Fans of tan, hairy, in-shape chests, this is your day. This is the day when The Underworld is going to celebrate one of the all-time great examples of a “chest-o-death” (and the face was nothing to be disappointed about either!) Konrad Falkowski entered this world in 1929 and would become one of the most furtively objectified hunks of young gay male TV viewers of the 1960s and beyond (what, you say? You don’t know Mr. Falkowski? Then, in that case, I give you Mr. Robert Conrad!)
Even at age 17, he was a rugged, rough ‘n tumble sort of young man with much drive. He ran off with the daughter of an attorney who had been living in a religious boarding school. Using the name Robert Conrad, to avoid being found out, he lied about his age to obtain a job as a Chicago dockworker and proceeded to impregnate the young lady. Now feeling there was no way his marriage could be dissolved by disapproving, interfering parents, he alerted his family to his whereabouts and proceeded to have four more children with his wife as the years went on.
In 1954, he was fired from his job over a union dispute and worked as a milkman and even as a band singer. Eventually he found himself in sunny California. Discovered and put under contract to Warner Brothers, he became one of their stable of young, good-looking contractees, indentured to work on the countless movies and TV programs being produced in the late 50s and early 60s. Initially reed-thin, but always with a tight washboard of flawless abs, he appeared in tiny film roles and in guest stars on such shows as Bat Masterson, Maverick and Sea Hunt. Publicity photos sometimes paired him with other up and comers such as the beauteous Van Williams seen to the left.
In 1959, he was placed on his own series (costarring with Anthony Eisley and featuring Connie Stevens and Poncie Ponce) called Hawaiian Eye. The extremely popular detective show ran for four years and he made occasional guest appearances on the similar (critics would say cookie-cutter) series 77 Sunset Strip.
During these earliest years of his acting career, he also boxed professionally as Bob Conrad (oh no! the face!) and went undefeated during this stint. He was a lean, mean fightin’ machine who (at an alleged 5’8”) wasn’t going to let his comparatively diminutive height stand in the way of proving himself to be a macho, very athletic and unquestionably strong man.
Also, as Warners had a record division and he could make money for them this way as well, he released a single or two. One of them has become a source of amusement over the years due to the title “Ballin’ the Jack,” though the song was written around 1914 and was a standard. In order to emphasize the strength of his singing voice, the sleeve of the record featured a close-up of his gorgeous face and a shot of his shirtless body! Ha ha! I’m betting a lot of those sleeves ended up pressed in scrapbooks or were otherwise treasured long after the single had either been worn out or tossed out!
The series ended in 1963 and that same year he graduated briefly to the big screen in the colorful (and silly) Palm Springs Weekend. Here he was paired once again with Connie Stevens, whose hair is an example of why convertibles were so popular during that era! No normal car could house all that unless the seat was reclined.
During this period at Warner’s, Conrad met, befriended and worked with a fellow actor named Nick Adams who was one inch shorter than he. In Young Dillinger, Adams played the title character, Mary Ann Mobley was his moll, John Ashley was Baby Face Nelson and Conrad rounded out the compact cast as Pretty Boy Floyd. Conrad’s billing was below Adams though he would soon emerge the bigger star. The desperately driven Adams would later be the subject of one of Hollywood's unsolved mysteries.
In 1965, Conrad was placed in the series that would forever assure him a spot in the pop culture arena. The Wild Wild West was a spy series set during the post-Civil War era. The fanciful show cast Conrad as Jim West and the one decade older Ross Martin as his partner Artemus Gordon. Together, they would work on special missions on behalf of President Ulysses S. Grant, often finding themselves in hot water, affording Conrad the opportunity to show off his by now jaw-dropping physique.
When Conrad wasn’t stripped to the waist being hoisted, flogged, beaten or some such, he wore a series of impossibly snug, anachronistically tailored and manufactured suits (mostly) in the colors tan, grey, blue and brown. The jackets of the suits stopped at his waist, ensuring a clear view of what is considered by many people to be the ultimate ass in television history! The ridiculously clingy and revealing trousers could not possibly have been more inappropriate for the character’s occupation, but it was the mid-60s and no one seemed to mind or even notice. (Or if they noticed, they sure as hell weren’t going to complain about it!)
Martin spent a lot of his time in disguise on the show, developing about 100 different sub-characters of every type. Conrad was the action star of the show and always performed his own stunts. Once, he fell many feet to a concrete floor, landing on his head and receiving a concussion, and shooting was halted for several weeks! Conrad, a major leaguer when it came to anything physical, took a weekly beating and loved it. Then, of course, there’s the episode in which he was battling it out with some villains and his pants ripped open down the front! For quite a few seconds, his leg was exposed, along with the crotch of his tighty-whitey briefs!! Of course, when the fight was over, his pants had miraculously repaired themselves and now had a new tear on the outside of the other leg… (Annie Wilkes: “It’s not fair. He didn’t get out of the cock-a-doodie car!”) Amazingly, this was left in the episode and can now be seen any time it’s on or viewed on DVD.
Conrad had the deepest tan, the bluest eyes, the most sun-kissed hair and a chest that defied all description in its musculature and hair placement. Quite simply, he was a GOD on this series and he gained many a lifelong fan from his work on it. The first season was in black and white. The remaining three seasons were in color, allowing the world to see him in all his true glory.
