Wild Wild West
In the mid-60's, the spy genre - thanks largely to the James Bond films - was the hottest thing in entertainment, appearing in film, TV shows, musical scores, comic books , and more. The more traditional Western program, with its heroic cowboys and villainous Indians, was slowly making its way out the door after several decades on top. Then somebody had a bright idea: whay not combine the two genres into a super-cool TV series?
Such was the inspiration behind Wild Wild West, in which Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travelled the Old West on various assignments, reporting directly to President Grant himself. West posed as a well-to- do gentleman, which allowed his character to go around dressed to the nines and enjoying the finer things in life, aboard his personal railroad car (which was secretly outfitted with all sorts of spy gadgetry). Gordon was ostensibly a diamond merchant, but was a master of disguise; not as obviously good-looking as West, Artemus had a strong likeability, and the two men's friendship was apparent. Artemus's main skill usually consisted of showing up just in the nick of time to help Jim out of some predicament after he'd been captured by that week's villain.
And what villains there were! Blinded ex-seamen who sank riverboats and held the entire Mississippi hostage; a crook with an immense flame-throwing cannon who posed as the ghost of John Brown; Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono), the diabolical magician. But the greatest WWW villain of all was undoubtedly Miguelito Loveless, the dwarf genius who (within the continuity of the series) single- handedly invented radio, dynamite, mind-controlling powders, and other advanced items. Loveless was such a popular character that he returned for several episodes, always seeking to kill James West as revenge for his initial defeat. A complex and fascinatingly villainous character, Loveless was so loved by viewers that they demanded his return again and again.
Even the opening titles for the show were fun: a stylistically animated sequence show a cartoon version of Jim West within a multi- paneled (comiclike) frame, dispatching a gunslinger, a cardsharp, and even a femme fatale who's about to stab him in the back with a hatpin as they embrace. As the show went on, before three of the commercial breaks, the final shot would freeze and the image would superimpose itself into the title graphic, as though it were a dramatic moment from a comic-book version of the story. Over the sequence Richard Markowitz's memorable theme song would be heard. WWW was created by producer Michael Garrison, who'd had the idea of joining the spy and Western genres. A pilot was filmed for CBS starring Robert Conrad (star of the detective series Hawaiian Eye) and Ross Martin (of the series Mr. Lucky). The show debuted in September 1965 and was an instant hit - the adventure, the gadgets, the interesting plots, the beautiful women all added up to a healthy, fun mix; and it didn't hurt that the show had a sense of humor and playfulness. It ran for five years - making the transition from black-and-white to color - to great acclaim.
Star Robert Conrad was a physical-fitness nut who did his own stunts on the show, sometimes putting himself at great risk and often ripping his pants (which were probably the tightest men's pants on TV). He had been a truck driver and part-time lounge singer who struck up a friendship was Nick Adams (of The Rebel), who suggested he go out to Hollywood to try his luck. Within a year, Conrad was a television regular on Hawaiian Eye, but didn't become a household name until WWW. He would later have another very successful hit series in the late 1970's with Baa Baa Black Sheep as pilot 'Pappy' Boyington. His half-brother is Larry Manetti, best-known as Rick on Magnum P.I.
Ross Martin had a degree in business administration and a Master's in education, but caught the acting bug and went into show business. Starting in radio, he made his way to Broadway, and then to motion pictures (such as George Pal's Conquest Of Space) and then television, where he would find the greatest acclaim. Growing up in the Lower East Side in New York City, Martin (born Martin Rosenblatt in Grodek, Poland) could speak Polish, Russian, and Yiddish, and perhaps it was his eclectic upbringing that allowed him immerse himself in his various diguises for the show. He died in 1981 of a heart attack, having collapsed while playing tennis.
Meguilto Loveless was portrayed by 3'6" Michael Dunn ('Meguelito' is Spanish for 'Little Michael'). Dunn was a textbook example of not judging a man by his size: after graduating from high school at a young age, he attended the University of Florida at Miami, where he first took up acting, but was also a cheerleader and was editor of the school newspaper. After-hours he paid his own way by singing in local clubs; upon graduation, he was so popular that the student body chipped in and bought him a car, specially outfitted with hand- operated pedals. He acted on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination; similarly, he got an Oscar nomination for his role in Stanley Kramer's Ship Of Fools. When he debuted as evil genius Loveless in the third episode of WWW, Dunn became an instant star. He also became well-known to genre audiences as the mistreated dwarf Alexander from the popular Star Trek episode "Plato's Stephchildren." However, Dunn suffered because of his physical limitations; his deformity caused him pain and difficulty breathing and, almost certainly, constant psychological stress. He died in England in 1973, while filming on location, an apparent suicide.
[Quick note about the 1999 film version starring Will Smith: Don't bother.]
Wild Wild Trivia
- The train used on the series is the same one from the show Petticoat Junction
- West's interior railroad car set was built at a then-steep price of $35,000; it appeared in every single episode.
- Two later TV-movies served as reunion specials for Conrad and Martin: The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979 and More Wild Wild West in 1980.
- Agnes Moorehead, member of the Mercury Theater and beloved as Endora on Bewitched, won an Emmy for her WWW appearance as the villainess Emma Valentine.
- Songwriter/sometime actor Paul Williams played Loveless's son, who sought revenge on the Secret Service agents after his father died from ulcers - brought on by his bitterness over constantly being defeated.
- Loveless's closest aide, Antoinette, was played by Phoebe Dorin; she had been Dunn's sometime singing partner when the actor was in college. The two can be heard in several duets in the series.