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One on One with Robert Conrad

By Tony Medley

 I met Robert Conrad, TV star of “Hawaiian Eye,” “Wild, Wild West,” and “Black Sheep Squadron,” at his beautiful home overlooking the valley and mountains in Thousand Oaks. He had just returned from the Physical Therapy he undergoes 4 hours a day every day as a result of his devastating automobile accident in 2003 that left his right hand and arm paralyzed and his speech slower, and also seriously injured the driver of the other car. Even so, his arm in a sling and his hair gray, at 73 years of age he is unconquerable, still tougher than nails.

 Conrad, born in 1935, came to Hollywood in 1957 at the behest of his friend, Nick Adams.

 TM: How did you meet Nick Adams?

 RC: I met Nick Adams at the graveside of James Dean.

 TM: Were you a buddy of James Dean?

 RC: No, I wasn’t as a matter of fact. I had a resemblance to James Dean and I did a show after the filming of “Giant” and because of my resemblance they wanted publicity to publicize the show. They didn’t think that it would draw an audience because of the death of the young star, so they wanted some hype. They had a man on the street interview. I had seen the show and I raved about how good the show was and then they did the resemblance thing and I was on the show every night for a week. People in Indiana saw it and they wanted to do the James Dean Story and they contacted me and invited me down to Fairmont Indiana. Nick Adams was touring with some kind of Nick Adams film; I forget the name of it now. He was in Fairmont Indiana, so we met at the James Dean gravesite.

 TM: You were living in Indiana at the time?

 RC: No, I was living in Chicago and this was a big screening. I can’t remember the name of the guy who was the regional publicity guy for Warner Bros, Frank something. He knew my mother. My mother was in publicity for Mercury Records. So she knew the publicity guy from Warner Bros. He knew I looked like Dean. It was just a gimmick.

 I went to the gravesite. Fairmont, Indiana is just a car drive from Chicago.

 TM: So how did you and Adams hook up? You obviously became friends.

 RC: We were two young guys. He was looking at me and I was looking at him. He invited me to his room at his hotel and we had a couple of drinks together and he told me if I ever came to Hollywood that I was to look him up. He gave me his exchange. I didn’t know what the hell that was, back in the day. But he wrote it out for me and I kept it and went to New York to get a break in acting. When that didn’t work out I went back to Hollywood and called Nick and we hooked up the day I arrived in Hollywood, August 17, 1957. We were friends for the 13 years until his death.

 TM: Was Pat Wayne in that group?

 RC: Pat Wayne was the first guy I met in Hollywood and Dennis Hopper. I met them that night. Wayne was doing a movie called “The Big Land” or something like that. Dennis was in the movie with him.

 TM: You said that Nick Adams got you your big break?

 RC: Well, he got me a lot of breaks. He got me in the Screen Actors Guild in a movie called “Juvenile Jungle.” (laughs) My introduction to the film business was kissing a woman as the speaking actors came down some stairs to the beach. It panned down and there I was embracing this young lady, kissing her. That’s how the movie started. It was all right with me (smiles). That’s how I got in the Screen Actors Guild. Nick Adams was supposed to be in that movie but he got me in saying he was a dear friend of mine and that he wanted me to be in the movie and they said, “All right, fine. We’ll put him in this part here.” Then Nick unfortunately was offered a bigger part with Tommy Sands in a movie called “Sing, Boy, Sing.” (laughs) I stayed in “Juvenile Jungle” and Nick went over to “Sing, Boy, Sing.”

 TM: Did you have a speaking role?

 RC: No. My role was, my mouth opened and that was it (laughs). I don’t think my mouth opened in those days. I think it was an amusing kiss.

 TM: When you have those kisses, can you enjoy them, or is it all acting?

 RC: Well I didn’t then because I was new in Hollywood and to me it was just all acting. The little girl was a dancer on Hollywood Boulevard. That was her full time job when she wasn’t acting. She was a sweet, demure little girl from Indiana. I just didn’t know her well enough to kiss her.

 TM: But you did. At least your lips locked.

 RC: Our lips locked but if I were to see it today it probably wasn’t much of a kiss.

 TM: So that was your career; you wanted to be an actor?

 RC: Yeah. I got the bug in the Theater Arts Department at Northwestern University.

 TM: That was a pretty good Theater Arts Department. A lot of good people came out of it.

 TC: I went to study with Dr. Robert Schneiderman. I was his personal protégé. I went there and said I wanted to study acting and he asked me what high school I graduated from and I told him I hadn’t (laughs). He asked me what my profession was and I told him a milk truck driver by day and a nightclub singer by night. He gave me a scene to do as an audition and I did it and he liked it. We started studying together and we started studying in class. Then some guys from Hollywood came out and wanted to test some actors and he recommended me out of the school. I passed the test and was supposed to be in a movie called “Run Silent, Run Deep” with Burt Lancaster. I came out here to be in the movie and it was a publicity thing. It wasn’t any movie I was going to be in.

 TM: You mean it was all just a ruse?

