The Wild Wild West is an American television series that ran on CBS for four seasons (104 episodes) from September 17, 1965 to April 4, 1969. Developed at a time when the television western was losing ground to the spy genre, this show was conceived by its creator, Michael Garrison, as "James Bond on horseback." It was one of the first television series which could be described as a science fiction Western. Two television movies were made with the original cast in 1979 and 1980, and the series was adapted for a motion picture in 1999 with a new cast and story.
The pilot episode, "The Night of the Inferno", was produced by Garrison and scripted by Gilbert Ralston, who had written for numerous episodic TV series in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1997, Ralston sued Warner Brothers over the upcoming motion picture based on the series. (Wild Wild West was released in 1999.) In a deposition, Ralston explained that he was approached by Michael Garrison, who '"said he had an idea for a series, good commercial idea, and wanted to know if I could glue the idea of a western hero and a James Bond type together in the same show. Ralston said he then created the Civil War characters, the format, the story outline and nine drafts of the script that was the basis for the television series. It was his idea, for example, to have a secret agent named Jim West who would perform secret missions for a bumbling Ulysses S. Grant.
Ralston's experience brought to light a common Hollywood practice of the 1950's and 60's when television writers who helped create popular series allowed producers or studios to take credit for a show, thus denying the writers millions of dollars in royalties. Ralston died in 1999, before his suit was settled. Warner Brothers ended up paying his family between $600,000 and $1.5 million.
As indicated by Robert Conrad on his DVD commentary for the first season, the show went through several changes in producers in its early weeks of production. This was apparently due to conflicts between the network and Garrison. Collier Young produced episodes 2-4. These episodes featured a butler named Tennyson who traveled with West and Gordon. Tennyson was dropped after the fourth produced episode, but since the episodes were not broadcast in production order, the character popped up at different times during the first season. Fred Freiberger produced episodes 5-14; John Mantley episodes 15-21; and Gene L. Coon episodes 22-27. Garrison then returned to produce the last episode of season one. In August 1966, early during production of the second season, however, Garrison fell in his home and died. CBS brought in Bruce Lansbury, head of programming in New York (and brother of actress Angela Lansbury), to produce the show for the remainder of its run. First season episodes were filmed in black and white, and were appropriately darker in their tonality. (Cinematographer Ted Voightlander was nominated for an Emmy for his work on these episodes.) Subsequent seasons were filmed in color and the show became noticeably campier. Still, some episodes could be astonishingly violent, and that ultimately was the series' downfall: according to Susan Kesler's book (see below), CBS bowed under pressure from watchdog groups and gave the show it's cancellation notice in late February, 1969. Get Smart moved from NBC to CBS to fill the first half hour of West's old Friday night time slot in the fall of 1969.
CBS re-ran several episodes of The Wild Wild West in the summer of 1970 before the program moved into syndication and new life on local stations across the country, including WGN. In 1994, it was broadcast on TNT, which usually preferred the color episodes over the black and white shows. Hallmark Channel briefly aired the series in 2005 as part of its slate of Saturday afternoon Westerns but quickly dropped it after several weeks. Retro Television Network aired two episodes back-to-back on Thursday nights in 2005 and is now broadcasting the show during the daytime .
The show incorporated classic Western elements with an espionage thriller, as well as science fiction/alternate history ideas (in a similar vein to steampunk) 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.
Each episode's title begins with "The Night" (except for the first-season episode "Night of the Casual Killer", which omitted the definite article). Shows with similar naming conventions include: Friends ("The One ..."); The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ("The ... Affair"); The Rat Patrol ("The ... Raid"); Rawhide (seasons 1–3 and 5–6: "Incident ..."); Monk ("Mr. Monk and..."); Still Standing ("Still..."); Everybody Hates Chris ("Everybody Hates..."); and Scrubs ("My ...").
The one memorable recurring arch-villain was Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless, a brilliant-but-insane dwarf portrayed by Michael Dunn, who performed almost an identical function for West and Gordon as Professor Moriarty performed for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—the 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. This role was performed by Dunn's real-life singing partner, Phoebe Dorin. Voltaire disappeared with no explanation after the third battle against Loveless, while Antoinette was not seen after the sixth one. According to The Wild Wild West Revisited TV movie, 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.
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.
Robert Conrad and a stock company of stunt players choreographed at least two fight sequences per episode. Conrad also insisted on performing all of his own stunts, such as leaping off a second-floor balcony or running in front of a team of horses. During the filming of one episode, "The Night of the Fugitives", 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 that the script rewrites he had been promised 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 make-up artists to execute the final look. Martin was nominated for an Emmy in 1969.
The villains often used equally creative gadgets, including:
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 several V&T cars sold to Paramount Pictures in 1937-8. 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 that footage of the train could be flipped left or right without the number appearing reversed. Footage of the Inyo was shot around Menifee, Calif., and re-used countless times during the run of the show. (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 any of the western streets still exist.) Designed by art director , the set reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965.
The interior of West and Gordon's train was used in an episode of Gunsmoke titled "Death Train" (aired 1/27/67).
