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Robert Conrad, Star of TV’s ‘The Wild Wild West,’ Dies at 84

Actor Robert Conrad, the star of television series including “Hawaiian Eye,” “The Wild Wild West” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” during an almost five-decade career that also included the occasional feature film, has died in Malibu, Calif. He was 84.

Conrad toplined at least one series in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, a rare feat of longevity for a TV star.

He made his debut playing a pilot in the 1958 film “Thundering Jets” and would go on to make credited appearances in some 15 features, making the biggest impression in 1975 heist pic “Murph the Surf” and playing John Dillinger in 1979’s “The Lady in Red.” But Conrad was a far bigger presence in television.

In 1959 Conrad signed a contract with Warner Bros., and the studio cast the young actor, with Anthony Eisley, in the Honolulu-set detective show “Hawaiian Eye,” which ran from 1959-63. Conrad played the half-Hawaiian P.I. Tom Lopaka and guested as that character on three episodes of “77 Sunset Strip.”

The actor did not have long to wait before he found himself the star of another successful series, Michael Garrison’s “The Wild Wild West,” which ran for four seasons on CBS starting in 1965. In this innovative blend of the Western and sci-fi genres — what would be called steampunk now — Conrad starred as charming Secret Service agent James T. West, who, with partner Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), rode a gadget-ridden personal train around the Old West, fighting supervillains in 19th century James Bond style. The show was also known for its well-choreographed fight sequences in which Conrad’s West almost always outlasted a large number of foes.

In 1969, the same year “Wild Wild West” came to an end — cancelled because it was too violent — Conrad starred in the telepic “D.A.: Murder One,” which led to a follow-up film and a brief 1971-72 series called “The D.A.” The actor played a spy in another short-lived series, ABC’s “Assignment Vienna,” during the 1972-73 season.

Conrad had more success with NBC’s “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (later known as “Black Sheep Squadron”), which fictionalized the experiences of WWII ace Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (whom Conrad played) and the fighter squadron he led in the South Pacific. The entertaining show created by Stephen J. Cannell took various liberties with the realities of war in the Pacific Theater: After pressure from the network to improve in the ratings, producers introduced a group of alluring but fictional nurses onto the island where the Black Sheep Squadron was based.

The series ran for two season from 1976-78 but has aired repeatedly in syndication and on outlets such as the History Channel.

Conrad played a French-Canadian fur trader in NBC’s epic 1978 miniseries “Centennial” and starred in the short-lived, spy-themed series “A Man Called Sloane” for the network in 1979. The actor returned to the role of James West for two telepics, “The Wild Wild West Revisited” and “More Wild Wild West,” in 1979 and 1980, respectively.

Conrad formed his own production company in the early 1980s, and most of his smallscreen work from this point on was in series or other efforts produced by A. Shane Co. First up was the book adaptation “Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy.”

The 1982 NBC telepic, exec produced by Conrad’s daughter, Joan Conrad, drew controversy just as Liddy’s book had. “Robert Conrad’s performance in the title role is impressive and uncompromising” said the New York Times, but the reviewer found fault with the fact that “a good deal of the television portrait could be interpreted as admiring. Mr. Liddy is depicted as an outspoken patriot, a staunch defender of law and order. He refuses to compromise his principles.”

Some saw an uncomfortable similarity between the Watergate felon and the actor portraying him. The Rovi review of the film declares, “Robert Conrad fills the role of G. Gordon Liddy like the proverbial glove in this macho-driven biopic”; back in 1982, People magazine said, “Robert Conrad, in a bit of inspired typecasting, portrays to steely-eyed perfection the arrogant Watergate hard guy G. Gordon Liddy.”

Conrad often seemed to be on a lifelong mission to prove that he was tough, and he was tough. He did a brief, undefeated stint as a professional boxer in the early 1960s concurrent with his acting career. On “The Wild Wild West,” Conrad did all but the most dangerous stunts himself until a serious accident during the filming of an episode near the end of the third season put him in the hospital.

(For his work on “The Wild Wild West,” Conrad was made an honorary inductee in the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, one of only six actors to earn that honor.)

During the 1970s he was arguably most well known famous for a series of commercials for Eveready Batteries in which he appeared: In the first ad, which began airing in 1977, Conrad was shown in boxing gloves hitting a punch bag; he then posed with a battery on his shoulder and said, “I dare ya to knock this off! I dare ya to compare anybody’s battery — anybody’s — with Alkaline Power Cells.” Though the ads were mocked on “Saturday Night Live” and elsewhere, the twinkle in his eye at the end of the commercial suggested Conrad was having fun with his image.

Pride in his athletic ability was a clear component in Conrad’s confident and charismatic performances, and he also turned up to participate in such shows of prowess as “Battle of the Network Stars” (he was the NBC team captain), “Superstunt,” “Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes” and “Circus of the Stars #2.”

His confrontation with Gabe Kaplan, star of “Welcome Back, Kotter” and the ABC team captain, on the 1976 edition of “Battle of the Network Stars” led to a famous moment of humiliation for Conrad: The latter insisted on a one-on-one 100 yard dash with Kaplan after a call that went against the NBC team, but Kaplan blew past Conrad during the improvised race to win handily.

Describing a meeting with Jimmy Hoffa over a proposed film in which he would portray the labor leader, Conrad recalled to the Chicago Tribune that Hoffa “was not unlike me and had an aggressive, cocky attitude.”

Konrad Robert Falkowski was born in Chicago. His mother was Jackie Smith, the first publicity director for Mercury Records.

He never graduated from high school, going to work early as a Teamster and briefly singing at a nightclub, but spent a year at Northwestern U., where he became interesting in acting. Conrad spent a year in New York and eventually found his way to Los Angeles in 1957.

Conrad’s later series efforts were 1987’s “High Mountain Rangers,” briefly resurrected in 1989 as “Jesse Hawkes,” and 1995’s “High Sierra Search and Rescue,” all from his production company, which also produced telepics including “Two Fathers’ Justice,” “Charley Hannah,” “Glory Days,” “Mario and the Mob” and “Sworn to Vengeance.”

Conrad had a supporting role as Officer Hummell in the 1996 Arnold Schwarzenegger feature “Jingle All the Way.”

He was also an occasional director and writer, helming three episodes of “Black Sheep Squadron,” among other series efforts; earning story credits on an episode of “Hawaiian Eye” and the 1984 telepic “Hard Knox”; and co-directing and co-scripting 1967 Western feature “The Bandits.”

In 2003 Conrad was convicted of DUI after a car accident that left him partially paralyzed and seriously injured the other driver. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest in a plea agreement.

Conrad ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild in 2005.

He began hosting a show on CRN Digital Talk Radio in 2007.

Conrad was married and divorced twice, the second time to LaVelda Fann, who appeared in a number of Conrad productions. He is survived by eight children, including producer daughter Joan, sons Christian and Shane and daughter Nancy, all actors, and at least 19 grandchildren.

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