News item: The network has just canceled a successful series. The network president has ordered it off the prime-time schedule not because its ratings have dropped, but because of concerns about television violence voiced by government officials.
No, the year was 1969, and the series that CBS aborted in response to government pressure was “The Wild Wild West,” which ran four seasons on the network, followed by a summer of reruns.
“The Wild Wild West” was an inventive, spoofing-good period series starring Robert Conrad as a resourceful government agent with an arsenal of techno toys worthy of James Bond. The series racked up its share of corpses. Compared with TV violence 1993-94-style, however, “The Wild Wild West” was as benign as Barney.
It’s clear now that then-CBS President Frank Stanton overreacted some 25 years ago, just as the danger of over-response by the nation’s TV Police hangs like a guillotine over the present debate concerning excessive violence. Random TV beheadings won’t crunch random violence in the streets.
Happily, a couple of movie sequels and years of syndication have given “The Wild Wild West” the extended life it deserves. And cable’s TNT network is about to reprise it again in 1994.
Starting Jan. 8, TNT will air the series at 7 a.m. Saturdays, and plans to relocate it to a more-accessible early evening time slot in the spring.
But even sooner comes Sunday’s taste of “The Wild Wild West” on TNT, a 10-hour-plus marathon starting at 1 p.m., hosted by Conrad and consisting of only the episodes featuring that grand actor Michael Dunn as Dr. Miguelito Loveless, not only the most diminutive, but also the most demonically brilliant of the archenemies faced by James T. West (Conrad) and his sidekick, Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin).
Not that Victor Buono’s Count Manzeppi, a criminally insane magician, was any slouch. Commanding a band of assassins known as the Eccentrics, the count first surfaced in a 1966 episode, plotting to murder Mexican President Benito Juarez and frame West. In another episode, the villainous Manzeppi traps West in a bird cage in his quest for a toy chicken that he hopes will lead him to a magical stone that can turn other objects to gold. Sounds reasonable.
Enjoying “The Wild Wild West” requires a certain suspension of belief. Here was a guy assigned by President Ulysses S. Grant to be an undercover agent in the Old West. Yet the technology here on both sides of the law, as noted by David Story in “America on the Rerun,” is illogically futuristic: “Plastic explosives, radioactive materials, explosive arrows propelled by telescopic-sighted bows, dragon-headed prototypes of the torpedo, armored robot-knights, computer dating, and even an Amorous Amanda, whose clutching hands would love to strangle West to death. Not bad in the 1870s.”
Nor in the 1990s.
The shrewd, athletic West was as good with his dukes as the cerebral Gordon was with disguises and dialects. Both were amorously minded, beginning and ending each episode in their private luxury railroad car, often in the company of gorgeous women.
“The Wild Wild West” lasted 104 episodes, and so did its wit, thanks to creator Michael Garrison, producer Bruce Lansbury, associate producers Leonard Katzman and Joe Kirby, story consultant Henry Sharp and their associates. They ensured that, within its adventure framework, the series never lost its sense of humor. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes outrageous.
And for its villains, “The Wild Wild West” gave work to a catalogue of impressive character actors who, without going over the top, could play “big” to Conrad’s stony West.
None more so than that late Dunn, a dwarf as adept at farce as serious stagecraft. As the mad inventor Dr. Loveless--a pleasure to watch executing his maniacal schemes, a pleasure to watch being foiled--he was peerless. And assembling his performances in “The Wild Wild West” as a body of work in a particular genre is a nice way to celebrate the actor along with the series.
Opening with “The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth,” Sunday’s homage initially finds Dr. Loveless and his 7-foot-2 servant, Voltaire, collaborating on the demise of a Prof. Nielsen, who hopes to give his formula for a new powerful explosive to the U.S. government.
Un uh! It seems that Loveless has created a similar explosive and wants no competitors. Even though West is assigned to protect Prof. Nielsen, Loveless murders him with an explosive pill shot from a peashooter. Later, Loveless threatens to use his own explosive to blow up 5,000 people. You should catch him when he’s in a bad mood.
Next, in “The Night That Terror Stalked the Town,” West is overcome by gas fumes in a carriage, after which he awakens in a ghost town where he is confronted by Loveless and Voltaire. Loveless this time plans to surgically transform one of his henchmen into a double for West and have him infiltrate the U.S. Secret Service so that he can recover the atomic explosive formula Loveless says West stole from him. Is this genius or what?
And next, in “The Night of the Murderous Spring,” a looker named Kitten Twitty induces West to carry her trunk to her hotel room. What West doesn’t know is that inside the trunk is--yes--the giggling Loveless, who later emerges to combine West’s shaving water with a drug that turns its users into murderers.
Is there no end to this fiend’s wickedness? Well, in another episode Loveless reduces West to a six-inch miniature as part of his plan to rule a world of “little people.”
There’s talk these days about the rejuvenation of the Western in both theatrical films and TV. Although the locale fits, calling “The Wild Wild West” a Western is a bit far-fetched. Calling it fun is right on the mark.