When the pilot script of The Wild Wild West was close to completion, the process of casting an actor for the James West character began. "We cast about 400 people for Bob's part. CBS wanted a star. We couldn't get a star. If Hunt Stromberg had his way, we would have had Paul Newman. He wanted a major Western star. We tested actor after actor and it was hard," CBS programmer Ethel Winant remembered.
At the time, a promising young actor named Robert Conrad was in the midst of filming a low-budget crime thriller called Young Dillinger. (Conrad had also previously starred in the TV detective series, Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963). Conrad's agent called him about the CBS project. "So I rushed over at lunch," Conrad recalls, "and I had to wait because they were auditioning eighteen actors. I was the seventeenth. The eighteenth was an actor, Skip Ward, who later produced The Dukes of Hazzard. John Derek, who was really worried about it, didn't show up at all. They had some good actors; people who had a lot more experience than I certainly had. There I was waiting for my opportunity to do the scene with the actor who was playing the Artemus Gordon part and I knew that the role had already been cast."
CBS executives, however, were all set to go with Rory Calhoun in the lead role until they saw his film test and changed their minds. It was a last minute casting decision that put Robert Conrad in the role but everyone soon agreed that Conrad had an energetic, ever-alert, even dangerous quality that would serve him well in the James West role.
One detail CBS had reservations about was Conrad's short height. (CBS claimed its young star was 5'10" but made a point of supplying Conrad with guest actresses seldom taller than 5'6" just the same.) Ethel Winant said, "We shot this crazy scene with a pool table. We always put Bobby in the foreground and the other actors in the background. We always used the same set, which forced the perspective, and we would test people so we could have short people around. Bobby would wear a hat and have boots and lifts and we made these very elaborate chaffs to make him look taller in the tests. We figured we could probably get away from it in the show because he'd be on horses. But it was hard to do it on the set."
For the rest of the series, producers of The Wild Wild West had to take Conrad's height into account when they were casting. According to Winant, they couldn't have six-foot-two-inch guys playing opposite him. "If he's supposed to be a great hero, he couldn't look like a child," she said. Conrad added, "....I walked in after getting the role and they had all of (Rory) Calhoun's clothes. He was considerably taller than I, and considerably larger...the clothes were more Western and the wardrobe woman said, "No, I think for this man we'll go a different way. That's how the clothes were designed."
Along with a new look, Conrad felt that the West costume reflected his own personal style. He said he had always been involved in the art of bull fighting and Flamenco dancing. "When the designer put those clothes on me (the high tailored vest and the tight pants), she was responsible for creating an extension for what I was going to do. Cause I'd walk around and I'd make passes at women and I'd ride high on my horse — which was an extraordinary animal — and pretend that I was a Portuguese matador. That is how I incorporated that movement, that walk and that whole style.....I always felt that I would've been a good matador. I studied Flamenco dancing before I did The Wild Wild West and I lived in Spain. So I said, "Now here's a character! They've given me a Flamenco costume so why don't I embellish it? And I did and it worked."
With James West now solidly cast, CBS next set to work finding just the right Artemus Gordon. At one point there had been some talk about using actor Pat Hingle for the Gordon part, but CBS was impressed with Ross Martin's ability to do dialects and different characters, exactly what the role required.
Among Martin's previous experiences was the CBS-TV game show, Stump the Stars, a pantomine program that was a perfect vehicle for the actor to show off his diverse capabilities. He also received acclaim for his appearances in the short-lived TV series, Mr. Lucky, based on a 1943 Cary Grant movie.
Although Martin had refused the role of Artemus Gordon four times, the actor explained in a 1965 interview that there were certain changes in the character and in his co-starring status that needed to be made before he would accept it. CBS obliged and Martin was cast.
Of his role as Artemus, Gordon said the character was "..an absolute rogue, self-educated, a spellbinder, The Music Man and The Rainmaker, rolled into one. He hates to fight; is completely amoral. He has two major weaknesses — booze and women, not necessarily in that order. His aversion to fighting is not from cowardice. It's because he's a complete con man. If he can't talk a man out of it, he's failed."
