As Robert Conrad understands it, Warner Bros. is well into the production of a feature film that is a remake of "The Wild, Wild West."
There have been some discussions about his participation in the movie, maybe a small part that might bridge the '90s big-screen remake to the '60s small-screen original. He's heard they're talking to Tom Cruise about starring as Major James West, the alacritous Secret Service agent who lived in a slick caboose and wasted assorted bad guys with the help of his erudite sidekick, Artemus Gordon, from 1965 to 1970 on CBS.Sitting at a table at the Loon Cafe in Minneapolis, Conrad had a suggestion: "Who's that guy from `Saturday Night,' Dana Carvey? He oughta do it. He could fit into the tight pants, he's talented, he'd be a hoot."
You can't tell if Conrad is serious, or if he's just suggesting someone who would clearly wreck everything that James West was, somebody who isn't Conrad - like suggesting that Drew Carey play Captain Kirk if William Shatner wasn't available.
He doesn't say it directly, but Conrad knows he owns the character of James West. If it was all the same with him, he'd let the reruns churn on TNT forever, collect his percentage from the surging merchandise market ("Have a Wild, Wild Birthday" cards), sign autographs for 30- and 40-somethings and maybe encase the show in glass, displaying it as a colorful period piece from the shoot-'em-up '60s.
But don't wreck a good thing by trying to remake it.
"There were 18 actors who tested for it and I got it. I gave birth to that character and 114 episodes later, that was it," he said. "If you want to see the real deal, watch it on TNT."
But maybe the real deal is Conrad himself, who, at 61, could still slip into those black leather pants, slide off a galloping horse and kick some butt. The gray hair is thinning, but there are no weaves or plugs; the stomach is flat as an ironing board, the blue eyes laser-bright.
Conrad is in Minneapolis for "Jingle All the Way," in which he plays a motorcycle cop who foils Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The part was originally written for a woman, Conrad said, but "they wanted someone who could pull up next to Arnold and tell him to pull over and he pulls over.")
It is Conrad's first film in 16 years, but this is a guy who, by his account, doesn't need the work. He sold his production company last year after cranking out 26 TV movies and now lives, by his account, a comfortable life near Lake Tahoe, Calif. with his wife of 17 years, LaVelda, and their three daughters. (He has five grown children from a previous marriage and nine grandchildren.)
Conrad ran away from his hometown of Chicago when he was 15 and spent time in Minneapolis with friends in the early 1950s. A talented athlete who favored boxing and martial arts, Conrad drifted to Hollywood and got his first series, "Hawaiian Eye," on ABC in 1959.
In 1965, "The Wild, Wild West" began the first of five seasons, combining the traditional appeal of a Western with the red-hot James Bond craze.
Later came Conrad's role as aviator Pappy Boyington in "Baa Baa Black Sheep," and his own favorite, fur trader Pasquinel in James Michener's "Centennial." In between were scores of TV movies and guest shots and a few series clunkers such as "Assignment: Vienna," "A Man Called Sloane" and "The Duke," all of which made use of Conrad's physical skills.
Conrad said he has worked steadily for nearly 40 years because he reliably delivers a demographic, usually women 18 to 49 years old. These are his constituents, and during the interview, Conrad worked a corner of the Loon like a politician, flirting and graciously signing autographs for women.
"I understand the mechanics of the industry and I understand the fatality rate," he said. "My TVQ (a measure of audience acceptance) was always high ... I've never been slaughtered. I've been beaten, but never slaughtered."
And while Conrad is happy to sign autographs and will gladly talk about "The Wild, Wild West," he refuses to participate in some of the rituals of his retro-celebrity. No fan conventions, no personal appearances, no trivia books.
He said he rarely watches the show, not because he wasn't satisfied with his work, but because of the memories it stirs: "Good friends are dead," he said, referring to co-star Ross Martin, who died in 1981.
So just what is the appeal of this slightly hokey, violent, sexist TV show set in the 1870s?
"We were never a Western. It was a little bit fey. Sometimes it didn't make much sense. We had some amazing guest stars - Ida Lupino, Ed Begley - not junior, Ed Begley Senior - Robert Duvall. And there were these two guys, one in tight pants doing some awesome stunt work. So we happened to watch it the other day and my wife says, `So, is there any plot here? Does any of this make sense?' And I said it's just pure escapism. It's just a lot of fun."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)