WESTERN TV SHOWS
THE WILD WILD WEST
Between 1965 and 1969, one of the most innovative shows ever to appear on television ran for four seasons on CBS. For 104 hour long TV episodes and two made for TV movies (and a feature film, but the less said about that the better), The Wild Wild West did far more than simply transport James Bond to the Wild West—it literally bridged the pop culture gap between Jules Verne fantasy and the yet to be explored world of steampunk, a genre term which wouldn’t be coined for another fifteen years.
At the behest of President Ulysses S. Grant, America’s first Secret Service agents, James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) chase fantastical outlaws as they crisscross the West in their luxury private train. Set in the 1870s, The Wild Wild West blended the waning, but still popular TV Westerns with the burgeoning explosion of ‘60s TV spy series, The Wild Wild West was that rare hybrid which captured the best of both its influences.
James ‘Jim’ West (Robert Conrad) was the man of action, with the emphasis on action. With his stirrup pants, Cuban boot heels, and short bolero jackets, he cut an athletic figure. He was beguiling to beautiful women, but deadly to the vast assortment of villains with fiendish plans to take over the United States and then the world. A master of disguise and the theatrical arts, Artemus ‘Artie’ Gordon (Ross Martin) was also a scientist who invented the incredible array of gadgets West needed to battle the megalomaniacal forces ranged against them.
The pugnacious Robert Conrad performed nearly all of his own stunts on The Wild Wild West. Conrad stated his tight pants often split open during action scenes, leaving his Jockey shorts to be caught on camera. He also wore three-inch heels to portray his character. As a result, the CBS casting office had orders not to hire any women over 5'6" for the show.
Ross Martin was a long time character actor. He loved the role of Artemus Gordon as it allowed him to portray over 100 different characters and perform dozens of different dialects during the run of the series.
In the mid-sixties, my ten year old brain was filled with the six-gun action of television Westerns and the amazing espionage capers of TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. When The Wild Wild West’s pilot episode, Night of the Inferno, premiered in 1965, I was totally enthralled by this mash-up of my two favorite genres. The oddly Victorian era time-frame transposed onto a Western landscape and the use of Jules Verne-esque technology ignited my imagination like nothing before.
There were no other shows to which The Wild Wild West could be compared, but if Rawhide, Mission Impossible, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea had a wild threesome in Vegas, The Wild Wild West would be their love child. Every aspect of the show was perfectly aligned. The theme music (composed by Richard Markowitz) and the opening graphic sequence (animated by Ken Mundie), which reoccurred cleverly before each commercial break, are still instantly recognizable.
Then there were the gadgets—sleeve guns, exploding belt buckles, a spring-loaded knife blade in the toe-box of a boot, a derringer broken down to be concealed in a boot heel, a grappling hook attachment for a rifle. And so many more. And the only thing cooler than the gadgets were the villains—each more fantastical than the last. Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless (Michael Dunn), a brilliant, but petulant and megalomaniacal dwarf quickly became Jim West’s arch-nemesis, always escaping the clutches of justice at the last second. Count Manzeppi (Victor Buono) was the diabolical genius of black magic and crime. The nefarious Emma Valentine (Agnes Moorehead) and Dr. Faustino (Ida Lupino) proved villainesses could also chew the scenery to menacing effect. And there were so many more, each brilliantly evil in their own way.
In 1969, the U.S. Congress did what no conclave of power hungry super criminals could do. Pressured by Congress to curb violence on television, CBS caved and cancelled the series near the end of its fourth season despite its continued high ratings. as a concession Despite continued high ratings.
There were at least two other attempts to capture the lightening in a bottle that was The Wild Wild West. For 27 episodes in the 1993-1994, television season The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. rode the airwaves with fan favorite Bruce Campbell holding the reins. The show’s steampunk roots in The Wild Wild West were given a twist to blend into the early days of what was being termed the weird western genre. In 1995, the upstart UPN network offered up Richard Dean Anderson and John de Lancie in the single season series Legend. For this concoction of creativity, the steampunk and weird western mythos were merged with Telsa-like science fiction. While both shows had only short runs, they have developed cult status since their cancellation, owing in great part to their direct line connection to the influences of The Wild Wild West, which made them possible.
CONTRIBUTOR: PAUL BISHOP