CBS had an instant hit on their hands when The Wild Wild West
made its network debut on September 17, 1965. While many of the popular TV Westerns were running out of steam, series creator Michael Garrison ripped a page from the Ian Fleming/Sean Connery playbook and conceived The Wild Wild West
as a "James Bond Western," energizing the genre by combining a traditional Western setting (primarily the San Francisco region in the 1870s) with the accoutrements of the spy genre. It was a foolproof formula, further refined by producer Fred Frieberger (who later produced the third and final season of Star Trek
), and TWWW
held its popular time-slot (7:30-8:30 on Friday nights) for its entire four-season run. Smart casting proved to be another source of audience appeal: While Robert Conrad fit nicely into his role (and tight-fitting costume) as macho Secret Service agent James West, doing his own challenging stunts and charming each episode's obligatory beautiful female guest star, Ross Martin proved an equally excellent choice to play West's skillful sidekick Artemus Gordon, a debonair dandy whose mastery of disguises and dialects would prove essential as they tackled dangerous crime-fighting assignments from President Ulysses S. Grant.
The series' unique appeal arose from its clever and frequently bizarre plots. Every episode title began with a variation of "The Night of..." (including the pilot, "The Night of the Inferno," with more unusual titles thereafter), and as Jim and Arte plotted strategies from the comfort of their tricked-out custom railroad car, their exploits frequently led them into realms of the occult, mad science, bizarre inventions, and villains so eccentrically twisted that they became instant favorites among the show's growing legion of fans. Best of them all was the nefarious Miguelito Loveless, first appearing in "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth" (original airdate 10/01/65) and played to perfection by dwarf actor Michael Dunn, a '60s TV regular familiar to Star Trek fans from his memorable role in the original series episode "Plato's Stepchildren." A gifted, intellectual renaissance man (like Ross Martin) with an angelic singing voice, Dunn was an overnight sensation, guest-starring in four of the first season's 28 episodes, with six more appearances in subsequent seasons. Dunn's gleeful malevolence (accompanied by his mute henchman Voltaire, played by giant actor Richard Kiel) was an essential addition to the series' sideshow esthetic; weirdness, humor, gorgeous women, and devious ingenuity (in plotting, action and gadgetry), became the trademarks that set TWWW apart from its more conventional TV Western competition. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVD
For this much-anticipated DVD release, Paramount has made above-average efforts to satisfy fans. Virtually every episode looks and sounds practically brand-new, and with TWWW expert Sue Kesler serving as DVD co-producer, this seven-disc set features a wealth of archival extras, many culled from Kesler's own research as author of the out-of-print guidebook The Wild Wild West: The Series. In addition to excerpts from audio-taped interviews with Frieberger, writer (and "Dr. Loveless" creator) John Kneubuhl (who tells a fascinating story of how Liberace almost guest-starred on the show), music composer Richard Markowitz, and special-effects technician Tim Smyth, each episode includes brief but informative audio introductions by Robert Conrad, who also appears (with Martin) discussing the show (and their subsequent TV-movie revival of TWWW) in a 1978 talk-show appearance. Excerpts from the original music-theme scoring sessions were found in UCLA's Film and Television archive, and other extras include a network series promo clip (from a later season, after TWWW switched to color), a sketch by Ross Martin, a photo gallery, and even one of Conrad's notorious Eveready Battery commercials from the late '70s. All in all, this 40th Anniversary package should give TWWW fans ample reason to celebrate, boding well for the other season-sets to follow. --Jeff Shannon
Whether you grew up with it on the tube, want to erase the memory of 1999's disappointing feature-film adaptation, or are simply discovering it now, The Wild Wild West rocks. This late-'60s TV show has a bit of everything: laughs, drama, action, elements of magic, sci-fi, ghost stories, high- and low-tech gadgets that would do James Bond and MacGyver proud, great music, pretty ladies, outrageous villains, cool clothes... and even Sammy Davis Jr. and Richard Pryor, among other unexpected guests. Droll ladies man and government agent James West (played by tough guy Robert Conrad, wearing pants so tight they reveal his... well, they're really tight) and his sidekick, master of disguises Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), are back at it for this second season (1966-67), with 28 episodes packaged on seven discs, bringing with them the same delightfully arch tone as before. Headquartered in their well-appointed train car, they embark on a variety of oddball adventures, all of them entitled "The Night of" something (like "...the Flying Pie Plate," "...the Returning Dead," "...the Surreal McCoy," "...the Tottering Tontine," and many more). It's all very tongue-in-cheek; the villains, both familiar (Doctor Miguelito Loveless, colorfully portrayed by "little person" Michael Dunn) and new, are deluded, silver-tongued maniacs camping it up like there's no tomorrow, while the stories, ranging from Loveless' schemes to take over the world and various plots to eliminate President Ulysses S. Grant and other important personages to time travel and green-skinned women from Venus, are smart, whimsical, and clever.
