Judge Dennis Prince sometimes secretly wears toreador slacks and a six-shooter under his courtroom robe.
The wild West of the 1870s…like you've never seen it before.
Perhaps the most daring mission ever mounted was that of show creator Michael Garrison and the CBS television network when they saddled up a show that blended Western heroics, super-spy intrigue, and science-fiction fantasy all in one package. The Wild, Wild West premiered on September 17, 1965, and became an immediate hit with viewers. The show would run a full four seasons before it was cancelled for being considered too violent. Thankfully, the cast and crew refused to dilute the winning formula of action and high adventure, electing to cease the show while it was still on top. The exploits of James West and Artemus Gordon are finally available in an impressive new boxed set from Paramount Home Video, The Wild, Wild West: The Complete First Season.
Facts of the Case
Former Union soldier James West (Robert Conrad, Baa Baa Black Sheep) has been teamed with former con man and master of disguise Artemus "Artie" Gordon (Ross Martin, Experiment in Terror) to serve as secret service agents to President Ulysses S. Grant. Outfitted with a private train and an arsenal of intriguing and effective gadgetry, West and Gordon seek out and suppress evil schemes and the fanatics behind them. In protecting the various U.S. interests, the two unflappable agents confront an endless onslaught of criminal masterminds in post–Civil War America. With regularity, West foils a diabolic plot and dispatches its perpetrator. Artie, meanwhile, continues to devise new weaponry and trickery to ensure his partner's success, adopting an endless array of disguises in order to gain advantage for their collective effort. And, at the end of the day, the two recount their close calls and toast another top secret mission completed.
Show creator Michael Garrison once commented, noting the meteoric success of the James Bond film franchise of the 1960s, that he wanted to put "Bond on a horse." Fortuitously, he made this observation to CBS programming head Hunt Stromberg, Jr., and the idea was set in motion. As television was rife with Bond-like fare, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Honey West, and others, the show was green-lighted and the pilot was presented under the initial show title, The Wild West.
Former boxer Robert Conrad was perfectly cast as the irresistibly eligible James West, assisted by a traveling peddler—Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon—who would deliver information and useful contraptions to help West in his pursuits. The flagship episode, "The Night of the Inferno," was a rock-solid display of action, adventure, and considerable violence. Conrad and Martin were spot on in their performances, having nailed their ultimate characterizations from the start. A young Suzanne Pleshette (The Birds) played the feisty female companion with precision, while portly character actor Victor Buono (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) rendered the show's first megalomaniac with evil elegance. Needless to say, the pilot was a hit, and the first season proper continued, under the slightly revised title The Wild, Wild West.
Formulaic as it was, the show benefited from its unique premise—an Old West secret agent armed to the hilt with inventive technology of the day. Whether he had explosives secured in the removable heels of his boots, a lock pick tucked behind the lapel of his waistcoat, or a spring-actuated derringer up his sleeve, James West was literally dressed for battle. Add to this that each gadget was suitably adapted for the period—especially his ingeniously outfitted horse-drawn coach à la James Bond's signature Aston Martin—and it all made for a compelling format that kept viewers tuning in to see what West would do next.
Equally inventive were the various plots and devices of West's adversaries, who developed devious ways to render themselves invisible, command spontaneous combustion, summon earthquakes, and even harvest the living brains of noted scientists. Almost immediately, the show's first season embarks down paths of science fiction and fantasy, still maintaining its 1870s wild West setting. The inherent crudeness of the various inventions and expositions used in each episode was not only necessary to maintain consistency to the period but gracefully enabled the show to venture into fanciful situations without the need for stellar special effects (if it looks a little unrefined or even a bit hokey—hey, this is the 1870s).
The formula approach, appropriately enough, was by strict design and not born out of laziness on the writers' part or by mandate from a potentially risk-adverse network executive. Show writer Fred Freiberger, as quoted in the October 1999 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, explained that each script was to follow a checklist playfully regarded as "The Ten Commandments." Episode writers were instructed to maintain consistent elements of the usual cat-and-mouse undertone, ensuring that the villain would be larger than life (in fanatical aspiration, anyway), the gadgets would be in generous supply, and the traps West and Gordon found themselves in would be seemingly impossible to escape. And, from the pilot episode, this was a formula that the viewers responded to and of which they never grew weary for the duration of the show's four-year run.
The Wild, Wild West works so magnificently—even today—thanks to the commitment of Conrad, Martin, and the various guest stars. Conrad maintains an impressive air of cool determination in his every action, through his every line of dialogue. His steely eyes convey believability in every situation West is subjected to, and his breathy delivery gives his statements the thick essence of requisite bravado. Again, Conrad was perfectly cast in the role, since his striking good looks and physical agility further make the character of West formidable on first sight. With the ladies, West is as coveted as he is conspired against. In Bond-like fashion, West can enchant a bevy of beauties yet is never hesitant to physically rough up a tainted temptress—beginning with Suzanne Pleshette in the pilot episode. (The first season's opening titles, incidentally, feature the recognizable animated tableau during which a knife-wielding femme fatale rethinks her assault after being enraptured by the sexy Western agent. Season Two maintains use of the tableau yet better connotes West's commitment to task when the animated character actually punches his female would-be assailant, to terrific surprise effect.)
