Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

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.

Photo: decades.com

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.

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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.

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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.

Photo: metv.com

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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‘.”

Photo: filmscoremonthly.com

Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

In Memory of Adam West

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Adam West was born William West Anderson on September 19, 1928 in Walla Walla, Washington.  He just passed away this summer on June 9. His father farmed and his mother gave up her career as an opera singer and concert pianist.  Like all kids, he had a collection of comic books including Batman. When his parents divorced, he moved to Seattle with his mother. He attended Whitman College in Washington and graduated with a BS in literature. He was drafted into the Army and became an announcer on the American Forces Network television.

After his service career, he became a milkman until he moved to Hawaii to pursue a career in television. In 1959, he took on his stage name of Adam West and moved to Hollywood with his wife and children. He quickly became an actor and appeared in 33 television shows, including 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, Hawaiian Eye, Tales of West Fargo, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, and Bewitched.

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In 1966, William Dozier, producer for a new show about Batman decided to cast West over Lyle Waggoner after seeing him as a James Bond-type character in a Nestle Quik commercial. DC Comics described Batman as 6’2” and that was West’s height.

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When the series ended, he and Burt Ward found themselves typecast as Batman and Robin.  He did a series of appearances about the Batman character while pursuing a movie career. He ended his career with 49 movies to his credit.

He appeared in 78 television shows after Batman ended including The Big Valley, Emergency, Alice, Police Woman, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, Murphy Brown, Diagnosis Murder, News Radio, Drew Carey, King of Queens, and 30 Rock.

After 1990, he apparently embraced his Batman character and appeared on numerous television shows as himself or Batman. When asked about this, he said, “I think it evolved. I learned a long time ago that because people love Batman, I should too. I learned that I shouldn’t resent it even though it prevented me from getting other roles. I really had to become fond of Batman in order to deal with it. I embraced it.”

In 1957, he and his first wife Billie divorced.  He married  dancer Frisbie Dawson in 1957 and divorced in 1962. In 1970, he married Marcelle, and they were together until his death.  He had two children with each of his wives and two stepchildren.

In 1994, he wrote an autobiography Back to the Batcave. In 2012, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

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West loved outdoor activities and had a lot of hobbies including fishing, sailing, hiking, skiing, golfing, riding motorcycles, swimming, surfing, dancing, traveling, as well as spending time with his family, listening to classic rock, reading, and watching movies.

West died after a short battle with leukemia at age 88. The next week, LA shined the bat signal on city hall to honor him.

While West certainly had a full and varied career despite his typecasting from Batman, I would like to spend some time looking at the series that gave him his fame. Typically, I am not really into super heroes, but I loved this show when I was younger and still get a kick out of watching the campy comedy. I can still hear the narrator saying, “Same bat time, same bat channel.” The show was canceled not only because of low ratings but also because the special effects and lighting had tremendous costs.  When ABC dropped it, they tried to find another network to take it over.  They had no offers, so they dismantled the set. Two weeks later, NBC offered to pick up the show, but decided it was too expensive to start from scratch.

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In the 1960s, Ed Graham Productions received the rights to the comic strip Batman and intended to produce an adventure show similar to Superman or The Lone Ranger. ABC was thinking about a prime time show so DC Comics bought back the rights and sold them to 20th Century Fox. 20th Century gave it to William Dozier to produce.  Dozier had never read comic books and felt that the show should take a campy, pop-art approach. The show was originally an hour-long series, but with only half-hour time slots available, it was changed to a bi-weekly half-hour show.

The concept of the show was that millionaire Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson lead a double life in Gotham City.  When they move a shelf in their library and slide down the bat pole to the bat cave, they become Batman and Robin.  Only their butler Alfred is aware of their real identity. Police Commissioner Gordon calls them on the batphone, often referring to them as the dynamic duo. They usually hop in their bat mobile and speed to city hall to learn what villain is up to no good in their city.

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Adam West took the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward was Robin/Dick Grayson. Other cast members included Alan Napier as Alfred the Butler, Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, Stafford Repp as Chief O’Hara, Madge Blake as Aunt Harriet, and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.

My favorite villians included Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Cat Woman, in love with Batman but not willing to give up her criminal life; Burgess Meredith as Penguin always carrying an umbrella; Frank Gorshin as The Riddler leaving riddles for clues; Vincent Price as Egghead a bald-headed genius who loves eggs; Cesar Romero as the Joker who leaves jokes for clues; and Victor Buono as King Tut when evil and Professor William McElroy as his non-evil personality.

The show aired twice a week on back-to-back nights. The first episode would set up the situation and end with the dynamic duo in some dangerous situation. Batman and Robin would get their assignment from the Commissioner and then, using a series of clues, try to figure out who the villain is and then how to defeat them. At some point, there was always a fistfight with the villain’s entourage at which time the villain typically escaped. During the fight, words would pop up on the screen like POW, BAM, ZONK, BOOM. Then the crime fighters would go to look for them at which point the dangerous and perhaps deadly situation occurred and the next episode would summarize what happened on the previous episode before defeating the bad guys for good. They often used inventions like shark repellant bat spray to aid them in their search.

