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The Wild, Wild West, The TV Series

January 28, 2010

Created by Michael Garrison as James Bond on horseback, The Wild, Wild West originally ran on CBS-TV from September 17, 1965 through April 4, 1969, four seasons and 104 episodes.

It starred Robert Conrad as James West and Ross Martin (1920-1981) as Artemus Gordon, both special agents appointed by President U.S. Grant to fight crime in the old west.

They traveled in a custominzed railroad car stocked with a vast array of equipment and devices to foil evil-doers. CBS aired TV movies with original cast members on May 9, 1979 and October 7-8, 1980.

Warner Brothers released a feature film based on the series June 30, 1999 with Will Smith and Kevin Kline.

The Wild Wild West told the story of two Secret Service agents: James West, the charming gunslinger (played by Robert Conrad), and Artemus Gordon (played by Ross Martin), the brilliant gadgeteer and master of disguise. Their unending mission was to protect President Ulysses S. Grant and the United States from all manner of dangerous threats. The agents traveled in luxury aboard their own train, the Wanderer, equipped with everything from a stable car to a laboratory. James West had served as an intelligence and cavalry officer in the US Civil War; his "cover" during the series is that he is a railroad president. After retiring from the Service by 1880 he lives on a ranch in Mexico. Gordon's past is more obscure; when he retires in 1880 he goes on the road as the head of a Shakespeare traveling players troupe.

The show incorporated classic Western elements with an espionage thriller, science fiction/alternate history ideas (in a similar vein to steampunk), in one case horror (The Night of the Man Eating House) and plenty of comedy. In the finest James Bond tradition, there were always beautiful women, clever gadgets, and delusional arch-enemies with half-insane plots to take over the country or the world.

The title of each episode begins with "The Night" (except for the first-season episode "Night of the Casual Killer", which omitted the definite article).

A memorable recurring arch-villain was Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, a brilliant but megalomaniac dwarf portrayed by Michael Dunn. Like Professor Moriarty for Sherlock Holmes, Loveless provided West and Gordon with a worthy adversary, whose plans could be foiled but who resisted all attempts to capture him and bring him to justice. Loveless was introduced in the show's sixth produced, but third televised episode, "The Night the Wizard Shook The Earth", and appeared in another nine episodes. Initially he had two constant companions: the huge Voltaire, played by Richard Kiel; and the beautiful Antoinette, played by Dunn's real-life singing partner, Phoebe Dorin. Voltaire disappeared with no explanation after his third episode (although Richard Kiel returned in a different role in "The Night of the Simian Terror"), and Antoinette after her sixth. According to the TV movie The Wild Wild West Revisited, Loveless eventually dies in 1880 from ulcers, brought on by anger and frustration at having his plans consistently ruined by West and Gordon. (His son, played by Paul Williams, subsequently seeks revenge on the agents.)

Though several actors appeared in multiple villainous roles, only one other character had a second encounter with West and Gordon: Count Manzeppi (played flamboyantly by Victor Buono, who played another, different villain in the pilot), a diabolical genius of "black magic" and crime, who like Dr. Loveless had an escape plan at the end. (Buono eventually returned in More Wild Wild West as a parody of Henry Kissinger, who ends up both handcuffed and turning invisible with the villainous Paradine.)

While the show's writers created their fair share of villains (Agnes Moorehead won an Emmy for her role as Emma Valentine in "The Night of The Vicious Valentine"), they frequently started with the nefarious, stylized inventions of these madmen and then wrote the episodes around these devices. Stories were also inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

Conrad insisted on performing all of his own stunts, such as leaping off a balcony or running in front of a team of horses. He was occasionally doubled on the more dangerous stunts. During filming of "The Night of the Fugitives," however, Conrad fell 12 feet from a chandelier onto a concrete floor and suffered a concussion. Production of the series, then near the end of its third season, was shut down two weeks early. (The episode eventually aired during the fourth season, with footage of the fall left in.)