 RC: Yeah, it was a ruse.

 TM: Why would they do that?

 RC: Why wouldn’t they?

 TM: What’s the point? What did they have to get out of it?

 RC: Well, it was a publicity thing back in Chicago. They got a lot of publicity out of it. We were supposed to be extras in the movie, just bodies. And that didn’t appeal to me. So I left Hollywood and went to New York.

 TM: Did you do anything in New York?

 RC: Yeah, I walked the streets looking for an agent. It didn’t happen so I got in touch with a friend and asked him if I could get a ticket to LA. He sent me a first class, one-way, red carpet ticket, telling me that eventually I’d have to pay him back, but not with cash, with a favor. Several years into the industry he called me up and said, (Conrad adopts a rough voice) “I got a nephew who wants to be an actor. He’s gotta be in some kind of union.” (laughs).

 I said, “It’s called the screen actors guild.” He says, “Well you gotta get him in there, you know what I’m sayin’?” And I said, “Yeah, I know what you’re sayin’,.” And I got him in.

 TM: Did you grow up with (mobster) Michael Spilotro? How did you get involved with those guys?

 RC: No, I knew Tony. I met Tony; then I met his younger brother, Michael, through a friend of mine named Larry Manetti, who introduced me to him at the Hoagie’s restaurant in Chicago. And that’s how we became friends.

 TM: You were good friends?

 RC: We were best friends. He was my best friend. Best.

 TM: And he was the guy that “Casino” was based on?

 RC: Well, a version of Casino is allegedly based on. That’s not the Michael that I knew.

 TM: Was Michael beaten to death with baseball bats?

 RC: Yeah. But the version of Casino. Joe Pesci played Michael and Michael didn’t talk like, “F--- this and f--- that.” As a matter of fact, we were at a party off the Strip, because Tony was barred from the Strip. At the party there were ladies. I had a tendency to drop a “f---” occasionally in my conversation. Michael came to me, and says, “Bob, Bob, these ladies are somebody’s mothers and somebody’s sisters, somebody’s daughters. Come on.”

 TM: Good for him.

 RC: And I said, “You know, Michael, I don’t hear myself. I’ll watch it.” And then I dropped the bad language and I heard myself and it was a demure conversation. So for Pesci to be going “f--- this, f--- that,” it was a New York version of their concept of what Chicago guys are all about. If you’re going to play them, play them right. When I played Gordon Liddy, I had Liddy there. When I played Boyington, I had Boyington there.

 TM: So did you want them to criticize you?

 RC: Sure, I wanted them to say, “No, don’t go there. That’s not how…” I’ll never forget how Liddy jumped out and turned around and showed me when he was an FBI agent how he handled a handgun. I thought, “Well, fortunately that’s not in the movie (laughs).”


TM: Why?

 RC: Well, it was pretty provocative.

 TM: Speaking of Boyington, the scene I always remember from that was when you’re trying to get the appointment as the head of that group and you’re talking to someone on the phone and you go (sound effects like static).”

 RC: I pretend that I can’t, the phone is malfunctioning?

 TM: Yes.

 RC: Yes, I remember that scene. I remember it very well.

 TM: That was a great scene. Was it factually based?

 RC: I don’t know. That was when I was first cast in the part. I don’t know. Greg wasn’t there that day.

 TM: So that was just scripted that way?

 RC: I guess. It might not have been. It might have been with his approval because he approved everything.

 TM: Did he really?

 RC: Oh, yeah. He read all the scripts and gave his OK.

 TM: It was a great show. I’m sorry it didn’t last longer.

 RC: Well, it didn’t last longer because it was too violent.

 TM: I don’t remember it being that violent.

 RC: The airplanes were the actual footage of airplanes and were factual and actual.

 TM: I remember that they tried to add girls to it to bring the ratings up or something and that’s when I thought the show went down.

 RC: We added girls to take the heat off the combat.

 TM: Oh, is that right?

 RC: Yeah.

 TM: I thought it was a great show. I hated to see it go.

 RC: Yeah, I did, too.

 TM: What’s your favorite role?

 RC: Each year I had a favorite role. When I was in Hawaiian Eye, my favorite role was surfing. When I had Wild West, my favorite role was stunts. When I had Black Sheep my favorite role was becoming a pilot and flying. So with each decade I had something to look forward to.

 TM: Why did you want to do those stunts? You had a pretty serious injury on Wild, Wild West, didn’t you?

 RC: Yes. I had a high temple concussion with a six inch cranial fracture of the skull. Conrad was supposed to jump off a balcony, grab a chandelier, and land on the bad guy. The other stunt man was late and he fell 15 feet, landing on his neck and head.

 TM: Did you continue doing stunts after that?

 RC: Yeah.

 TM: Why?

 RC: Why not?

 TM: You can get hurt!

 RC: I know, but BB King had a song called “The Thrill is Gone.” The thrill was gone when I wasn’t performing the stunts. I enjoyed it.

 TM: What happened on that one where you got hurt?

