There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965. Part western, part spy show, part thriller. Now, it might be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer. Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise. Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.
The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.
The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.
Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. Due to his height, the casting office was barred from hiring women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.
Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.
Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.
The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.
The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.
Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.
Many of the guest stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him, and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.
Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.
There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.
However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.
Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.
A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.
The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. And did I mention, the boys loved women on and found a romance on every show. We’ll let the characters have the last word:
Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”
Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”
James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”
Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”
James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”
5 thoughts on “Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West”
What is steampunk? I don’t remember ever hearing that term. I do remember this show and watching it a few times though. Sounds like it was quite the hazardous job! I’m not quite sure which stat shocked me more-the average price of a house in 1965 or how much it cost to decorate the interior of the train compared to the average cost of a house! I guess prices have went up a bit since then. It is kind of ironic to me why the show was cancelled considering where we are nowadays with violence on and off the TV.
Steampunk is a fiction writing that combines history, especially westerns, with technology. I remember watching it some when I was younger but I really enjoy it now. If James Bond woke up in Dodge City, it would be The Wild Wild West.
I love that bit of dialog at the end! I can just hear Martin and Conrad speaking those lines! (I recently read about Martin on Wikipedia…he was something of a genius.)
This has to be one of the most underrated TV shows ever. It wasn’t a conventional Western, which I think is why it fell under the radar for many people. But my brothers and I loved it when we were kids. We used to imitate Conrad’s stunts. Jeez, the creativity and time that must have gone into those props, and escape scenes! And I never picked up on the James Bond parallels until you mentioned them. Good stuff!
BTW, Conrad is still around, and has a long-running cable radio show. There are video episodes on YouTube. I don’t think his health is too good, as he had a bad auto accident years ago. And his callers seem to be mainly groupie types. But it’s nice to know that he’s still with us…he was a TV classic.
It is a great show. Good thing you didn’t end up with a bunch of injuries as kids. That’s fun to hear about Conrad. I was always surprised he didn’t have a more major career than he did.
One thing that is funny on the show is that every saloon and every house scene uses the same set without altering decor much. Makes sense and much more financially responsible than shows today but it is funny when you’re watching.
Great article. RE-posted on twitter @trefology