Ross Martin broke his leg in a fourth season episode, "The Night of the Avaricious Actuary," and suffered a heart attack a few weeks later after completing "The Night of Fire and Brimstone." His character was replaced temporarily by other agents played by Charles Aidman (four episodes), Alan Hale, Jr. and William Schallert. Aidman said he had been promised script rewrites, but these simply amounted to changing the name "Artemus Gordon" to "Jeremy Pike" (his character's name). Pat Paulsen is frequently thought of as a Martin substitute, but he in fact appeared in one of Aidman's episodes, and his character would have been present even if Martin appeared.

Ross Martin once called his role as Artemus Gordon "a show-off's showcase" because it allowed him to portray over 100 different characters during the course of the series, and perform dozens of different dialects. Martin sketched his ideas for his characterizations and worked with the makeup artists to execute the final look. Martin was nominated for an Emmy in 1969.

The trainFor the pilot episode, "The Night of the Inferno," the producers used Sierra Railroad No. 3, a 4-6-0 locomotive that was, fittingly, an anachronism: it was built in 1891, fifteen to twenty years after the series was set. Footage of this train, with a 5 replacing the 3 on its number plate, was shot in Jamestown, California. Best known for its role as the Hooterville Cannonball in the CBS series Petticoat Junction, Sierra No. 3 probably appeared in more films and TV shows than any other locomotive in history. It was built by the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works in Paterson, New Jersey.

When The Wild Wild West went into series production, however, an entirely different train was employed. The locomotive, a 4-4-0 named the Inyo, was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. Originally a wood-burner, the Inyo was converted to oil in 1910. The Inyo, as well as the express car and the passenger car, originally served on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad in Nevada. They were among V&T cars sold to Paramount Pictures in 193738. The Inyo appears in numerous films including High, Wide, and Handsome (1938), Union Pacific (1939), The Marx Brothers' Go West (1940), Meet Me in St. Louis, (1944), Red River (1948), Disney's The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) and McLintock! (1963). For The Wild Wild West, Inyo's original number plate was temporarily changed from No. 22 to No. 8 so the train footage could be flipped horizontally without the number appearing reversed. Footage of the Inyo was shot around Menifee, Calif., and reused in many episodes. (Stock footage of Sierra No. 3 occasionally resurfaced as well.)

These trains were used only for exterior shots. The luxurious interior of the passenger car was constructed on Stage 6 at CBS Studio Center. (Neither Stage 6 or the western streets still exist.) Designed by art director Albert Heschong, the set reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. (Between $190,000 and $250,000 2008 dollars.

The interior of West and Gordon's train was used in an episode of Gunsmoke titled "Death Train" (aired 1/27/67), and in at least one episode of The Big Valley ("Days of Wrath," aired 1/8/68). All three series were filmed at CBS Studio Center and shared other exterior and interior sets.

After her run on The Wild Wild West, the Inyo participated in the Golden Spike Centennial at Promontory, Utah, in 1969. The following year it appeared as a replica of the Central Pacific's "Jupiter" locomotive at the Golden Spike National Historical Site.. The State of Nevada purchased the Inyo in 1974; it was restored to 1895 vintage, including a wider smoke stack and a new pilot (cow catcher) without a drop coupler. The Inyo is still operational and displayed at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City. The express car (No.21) and passenger car (No. 4) are also at the museum.

Another veteran V&T locomotive, the Reno (built in 1872 by Baldwin), was used in the two The Wild Wild West TV movies. The Reno is located at Old Tucson Studios.

The 1999 Wild Wild West motion picture used the Baltimore & Ohio 4-4-0 No. 25, one of the oldest operating steam locomotives in the U.S. Built in 1856 at the Mason Machine Works in Taunton, Massachusetts, it was later renamed The William Mason in honor of its manufacturer. For its role as "The Wanderer" in the motion picture, the engine was sent to the steam shops at the Strasburg Railroad for restoration and repainting. The locomotive is brought out for the B&O Train Museum in Baltimore's "Steam Days".

The Inyo and The William Mason both appeared in the Disney film The Great Locomotive Chase (1956).

