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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Wild, Wild West: An Overview of An American Classic Television Milestone

Below is an article detailing the classic Sci-Fi-James Bond-Western tv program, THE WILD, WILD WEST. An episode guide will follow in the near future...

THE WILD, WILD WEST was an unusual television western created by Michael Garrison during a time when the oaters were losing steam to the James Bond era of spy movie trappings and exotic locales. Running for four seasons from September 17th 1965 to April 4th 1969, the show was conceived as a "Bond in the old west" program and accrued a hearty 104 hour long episodes during its four year run. Filled with action, gadgets, double crosses, colorful villains, beautiful women and anachronisms galore, THE WILD, WILD WEST was a superb means of getting a Bondian style fix on the small screen as well as being an attractive alternative to the western fanbase.

The premise involved two secret service agents, Jim West and Artemus Gordon and their job to protect President Ulysses S. Grant from various assassination plots as well as insidious plans for country and even world domination schemes spearheaded by a menagerie of colorful and flamboyant villains. Jim and Artemus (Arty) had their own private train they traveled in. The train itself was lined with gadgets that would often enable the two spies to make a hasty escape on a number of occasions when the villains would drop in for a surprise "visit".

Essaying the role of Jim West was Robert Conrad, an athletic and gifted actor who primarily performed in television only occasionally dabbling in movies. Conrad was perfectly suited for the role of James West and was most impressive in the action scenes. He had his own stunt team of actors whom, if you pay close attention, you'll see the same guys portraying the thugs in various episodes. For there time and even today, the fights are quite dynamic. Conrad also insisted on doing his own stunts; another aspect of the choreography that lended a compelling element to the fight sequences.

He would continue doing all his own stunts until a serious accident while shooting the season three episode, "The Night of the Fugitives" put him in the hospital after falling 12 feet head first onto a concrete floor painted to look like wood. The mishap remains in the episode as opposed to eliminating it entirely. After the disastrous fall, Conrad is now in a different position on the floor and staggers to his feet to continue the brawl. Upon his return to filming, he found restrictions placed on what kind of stunts he would be allowed to do. Conrad is one of the few actors to be inducted into the Stuntman Hall of Fame.

Assumed to be inspired by Robert Conrad's eagerness to perform all his own stunts, his co-star wanted to follow suit--Ross Martin (Artemus Gordon) displayed a desire (on occasion) to get in on the action but turned out to not be as good at it as Conrad. Martin's stuntman, Bob Herron, performed over 90% of the stunt scenes required of the Artemus character. However, in a freak accident while filming the season four episode, 'The Night of the Avaricious Actuary', Ross would break his leg after tripping over his rifle. Modifications were made to upcoming scripts to write in the broken leg.

Problems didn't end there for Martin, though. During a break in the shooting of the fourth season show 'The Night of Fire & Brimstone', Martin would suffer a heart attack that would nearly end his time on THE WILD, WILD WEST. To compensate for his absence, as opposed to replacing him, guest agents were brought in while "Arty was in Washington". Martin would return to shoot a few more episodes appearing in 15 of the 24 programs for season four. Martin would return to the role for two television movies--WILD, WILD WEST REVISITED (1979) and MORE WILD, WILD WEST (1980).

Ross Martin as secret agent and master of disguise Artemus Gordon, became a fan favorite with his laudably hilarious and near constant costume and character changes. Whereas Conrad was the muscle of the group, Gordon provided the brains and also designed the numerous gadgets used to get James West out of life-threatening situations. They provided the perfect foil for one another. Reportedly, the two were fiercely competitive but grew to be great friends over time. It would be hard to imagine the series existing without either character or the actors that played them. Martin was later nominated for an Emmy for his portrayal of the cunning and suave Artemus Gordon. Martin passed away in 1981 while preparing a third WILD, WILD WEST tv movie with Robert Conrad.

