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ROBERT CONRAD SPEAKS ABOUT THE SHOW AND THE MOVIE
In an unprecedented move, I got a call one day from Robert Conrad who was willing to give me a rare interview about THE WILD, WILD WEST. From my perspective, it was more than an honor to be able to speak to the guy that was the show. I knew that I also wanted to speak to him about the film and judging from what I knew about Robert Conrad, he would appreciate honesty rather than just meet somewhere and pop the questions at him. I openly tell him that what I have heard about the film is that he was offered the part of President Grant and that he turned it down and that he has had some problems with the casting of the Jim West character. A moment of silence later he iterates, "So what are they saying?" I basically ask him if he would also be willing to speak about the film. He abruptly interrupts, "Well, I'm sure you know me, it's not the first time I've put my foot in my mouth and it won't be the last time. So let's talk." We set up a time at a local hotel in the Westwood area.
For the prior 3 months leading up to the hope of getting to interview anybody about the TV show, I recorded every episode of THE WILD, WILD WEST. But now I suddenly found myself wondering what to ask. Don't get me wrong, I had a ton of questions, but this was Robert Conrad I was going to speak with. Speaking to a big star can sometimes make you nervous, but this is one of your childhood heroes. I mean the first time I spoke with him, and much to my embarrassment, I called him "Jim." The day arrived. We met, shook hands and he bartended the hotel nightclub because for some reason the guy on duty wasn't around so Bob just said, "What the hell, I'll just help out." The hotel manager returns, at a loss for words, he thanks Conrad. He replies, "No need to do that. I had fun with it but I charge a lot if you need me again." A roar of laughter later we are sitting down sharing a bowl of peanuts and drinks.
"Look Craig," he begins, "I've turned down 23 interviews, so I'm doing this one and the only other one I've done so far was for the French version of the TV GUIDE." He shows me the cover with his quote in French about the film LE FILM EST UNE OFFENSE! He straightforwardly poses, "What do you suppose that means?"
A knowingly smirk later he jumps right in, "I read the script of the movie and it's very disappointing."
When I mention that I heard he was offered the part of Grant, he leans forward, "No, that is not true. Originally they had producers who won't end up producing the film but they'll get credit. There will be more producing credits on this film. But anyway, they leaked it to the press that they were going to be offering me this role. I think what they were doing was testing the waters. I did meet with Sonnenfeld and Jon Peters. My meeting with Sonnenfeld was blah. I just felt b.l.a.h. It was a courtesy on his part. When I didn't drop to my knees and kiss his ring after MEN IN BLACK, I think he had enough of me. And when I met Jon Peters, it was Hollywood hype at its worst. You know there is a lot of descent, honest people in this community. Don Meyer, Brandon Tartikoff, Frank Price who ran Columbia, but every once in a while, you meet a jive-ass.... and Jon Peters is a jive-ass but I did want to do the film because he is such a talented hair dresser. I thought it would be great in between takes he could maybe do my hair.
"He alleges to be a martial artist. He told me he was a martial artist and I find that suspect. But if he would ever like to prove it, I am certainly available."
I raise an eyebrow, saying to Bob that this article might cause some rifts.
He raises his hand the way you know someone knows what they are doing, "No. I don't care, Craig, I don't care. I know what I am saying, I see that red light. I measure my words. My brain doesn't speak first, my mouth does. I'm not the kind of man... the best way to deal with me is, if you have to deal with me for some reason, is you can't. I am happy if someone would say, "Well, you are too old, too short." Whatever. What I really can't stand is being jacked. When Peters told me and his quote, "You must be in this movie.""
His glare and stare says it all. Sure Hollywood is a place where truths are lies and lies are truths and there are too many people that don't do what they say or say what they mean. Playing these sort of hip-hype games is uncool but it happens, but to play these sort of games with someone who is established and has paid their dues, well that is just downright disrespectful.
"I'm not thrilled with the casting for all three roles for a variety of reasons. I didn't have to "be in the movie," and as it is I'm going to France when they start to hype the film. I have enough ego to say that I don't want... I don't want to have people think I'm bitter because they'll never do the 104 episodes. I don't care how many movies they make, they'll never get there and having said that... I thought the film could have been an opportunity for those people, the aficionados of the show to be able to see the '90s version. And in all honesty, I would have liked to make a contribution to that off-camera if there wasn't something I felt I wanted to do on camera.
"I'm a pilot and have my own two planes. I flew in for the interview with the understanding to meet the director and I was not going to be reading for this role. Of course the meeting went well and they said, "Would you be kind enough to read?" I said that I wouldn't but I'd be happy to read the menu of any great restaurant that you would like to take me to celebrate my getting this role. (laughing) I didn't get the role."
We talk about what Peters and Sonnenfeld expect to do in terms of the action. Conrad offers his thoughts on that. "Terry Leonard is the coordinator and he worked on THE WILD, WILD WEST and he's subsequently gone on to be hot. Will Smith may be athletic but they are not going to get there. I did it all, you know that, you are a fight coordinator, you've seen it, you can tell. And Will is going to do that?"
Another rumor floating around is that Conrad was bent out of shape because Jim West was going to be black. What did he have to say about that?
