Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Thank you, Robert Conrad!

Michael Salsbury
Robert Conrad (pictured at right, circa 1965) starred in two of my favorite childhood shows - The Wild Wild West and Baa Baa Black Sheep.  I didn't catch The Wild Wild West until it hit syndication, and even then only on occasional visits to my late grandparents' house (as they were the only ones who had cable TV for most of my childhood). My family used to watch Baa Baa Black Sheep together when it aired in the 1970's.

Lately, because of my fond memories of both shows, I've been binge watching them in the evenings after work. 

I had always liked Robert Conrad. His performances stuck with me when those of many other fine actors and actresses that I have watched over the years didn't. Now that I'm older, I can see why Conrad's work has stuck in my mind.

In The Wild Wild West, Conrad plays James West.  West is part secret-agent, part cowboy, and part barroom brawler.  Conrad manages to pull off all three elements of the performance. West comes across to the audience as confident, competent, intelligent, and likable.  At times, when the crazy contraptions and sometimes cheesy sets start to pull you out of the reality the show is trying to create, Conrad's (and fellow star Ross Martin's) performance brings you back in.  Yes, the show at times was campy, over-the-top, and a little silly.  But Conrad and Martin played their roles so well you don't care. It's fun to watch them work.

What's really amazing to me is how much of his own stunt work Conrad did back then.  When you see James West hop off a high railing, grab a chandelier, swing across the room, and land on the bad guys, very often you're seeing Robert Conrad doing that - not some unknown stuntman.  You know that because you see his face.  These were not simple stunts in most cases.  They were very physical acts that required skill and strength.

Conrad isn't a tall man, though he's no shrimp, either.  I've read that he is 5'8" tall.  Often, in The Wild Wild West, we see James West go up against actors who are considerably taller than Conrad.  In the hands of someone without Conrad's skills, fight scenes against larger opponents could look ridiculous. While not every fight scene came off perfectly in that regard, I usually find myself believing that James West really is taking down a bigger (probably stronger) opponent. That's a testament to Conrad's acting and stunt abilities.

(By today's standards, there are some gender and racial stereotypes which creep into The Wild Wild West here and there.  A few moments have even made me cringe.  However, unlike many television shows of its era, The Wild Wild West tends to get things right more often than it gets them wrong. We see women as the villains on occasion, with intelligence and resourcefulness comparable to that of West and Gordon. We see non-Caucasions treated as equals and with respect by the two main characters. On occasion, though, we see West and Gordon treat women as objects. I suspect that if we could travel back to the real time period in which the show is set, we would see much, much worse in real life.  I'm not suggesting that makes it right - only that it could have been worse.)

In Baa Baa Black Sheep, Robert Conrad plays an officer in charge of a squadron of pilots who were all destined for a court martial.  His character, "Pappy" Boyington, disregarded and antagonized the military leadership, flagrantly broke the rules, got into fights, got drunk, and womanized.  It would be very easy to watch stories about a person like that and grow to dislike them.  The writers of the show, and Conrad's acting, make Boyington an enjoyable character to watch. We have no trouble believing that Conrad's character loves flying, loves his country, cares for the men under his command, and enjoys a good time.

When I finish with these two series, I will start seeking out his other work to enjoy. I have no doubt that he delivered the same caliber of performances there.

Thank you, Mr. Conrad, for the many hours of entertainment you've brought me over the years. I have been impressed with your work and skill for most of my life, and continue to appreciate what you've accomplished. I wish you nothing but the best, and a long (even longer) life. To me, you're one of the finest actors and stuntmen ever to appear on screen.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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