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 currently 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 Wild Wild West TV movies and in the 1999 theatrical film starring Will Smith. The Reno is located at Old Tucson Studios.
The cartoon teaser for the opening credits was another unique element of the series. The screen was divided into five panels, the center containing a cartoon "hero" who interacted with characters in the surrounding panels. The cartoon Hero actually bears more of a resemblance to Clint Eastwood in Rawhide or James Arness in Gunsmoke than Conrad or Martin.
The original sequence is as follows:
The four corner panels were then utilized for the commercial breaks. Each episode was divided into four acts. At the end of each act, the scene (usually a cliffhanger moment) would freeze and a sketch or photograph of the scene would replace one of the panels. (The commercial break freeze frames usually didn't follow in the same order as the main title; they only do so in four episodes - "The Night of the Two-Legged Buffalo," "The Night of the Man-Eating House," "The Night of the Deadly Blossom," and "The Night of the Winged Terror, Part 2.")
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 mosaic in every season but the last, when a standardized design was used. The pilot episode 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. This teaser part of the show was incorporated into The History Channel's Wild West Tech (2003-5).
Notice that six first season episodes were produced by Gene L. Coon, also of Star Trek fame. In fact, there are some suspicious similarities between two episodes of the two shows as well as sound effects. Robert Conrad himself points to one in his introduction to the episode "The Night of the Burning Diamond" on The Wild, Wild West 40th Anniversary DVD Collection. This episode features a man who, by distilling a certain liquid from burning diamonds, can make himself faster than the eye can see. For fans of the original Star Trek series, this would instantly bring to mind the episode "Wink of an Eye" where the planet Scalos' water causes the same effect. In addition in the same Wild, Wild West episode, we hear a sound described as the individual sound waves produced by people speaking, which became the signature sound of the Star Trek communicator.
In 1988, Arnett Press published The Wild Wild West: The Series by Susan E. Kesler (ISBN 0-929360-00-1), a thorough production history and episode guide.
In 1990, Millennium Publications produced a four-part comic book series ("The Night Of The Iron Tyrants") scripted by Mark Ellis with art by Darryl Banks. A sequel to the TV series, it involved Dr. Loveless in a conspiracy to assassinate President Grant and the President of Brazil and put the Knights of the Golden Circle into power. The characters of Voltaire and Antoinette were prominent here, despite their respective early departures from Dr. Loveless' side in the original program. A review from the Mile High Comics site states: "This mini-series perfectly captures the fun mixture of western and spy action that marked the ground-breaking 1960s TV series." The storyline of the comics mini-series was optioned for motion picture development.
In 1998, Berkeley Books published three novels by author Robert Vaughan - The Wild Wild West (ISBN 0-425-16372-5), The Night of the Death Train (ISBN 0-425-16449-7), and The Night of the Assassin (ISBN 0-425-16517-5).
A new fan-made Wild Wild West series is being developed by the creators of Star Trek: New Voyages
In January 1992, Variety reported that Warner Bros. was planning a theatrical version of The Wild Wild West directed by Richard Donner, written by Shane Black, and starring Mel Gibson as James West. (Donner directed three episodes of the original series.) Donner and Gibson instead made a theatrical version of TV's Maverick in 1994. The Wild Wild West motion picture continued in the development stage, with Tom Cruise rumored for the lead in 1995. Cruise instead revived Mission: Impossible the following year.
Finally, in 1999, a theatrical motion picture loosely based on the series was released. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film Wild Wild West (without the definite article used in the series title) made substantial changes to the characters of the series, reimagining James West as an African-American (played by Will Smith), almost completely ignoring the racial issues that certainly would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for a black man to be a United States secret service agent in the late 1800s. (However, at the end of the TV episode "The Night of the Returning Dead", West and Gordon did invite an African-American character played by guest star Sammy Davis Jr. to join the department.)
Significant changes were made to Dr. Loveless (played by Kenneth Brannagh in the film). He went from a dwarf (TV) to a man without legs (film); his name was also changed to Arliss Loveless and he was given the motive of a Southerner who sought the defeat of the North after the Civil War. Kevin Kline plays Gordon, whose character was similar to the version played by Ross Martin, except that he was bitterly competitive with James West, and much more egotistical. The film script had Kline's Gordon invent more ridiculous, humor-related, and implausible contraptions than those created by Martin's Gordon in the television series.
The film also depicted West and Gordon as competitive rivals (almost to the point of a mutual dislike and distrust of one another), whereas in the television series, West and Gordon had a very close friendship and trusted each other with their lives.
Robert Conrad reportedly was offered a cameo in the role of President Grant, but turned it down. He was outspoken in his criticism of the new film. In a New York Post interview (July 3, 1999), Conrad stated that he disliked the movie and that contractually he was owed a share of money on merchandising that he was not paid. He had a long-standing feud with producer Jon Peters, which may have colored his opinion. He was also offended at the racial aspects of the film, as well as the casting of Brannagh as a double amputee, rather than a little-person actor, in the role of Loveless.