Shadoe Steele's Interview with Robert Conrad
Interview © 2007 by nationally syndicated radio host Shadoe Steele of Entercom Communications/Entercom Radio Network/Sirius Satellite Radio - Channel 102 "Stars"/Westwood One Radio Networks http://www.985krz.com
Interview conducted April 25, 2007: Shadoe Steele in
blue print - Robert Conrad in black
Originally from Chicago, Illinois and joining us live coast to coast from Thousand Oaks, California - veteran actor, producer, director, and former pop/rock singer Robert Conrad. Robert welcome, and thank you so much for being with us sir.
It's a pleasure.
Robert Conrad, my boyhood hero, the coolest guy on the screen, starring in such programs as Hawaiian Eye from 1959 to 1963; 1971's the DA; Assignment Vienna from 1972; 1976's Baa Baa Black Sheep as Major Greg "Pappy" Boyington; and the show light years ahead of its time: The Wild Wild West, which ran on CBS from 1965 through 1969 in prime time, then in reruns during the summer in 1970. Bob, there wasn't a Friday night at 7:30pm that I wasn't parked in front of that TV set.
You and 44% of the American public
That had an incredible rating share Bob, what was it, 43% at its highest?
Amazing. I even hollowed out a heel on my cowboy boots. Now, Bob, in the early 1950s you graduated from the Delbarton school, a college preparatory school in Morristown, New Jersey. That was a long way from the windy city, did you live on the east coast for awhile?
No, that's not correct. I was graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Shadoe Steele and Barbara Aversa with Robert Conrad while dining at Mastros in Thousand Oaks, California. Photos taken August 13, 2007.
Bob, a good friend of this program, singer/songwriter Richard Marx and I spoke more about you than his music in an interview we did years back. He told us at length how you were such a great consolation to him when his dad passed on. You were a friend of Dick Marx.
Yeah, well, his dad was my vocal coach.
Back in Chicago.
Yeah, back in Chicago, right, when I was a teenager.
Bob you had a lead role in the music video "Hazard" by Richard Marx from Marx's Rush Street album filmed in 1992 playing the role of the sheriff. It seems that law enforcement is definitely your typecast Bob. That video looked like a major big budget shoot.
You know, there's something that happened yesterday. I had a doctor's appointment, and my wife wasn't feeling well so I leased a limousine to take me to the doctor's appointment. Well, the car had a malfunction and just as we were about a half mile from the doctor's office, the transmission failed, and the car failed, and the California Highway Patrol came by to see what the trouble was. And we told him what it was, and the officer recognized me and said, "I'll take you to your appointment." So I went to the doctor's appointment driven by the California Highway Patrol.
Boy, how do you rate personalized service Bob?
Yeah, I can't believe that. I'm still trying to get over that one.
Bob, you and composer and jingle writer Dick Marx worked on a song called "How About You" that you were given the chance to sing on live television in Chicago. But in the middle of performing live, you forgot the words and never got through the entire song. I understand that's been a running gag between you and Richard for years.
Oh I always sing it to Richard, but then when I get to the point where I forgot it when I was singing with his dad, I stop... I go "I like New York in June, how about you..." and when I get to the part where I failed that night on television in Chicago, at that time it was the second largest city in the country, now it's third to Los Angeles. But in any event, that's been our standard running joke, me singing the song I failed to sing that night.
Now Robert in the early years you worked as a dairy man in Chicago, but had your eye on a singing career as well as acting; eventually releasing several now collectable recordings issued on a variety of LPs, EPs, and SPs 33 and a third and 45 rpm records during the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of your most sought-after 45s is "I Want You Pretty Baby" back with the B-flip, "Ballin' the Jack." How did you get signed to Warner Bros. Bob? Home to such musical legends as Jimmy Durante, The Everly Brothers, Bob Newhart, and Petula Clark.
Well I was under contract with Warner Bros. for acting. Hawaiian Eye was a Warner Bros. production. And they knew I was a singer, but they changed my style of singing. In one of those collections there's a song called, "Again" which probably illustrated where my voice should have been. But they tried to put me in like Ricky Nelson and the Everlys and it just wasn't my style. And so after recording several songs we parted company and I was pleased as I didn't want to sing in a matter that wasn't consistent with what I had trained and what my voice was.
Bob from the beginning of your career, one of your best friends was actor Nick Adams, who starred in TV's, "The Rebel." Nick was from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania a suburb of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and in an interview said he played a role in you being cast in "Hawaiian Eye." How did you meet Nick?
I met Nick in Indiana; Fairmont, Indiana which was the home of....
Yeah the actor James Dean. And Nick was there promoting a movie called the James Dean Story. And I was there as a guest of the James Dean Foundation. And that's where Nick and I met and we spent the evening together chatting and he said if I ever get to Hollywood to look him up. And I got Hollywood and looked him up and he became my best and dearest friend until his untimely, early death.
When he died on February 7th, 1968 in Hollywood, his death had been cited in articles and books on unsolved mysteries along with allegations that Adams may have been murdered, committed suicide, and even poisoned by the liquid sedative paraldehyde. What were your thoughts on that tragedy Bob?
