‘Wild, Wild West’ star dies at 84

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - OBITUARIES -

LOS ANGELES — Robert Conrad, the rugged, con­tentious ac­tor who starred in the hugely pop­u­lar 1960s tele­vi­sion series “Hawai­ian Eye” and “The Wild, Wild West,” died Satur­day. He was 84.

The ac­tor died of heart fail­ure in Mal­ibu, Cal­i­for­nia, fam­ily spokesper­son Jeff Bal­lard said. A small pri­vate ser­vice is planned for March 1, which would have been his 85th birthday.

“He lived a won­der­fully long life and while the fam­ily is sad­dened by his pass­ing, he will live for­ever in their hearts,” Bal­lard said.

With his good looks and strong physique, Conrad was a ris­ing young ac­tor when he was cho­sen for the lead in “Hawai­ian Eye.” He be­came an overnight star af­ter the show de­buted in 1959.

Conrad played Tom Lopaka, a dar­ing pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor whose part­ner was Tracy Steele, played by Anthony Eis­ley. They op­er­ated out of a fancy of­fice over­look­ing the pool at a pop­u­lar Waikiki ho­tel.

The two pri­vate eyes al­ter­nated on sim­ple in­ves­ti­ga­tions with help from the is­land’s col­or­ful char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing a singer named Cricket Blake (Con­nie Stevens) and a ukulele-strum­ming taxi driver named Kazuo (Pon­cie Ponce).

Af­ter five sea­sons with the show, Conrad went on to em­brace the tele­vi­sion craze of the time, pe­riod West­erns, but with a de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent twist.

In “The Wild, Wild West,” which de­buted in 1965, he was James T. West, a James Bond-like agent who used in­no­va­tive tac­tics and fu­tur­is­tic gad­gets (fu­tur­is­tic for the 1800s any­way) to bat­tle bizarre vil­lains. He was ably as­sisted by Ross Martin’s Arte­mus Gor­don, a master of dis­guise.

The show aired un­til 1970.

The series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” fol­lowed in 1976 and was roughly based on an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy by Marine Corps ace and Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent Gre­gory “Pappy” Boy­ing­ton, who wrote of the rau­cous fliers he com­manded dur­ing World War II.

Conrad played Pappy Boy­ing­ton, so nick­named be­cause he of­ten res­cued his pi­lots from se­vere pun­ish­ment. Bring­ing his cus­tom­ary in­ten­sity to the role, he even learned to fly.

The CBS series was en­joyed by male view­ers but not so much by women and it was dropped af­ter its first sea­son. It was re­vived in De­cem­ber 1977 as “Black Sheep Squadron,” af­ter the net­work’s new shows failed to find au­di­ences. It con­tin­ued on for an­other sea­son. Conrad, mean­while, in­ter­spersed his long, suc­cess­ful TV ca­reer with nu­mer­ous roles in films. Af­ter a cou­ple of small parts, his TV fame el­e­vated him to star­dom, start­ing in 1966 with “Young Dillinger,” in which he played Pretty Boy Floyd. Other films in­cluded “Murph the Surf,” “The Ban­dits” (which he also di­rected), “The Lady in Red” (this time as John Dillinger) and “Wrong Is Right.”

At the same time, he found plenty of time for ar­gu­ments.

Through­out Hol­ly­wood, Conrad had a rep­u­ta­tion as a tough cus­tomer and was sued more than a half-dozen times as a re­sult of fist fights. Play­ing him­self in a 1999 episode of the TV series “Just Shoot Me,” he lam­pooned his threat­en­ing, tough-guy per­sona. He was also fea­tured in 1970s com­mer­cials for Eveready Bat­ter­ies, with a bat­tery on his shoul­der, a men­ac­ing stare and a pop­u­lar catch­phrase, “I dare you to knock this off.”

Conrad’s later film cred­its in­cluded 1996’s “Jin­gle All The Way” with Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger and 2002’s “Dead Above Ground.”

He was born Kon­rad Robert Falkowski in Chicago on March 1, 1935. His great­grand­fa­ther had em­i­grated from Ger­many, and his grand­fa­ther founded sev­eral meat shops in Chicago called Hart­man’s.

Conrad moved from one school to an­other, and at 15 he left his par­ents’ house for a place known only to his girl­friend and his great-grand­mother who some­times fed him.

A foot­ball player in school, Conrad’s first job was load­ing trucks. Then at 18 he was hired to drive milk wag­ons.

He tried box­ing and night­club singing for a time be­fore drift­ing into act­ing and even­tu­ally mov­ing to Hol­ly­wood, where he found work as a stunt­man.

Conrad is sur­vived by eight chil­dren and 18 grand­chil­dren.

Bob Thomas, a long­time and now de­ceased staffer of the As­so­ci­ated Press, was the prin­ci­pal writer of this obit­u­ary.

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