The show's overall vibe, from the opening credits on, is obviously reminiscent of cartoons and comic books; the fact that it doesn't take itself at all seriously is arguably its most appealing feature, along with better-than-average sets, cinematography, and other technical elements (not to mention a great title tune by Morton Stevens, the same guy responsible for Hawaii Five-0's immortal theme). Inevitably, some of it seems a bit dated now, such as the stereotypical depictions of Indians, but overall, The Wild Wild West has held up well. If there's a principal drawback, it's the lack of any bonus features; even though creator Michael Garrison died before this second season hit the airwaves, it would have been nice to hear from some of the others who participated in the making of this terrific show. --Sam Graham
"Elaborate little subterfuges" and "intricate dramas" await the suave and dashing frontier 007, James West (Robert Conrad) and his partner, master of disguise Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), courtesy of a gallery of rogues and flamboyant villains with grandiose schemes of world domination. Among them: Victor Freemantle ("The Night of Bubbling Death"), bent on establishing his own Texas Panhandle domain; the Falcon ("The Night of the Falcon"), who aims his behemoth cannon at Denver and conspires with a European syndicate to put the rest of the world under the gun; Emmett Stark ("The Night of the Death Masks"), who breaks out of prison to stage an elaborate and bizarre revenge against his captors, West and Gordon; and, of course, West's ultimate nemesis, the diminutive Dr. Miguelito Loveless ("The Night Dr. Loveless Died"), whose demise could just be "another typical Loveless prank."
You may not find The Wild Wild West on any of those "Greatest TV Shows of All Time" lists, but more than 40 years later, it leaves many of the so-called classic shows in the dust. West's blend of Western action, spy adventure, and sci-fi thrills (less here than in seasons past) still pack quite a kick. The pleasures of this offbeat, genre-bending series did not diminish in its penultimate season. There's the classic theme song, the animated opening credits (with West's bang-zoom dispatch of a femme fatale intact); the chemistry between one of TV's great buddy teams, and Gordon's primitive gadgets (like a smoking jacket that really smokes!) that are akin to the Flintstones' prehistoric versions of modern-day appliances. The Wild Wild West also rounded-up some great character actors. Robert Duvall appears in "The Night of the Falcon" as a "mild mannered country doctor" with a more sinister secret practice. Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian) and venerable Western bad guy Jack Elam team up to steal Aztec treasure in "The Night of Montezuma's Horde. Harry Dean Stanton (Big Love is an innocent man framed for murder in "The Night of the Hangman." --Donald Liebenson
At one uncharacteristically poignant point during Wild Wild West's final season, secret service agent James West raises a glass to toast "absent friends." That would be Artemis Gordon, West's resourceful sidekick and a master of disguise and the odd "diversion." Ross Martin, who portrayed Gordon, had suffered a heart attack and was missing in action for several episodes, so missed that it took several actors to fill his shoes: Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike, William Scharlett (who early in the season portrays a villain in the episode, "The Night of the Gruesome Games") as Frank Harper, Pat Paulson, the hangdog mock-Presidential candidate on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, as the seemingly milquetoast Bosley Cranston in "The Night of the Camera," and Alan "The Skipper" Hale, Jr. as chemist Ned Brown in "The Night of the Sabatini Death," (which also features Jim Backus and contains a cute Gilligan’s Island in-joke at episode’s end). With or without Martin, this was a wild, wild season that offers genre-bending kicks in episodes that evoke James Bondian espionage, Jules Verne fantasy, bizarre Avengers-style villainy, and even The Phantom of the Opera. James and company are up against some entertainingly over-the-top megalomaniacs bent on world domination. Of course, the sun couldn’t set on the West without one last encounter with the series’ most popular villain, the "dictatorial, vain, short-tempered, and occasionally unreasonable" Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn), who re-emerges yet again to pass judgment over those he professes to have wronged him in "The Night of Marguerite’s Revenge." Two of TV’s comedy icons, Harvey Koran and a pre-Mary Tyler Moore Show Ted Knight, play it straight as formidable foes in "The Night of the Big Blackmail" and "The Night of the Kraken," respectively. "The Night of the Winged Terror," the series’ only two-parter, is an effective creep show featuring a hypnotizing bulging-brained adversary. Conrad, as one character compliments him, is "better than ever," whether dispatching goons (he performed all his own stunts) or romancing the ladies ("He said something about showing the big dipper to the daughter of the Lithuanian ambassador," Artemis explains West’s absence in "Big Blackmail"). While there are signs that the series was poised to jump the shark, it is too bad it ended before further encounters with Professor Montague, who is introduced in "The Night of the Janis" as the Q-like creator of such nifty gadgets as a harmonica gun. --Donald Liebenson