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In Season 3, Bat Girl was added to the cast. The ratings were starting to fall so Dozier wanted to bring in a girl character to attract female viewers. Her real identity was Barbara Gordon, the Commissioner’s daughter.  The Commissioner never seemed to realize she was familiar to him. Because of low ratings, the show also became a once a week series in the third season.  Eartha Kitt took over the Catwoman role since Newmar was filming a movie at the time. Madge Blake’s health was failing, and her role was limited to two appearances during the last season.

The show was cancelled before the next season but it has continued to be popular in reruns. In 1966, an album was released “Batman: The Exclusive Original Soundtrack Album.” It included music by Nelson Riddle, dialogue excerpts from several of the characters in the show, as well as the Batman theme song, Batusi A Go Go, and several other tunes.

A lot of collectibles were produced during the run of the show including trading cards, Batmobile kits, coloring books, lunch boxes, board games, and View-Master reels. In 2013, Mattel designed an action figure line based on the tv characters, and several Hot Wheels/Matchbox cars have been produced. The Batmobile from the show was auctioned in 2013, selling for $4.2 million.  The huge profits from the car as well as the line of action figures prove the continuing interest in and success of this show now 50 years old.

Here are some fun facts I found about the series:

A total of 352 “Holy” words were used by Robin from “Holy Agility” to “Holy Zorro”.

Cesar Romero’s Joker laugh was created almost by accident. Shortly after being cast, Romero met with producers to discuss his role on his series. While waiting to meet with them, Romero happened to see conceptual art of Joker’s costuming. Romero felt the pictures almost looked absurd, and as a result spontaneously broke out into a playfully loud and almost manic laughter. A producer overhearing it responded by telling Romero “That’s it, that’s your Joker’s laugh!”

Burgess Meredith had not smoked in 20 years when he was cast as the Penguin. He came up with the Penguin’s distinctive squawking sound because the cigarettes were irritating his throat. Like his trademark “quack”, the Penguin’s waddling was largely a result of improvisation by Burgess Meredith, as he found it difficult to stand and walk straight while wearing the rubber padded fat suit that was part of his costuming.

Before going on the air, this show received the worst audience test scores in the history of ABC. It only went on the air because so much money had already been invested in it.

This was one of the “in” shows to appear on if you were a big name in Hollywood during the 1960s, and many top names guested on the show, including many who didn’t do much TV otherwise. Those performers who weren’t cast as guest villains could frequently be seen popping their heads out of windows to exchange a few words with Batman and Robin when the latter would be climbing up a building wall. Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood, and Cary Grant were all fans of the show, and wanted to be on it, but the producers were never able to come up with the right roles for any of them. During the run of the series, this show crossed over with The Green Hornet (1966).

The “Giant Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City” is a reverse image of St. Louis, right down to Forest Park, Fairground Park, Tower Grove Park, Lafayette Park, and Horseshoe Lake on the Illinois side, as well as the other river and road networks.

Each main villain had their own theme music.

In the first season, Burt Ward (Robin) was paid $350 per week.

Yvonne Craig has stated that she briefly did have a stunt double, but did most of her stunts herself. She actually operated the Batgirl Cycle herself as well. She was an accomplished biker at the time, and actually owned a bike.

Adam West (Bruce Wayne / Batman), Burt Ward (Dick Grayson / Robin) and  Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon) are the only actors to appear in all 120 episodes of the series.

Suzanne Pleshette was one of the original choices to play Catwoman before Julie Newmar landed the role.

The show aired from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968 on ABC for 120 episodes. It was one of few TV series to be seen on 2 different nights a week: 7:30 Wednesdays and Thursdays. It remained there for a season and a half (Jan. 1966-Aug. 1967) until it was moved back once a week (Thursdays 7:30) for its final season. The episodes were generally two-parters: Wednesday’s episode was a cliffhanger, resolved in Thursday’s episode. The 1966-1967 season had 2 3-parter episodes (“The Zodiac Crimes/The Joker’s Hard Times/The Penguin Declines”[ep. #2.37-9, 1/11-12 & 18/1967] and “Penguin is a Girl’s Best Friend/Penguin Sets a Trend/Penguin’s Disastrous End”[ep. #2.42-4, 1/26/, 2/1 & 2/1967]) which left cliffhangers that would be solved the following week. When the series was reduced to (mostly) one part episodes during season three, the cliffhanger death traps and threats were still used, but greatly scaled back and occurring at the middle commercial break.

The three primary cast members of The Addams Family each made appearances on Batman. Carolyn Jones played the villainess Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, and John Astin played the Riddler during the second season. Additionally, Ted Cassidy had a window cameo, appearing in his part as Lurch from The Addams Family. Interestingly, Cassidy’s cameo took place in a story involving the Penguin, with whom Jones’ character Marsha teamed up in one of the three-part stories.

In episode 7, Alfred refers to Robin as Mr. Ward, and not Mr. Grayson.

While Superheroes and the movies and television shows they appear in seem to cycle up and down throughout the decades, the popularity of the Batman television show has never wavered.  The fact that Mattel would create action figures based on the original stars almost 50 years after the show debuted says a lot about the fans and the place the show holds in their hearts.

Thank you Adam West for creating such a memorable and well-loved character.  Rest in peace.

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