Oct 9, 2012

Robert Conrad Dares You


We're used to thinking of Robert Conrad as a two-fisted action hero, but he originally wanted to be a singer.  During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the former professional boxer released a number of teen idol-style crooner records, but the market was overcrowded with Paul Anka, Fabian, Elvis, Frankie Avalon, Pat Boone, and nearly everyone else who could hold a tune.

Bob's records didn't sell, not even with the color shots of his impressive physique.






In 1959, Bob landed a role as Tom Lopaka, the half-Hawaiian partner of detective Tracey Steele (Anthony Eisley) on Hawaiian Eye.  Many of the cases took place on the beach, allowing Bob to strip down to a swimsuit or short-cut jeans.  The buddy-bonding was intense, and there weren't a huge number of episodes in which Tom meets a girl.


When Hawaiian Eye ended in 1963, Bob's singing career was forgotten; after starring against type in the beach movie Palm Springs Weekend (1963), he moved almost into the program that Boomers remember fondly: Wild Wild West (1965-69), a combination of the classic Western with the 1960s spy craze (other examples include Get Smart, The Secret of Boyne Castle, I Spy, and Mission: Impossible.



In the 1870s, special agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) travel through the Old West on the orders of President Grant. They use disguises and weird science fiction gadgets to foil spies, mad scentists, enemy agents, rebels, and miscellaneous high-tech scalawags.

West is tied up shirtless in nearly every episode.  He usually frees himself, but sometimes Gordeon storms to the rescue.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much buddy-bonding. West and Gordon were coworkers, not buddies, and they both leered at women nearly as often as they fell in love.









Bob had found his niche: tongue-in-cheek adventure.  During the next two decades, he was never very far from a tv series: The D.A. (1971-72), Assignment Vienna (1972-73), Black Sheep Squadron (1976-78), A Man Called Sloane (1979).  Although he had time for two buddy-bonding movies with Don Stroud.


When tongue-in-cheek adventure went out of style during the early 1980s, Bob switched to comedy (Wrong is Right, Moving Violations) or drama (Assassin, Charley Hannah).  But he rarely forgot to include a shirtless scene or two.

He parodied himself in a series of commercials for Ever-Ready Batteries in the 1980s, daring the viewer to knock a battery off his shoulder (traditionally one starts fights by daring someone to knock a chip off one's shoulder).







The rumor mill suggested that he was bisexual, and during the 1950s had liaisons with some of the great closeted actors in Hollywood, such as Tab Hunter, Wally Cox, and Rock Hudson.  Bob denied the rumors, stating to the press "I'm not gay" several times, perhaps not as graciously as he might have, but with nothing like the homophobic outrage of John Travolta or Tom Cruise.