"The African-American casting of that role is probably and should not be an issue. I think the casting of Smith is the issue. I appreciate his popularity. However, I'd prefer an actor with more athletic prowess. He's a good comedian but just not my choice to play my role. Best would be a Wesley Snipes body with a Denzell Washington head. When I did the show, I had black actors like Rip Swain, a stuntman and friend of mine, Cal Brown and Sammy Davis, Jr. All these actors were in the show because they were actors. We never dealt with that issue but with the film they are dealing with it. There is a reference in it to a racial slur. I hope it's not in the final version. I said, "Why are we going in this direction. Why not just play James West black without explaining it?" I've had a wonderful relationship over the past 40 years with the black community, but I am not going to say, "Yeah, Will. Cool, he de man." He ain't the man.
"Michael Dunn did such a great job playing Dr. Loveless, and he was by far the best villain on the show. There are so many talented dwarfs but they wanted Kenneth Brannagh. He was in HAMLET. It was tedious and tough for me to stay awake, I kept looking for Mel (Gibson). I don't mean to slam-dunk him but it was kind of lost. I've never seen Kevin Kline but I know he kissed Tom Selleck and Larry King. He is not Ross Martin. Kevin Spacey or Gary Sinese. Bottom line is the cast. Sonnenfeld is hot, they've put lots of pre-production money into it, on paper it looks good... well maybe not. Do you think this means I will never work for them or my career is probably not going to be enhanced by the fact that I don't have a lot of respect for the way they have treated this project? (laughs) Do you think they will ever hire me?"
Born as Conrad Robert Falk, when he was 22 Warner Brothers changed his name Robert Conrad. He appeared in his first TV series HAWAIIAN EYE which ran from 1959-63. Conrad was formerly a milkman in the San Leandro Valley and was used to getting up at 4:00 am, and swinging bottles over his shoulder. It was this sort of work ethic, keeping in shape and mentality that ultimately would prepare him for the role of Captain James T. West. But he was not really a trained stuntman and at a time when stars would refuse to even take a punch or fall down without a double, why did he put upon his shoulders to start doing everything himself?
"When the show started there was lots of action in there, and they were taking forever and we had a stunt coordinator and a lot of guys standing around talking, drinking coffee and the cameras weren't rolling and we were over budget. I saw this actor get knocked off a horse and I said, "I'm going to get the horse and get knocked off." I had done some stunts in my career. My deal was I'd say a line and do a stunt. It was economically feasible. I was an athlete and agile and I did the stunt. Then I'd say move the camera here and there, now we have coverage, now put in the actor and all of a sudden we started to move and instead of doing John Wayne fights we did more avant garde kind of farcical fights. High camp. I said lets go for the martial arts, karate, kung-fu sort of stuff. I was studying with John Leoni. But you know it wasn't THE WILD, WILD WEST that was the first to have martial arts introduced on TV but it was with my other show, HAWAIIAN EYE. The stuntman that did fight scenes with me was Robert Herron and he came from a distinguished stunt family. He was a boxer and I'd just say, "You do your stuff and I'll do mine. Just throw your punches like you would." He throws a straight punches and I'd block it like so (does some stylized martial art blocks). So then martial arts came more prominent with Bruce Lee when he did GREEN HORNET.
"But then they started giving out awards to every actor who could do three moves, so then I said, "Ah, now I'm going back to boxing and brawling.""
Although Bill Catching was the original stunt coordinator, he was replaced by Whitey Hughes and from then the central core of the action and fights were primarily done by Red West, Bob Herron, Jerry Laveroni, Dick Cangey and Jimmy George. The list would intermittently include in one or two others here or there.
So what exactly happened with "the accident," the stunt that went awry and held up production for 12 weeks?
"Normally when we would do a fight or an action stunt, we would do it in one take. And the time when we did it more than one, it was the accident. I broke my skull in 1968 because we did two takes. And today, there is still a dispute as to whether Jerry Laveroni was late or whether he lost his heart. I think he was late. I was jumping onto the chandelier, I was doing an "L" and he was to stop my forward momentum. We were slow on the first take and there was a stuntman named Terry Crampton from England, a great stuntman. So he was watching. I felt like I wanted to show the Brits what we were up to. So I said, "Let';s do it again." And we did it again. The timing was off, my hands slipped and I fell onto the solid cement. The show stopped. I had this six-inch lineal fracture and had a high temporal concussion and I was in big trouble. But I survived.
"So when I came back for the fourth season I was limited to what I could do for insurance reasons. There was never a conversation about the accident. I've always been the kind of man that adheres to authority, marginally. My first yes is not always my last yes. So I agreed and gradually I did all the fights but couldn't do anything five feet off the ground and of course that went out the window."
And what price has he paid? "I've many problems with my neck now, progressively worse with age. I'm always in some minor pain, I don't know what it's like to be healthy with my neck and spine. When you say, "Hey Bob," you'll see me turn slowly, if I turn to fast it's painful. Fights are a bitch because you have to snap your neck. Bottom line Craig. Was it worth it? The answer is "Absolutely." If I've got to live with a little pain and have someone like Jackie Chan be so supportive of what I've done, that's good enough for me. Because Chan is the man."
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