Michael Dunn, who played the lovably venomous and hugely popular super villain, Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, became an overnight success for his portrayal of the diminutive madman bent on world domination. His role was designed as a recurring one and he was tapped for five episodes per season. However, declining health prevented him from doing so as the series went on. Prior to THE WILD, WILD WEST, Dunn was a nightclub singer and his partner, Phoebe Dorin, joined him as his traveling accomplice on the sci fi-western series as the character of Antoinette. The two performed a number of entertaining duets on their stage shows together.

Considering the impact the undersized villain would have with viewers, the world of WILD, WILD WEST wouldn't be the same without him and his lessened appearances for the last two years of the show leaves a slight void that some of the other wicked characters are incapable of filling. Dunn managed to appear in 10 shows throughout the four seasons--five in season one, three in season two and one a piece for the last two seasons. What was most interesting about the pint sized ego maniacal madman was his rapport with James West.

Throughout their ten encounters, both had a perplexing amount of respect for one another. Especially Dr. Loveless. On many occasions he could have simply shot West; preferring instead to test out any number of ingenious death devices he had devised to bring about the end of his cunning adversary. With all the time and effort the meticulous madman puts into the creation of his lethal contraptions, it would be a shame to let them go to waste by using a mere bullet. Loveless fancies himself a scholar and scientific genius and expects nothing short of the most spectacular death for his nemesis.

There was an attempt to create another recurring villain in the form of Count Carlos Mario Vincenzo Robespierre Manzeppi played with assured reticence by Victor Buono. The character was introduced in the season two opener, 'The Night of the Eccentrics'. The Count was a maleficent magician hired to carry out assassinations usually traveling with a group of similarly sinister characters. He didn't click as well with audiences (and especially critics) as the Loveless character did. There are only two episodes centered around the wicked Count Manzeppi. The other episode is 'The Night of the Feathered Fury' also from season two.

Looking back on the show now, comparisons can be made between both James T. West and James T. Kirk from the wildly popular STAR TREK television show which had a three season run from September 8th 1966 to June 3rd 1969. Their similar sounding names notwithstanding, both characters were quite sure of themselves and both were extremely guileful in the face of capture and death whether it be bluffing or masterfully escaping whatever trap they would find themselves in. Both were also suave with the ladies good and bad.

Another connection would be the producers for the shows. Fred Frieberger and Gene L. Coon would work on both WILD, WILD WEST and STAR TREK. Both Coon and Frieberger produced a few shows from season one of WILD, WILD WEST with Coon later becoming producer of STAR TREK even creating some of the more famous characters such as the Klingons and Khan Noonian Singh. Frieberger would assume command of TREK during its third and final season as producer.

In addition to the James Bond and TREK connection, WILD, WILD WEST was also designed as a sci-fi western. This is most apparent in the first two seasons. Season one (the only one shot in B/W) was very dark and quite violent for its time. The relationship between West and Gordon seemed a bit distant compared with the other seasons. Later on as the series progressed, the two secret agents became more like real friends, relying on each other to escape disastrous circumstances.

In the first season, Artemus was mostly there just to supply Jim with various gadgets and weapons and he never got the girl. There was no real relationship between the two characters. After several grievances, Martin was finally able to have some additional fun with his role by participating in the fights (a little bit anyways) and even join Jim West in extracurricular activities with the ladies. Arty even got at least one show (mostly) to himself. Over the course of the four year run, the character of Artemus Gordon was getting as much screen time as Conrad's Jim West.

The first year also saw Conrad utilizing martial arts maneuvers which in later seasons would switch to more boxing oriented action. The fight scenes in the first season revolved around the use of kung fu techniques, a fighting style Conrad was enamored with. By season two, the boxing style would take over and would remain the duration of the shows run. However, the fight scenes would transmute once more into a more choreographed, faster paced style with an acrobatic flow. The addition of amazing stunt work also seeped into the series. These complicated stunt sequences would suggest the Hong Kong New Wave style of action filmmaking that would sweep the movie industry around the world years later.