I was with him the night before he passed away. He overdosed on medication.
Robert, in 1979 "The Wild Wild West Revisited" set in the year 1885 called in James West after years of retirement at your Mexican home and Artemus Gordon taken off the road as a Shakespearian actor to track down and arrest Dr. Miguelito Loveless Jr. once again. Michael Dunn was such a great villain wasn't he Bob?
He was the best. He was such a terrific man and a personal friend of mine.
The TV movie "More Wild Wild West" followed in 1980, creating one of the first reunion type sequels to follow a hit TV series setting the stage for others to follow. Let me ask you Bob, was James West your favorite role?
No, James West was one of my favorites. But I embraced the roles in my three television series with equal enthusiasm. When I was doing Hawaiian Eye, I learned to surf in Hawaii and learned to mingle with the Hawaiian population. And when I did the Wild Wild West I learned to do stunts and ended up doing all my own stunts which I enjoyed. And when I did Baa Baa Black Sheep or Black Sheep Squadron, I learned to fly and became a pilot. And subsequently every role I had I tried to be as close to what I was portraying as possible.
You know, I couldn't bring myself to watch the 1999 Will Smith/Kevin Kline remake of "The Wild Wild West: The Movie." You were publicly critical of that film Bob, what was the story?
I never saw the film, and the casting of Will Smith would be similar to me being cast to play Martin Luther King. It was just bad casting, and from what I read in the reviews, a bad movie and I lambasted it and would do it again on your show. It was not well done, terribly reviewed, and it was miscast.
It was the bomb of the year Bob.
I know it was. I ran into Will Smith, I asked him what he was doing playing me and he said it was "an interpretation."
After all, you can't blame him Bob, I guess he needed the work.
No, he didn't need the work but if I were a 29 year old young man and that was offered to me, I probably would have taken it.
Now you were also widely identified in the late 1970s in the Eveready battery television commercials. Particularly the challenge to viewers to knock the battery off your shoulders; parity-ed on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Carol Burnett Show. Who came up with that memorable concept Robert?
Gosh, I have no idea but it haunted me for years afterwards. To this day people come up and go, "I'll knock off the battery" and I go, "Why knock it off? I'll just hand it to you."
In 1982, one of the most watched made for TV movies of that decade was "Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy" based on the conspirator who spent 54 months in prison following the Watergate scandal of 1974. It seemed you really got into that character role Bob, did the storyline strike some personal feelings?
No, G. Gordon Liddy was on the set, and he was there to help me through the role. Like I said, learning to surf in Hawaiian Eye and doing stunts in the Wild West and learning to be a pilot in Baa Baa Black Sheep; I had Gordon on the set to help me to portray him. And to my credit, I'm modest, but I have to say it was a successful performance because of G. Gordon Liddy's presence on the set.
Now in 1976, one of the most watched ABC TV movies was "Smash-Up on Interstate 5" in which you played Sergeant Sam Marcum and in 1978 a brand new entertainment concept was born: The TV miniseries. You starred in "Centennial" which topped the Nielsens that year. Bob, were there any parts you turned down that were successes for other actors?
I'm thinking... no, I don't think so, I didn't turn down very much.
In the late 1970s you served as captain of the NBC team for six editions of "Battle of the Network Stars." That looked like a lot of fun, with an all-star cast, you took winning so seriously Bob.
Well why not, it was competition and I know actors, and actors are very competitive. It's a brutal business acting when you go for a role and you read for the role and you want the part and then you don't get it. It's hurtful. Actors want to win and a sporting event was the perfect genre for actors to compete.
Monday 8/13/07, 7 PM PDT Mastro's Thousand Oaks, CA (L to R) Shadoe Steele, Robert Conrad, & Barbara Aversa enjoy dinner at the Conrad private table next to grand piano. Steele's boyhood TV hero who prompted his collecting over 70 of the original 104 episodes of "The Wild Wild West" on 16MM film in the era pre-VCR/video tape.
Bob, The Wild Wild West is now one of the top five selling DVD releases in the entire history of the format. Do you ever watch the reruns?
I just started to. When the second season came out in March of The Wild Wild West - the ones in color - I said I'll watch a few of the episodes and one night I sat and watched two of them in a row. Spent two hours watching them and they're fun. They're an escapism fair and I'm very pleased I had the opportunity to portray James West.
And you know Bob they did a great job of re-mastering those, they have the station break clips and even next week's coming attractions plus a lot of bonus features as well.
Yeah I know, they did a good job and the color is wonderful.
Back in the late 70s Bob, before VCRs and DVDs, I managed to acquire almost every episode of the 104 total of The Wild Wild West titles on 16mm film. There was nothing better than seeing a TV show on the big screen with my Bell and Howell projector at home. I read Rory Calhoun was originally suppose to star in that series Bob.
Yeah, Rory Calhoun had the role but he tested with a friend that he wanted to play the Artemus Gordon role and when they saw Rory with his friend they didn't think they had made the right choice. Subsequently they tested 18 actors for the role. I was the 17th to test.