With The Wild Wild West well on its way, and shooting scheduled to begin in June, the bottom suddenly dropped out of the CBS-TV regime in March of 1965. The network announced the firing of top management. Among the first to be ousted was President Jim Aubrey, who was replaced by Jack Schneider. Michael H. Mann became top man on the program totem pole and quickly announced the 'resignation' of Hunt Stromberg, Jr. soon to be replaced by Perry Lafferty. Robert Conrad recalled, "I got my cancellation notice in Spring of '65, when the new regime took over. I was singing in a nightclub in Mexico and my agency called and said, 'Guess what? They're not going forward with The Wild Wild West because the regime said it's not a standard show. It's not a Western, they don't know what the hell it is.' I said, 'Win a few....lose a few."
For unexplained reasons, CBS soon reevaluated the show and, fortunately, reinstated The Wild Wild West into the 1965-66 schedule. With the management changed, CBS had an unusual hybrid ladden with expensive special effects on their hands and a producer, Michael Garrison, who had no track record. He had never produced a television show, only a few movies that he worked on with producer Jerry Wahl. The new CBS management wanted no part of anything that Stromberg had developed and that included Michael Garrison. The fact remained, however, that Garrison did own a large part of the show, hence, CBS upped him to executive producer which took away some of his creative input.
The search for a producer of CBS's choice led to a long line of candidates, the first of whom was Jack Arnold, director of The Creature From the Black Lagoon and other genre films of the fifties. Although Arnold was the first choice, he only lasted for a brief time and never even had the opportunity to produce a single episode. The program went several more producers before the series finally aired on September 17, 1965 with the pilot episode, The Night of the Inferno featuring guest stars Victor Buono and Suzanne Pleshette. Needless to say, it was enthusiastically received by critics and the public alike.
The key concept behind the success of The Wild Wild West was its bizarreness. Producer Fred Freiberger and writer John Kneubuhl were both trying to come up with a great gimmick for the show one day. Kneubuhl recalled, "While we had no idea of what kind of script to write, I was flipping through a Time magazine and came across a picture of an actor named Michael Dunn. I pointed the picture out to Fred and said, Can you get Michael Dunn? He'd make a wonderful villain."
Freiberger knew that was exactly what the show needed and immediately called Michael Dunn's agent.
While Freiberger contacted Dunn in New York, Kneubuhl began to write the first show for the new villain. The script, The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth, was written within two days with very little rewriting. In the meantime, Michael Garrison still had the power to hire, subject to the network's approval, and he dropped in on Michael Dunn's nightclub act in New York City. After a meeting with Dunn, Garrison sealed the deal. He said, "I want Michael to be on the show as a continuing character, as a nemesis; a wild villain. I like the singing (from Michael's nightclub act), let's use it on the show. We can use old songs from the 1880's, and every time you do the show we'll do a lead-in on a song."
While John Kneubuhl was writing the script for Dunn, the consideration was to make Dunn's character wild and crazy, something totally out of the ordinary. Kneubuhl remembered, "How I came to to think of the name that would go with a dwarf, something less than three feet tall, was a kind of set of historical jokes on my part. Partly on myself. I'm half Samoan and I thought it would be funny if I teased myself, a no-account half-caste, and made Michael Dunn half Mexican and half, what? European? White anyway.
That's why the first name was Miguelito, for Michael Dunn and Mike Garrison....Loveless? If you're going to make as colossal a villain as I hoped to write, what name better than Loveless?....His mother was a landed patrician lady, Californian...Spanish extraction; and his father, the exploiter, the plunderer, the colonialist...robbed Miguelito of all his lands, his heritage and his culture. Therefore, he hates everybody, but the real joke about Miguelito Loveless is that his real enemy is himself and the target of his Miltonic wrath is God himself for having made him such a monstrosity."
Also written into the script was Loveless's lovely but equally evil accomplice, Antoinette, played by Phoebe Dorin, Dunn's nightclub singing partner. Another character incorporated into the Loveless regime was a seven-foot-two-inch giant named Voltaire, portrayed by Richard Kiel, who made an interesting physical contrast to Dunn's smallness. Kiel, prior to becoming an actor, was a high school teacher. Like Dunn, Kiel also suffered from a rare disease. He had acromegaly, otherwise known as gigantism, a pituitary disorder which causes abnormal and unstoppable growth. The introduction of these unique characters into various episodes of The Wild Wild West gave the series a cult flavor that continues to this day.
Despite the show's popularity, trouble began brewing at the front offices of CBS during the 1969-1970 television season. The possibility of cancellation came with an influx of governmental and administrative concerns about the level of violence portrayed on television. Earlier in the season a crackdown on excessive violence came as a result of the April assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, which followed just two months later.
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