[edit] Theme musicThe main title theme was written by Richard Markowitz, who previously composed the theme for the TV series The Rebel. He was brought in after the producers rejected two attempts by film composer Dimitri Tiomkin. Markowitz, however, was never credited for his theme in any episode; it is believed that this was due to legal difficulties between CBS and Tiomkin over the rejection of the latter's work. Markowitz did receive "music by" credits for episodes he'd scored (such as "The Night of the Bars of Hell" and "The Night of the Raven") or where he supplied the majority of tracked-in cues (for example in "The Night of the Grand Emir" and "The Night of the Gypsy Peril"). He finally received "theme by" credit on both of the TV movies, which were scored by Jeff Alexander rather than Markowitz (few personnel from the series were involved with the TV movies).

GraphicsThe cartoon title sequence was another unique element of the series. It was created by Ken Mundie, who designed the titles for the film The Great Race and the TV series Secret Agent Man, Rawhide, and Death Valley Days.

The screen was divided into four corner panels surrounding a fifth narrow panel that contained a cartoon "hero." The hero, who looked more like a traditional cowboy than either West or Gordon, interacted with characters in the surrounding panels. In the three seasons shot in color, the overall backdrop was an abstracted wash of the flag of the United States, with the upper left panel colored blue and the others containing horizontal red stripes.

The original animation sequence is as follows:

The Hero strikes a match, lights a cigarette, and begins walking in profile to the right Behind the Hero, in the lower left panel, a robber backs out of a bank; the Hero subdues him with a karate chop to the back In the upper right panel, a cardsharp tries to pull an ace of spades from his boot, but the Hero draws his gun and the cardsharp drops the ace In the upper left panel, a gunman points a six-shooter at the Hero, who drops his gun and puts his hands up. The Hero then shoots the gunman with his sleeve derringer; the gunman's hand falls limp A woman in the lower right panel taps the Hero on the hat with her parasol. He pulls her close and kisses her. She draws a knife, but mesmerized by his kiss, turns away and slumps against the side of the frame. He tips his hat and walks away with his back to camera. There were two versions of this vignette; this one appears during the first season. When the show switched to color, the Hero knocked the woman out with a right cross to the jaw. This variant also appears in the original pilot episode (included on the DVD release) when the series was titled The Wild West. Despite this, James West never hit a woman in any episode, although he grappled with many. The closest he came was when he slammed a door against the evil Countess Zorana in "The Night of the Iron Fist." In "The Night of the Running Death" he slugged a woman named Miss Tyler, but "she" was a man in drag (actor T. C. Jones). The original animation, with the Hero winning the woman over with a kiss, was a more accurate representation of West's methods than the right cross. Ironically, it is another example of the emphasis on violence of the show. The Hero walks off into the distance, and the camera zooms into his panel. The title The Wild Wild West appears. The camera then swish pans to an illustration of the train, with Conrad's and Martin's names on the ends of different cars. This teaser part of the show was incorporated into The History Channel's Wild West Tech (20035).

Each episode had four acts. At the end of each act, the scene, usually a cliffhanger moment, would freeze, and a sketch or photograph of the scene faded in to replace the cartoon art in one of the four corner panels. The freeze-frame art changed over the course of the series. In all first season episodes other than the pilot, the panels were live-action stills made to evoke 19th century engravings. In season two (the first in color) the scenes dissolved to tinted stills; from "The Night of the Flying Pie Plate" on, however, the panels were home to Warhol-like serigraphs of the freeze-frames. The end credits were displayed over each episode's unique mosaic, but in the final season a standardized design was used. (The freeze-frame graphics were shot at a facility on Ventura Boulevard called Format Animation which no longer exists.) The pilot is the only episode in which the center panel of the Hero is replaced by a sketch of the final scene of an act; in the third act he is replaced by the villainous General Cassinello (Nehemiah Persoff).

During the first season, the series title "The Wild Wild West" was set in the font P.T. Barnum. In subsequent seasons, the title appeared in a hand-drawn version of the font Dolphin (which resembles other fonts called Zebrawood, Circus, and Rodeo Clown). Robert Conrad's name was also set in this font. Ross Martin's name was set in the font Bracelet (which resembles Tuscan Ornate and Romantiques). All episode titles, writer and director credits, guest cast and crew credits were set in P.T. Barnum. During commercial breaks, the title "The Wild Wild West" also appeared in P.T. Barnum.

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