You know that series was so outside the box, the sets were incredible, the gadgets were unbelievable, and the stunts were like fine choreography. You were the only actor to be inducted into the Stuntman's Hall of Fame. But fans of that series remember the one stunt that went wrong during The Night of the Fugitives during the 1968 season. That was a nasty fall from the Chandelier. What happened Bob? You were off filming for awhile after that weren't you.
Yeah, I was off for the summer, I was off for a little longer than that, I was off for four months. I broke my skull, my skull had a six inch lineal fracture and a high temporal concussion.
Some of the most atmospheric titles were The Night of the Man-Eating House, The Night of the Returning Dead with Sammy Davis Jr., and The Night of the Tottering Taunting but my favorite episode was The Night of the Big Black Mail complete with steam-powered pistons that held a wall safe and secure and a phony kinetoscope film. Bob, The Wild Wild West held some of the highest rating in history but the critics were displeased with the violence factor of TV shows in those days, weren't they?
Not so much the critics.
There was a group of people that felt that the show was too violent and then they got a hold of Senator Pastore of Rhode Island, a republican senator and he spearheaded the cancellation of the show.
Bob, what was a typical week like on set? How many filming days? I heard there were a lot of long hours on that show.
It was 12 hours a day, 4 days a week, 17 and a half hours on Friday, and we shot the show in 6 days.
Bob, do you indeed have a favorite episode?
No, I like all the shows for different reasons. I just call it an escapism fair and I have no qualms about recommending the people to get the DVDs and relax and enjoy escapism fair. It's TV like I don't think they will ever do again.
Have you kept in touch with the cast and crew after the series ended, such as Bruce Lansbury, Michael Garrison, or your colleague Ross Martin?
Yeah, I kept in touch with Ross Martin. I speak with Bruce Lansbury from time to time but ours paths didn't cross after the cancellation of the show. But Ross and I kept in touch.
You'll find this interesting Bob. Back in 1965 I remember writing to art director Albert Heschong whose name appears on the credits of every Wild Wild West episode at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, California where the show was filmed and he sent me several 35mm film frame cells he drew from the animated opening title. Now do you believe I'm the biggest Wild Wild West fan Bob?
Uh, I think you are absolutely the number one Wild Wild West fan. There's no doubt in my mind.
Bob, "A Man Called Sloane" was your American secret agent adventure series that aired in the 1979-1980 television season produced by Quinn Martin starring you as Thomas R. Sloane III, a free-lance spy who takes on occasional assignments for UNIT, a secret American intelligence operation run by the director. This was simply high-tech Wild Wild West wasn't it Bob?
No, I don't think it ever lived up to the quality of The Wild Wild West. In my case, it failed to come up to the same level and Ben Silverman at the time was head of NBC and Quinn Martin had a disagreement about how the show was to be made and subsequently it was canceled with high ratings.
Bob, what was it like creating and starring in High Mountain Rangers back in 1987? I remember that show very well, your sons Christian and Shane co-starred. The story of TJ Cousins, a mountain man who committed some grizzly murders being lead through the High Sierras. What was it like working with your family?
It was terrific. I got to see my boys every day and we got to work together and working and being in the family was probably the high point of my career.
And you filmed it in your back yard literally Bob.
I filmed it up in the High Sierras where at that time I was living.
Now as you told me, until 2006 you lived in the High Sierras of Bear Valley, California but now reside in Southern California with LaVelda Fann, originally from Gadsden, Alabama. Tell us about LaVelda Bob, how did you meet her?
We did a television show together. She was the reigning Miss National Teenager and was giving up her crown and she was one of the co-hosts of the show. And I saw this beautiful, beautiful young girl and that was how we met. And two years later we were married.
So tell us about your daughter who's in the music business Bob, I understand she has some releases forthcoming.
Yeah, she's studying in New York now. She had her debut in Chicago and she had two standing ovations, and I then thought she was going to do an album with Richard Marx but she elected to go to Juilliard. She's in school now but she's only in school for a year.
Any other news for us Robert?
No, I have no new news, other than the recent release of The Wild Wild West. Everything is quite, I'm enjoying retirement and having a great time doing nothing.
And Barbara and I will see you and LaVelda for dinner soon. Are there any favorite restaurants of yours in the area?
Yeah, I like Mastros.
Is that in Thousand Oaks?
Yeah, that's in Thousand Oaks and one's in Beverly Hills.
What kind of cuisine is that Bob?
It has a variety of excellent food but it's primarily a steakhouse.
See, as not only the plainest, but the most bland eater in America Bob, a steakhouse is right up my alley.
Well it's a steak and potatoes and a check that will stagger you.
Best wishes Bob. We'll see you and LaVelda soon.
I look forward to meeting you in person and going out to dinner.
And my thanks to Michelle Sison of David Shapira and Associates in Beverly Hills, California for her most detail-oriented assistance in arranging this segment.
|Above: Photos from Shadoe and Barbara's summer 2007 visit to the Conrad's Southern California home. The James West photo hanging in Robert Conrad's home office (left picture) is from the episode "The Night of the Watery Death."|
Robert Conrad | Wild Wild West | Michael Dunn | Richard Marx