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
RC: I met Nick Adams at
the graveside of James Dean.
TM: Were you a buddy of
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
RC: Well, it was pretty
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?
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
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
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?
TM: I thought it was a
great show. I hated to see it go.
RC: Yeah, I did, too.
TM: What’s your favorite
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
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: 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
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
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
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
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
RC: Profitable for me. I
built a house up in the Sierras.
TM: Just off of that
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
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.
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?
TM: That must have been a
RC: It was unbelievable
TM: What’s the prognosis?
RC: For this? I’m in
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.
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.
TM: That’s not acting, is
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
RC: Yeah, I think so. I
finally started to believe it in the last five years.