Robert Conrad, a television tough guy best known for his lead role in the mid-1960s series The Wild Wild West, died Saturday at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 84.
His death was confirmed by Jeff Ballard, a family spokesman, who said Mr. Conrad died of heart failure.
Mr. Conrad’s fearlessness and good looks served him well in The Wild Wild West and many other shows, although he found the most satisfaction in some later, meatier roles, such as the fur trader he played in the miniseries Centennial in the late 1970s.
He was also well served early on by his ability – at least by the not very rigorous standards of the late 1950s – to effect an ethnically ambiguous character. In one of his earliest roles, he had a bit part as an Indian.
“I had to get shot by the good guys and fall off a horse, which I did successfully, and that established me as having enough talent to do stunts,” he recalled in an oral history recorded in 2006 for the Archive of American Television, “so when there was a speaking role and a stunt associated with that speaking role, they’d hire me, because you got two for the price of one.”
In 1959, he landed the role of Tom Lopaka, a mixed-race private detective (“half white, half bronze,” as he put it), on Hawaiian Eye, a crime series that ran for four seasons on ABC. It also starred, among others, Connie Stevens, and both she and Mr. Conrad, a decent vocalist who had released several records, would sometimes sing in musical interludes built into the show.
Then, in 1965, came The Wild Wild West, a CBS series that, somewhat improbably, grafted the mania for spy fare set off by the James Bond movies of the day onto an Old West setting.
Mr. Conrad played Jim West, who was dispatched on various secret missions on behalf of the government of president Ulysses S. Grant. West had his own personal train for travelling, an arsenal of quirky gadgets – exploding billiard balls, a pistol on a track hidden up his sleeve – and a partner (played by Ross Martin) who was adept at outlandish disguises.
“The character I played was a dandy,” Mr. Conrad said in the oral history. “His clothes were too tight, for one. He rode this champion horse, this class horse. And he spent most of the series engaged in physical confrontations with bad guys.”
The fights, with Mr. Conrad often doing his own stunts, got a lot of attention. So did those tight clothes, especially the distinctive trousers.
“They put me on these elevated boots and shoes, which made me extremely uncomfortable,” Mr. Conrad said in an interview done for a minidocumentary made for a Best of The Wild Wild West marathon TNT broadcast in the 1990s, “and then they glued me into my pants, which made me even more uncomfortable, because they wanted the matador look.”
The dark-coloured pants split so often, he said, that he took to wearing dark-coloured underwear rather than white.
If the pants had a short shelf life, it was because the show’s rough-and-tumble scenes put them to the test repeatedly.
Mr. Conrad often said that he did all his own stunts, but Gene Scott Freese, in his 2014 book, Hollywood Stunt Performers, 1910s-1970s, found that this wasn’t entirely true – a practised eye can detect known stuntmen of the day in some scenes. (“They were under strict orders never to be caught on the set in Conrad’s wardrobe,” Mr. Freese wrote, “fostering the illusion to the press and the public that Conrad’s proud claims were true.”)
But certainly Mr. Conrad was frequently the one doing the punching, rolling and leaping. Mr. Conrad said the scripts would often say simply, “He fights,” and he and the stunt co-ordinator, Whitey Hughes, would come up with something. Once, near the end of Season 3, the result was almost catastrophic.
“The accident came when Bob, jumping from a balcony, missed the chandelier and landed on his head,” The Boston Globe wrote, describing an on-set miscue that left Mr. Conrad with a skull fracture and concussion. “It was almost curtains for the actor. Doctors said he was lucky to be alive.”
Mr. Conrad put it more succinctly in the oral history. “I almost ate the cookie,” he said, “but I didn’t.”
Mr. Conrad was born Conrad Robert Falk on March 1, 1935, on the South Side of Chicago to teenage parents. His father, Leonard Falk, later was superintendent at a New Jersey plant that made chocolate flavouring. His mother, Jacqueline Hartman, later became a publicist under the name Jacqueline Hubbard.
The future TV star adopted the name Robert Conrad as a young man because, he said, his mother married a number of times. “Every time my mother would have a marriage she would change my name to the name of her husband,” he said, “and I got tired of it.”
Mr. Conrad grew up in Chicago and began his show-business career as a singer, performing with a trio in the city’s hotels when he was in his early 20s. He was also athletic. “I considered boxing as a career,” he said, “but they weren’t making a lot of money in those days.”
