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ROSS MARTIN: NOT JUST A SIDEKICK
Who can ever forget those moments when West's fighting abilities would fail him or he'd run out of tricks or it looked like he would become some kind of animal fodder, where things just weren't looking good? Then in the nick of time, in would step some crazy old timer, or salty seaman, or some kind weird lost foreigner who would stand next to the helpless Jim, and with the classic Artie musical shtick he would wink, then proceed to create some outlandish diversion which gave West a few extra moments to escape. Only we were privy to the fact that it was West's partner Artemus Gordon in some outrageous disguise coming to the rescue. Not even the intelligent Dr. Loveless could see through Gordon's wolf in sheep's clothing. It was these magical moments in the show that keenly reminded us that Ross Martin's Artemus Gordon character was not West's sidekick, but an integral part of a master plan that made Artie Jim's equal. The general consensus of anybody I spoke to was that Ross was the actor and Bob did the fights.
Ironically, Ross turned down the role of Artemus four times until certain changes were made to the character and the network was so enthralled with his ability to do different dialects and characters, they knew he was the man for the role. Martin actually spoke eight languages and could do hundreds of dialects. Although originally not intended to be West's sidekick but more of a supplier of information and gadgets, changes were made to make Gordon a partner, a man who comes across like Burt Lancaster's RAINMAKER and Donald O'Connor MUSIC MAN wrapped around a blanket of MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES.
In an interview for TV Guide just after accepting the role, Martin said of the original Artemus characterization "He hates to fight not because he's a coward but because he's a complete con man. If he can't talk a man out of it, then he's failed. His two major weaknesses are booze and women."
And early on this became a sticking point, because West would get all the women. All we'd hear about was his Aunt Maude, a lady we never saw. But as lady luck would have it, in the form of a horse, his vision came true.
Writer Ken Kolb shares, "Ross, I envied. I wish that I could have been that much in love with myself. He was an actor's actor, self-involved to a great extent and not a bad guy unless you trod on his toes. The thing with Ross is that he could not figure out why he was the second banana because he was obviously the better actor and just as handsome as Bobby.
"Ross especially liked me because once Bobby wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby, I was given the chore of writing a show so he could shoot one or two days then disappear. That is how "The Night of the Big Blast" came about, where Ross had the romantic lead with Mala Powers. Ross got to carry the story the way he seldom did. So we can thank the ponies for that. It was about Ida Lupino being a sort of female Dr. Frankenstein where she'd make copies of Jim and Artie and use them to blow up things."
Throughout the tenure of the show Gordon donned himself in 124 different disguises that would arise from not only his own ability to do makeup but from the makeup man Don Schoenfeld, later replaced by Ken Chase. They had a set of five different noses to work from as well as a plaster cast of Ross's head which you can see proudly displayed in the "TNot Brain." Some of Martin's favorites were the English gold prospector in "TNot Underground Terror," the Jewish tailor in "TNot Vicious Valentine" and the German cook in "TNot Infernal Machine" of which he gave us a curtain call of him in "TNot Big Blackmail." He would even disguise himself as Artie and as President Grant.
Producer Fred Freiberger recalls, "Martin was legitimately concerned, he'd be in a situation where he was attacked by 3000 burglars and Bobby would come in and kick the shit out of them. He had this friend, Boris, he'd complain to and I'd hear, "Ross feels like an ass-hole. He's standing around and Bobby is killing everybody." It was true. Bobby was playing Gary Cooper and he knew his limitations, and he knew Ross was a better actor than he was, so when I asked Bobby how could we get Ross involved in these fights, he said, "Just keep him out of my area. I don't want to get in to his area." But Bobby was always cooperative and said they would find a way to put him in and they did.
"Plus, of course there was the woman thing. The format of the show was that Bobby would end in the railroad car with a gorgeous woman. Ross complained to the network, so I got a call from the network saying put him in with the woman. So we put him in with two gorgeous women in the boxcar. I get a call from program practices, lovely guys up there. One guy says, "Fred, why is Ross in there?" I said that the network required that, it's no big sweat. But he says, "He's so lascivious - do something about that." My story editor guy, who used a cane because he had premature polio, lovely guy with a great sense of humor. He had rare courage. I said, "Dick you go down and talk to Ross." Ross liked him because he had done some scene in a show before in a bathtub or something that Ross loved. So Dick talked to him and came back and I said, "Did you tell him?" He said, "He was just wonderful, I told him to cut things down." Ross never spoke to him again the rest of the time we were there."
So now Ross was involved in doing fights but it still took time to do the riding. Stunt coordinator Whitey Hughes recalls, "I remember that Ross had a difficult time getting on horses and even when the horse was at full gallop he would have to hang on for dear life. So in the first season we would shoot Gordon either already on the horse or riding it. In fact, one time he busted his thumb because it was a bit rough."
So just what exactly was Conrad and Martin's off camera relationship like? I asked Conrad about this in person.
"It's my feelings that it was exemplary," Conrad blurts, "Ross was an actor and he loved acting and I did the stunts and fighting and had my group where Ross would always talk about the substance of the piece. Subsequently there was some friction but because we were both mature men and I had respect for his talent I'd say, "Ross, you have the greatest co-stars in the world, academy award winners, you do the acting and I'll do the stunts."
"We were on the Johnny Carson show together and Johnny kept talking to me about the fighting and stunts. When Johnny got to Ross he asked, "So Ross, do you do your own stunts?" He just looked at him and answered, "I do my own acting." The next day on set I just said to Ross, "You can't top that.""
The fourth season must have been a trying time for Ross starting on June 26th 1968. When I watched the show as a kid I've always remembered this one episode where this old postman comes into a shooting gallery. I thought it was going to be Ross in disguise, because you could always tell, but it wasn't. About five minutes later, the old man is running with Conrad and then, "Wait a minute, that old man is Artie. What gives?"
Bruce Lansbury shares, "Well during the shooting of that episode ("TNot Avaricious Actuary"), Ross tripped over a rifle and broke his leg. It was actually a hairline fracture on his shin but it still required he wore a cast up to his hip and when he came back we rewrote the scripts so he could sit down or limp with walking stick." So in "TNot Juggernaut," Gordon injures his leg and in "TNot Kraken" Gordon is disguised as a limping pirate.
However during the filming of "The Night of Fire and Brimestone," a show influenced by the then recent discoveries of Japanese soldiers on small Pacific islands still believing WW2 was still on, Ross was ironically playing a sick doctor when he started having problems on the set. The following day, August 17th, 1968, Martin suffered a major heart attack.
Bruce Lansbury, "We were all pretty devastated and saddened to hear this and not knowing when he was coming back, or if he would. So we started casting for guest replacement agents. We didn't change the scripts, just inserted the different actor in where Artie would have been."
They created a story line where Artie went to Washington and now and then insert a message from Artie to West to keep the illusion alive. Martin missed nine episodes but made a full recovery and actually at the end of "TNot Pistoleros" we get for the first time to see then new and improved Artie, trim, good spirits, new look and new hairstyle.
After the show, Conrad and Martin went their separate ways and on July 3rd, 1981, Martin had a fatal heart attack and died at the age of 61. A genius actor had passed away but not forgotten. Unfortunately due to illness I was unable to interview his beautiful wife, Olavee, for this article. I hope all is well.
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