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WHITEY HUGHES: HEAD OF CONRAD'S CREW
After talking to all the executives, the stars and the filmmakers that made THE WILD, WILD WEST happen, it's time to talk to the real nuts and bolts of what made the show a pure, visual, pugilistic spectacle, the likes that have never been seen before on American TV. The man in charge of the show and labeled as a "flyer," was an unassuming country boy from Oklahoma who came to L.A. at the age of 16, seeking to become a stuntman and ride on the open plains with his heroes. Throughout his 50-year career as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, Whitey Hughes has been touted as the top stuntman in Hollywood. No fangled du-dads back in those days fellas, minimal padding, not on the cellular arranging your next gig while you're negotiating for a higher stunt adjustment, we're talking just plain ole 'gut'n it out and hope you're okay' stuntwork. Even Conrad will admit that in America, Whitey Hughes was the best. Sitting in a Japanese restaurant with his wife Dottie, I joined them for an afternoon of storytelling and fun.
Whitey reflects on how he became stunt coordinator. "I was working on MAJOR DUNDEE and Bill Catching was coordinating the first season. Bill called me one day to see if I could replace another boy that was supposed to work on the show saying, "I got a job for you." I went over and dreamed up a gag with one of the few boys that doubled Bobby back then, Chuck O'Brien. Had three or four guys in the gag. (see "The Night of the Steel Assassin"). So I told Bobby that at the right time I'd yell "Bob" and you just put your hand up and I'll be there. We did it, he put his hands up in time, turned his body and knocked the guy back down. After that I was talking with the makeup man and Bobby came over and the guy said to him, "Do you know Whitey Hughes?" Bobby said, "I've worked with him all day but never been introduced." We shook hands and he said, "You'll be back."
"Sure enough, he called me back and one night we went out to dinner, me, his girlfriend and my wife Dottie, and he said to me, "Whitey, How would you like to coordinate the action on THE WILD, WILD WEST?" I sat up and said that would be a dream come true but it could never happen and... he cut me off, saying, "I asked you, how would you like to coordinate the action?" I said, "I'd love it, but there are guys ahead of me and CBS might not give the job." Well apparently Bill was on his way out and going to work with Chuck Connors on BRANDED, so I got the job and formed this group."
That was Red West, bodyguard for Elvis Presley. He just came onto set one day, went up to Conrad and asked for work. Conrad directed him to Hughes and he became part of the crew. Dick Cangey was second in the group, a former fighter and became known as the "catcher" (the one that breaks the fall for others). Jerry Laveroni came in later and Tom Huff who was working with the carpenter gang. There was Bob Herron who doubled for Ross who had worked with Conrad on HAWAIIAN EYE. Others would come and go but one of the other originals was Jimmy George, the wardrobe man who was the perfect body double for Conrad. Considered one of the nice guys of the group, he would double for Conrad as needed. On that subject Hughes relates, "Bobby told me he hated having doubles, but if it was something extremely dangerous, a crash or burn, we'd get a guy from outside to do it. He could've done it but I told Bobby that I didn't want CBS to give me marching orders before I started."
If you've watched the show, you've seen him just about every week, usually as the smallest stuntman that is always getting tossed around like a rag doll. But with the wonders of makeup, you can still tell that it's Whitey as the butler in "TNot Burning Diamond," the red-headed screamer in "TNot Vicious Valentine," the blind army man in "TNot Underground Terror," the head granny on a wheel chair, the Russian soldier, or the countless henchmen characters for every villain West of the Mississippi.
I told Whitey I had spoken to Bobby about "the accident" from "TNot Fugitives" and that I would like to hear what he recalls from all of that. With a piteous frown, a remembrance of what was a hard time in his life, he speaks. "We set up this gag where he was supposed to jump off a balcony and land on this chandelier and he was supposed to swing into Jerry Laveroni. Jerry was new, we took him on as one of Bob's boys. Jerry was supposed to be there to stop Bobby's momentum from the swing by Bobby kicking him in he chest. The gag didn't work because the chandelier was hanging straight down when he jumped. If it had been angled towards him so he swung down at an angle, if would never have happened.
"Bobby told me to do this commercial for TIP TOP BREAD. I said no because I have to be here for this but he insisted saying, "Whitey, take the commercial, we can cover for you here and it will be okay." I went. When I saw the film, the problem was that he dove out straight and there was no tape on the bar to prevent his hands from slipping. I spoke to Tim Smythe (the special effects man) about that, he wanted to put tape on but he said, "Bob's a smart guy, I figured he put on what he wanted to put on." I believe if tape was on, he could've hung on. It was a slick bar. "He was in the hospital for two weeks and I went to see him at nights. I was chewing my nails, thought I'd be through. I mean I was the coordinator, I should have been there."
Although there were restrictions, but as Conrad told me those things sort of floated away. Hughes shares with us a classic example of that. "One day he fooled me. We had this gag where Red West (from "TNot Tycoons") and Dick Cangey were chasing Bobby up a staircase, enter this room and then Jimmy George was supposed to come out as Bobby. He got his arms all tangled up and then they came crashing down out of the veranda. I had dug a pit and put a catcher in there for all three guys but he fooled me. Bobby had told Jimmy, "I am going to do this." Christ, I almost had a heart attack when I saw the three flying down. Bobby got up and laughed and said, "How'd you like that?" I said, "Now Bob, you're gonna get me fired." But he could do stunts like that. Bobby was a handy handyman."
But getting hurt and taking the risk is part of a stuntman's livelihood. Hughes has worked on such projects as THE WILD BUNCH, KILLER ELITE, THE RIFLEMAN, FURY, THE STUNTMAN and he's even doubled for Barbara Hershey, Stephanie Powers, Lana Turner and Virginia Mayo.
Whitey starts telling a story about a young stuntman but couldn't recall his name. "Had a boy on the show, he's a brand name now. I think Bobby hired him. He had a fight scene on a podium and Bobby came up on the podium and the brawl starts. This kid was supposed to pick up this big captain chair, it wasn't a break away, so I asked him to raise it up but not hit Bobby with it and Bobby will give you a gut shot. Well the fight started and he picked up this chair and whacked Bobby over the head. When I see this guy hitting him I'm going, "Oooohhhh." I caught Bobby coming off the end of the podium. I had to hold him up and you can see him stagger around a bit, I don't know how he shook the cobwebs out, but he did and we finished the fight. (remember this was all done in one shot and one take). That was his last appearance on the show."
If irony doesn't take the cake on this one, nothing does. That stuntman turned out to be Terry Leonard, the man coordinating stunts for the movie version.
In closing, when I ask Whitey how did he feel about the show being cancelled, he sadly looks at me saying, "I got to tell you, I was very sad. I didn't get into pictures for the money, it was for the love. As long as I could make a living, I was working and loving every minute of it. Even with all my injuries, I'd do it all again. It's been that good to me."
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