We are in the midst of getting up close and personal with some of our favorite television stars. Up today is Robert Conrad. Conrad was born Conrad Robert Falk in 1935 in Chicago. His parents were practically kids themselves when he was born at 17 and 15. His mother, Alice Hartman, was later the first publicity director for Mercury Records when she went by the name Jackie Smith. After divorcing Robert’s father, she later married Eddie Hubbard, a Chicago radio personality in 1948. They gave Robert one sibling before divorcing in 1958.
Conrad grew up in Chicago. He dropped out of school at age 15 to work for Consolidated Freightways and later was a milk truck driver for Bowman Dairy.
He studied theater arts at Northwestern University and then decided to pursue an acting career. He also studied singing with Dick Marx.
When he was 25 he met actor Nick Adams while visiting James Dean’s gravesite in Indiana. Adams had been a friend of James, and he talked Robert into moving to California for his acting career. (Adams died from an overdose in 1968.)
Adams was able to secure Bob a small part in the movie Juvenile Jungle which enabled him to join the Screen Actors Guild. Conrad continued to receive movie offers throughout his career, with his last role being in 2002 in Dead Above Ground.
In 1952 he eloped with Joan Kenlay. They had five children.
During the late fifties, Warner Brothers signed Conrad to an acting contract. He also worked in their recording division, releasing several versions including LPS, EPs, 33 1/3, and 45 rpm records. In 1961, he made the Billboard charts with Bye Bye Baby which hit 113.
In 1959, he made his television debut on Bat Masterson. He would appear in nine different series in 1959.
Warner Brothers created a detective show, 77 Sunset Strip. Conrad appeared on the show as detective Tom Lopaka. After appearing on four episodes, he was offered his own series, Hawaiian Eye which was on the air for four years. Set in Hawaii, this series featured Conrad as Thomas Jefferson Lopaka and his partner Tracy Steele, a Korean war vet and former city police detective played by Anthony Eisley. Their office was located at a swanky hotel where they were also the house detectives. Connie Stevens completed the trio as a scatterbrained nightclub singer and photographer Cricket Blake.
After the show went off the air, Conrad continued with several movies and television appearances until he received word in 1965 that he had been cast as government agent James West on the Wild Wild West with Ross Martin as his partner Artemus Gordon. For five seasons, the two agents worked together to solve cases primarily in the western region of the United States, often reporting to President Ulysses S Grant for their assignments. Conrad made $5000 a week for this show; it doesn’t sound like a lot today, but it was quite an increase from the $300 he made a week on Hawaiian Eye. Robert performed almost all of his own stunts on the show and was inducted into the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame.
Later Conrad said he didn’t like that his character didn’t really act; it was just physical confrontation and stunts. He said he and stuntman Whitey Ford choreographed the fights. Although that made him unhappy, he enjoyed his time on the show because he loved working with Martin.
Conrad took on several television and movie roles for two years until he was offered another sitcom offer to star in The DA where he played LA District Attorney Paul Ryan. The show only lasted one season, but then he went directly into Assignment: Vienna where he played a rugged American spy Jake Webster. Unfortunately, this show only lasted eight episodes.
After this short-lived series, Conrad waited four years to try his hand at television again. From 1976-78, he took on the role of tough-guy ace pilot, Pappy Boyington in Baa Baa Black Sheep. Pappy led the US Marine Attack Squadron 214, a group of “black sheep” pilots who were not as committed to the Marines as they were having a good time. However, they were great at their job and desperately needed in World War II. Conrad directed three of the shows.
During the run of this show, Robert and Joan divorced after 25 years of marriage.
For the next fifteen years, Robert bounced back and forth between television appearances and movies. While he showed up on the big screen, television movies were where he earned most of his money between 1979-1995.
He would attempt to star in five additional series, none of which were very successful. In 1979, he was the star of The Duke about an ex-boxer Duke Ramsey who becomes a private investigator in Chicago. After only three episodes, the refs called the match. I’m guessing Conrad did his own boxing in this show because he was a semi-professional boxer and had an undefeated record of 4-0-1.
That same year he went on to star in A Man Called Sloane. Sloane is a freelance spy who often accepts assignments from a secret government agency. He must have had to go into hiding quickly because he was off the air after twelve episodes.
In 1983, Conrad married again. He and LaVelda Fann were married from 1983-2010.
In 1987 he joined High Mountain Rangers as Jesse Hawkes. Hawke led his family on adventures in the wilderness where he was employed in law enforcement and rescue. No one requested a baker’s dozen, so after twelve episodes, he was done again. The following year his series lasted half as long, six episodes only, when he played Jesse Hawkes once again, but on this version, he and his sons fight crime in San Francisco. Sticking with the same theme, in 1995 he became Griffin Campbell on High Sierra Search and Rescue, leading volunteers in a remote mountain town in dangerous rescue missions. Again, after six episodes, he was done.
While none of these shows could find an audience, there was some realism in the roles because Conrad was a deputy sheriff for eight years or so in Bear Valley, California where he lived.
For the last few years of his career, he took on various tv and movie roles. His last television role was in 2000 on Nash Bridges.
After 2000, he managed to stay busy with a variety of projects. He ran for President of the Screen Actors Guild in 2005. In 2006 he provided introductory material for the DVD set of The Wild Wild West. He began hosting a weekly national radio show called The PM Show with Robert Conrad on DRN Digital Talk Radio.
In 2020, Conrad died from heart failure. He was 84.
It would have been interesting to see what Conrad’s career would have looked like if he had received some different types of roles. He did test for the role of Anthony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie and was offered the role of Hannibal Smith on The A-Team but turned it down to pursue his own projects. I would have liked to see him in a comedy role.