Ross Martin is likewise perfect as Man Friday to West; not only is he inventive and investigative support, but he is also ever ready to dispense a necessary dose of caution to his ambitious cohort. Martin actually doodled sketches of his potential disguises on the show scripts (one of which is presented in the extra features in this boxed set) and the bond he actually established with costar Conrad helped add realism to their on-screen partnership.
Each of the weekly guest stars steps up to the task and likewise delivers unflinchingly, no matter how fantastical the situation might be (including a manic Don Rickles in "The Night of the Druid's Blood"). Over the course of the first season, recognizable actors like Booth Coleman, Elisha Cook, Jr., Katharine Ross, Leslie Nielsen, Arthur O'Connell, and Richard Kiel would lend their talents to the proceedings. The consummate James Gregory makes a one-time appearance as President Grant in the pilot episode. Of course, long-time enthusiasts rightfully applaud the most sinister character, the diminutive Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played to perfection by the late Michael Dunn. Look for his first appearance in the third episode, "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth," as well as in subsequent first-season episodes, "The Night the Terror Stalked the Town," "The Night of the Whirring Death," and "The Night of the Murderous Spring."
Enthusiasts of this excellent show have finally found reprieve from their arduous task of collecting the piecemeal offerings from Columbia House (just three episodes per club disc); here, the entire first-season run of 28 full-length episodes comes by way of seven single-sided discs. This hefty serving of WWW thrills begins with these disc-by-disc episode breakdowns:
Each episode is presented in full-frame format and in black and white, as originally televised. These episodes have been nicely remastered for this release, and the transfer quality is generally good. The contrast and black levels are well managed to prevent overly dark presentations and the detail level is suitably sharp—considering the source material—without ever succumbing to excessive edge enhancement. These aren't full-fledged "restorations," mind you. Some episodes exhibit source print scratches and a bit of dirt, and a couple are afflicted by an unsteady image shift (sadly, this occurs on the excellent "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth"). You'll also see a few occasions when the film tone shifts a bit. Nevertheless, these instances are the exception, not the norm, for this dose of nearly 23 hours of well-rendered programming.
The audio is presented in an expected Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix, and unfortunately it gets a bit shrill from time to time (largely during some musical crescendos). The dialogue is always clear, thankfully, and you'll never struggle to interpret it. And Richard Markowitz's excellent theme—that deft blending of traditional Americana and a curiously familiar punctuative bass line—is well delivered.
As for extras, this premier boxed-set offering delivers a veritable trainload of bonus features. Each disc includes brief audio introductions by Robert Conrad, in which he provides a few concise sentences about the episode at hand. He also sits down to offer a running audio commentary over the pilot episode. Unfortunately, he frequently becomes absorbed in watching rather than speaking, but he nonetheless provides a generous amount of fun insight and anecdotal information. There are also plenty of additional audio interviews with show developers and contributors, including writer John Kneubuhl (who created the character of Dr. Loveless), producer Fred Freiberger, special effects technician Tim Smyth, and composer Richard Markowitz. Disc One includes the initial concept opening titles and bumpers (as The Wild West), previously considered "lost" material, now recovered. Naturally, the quality here is less than optimal, but their inclusion is most certainly welcome. Disc Three includes a segment from the 1978 daytime interview on Every Day reuniting Conrad, Martin, and original stunt performer Red West. The balance of the treats are found on Disc Seven, including newly found recording sessions of Richard Markowitz conducting the opening theme as well as an audio interview of the composer. Then you'll find a brief network promo for the second season (prior to which, in his audio intro, Conrad promises a follow-up DVD release "soon"). Lastly, you'll enjoy the 1978 Eveready battery commercial in which Conrad dared you to knock the alkaline cell off his shoulder. All told, it's an excellently assembled package, backed by Conrad's active involvement, comprising seven discs in four slimline snap-cases, housed in a cardboard slipcase. Bravo!
Many folks who have proclaimed that they typically aren't inclined toward Western fare thoroughly enjoy The Wild, Wild West. Credit the inventive premise, the cross-genre storylines, and the superb acting. If you haven't given the show a look in some years—or at all, for that matter—you really should.
The Wild, Wild West is great fun and long overdue for a DVD release. Now you can relive the excitement of one of the better offerings from mid-sixties television. Thankfully, Paramount Home Video, in association with CBS Television, has done justice to this first-season release. We encourage more of the same with the next three seasons.
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• Episode Commentary by Actor Robert Conrad
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