23 January 2004 | cariart
Hi-Tech Action Adventure set in Wild West...
At the peak of the 007 craze (1965), television was virtually inundated with 'secret agent' series, some clever ("The Man from U.N.C.L.E."), some dazzling ("The Avengers"), some novel ("I Spy"), and more than a few just bad ("Amos Burke, Secret Agent"). Yet the most unabashedly entertaining series of the genre was also the most far-fetched, set in the 1870s, with two Secret Service agents operating out of a private train. "The Wild Wild West" lived up to it's title, and had more imagination, action, and romance than any other series of it's time.
The brainchild of producer Michael Garrison, the Sci Fi/Western starred 30-year old TV veteran Robert Conrad ("Hawaiian Eye") as James West, an impossibly handsome, yet dedicated secret agent. While Conrad's acting skills were no threat to Olivier, as an ex-boxer, he was in superb physical condition, and performed nearly all of his own stunts, throughout the series' run. Dressed in a waist coat and tight toreador pants ("If I turned the wrong way, they'd split", he joked), he exuded a sex appeal that no other TV star of the sixties could match.
His partner, Artemus Gordon, was portrayed by respected character actor Ross Martin, a 45-year old with impeccable credentials ("Mr. Lucky", "The Twilight Zone") over a twenty-year career. He had begun acting on radio in the forties, playing a wide variety of characters, and his role as Gordon gave him a similar opportunity, as a master of disguise. Witty, and with a childlike thirst for knowledge, Martin and 'Gordon' had much in common, and he and Conrad quickly developed a friendship that would continue until his death, in 1981. The loyalty between the pair was so strong, in fact, that when Martin suffered a mild heart attack, during the series' run, the star and producers refused to write his character out of the show, but filled his 'position' with 'guest stars', until he was healthy enough to resume the role.
The premise of the show was simple; each week, in episodes always entitled "The Night of...", a megalomaniac would come up with a nefarious scheme, involving prototype weapons way ahead of their time, and West and Gordon would have to defeat him and his gang (a group of stuntmen who would reappear, every episode, in a variety of guises), while West would seduce the inevitably beautiful girl involved with the bad guys. Each episode would feature two spectacular brawls between West and the henchmen, one or two disguises for Gordon, and a climax where the heroes, held prisoner, would have to find a clever means to escape, and destroy the weapon. Many of Hollywood's legendary actors would guest as the villain, but the most popular, by far, who would reappear the most frequently, was the brilliantly funny, yet evil dwarf, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, portrayed by gifted actor Michael Dunn. A 31-year old best remembered for his work in the film, SHIP OF FOOLS, Dunn's 'Loveless' was as popular as Conrad and Martin, and his episodes were always the most stylish and entertaining.
Unlike the rest of television's 'spy genre', the cancellation of "The Wild Wild West" was not due to declining ratings, but to CBS' knee-jerk reaction to protests that the program was excessively violent. The network constantly badgered the producers to 'tone down' the show, and they finally refused to 'soften' the program any further, preferring to end the series 'on top' rather than see it lose the qualities that made it work.
Two high-rated TV 'reunion' movies were made, in 1979 and 1980, featuring the original stars, and more were planned, but, with the death of Ross Martin, Robert Conrad decided to 'retire' the franchise, out of respect to his friend.
The legendary status of the show led to an inevitable big screen adaptation, in 1999. While Conrad was invited to make a cameo, after reading the script, he publicly ridiculed it, saying it demeaned the memory of both Martin and Michael Dunn. George Clooney, who had signed to play Artemus Gordon, felt he had a point, and left the project, his role then filled by Kevin Kline. The resulting film, starring Will Smith as 'Jim' West, Kline, and Kenneth Branagh as a crippled Dr. 'Arliss' Loveless, was everything Conrad had said; tasteless, and totally lacking the chemistry and magic of the series. It quickly bombed at the box office, ending Smith's string of hit films.
"The Wild Wild West" maintains a unique position among 'spy' shows, and television in the 1960s, with a fan base that is extremely loyal, to this day. It is STILL one of the most entertaining series in syndication, and a tribute to Michael Garrison's vision, and Robert Conrad and Ross Martin's terrific chemistry together.
Accept no substitutes!