 RC: Nothing. I just took a nine month hiatus.

 TM: What caused it?

 RC: A stunt man was late. He was supposed to stop my forward motion when I was up high. I was doing a Figure L and I grabbed the bar and I went into the L and he wasn’t there and the motion went downward. I dropped 15 feet and hit my skull.

 TM: I was always a fan of yours but the thing that really got me to liking you was when you challenged Gabe Kaplan to a match race on NBC’s “Battle of the Network Stars.”

RC: And I lost.

 TM: You took it so great.

 RC: Well, they made me.

 TM: You look at the two of you. You look like an athlete and he looks like a fat guy.

 RC: Yeah. But he ran track in college.

 TM: Did you know that?

 RC: No. I beat him for 80 yards. It was the last 30 that he nailed me.

 TM: I don’t think they showed the whole race, then. What I remember is him beating you.

 RC: Oh, yeah. I remember that, too. I remember looking at his butt.

 TM: So that wasn’t anything that was scripted. You just did that on the spur of the moment? You just challenged him?

 RC: I didn’t challenge him. That was the way they wanted to settle the dispute. So I said, “Bring it on. Whatever it is, we’ll do it.” If it was tug of war, if it was running; whatever it was, we’ll do it…swimming. I’m up for it. It turned out to be in his best interest.

 TM: I thought it was in your best interest because you handled it so well.

 RC: Well thank you. I got a battery commercial out of it.

 TM: Out of that? How did that happen?

 RC: The President of Eveready battery was watching it and liked the camaraderie and liked what he saw. The next thing I knew I had a battery on my shoulder, saying, “I dare you! I dare you to call it Regular.”

TM: That was a pretty profitable race.

 RC: Profitable for me. I built a house up in the Sierras.

 TM: Just off of that commercial?

 RC: Yep.

 TM: I heard that you were up for the role of Jeanie’s husband, that Larry Hagman got.

 RC: Oh, yeah, sure I tested for that.

 TM: Then out of that you got the Black Sheep role?

 RC: Yeah, I Dream of Jeanie, I was up for that. I turned that down because I would take second billing to her. She was going to get star billing and I thought, “I think I’m at a time in my career where I ought to be on top. So I passed on that.

 TM: Do you regret that?

 RC: Noooo. Not at all.

 TM: She was definitely the star of that show.

 RC: Oh, yeah. It would have been fun to work with her and do comedy, but not second billing.

 TM: So how did that lead into the Black Sheep role?

 RC: The Black Sheep role was an accident. They didn’t want me. My agent wanted me. He hustled (Producer Stephen J.) Cannell and hustled and hustled and hustled. Finally Cannell said, ”Well, we’ll take a look at him.” They brought me in and the old man, Boyington, really wanted me.

 TM: Did you know him before that?

 RC: No, no, no. He knew that I had a history of off camera activities that were somewhat challenging (laughs). Never was I unprofessional at work. But after work with the cameras shut down, I went across the street to the bar, the tavern, and all hell would break loose. And I was sometimes the center of the break loose.

 TM: Fights?

 RC: Fights, pretty much barroom brawls. I had that reputation and Cannell didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

 TM: Really? He really speaks highly of you. He loves you.

 RC: Yeah. Well I love him. He’s become my best friend. I was hesitant to offer him that role as best friend because my best friends have a way of passing on prematurely. So I said, “Maybe you don’t want to be my best friend.”

 TM: Do you feel like you got any real big career changing break at any time?

 RC: No, I had a career that has been consistent. I went up until 1980 with offers to do pretty much quality television shows, because I am a television actor. In ’80 I elected to form my own company and make television movies and I made 16 television movies from ’80 to ’97. Then in ’97 I decided I wanted to retire. Then I made a movie in 2000 where I played myself, called “Just Shoot Me.” It was a funny episode. After I did that I was happy and content and there wasn’t anything I wanted to do. So that’s pretty much what I’m doing. That’s my career.

 TM: Is this injury that you’ve got now from the automobile accident?

 RC: Yeah.

 TM: That must have been a brutal one.

 RC: It was unbelievable (laughs)…unbelievable.

 TM: What’s the prognosis?

 RC: For this? I’m in therapy.

 TM: Is your arm broken?

 RC: No, it’s called Brachial Plexus. It’s the nerves in my back are dead. What it requires is an operation, going down my back to my spine to revive them. I’ve already had one. I can move my hands. If I get another operation it can give me strength in my bicep. I’ve got tricep, this one’s moving this.

 TM: Are you going to do the other operation?

 RC: Yeah. I’m going to do the other operation.

 TM: When?

 RC: I don’t know; I’ll probably do it in the fall. I’ve got a lot of things I want to do now.

 TM: You’re a real fighter.

 RC: (laughs).

 TM: That’s not acting, is it?

 RC: That’s the real world.

 TM: What we saw on the screen was the real Robert Conrad.

 RC: Pretty much.

 TM: You really are a tough guy.

 RC: Yeah, I think so. I finally started to believe it in the last five years.