Robert Conrad, best known for his roles in the television series Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West and Baa Baa Black Sheep, died of heart failure in Malibu, Calif., on Feb. 8, according to Variety. He was 84.
“He lived a wonderfully long life and while the family is saddened by his passing, he will live forever in their hearts,” family spokesperson Jeff Ballard said in a statement. The family will hold a small private service on March 1, which would have been Conrad’s 85th birthday.
Conrad Robert Falk was born on March 1, 1935, in Chicago, Al Capone’s old stomping grounds. According to a 2008 interview with Tony Medley, One on One with Robert Conrad, Conrad said his “best friend. Best.” was Michael Spilotro, the character Joe Pesci played in Martin Scorsese‘s gangster film Casino. Contrary to the film’s portrayal, the real Spilotro didn’t like it if Conrad cursed at all around women.
Though he was never a wise guy, Conrad was a tough one. In commercials he dared people to knock an Eveready battery off his shoulder. In high school, he was a running back on the football team. He almost became a boxer, and loaded trucks to earn money. He went on to do his own stunts. He suffered a “six-inch linear fracture with a high temporal concussion” while doing rehearsals for fight scene in The Wild Wild West. He fell 14 feet onto a cement floor and was almost killed. His acting career was kick-started when Conrad was doing stunt work on the series Maverick. Conrad asked for a double to stand in for an actor who came in too close during a fight scene. The actor smacked Conrad, and Conrad hit back. Executives at Warner Bros./ABC, which produced the series, heard about it and put him under contract.
He also signed with Warner Bros. Records and released a few albums and singles like Ballin’ The Jack,” “Keep it Up,” and “Again.” He hit Billboard at number 113 with “Bye Bye Baby.” Conrad was singing with a trio at nightclubs at the start of his career. He got into acting because of a movie promotion job he did for his mother, Jacqueline, who was a public relations agent with clients like Patti Page and Vic Damone. Conrad, who looked a little like James Dean, who had recently died, stood outside movie theaters to get buzz for the 1956 film Giant.
Conrad majored in theater arts at Northwestern University, where he became friends with Nick Adams, an actor who was featured in Rebel Without a Cause. Adams helped Conrad get cast in Juvenile Jungle (1958), which TCM calls a “plodding crime caper with hep-cat punk.” He also appeared in the film Thundering Jets (1958).
Conrad established his stunt credentials in his TV debut in the Bat Masterson episode “One Bullet from Broken Bow.” The Native American character he played had to fall off a horse after he got shot. Conrad got double pay because it was a speaking role associated with a stunt.
Conrad worked steadily with Warner Bros. Television’s stable of players. He appeared in the 1958 “Yellow River” episode of the series Maverick, which starred James Garner. He had guest starring parts on Highway Patrol, Lawman, Sea Hunt, The Man and the Challenge, and Lock Up. He played Billy the Kid on Colt .45. In 1959, Conrad got the part of Tom Lopaka, a half-Caucasian and half-native Hawaiian partner in a detective agency, on ABC’s Hawaiian Eye. The series ran for four seasons. His character also appeared on crossover episodes of 77 Sunset Strip.
In 1964, Conrad starred with Marisol in the 1964 Spanish movie La nueva Cenicienta (The New Cinderella). He played “Pretty Boy” Floyd in the 1965 gangster film Young Dillinger, which starred Nick Adams in the title role.
The Wild Wild West ran from September 1965 through April 1969 on CBS. Michael Garrison, the series creator, had owned the movie rights to Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s first novel featuring agent 007, and it was pitched as a cowboy James Bond series. Conrad’s James T. West and Artemus Gordon, played by Ross Martin, were Secret Service agents during President Ulysses S. Grant years. While Gordon played with the gadgets, West did the fighting, most of it elaborately choreographed by Conrad and stuntman Whitey Hughes.
Criticized for its violence, the series was cancelled in the wake of the 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. The Wild West West pulled a 33 share of the TV audience in its 1968-69 season. Conrad would later claim his series Baa Baa Black Sheep, where he played World War II fighter Greg “Pappy” Boyington from 1976 to 1978, was also cancelled because it was considered too violent.
Conrad appeared in episodes of the TV series Mannix and Mission: Impossible. He played prosecutor Paul Ryan in the TV movies D.A.: Murder One (1969) and D.A.: Conspiracy to Kill (1971). The D.A. ran as a series in 1971. He played American spy Jake Webster in the TV series Assignment Vienna (1972). He acted in made-for-television movies Weekend of Terror (1970) and Five Desperate Women (1971). Conrad played French-Canadian trapper Pasquinel in James Michener’s 16 1/2-hour, 12-episode miniseries about the American West, Centennial. It ran on NBC in 1978-79. He played the older G. Gordon Liddy in NBC’s 1982 TV movie Will: G. Gordon Liddy.
On the big screen, Conrad was seen in the 1969 film Keene, the Wild Wild West spin-off More Wild Wild West. He also acted in Murph the Surf (1975), Sudden Death (1977), The Lady in Red, Samurai Cowboy (1994), and Jingle All the Way (1996) which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. His last film appearance was in Dead Above Ground (2002).
Starting in 2008, Conrad hosted the weekly two-hour national radio program “The PM Show with Robert Conrad” on CRN Digital Talk Radio. His last appearance was on July 18, 2019. He also appeared in the music video for Richard Marx’s song “Hazard.”
Conrad is survived by 18 grandchildren and eight children.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.