry Silva
Bill Cosby Patricia Harty Julie Sommars
Joseph Cotten Marty Ingels Barbra Streisand
Bob Crane Jack Jones The Three Stooges
Richard Crenna Jack Kelly The Supremes
Ken Curtis Dave Ketchum Dick Van Dyke
Bill Dana Sue Ane Langdon Jerry Van Dyke
Bobby Darin Sheldon Leonard Robert Vaughn
Sammy Davis Jr. Jack Lord Clint Walker
Richard Deacon George Maharis Ray Walston
Bob Denver Jackie Mason Betty White
James Drury Raymond Massey Andy Williams
  Martin Milner Henry Winkler
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