Driving a milk truck by day and singing in hotels and clubs at night, he talked his way into the theatre arts program at Northwestern University. He bore a resemblance to actor James Dean, and when Dean was killed in a car wreck in 1955, Mr. Conrad was drawn into the publicity campaign for the posthumous release of Dean’s film Giant in 1956.
In that capacity he was visiting Dean’s grave in Fairmount, Ind., when he met another young actor, Nick Adams, who was also there. Mr. Adams urged Mr. Conrad to come to Hollywood and got him a bit part in a movie he was cast in, Juvenile Jungle. Mr. Adams eventually dropped out of that film, but Mr. Conrad remained, making his film debut.
He tried New York for a bit, but soon returned to the West Coast and began getting small roles in shows such as Bat Masterson, Maverick and Sea Hunt. Then came Hawaiian Eye, with the character he played there, Tom Lopaka, also turning up in several episodes of another ABC crime series, 77 Sunset Strip. Mr. Conrad was also one of the young stars of Palm Springs Weekend, a fun-in-the-sun movie that came out in 1963.
Hawaiian Eye ended in 1963. Mr. Conrad was filming a movie, Young Dillinger, in which he played outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd (Mr. Adams was Dillinger), when his agent called with the offer to audition for The Wild Wild West.
The show made its debut in September, 1965, and ran for four seasons and more than 100 episodes. It drew decent ratings, but a wave of concern about violence on television helped push it off the air in 1969. (One version of the show’s animated opening montage showed Mr. Conrad’s character kissing a woman, then slugging her.) He had no regrets, since the on-set injury was still fresh in his mind.
“I was appreciative,” he said, “because I had been injured, and I was afraid someone was going to get carted out of there on a stretcher.”
Mr. Conrad also acknowledged that the show wasn’t much of an acting challenge for him and was more of a put-on than an attempt to make good television.
In 1999, Hollywood turned the premise into a much-maligned movie with Will Smith as West. The film won five Razzie Awards, the anti-Oscars recognizing ignominious achievement, including worst picture of the year, and Mr. Conrad, who was not in the movie and was not a fan of it, good-naturedly showed up at the mock ceremony to accept several of the awards.
“I can’t tell you how happy this makes me,” he said sarcastically.
If Mr. Conrad acknowledged the thinness of his Wild Wild West role, he was more proud of two later television efforts. One was Black Sheep Squadron (also titled Baa Baa Black Sheep), an NBC series that ran from 1976 to 1978 in which he played the real-life Second World War combat pilot known as Pappy Boyington. The other was Centennial, a 1978 miniseries based on James Michener’s historical novel, in which he was part of a starry cast that included Lynn Redgrave and Richard Chamberlain.
In this same period he was all over television in another capacity, as pitchman for Eveready batteries, a job that capitalized on his manly persona. The memorable spots featured Mr. Conrad engaging in a tough-guy activity – boxing, for instance – and then putting a battery on his shoulder and uttering variations of the catchphrase “I dare you to knock this off.”
Mr. Conrad also starred or appeared in numerous other television shows, including The D.A., A Man Called Sloane and High Mountain Rangers. He reprised his best-known role in two television movies, The Wild Wild West Revisited in 1979 and More Wild Wild West in 1980.
He continued to work in movies occasionally as well. One of his last films was the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Jingle All the Way in 1996, in which he was still playing the tough guy, in this case a no-nonsense police officer who was bent on thwarting the efforts by Mr. Schwarzenegger’s character to acquire the perfect Christmas gift. One scene had him chasing the athletic Mr. Schwarzenegger on foot; he was in his 60s.
In 2003, Mr. Conrad was charged with driving drunk after his car crashed into another vehicle, seriously injuring the other driver and himself. Mr. Conrad, who was left with some right arm and hand paralysis, was fined and sentenced to six months of house arrest.
In 2007, he began working as the host of an afternoon talk show on CRN Digital Talk Radio.
He married Joan Kenlay in 1952; the marriage ended in divorce in 1977. Soon afterward, he married LaVelda Fann, who was Miss National Teenager 1977 when he met her at the pageant at which she was passing on her crown. (He was the emcee.) They divorced in 2010. He leaves five children from his first marriage, Joan, Shane, Christian, Christy and Nancy; three children from his second marriage, Kaja, Camille and Chelsea; and 18 grandchildren.
Mr. Conrad took delight in the fact that, thanks to reruns and retrospectives, The Wild Wild West attained a certain cult status with fans who weren’t yet born when it was originally on TV.
“The show that wasn’t supposed to work, works,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1994 when TNT was rerunning episodes. “I feel like the battery I used to represent. I feel like the Energizer. I am going on and on and on.”