Season two (possibly the most popular among fans) became the most predominantly sci-fi, horror and fantasy related. Season Two was the 'Everything but the kitchen sink' approach. Episodes had haunted houses, a UFO, evil magicians, a Frankenstein style story and an INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN homage among the many truly wild tales in this wonderful series. The season two shows are also the ones that get the most airplay on television. Season four attempted to return to the fantasy flavor of year two, but it wasn't the same; it lacked the imagination and wonderment of the shows late creator, Michael Garrison.

This would be toned down considerably during season three when original creator Michael Garrison would die in his home in a freak accident after falling down his stairs. New producer Bruce Lansbury came onboard and all but eliminated the gloomy atmosphere and sci-fi/horror elements that had been staples of the first two seasons. Year three would see a shift towards more traditional western trappings but the gadgets would remain albeit in a lesser capacity. A number of the shows from season three would appear inspired by the Italian spaghetti westerns which were then becoming popular in America due to the success of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964).

Season four foreshadowed the end of this unusual spy-western program. With the airwaves flooded with other spy and western shows, not to mention the crackdown on television violence, WWW was drastically altered for its last year. Sounds of punches were muffled, drowned out by music on the soundtrack. Fisticuffs were allowed but no kicks and the bulk of the fights revolved around acrobatics. Also, on a number of season four shows, Conrad doesn't wear his gun. The mix of guns and fight scenes was a dangerous combination for censorship groups and the show was irreparably damaged because of it.

From the beginning, the show was deemed too violent by watchdog groups. Their voices would finally be heard as THE WILD, WILD WEST would be cancelled after its fourth season although not because of declining ratings, but for the plethora of violent scenes deemed too much for the youth of the day. Even the animated opening credits sequence featured violence and misogynism in which the cartoon James West lays a hard punch right into an animated lady of the evening. There was an alternate credit sequence created wherein the cartoon West kisses the knife wielding female who faints as West walks off into the sunset.

As already mentioned, the often times startling level of violence was drastically toned down but this still was not enough. Seeing these episodes today a good number of them do feature scenes that can be perceived as pushing the envelope for the time; People being blown to bits, shot with arrows (sometimes in the neck), bloody gunshot wounds and fairly complicated action scenes resulting in players being thrown from or through windows, punched or kicked through walls, thrown from balcony's, buildings, mountains you name it. Despite the dark nature of the first season and the trouble the series found itself in, THE WILD, WILD WEST was always a comic book come to life. This was clearly in evidence from its wildly over the top storytelling peppered with cliffhangers and its larger than life villains.

The four color comic style was also adopted for the commercial breaks. The shows were broken up into four acts. When one act was finished, a freeze frame of the last shot would be embedded into the screen just before the program went to commercial. Each of the four blocks would be a different color. The animated West would be at the center of the four squares. Many times an act would end with a cliffhanger situation that would continue when the show came back from commercial. This font would be modified from time to time during the four year run of THE WILD, WILD WEST.

THE WILD, WILD WEST will be remembered for its daring and amazingly accomplished stuntwork, its plethora of action and intrigue, a menagerie of colorful and conniving villains and a brilliantly conceived double act by two very gifted performers--Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. A series whose stars, both in front of, as well as behind the camera, gave their all for one of the greatest escapist entertainments ever to grace the small screen.

DVD availability: CBS/Fox DVD. All four seasons are out in box sets.


Mykal Banta said...

Excellent Overview. You have touched on all the aspects of the show that I loved so much as a kid: the James bond type hero in James West - the western as science fiction, and the dark vision of that first season. Plus, WWW always had the coolest villians. It was just flat cool. --Mykal

venoms5 said...

Hi, Mykal. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. The WWW is one of my favorite television programs and one that holds up well even today.

You have a very nice blog, by the way. I really like the layout and the features you have. Excellent.


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