R.I.P. Robert Conrad

This post was originally scheduled for March 1, but we rush it to post today because we just got word that Robert Conrad (Conrad Robert Falk, b. 1935) has passed away at the age of 84. I’d say maybe he and Orson Bean can carpool, but who knows if they’re going in the same direction?

While he did appear in a few theatrical films, the Adonis-like Conrad was almost wholly a creature of TV, maintaining a major presence there for two decades. The below constitutes a few highlights — he certainly was in many other short-lived series, TV movies and the like, but the below strike me as tent pole moments. As for his background, he was from Chicago (as if you couldn’t guess from that accent), and he was the son of the publicity director of Mercury Records. After attending Northwestern University Conrad had a brief career as a pop singer…but those steely blue eyes, chiseled features, and fine physique were ultimately put to better use before the cameras than behind the microphone.

The Hawaiian Eye (1959-63)

A decade before Hawaii Five-0, and two decades before Magnum P.I., Conrad starred as a half-Hawaiian private detective named Tom Lopaka operating out of Honolulu. The show was a spin-off of 77 Sunset Strip and also featured Anthony Eisley and Connie Stevens, who, like Conrad, was also a pop singer. This is the show of Conrad’s I am least familiar with, since it was before my time, though it is somewhat legendary for its exotic location. Hawaii became a state the same year it premiered, which undoubtedly fueled interest. Some short clips of the show are available on Youtube.

The Wild, Wild West (1965-69, followed by TV movie sequels in 1979 and ’80)

Though I was very small when this show originally aired, I did watch it heavily in syndicated reruns, much like other shows of its day. The Wild, Wild West was an enormously entertaining program, smashing up the then very popular spy genre with westerns, sort of “James Bond in the old west”, with Conrad as secret service agent Jim West, aided and abetted by his partner, Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), an inventor and master of disguise. The combination of elements was very steam-punk. The show had a tongue-in-cheek, breezy, bantering tone that was irresistible, and a roster of celebrity supervillains to rival Batman’s. The best of them all was the little person Michael Dunn as the insane genius Miguelito Loveless, followed closely by Victor Buono as Count Manzeppi. Much like Star Trek’s James T. Kirk, Conrad’s Jim West was a confident ladies man, an element that can be a bit tough to take nowadays. All the same, don’t bother with the 1999 remake. It can’t hold a kerosene lantern to the original.

Columbo “An Exercise in Fatality” (1974)

Conrad was in one of the best classic Columbo episodes, as an arrogant owner of a chain of health clubs who murders his business partner to frame him for his own embezzlement. He crushes the guy under a barbell, and then rigs an elaborate alibi that Columbo eventually exposes as fake. This was at the height of what was then thought to be the “health nut craze”, making it seem topical at the time. The character seemed very much a parody of the real Conrad — the kind of guy who would challenge you to a contest of one-armed push-ups just for the purpose of humiliating you. Among other things, Conrad had once been a professional boxer.

Smash-Up On Interstate 5 (1976)

I saw this made-for-tv disaster movie when it premiered, and blogged about it here. In the film, Conrad and a young Tommy Lee Jones played California Highway Patrol officers, one year before ChiPs premiered.

Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-78)

I was much a devotee of this series about a unit of U.S. Marine aviators in the Pacific Theatre in World War Two. Conrad played the real life Major “Pappy” Boyington, who led a troop of flying misfits nicknamed the  “Black Sheep Squadron”. One of the cast regulars was a young John Laroquette. 

Battle of the Network Stars (1976)

Okay, this was some historic television. I watched this event in real time, and I am constantly meeting people who are around my age who did as well. Basically, Battle of the Network Stars was a series of TV specials that took advantage of, again, the “fitness craze”. The networks staged Olympics style athletic competitions between the stars of hit TV shows. Network would compete against network. And the one competition everyone invariably remembers was a foot race between Conrad and Welcome Back Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan. It’s hard to tell how much of it was a put-on, but the way it was played, Conrad was the heavy (like in pro wrestling), boasting, insulting Kaplan, even arrogantly smoking a cigarette before the race started. Meanwhile, scrawny Kaplan was on the defensive. Naturally, Kaplan won the race, in a delicious upset. Junk as it was, it was a masterly piece of television. And to this day, I remain uncertain if Conrad was really that much of a jerk, or if he was just playing that up for the cameras.

Centennial (1978-79)

Conrad played the French Canadian fur trapper Pasquinale in this all-star fictional yet historically themed mini-series which I blogged about here. Conrad’s French accent is strictly vaudeville and entertaining as hell.

Eveready Commercials (late ’70s-early ’80s)

Building on his rep as a macho and pugnacious dude, Conrad starred in a series of commercials for Eveready where, for some reason, he dared the viewer to knock a battery off his shoulder.

Will: G. Gordon Liddy (1982)

Conrad played the title character in this TV-movie adaptation of the Watergate conspirator’s 1980 autobiography. The project got a lot of publicity at the time, and was controversial. This was prior to Liddy’s later rehabilitation among some conservatives. At the time, most of the public considered him a criminal, villain and buffoon (and, having read the book and many others about him, I continue to hold that opinion of him.) So why tell his story, other than sell commercial time? Well…actors like attention.

Jingle All the Way (1996)

Conrad had a supporting role as a put-upon cop in this satirical Christmas film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. It is one of Conrad’s few comedies, and pokes fun at his tough-guy image.

Conrad’s last acting credit was in the 2002 horror film Dead Above Ground. A 2003 drunk driving accident (for which he was responsible) resulted in numerous injuries and an impairment of his speech. He never acted after that, although he did speak at the 2004 Republican National Convention. For the past dozen years he has hosted talk radio shows. The cause of his death is given as heart failure.