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Retro : Moving On, and On, and On : ROBERT CONRAD TAKES HIS ROLES SERIOUSLY...AND LIGHTLY

January 09, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fans always ask Robert Conrad the same question: Can he still fit into the skin-tight pants he wore 30 years ago on the Western spoof "The Wild, Wild West"?

"The answer is yes," the 58-year-old Conrad says with a hearty laugh. "There were times in the last 28 years where I couldn't. But I have gotten myself to where I am happy."

Conrad played sexy James T. West, an undercover agent for President Ulysses S. Grant, on the series, which aired on CBS from 1965-69. The late Ross Martin played his sidekick and master of disguise, Artemus Gordon. The two traveled to their various assignments on a specially equipped railroad car.

Repeats of the series recently began on cable's TNT and Conrad couldn't be happier.

"I think its deja vu with me," he says. "This is a hoot for me only because I remember some of the reviews. I remember all the producer changes. It was a unique show for me. The show that wasn't supposed to work, works. I feel like the battery I used to represent. I feel like the Energizer. I am going on and on and on."

Ross Martin, Conrad says affectionately, would be thrilled with the longevity of the "Wild West." "He was a unique guy who went way too early. I've always had a good feeling about this show in spite of all the producers. (Creator) Mike Garrison was fired and rehired and then died. Bruce Lansbury came in and he was such a good guy."

Off camera, Conrad admits, the series was chaos. "It was made in six days and their leading man had a tendency to party hard, party real hard. It was a tough shoot."

According to Conrad, Warner Bros., which just completed the film version of the classic TV Western "Maverick," has a "Wild West" theatrical feature in development.

"There's a very strong 'Wild West' fan club out of Indianapolis," he says. "Whomever does the role is going to be scrutinized by them." Though James Garner, who played Bret Maverick on the series, is appearing in the "Maverick" movie, Conrad isn't sure he'll be involved with the "Wild West" movie.

"I've had opportunities to do the show again, conversations about doing it as a TV series again. But I wouldn't do it without Ross Martin. The bottom line is I would do the feature based on the material. I don't need the money and I wouldn't want to associate myself with something that really has become more important to me in its death than it ever was in its life."

Conrad says he was shocked when he landed the role of James West. He was the 17th out of 18 actors auditioning for the role.

So how did he get the part?

"I have kind of an attitude on and off camera," Conrad acknowledges. "That's what they bought. The only guy being considered for the role I was concerned about never showed up. He was, and is, a man I admire, John Derek."

The series, he says, went off the air because of the pressure put on the network by former Democratic Sen. John Pastore, who deemed the series too violent. "I was in Rochester, N.Y., doing a Shriner's Crippled Children's (Hospital) benefit and got a call from the president of CBS. He said we are not going forward with the show. We had a 33 share!"

But Conrad thought it was time to move on. "Though I take acting lightly, sometimes I take it very seriously. It was time to move on and we did."

And Conrad has done quite well. Since "Wild West" was canceled, he's starred in the series "Black Sheep Squadron" (a.k.a. "Baa Baa Black Sheep") and "High Mountain Rangers. For the last 13 years, Conrad has had his own successful production company and produced and directed numerous TV movies.

One of the most popular TV movies in which he starred and produced was the 1985 thriller "Two Fathers," in which he played a macho steelworker who teams up with a stuffy executive (George Hamilton) to capture the man who murdered their children at a pre-wedding party.

The sequel, "Two Fathers: Justice for the Innocent," airs Friday on NBC. This time around, the dads team up again when the man escapes from prison.

"I play Stanley Kowalski in 'Two Fathers,' " Conrad says, laughing. "George Hamilton--there is a very debonair dude. He has the perfect gray on the sides (of his hair). He has a magnificent suntan. There's a line in the movie where I say, "I am proud and 60.' It was written, 'We are proud and 60.' George said: 'No. No. No.' So I changed the line. Now I say to George: 'I am pushing 60 and you are not too far away from Leisure World yourself.' "

"The Wild, Wild West" airs Saturdays at 7 and 8 a.m. on TNT; "Two Fathers: Justice for the Innocent" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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