In secret service of fun

Susan King is a Times staff writer.

In the mid-1960s, there seemed to be plenty of guys named James running around blowing things up, foiling dastardly plans and making the planet -- and galaxy -- a safer place for Western-style democracies. And they all achieved this with a distinctive style.

British secret agent James Bond did it shaken, not stirred. Starship Capt. James T. Kirk did it with his middle initial. And U.S. Secret Service agent James West did it in very, very tight pants.

Fans of “The Wild Wild West,” which originally aired on CBS from 1965-69, can revisit the fashion and the adventures of West with today’s release of a 27-disc set that includes the entire series plus two made-for-television movies.


For Robert Conrad, who famously played West, the rugged federal agent charged with guarding President Ulysses S. Grant, it’s a case of better late than never. Even though single-season sets are already out on DVD, the 73-year-old Thousand Oaks resident has seen only a handful. He said he was so busy shooting his series that he never had a chance to watch.

“I never really remembered them,” said Conrad. “It’s campy. It’s fun.”

Along with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” and “Get Smart,” “The Wild West West” capitalized on the James Bond craze of the 1960s. In fact, when the show was originally pitched to the networks, it was described as “James Bond on horseback.”

Like Bond, West -- and his adversaries -- had a cache of secret gadgets that audiences loved. There were guns concealed in his shoes and sleeves, exploding billiard tables, not to mention sci-fi torpedoes disguised as dragons with radio homing devices. And like Bond, West was a bachelor who rarely seemed far from a beautiful woman. Unlike Bond, West enjoyed male companionship as well with his sidekick Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), a master of technology and disguises.

Just as Robert Vaughn and David McCallum had perfect chemistry on “U.N.C.L.E.,” so did Conrad and Martin. The two had never met before the show.

“I knew he was quadruple bilingual and had a law degree,” said Conrad. “I got to know him on the show. We had fun.”

The series was hurt toward the last season when Martin suffered a heart attack and had to take a sabbatical. Several were brought in to be West’s foil, but the chemistry “wasn’t the same,” said Conrad.

Another hallmark of the show was its villains, none more infamous than the brilliant, demonic Miguelito Loveless -- played by Michael Dunn, who was less than 4 feet tall.

“He stayed at my house when he came to town,” said Conrad. “He came from New York and we were personal friends. On Saturday we had a touch football game. We played different studios and he was the referee. He refereed on a golf cart.”

Dunn even had a drink named after him at a watering hole across the street from the studio. “It was real powerful drink,” said Conrad. “He was real proud of it.”

Conrad also remembered Boris Karloff guest-starring. “He was an icon. I watched him when I was a little boy and here he was playing one of the bad guys.”

The show also attracted Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. -- “nobody turned down the show because they all liked it,” added Conrad.

Bad ratings did not ultimately do in the show. Rather, it was a pledge by CBS’ president to Congress to reduce violence on television.

These days, Conrad is officially retired from acting.

“For 20 years I made movies for television,” said the actor, who is the father of eight. “I had my dog, my children, my grandchildren and friends of mine in the movies.”

And that’s not counting his TV series. “I had ‘Hawaiian Eye’ when I was a young man. I did ‘West’ when I was in my 30s and in my 40s, and I did ‘The Black Sheep Squadron.’ So what else was there?”

For the last year, he has had his own radio show, which airs on CRN Digital Talk Radio at 4 p.m. Thursdays.

“It’s entertainment,” he said. “The show is a blast.”