The series would have continued even longer had there not been a hubbub and backlash against violence on TV at the time it was pulled in 1969. Ratings were still respectable. The action-heavy show was cited as one of the culprits when it came to gratuitous violence and off it went. Incidentally, around this same time (in 1968) a TV-broadcast of Young Dillinger was planned, but was pulled due to its content as well. Nick Adams, who was a producer of the film, was disheartened by its cancellation and, while that may not have caused his death by overdose shortly after, it surely didn’t help to lift his spirits. Conrad, who was by then one of Adams’ best friends, has always declared the death accidental, though it remains an unsolved case (accidental, murder, suicide?) When the film finally aired on TV, the billing was switched to have Conrad, not the title character (!) come first.
Once The Wild Wild West was cancelled, Conrad began appearing in a lot of TV movies, this being the time of wondrously watchable ninety-minute gems with twisty concepts or empty-headed, but thoroughly entertaining, pulpy plotlines. One legendary one, Weekend of Terror, had Bob and Lee Majors as dangerous kidnappers holed up with nuns Lois Nettleton, Jane Wyatt and (as a liberated one in mini-skirt and go-go boots!) Carol Lynley. An almost instant camp classic, it's not easy to find now. Another had him as one of only two men on an island with Five Desperate Women (two of whom were Stefanie Powers and Joan Hackett) where death claimed at least one of the title gals.
After attempting to gain a new foothold in series television with The D.A. and Adventures of Nick Carter, he finally landed a spy show called Assignment Vienna, but it only lasted eight episodes. He worked on the popular series Columbo as a health club owner investigated for murder. Once again, the ol’ bod was out there for public consumption and he was still looking great. Still a boxing enthusiast, he appeared on Mission: Impossible as “Bobby,” a boxing trainer in one two-part episode.
A by now infrequent feature film role came his way in 1975 when he and Don Stroud were cast in Murph the Surph (later changed to Live a Little, Steal a Lot, thank goodness!) Based on a real life thief and taking place in a beach setting, he and Stroud made for some beefy, hunky eye candy in their clingy cutoff shorts, though the film made no substantial impact.
He and Stroud reunited a couple of years later, this time as adversaries, in the low-budget, very-violent Sudden Death. One of those martial-arts extravaganzas in which every blow to the chest sounds like a whip cracking, it was destined to attract a cult following. Conrad’s old Dillinger costar John Ashley appeared in it as well, along with Conrad’s now-grown daughter Nancy. (She had been given a role in Murph, too, and would later pop up on Baa Baa Black Sheep.)
When WWII flyer Pappy Boyington’s story became the basis for a TV series, Conrad portrayed him on Baa Baa Black Sheep. (This unfortunate title was later changed to Black Sheep Squadron.) Here Conrad was placed in charge of a bunch of wet behind the ears pilots stationed in the Pacific. Among them was a skinny John Larroquette and Dirk Blocker, son of Bonanza’s Hoss Cartwright Dan Blocker.
Conrad was mature now and had lost a little bit of the prettiness he’d possessed earlier, but was still in amazing shape and projected handsome virility. As ever, he never missed an opportunity to go shirtless, spending half of one episode in just green fatigue shorts! (This ep featured Star Trek's George Takei.) All of the flyers wore khaki zip-up jumpsuits. While most everyone’s was somewhat oversized and baggy, Conrad’s was tailored closely to allow his front and rear to give maximum impact! He also barely bothered to zip it up and wore no t-shirt underneath.
The series didn’t last particularly long, maybe a season and a half, but its subject matter attracted airplane aficionados and it has enjoyed frequent airplay on The History Channel over the years. When the show returned after one season, a set of nurses was added to the cast, though this did nothing to improve ratings. Note the incredible verisimilitude of the hair and costume of this lady. She has all the 1940s ambiance of, say, a 1978 actress hopeful. Never one to have acting awards thrown his way, he did cop a Golden Globe nomination and a People’s Choice Award for his work on the series.
While he was starring on Black Sheep, the famous Battle of the Network Stars specials began airing twice a year, in which teams of stars from each of the big three networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) competed in athletic matches to vie for prize money and, more importantly, glory amongst their peers. These shows are fondly remembered for forcing loads of defenseless male TV actors into the tiniest and flimsiest of Speedo swimsuits for events that took place in the Olympic size pool at Pepperdine University.
Bob was team the NBC captain the first year and a few times afterward and, to say the least, heartily threw himself into the competition. Never shy about bopping around in his little suit, he doggedly drove his team to the breaking point. He also made a complete ass of himself when he disputed a ruling during the relay race and argued fiercely about it with Gabe Kaplan, who was captain of the opposing ABC team. Coercing Kaplan into a footrace he felt sure he’d win with ease, he was humiliated when Kaplan beat him with room to spare.
The 70s brought on a whole new era of macho attitude in men and Conrad was right in the swing of things, promoting Eveready batteries with a campaign that dared viewers to knock one of the batteries off his shoulder. He played cocky, jerky, sometimes hard-drinking types in various TV movies and miniseries including Breaking Up is Hard to Do. Depending on whom you ask, these roles didn’t require a tremendous stretch from him. In 1977, he left his wife of twenty-five years, with whom he’d had five children, and married a woman thirty-one years his junior (with whom he had three more children!)
In 1979, he and Ross Martin re-teamed for The Wild Wild West Revisited. The reunion movie, which tended to eschew the drama for more lighthearted antics, was popular enough to warrant a follow up in 1980 called More Wild Wild West. Interest in the characters was enough to justify plans for a prospective new version of the series, but unfortunately Martin, whose health had been sketchy for a few years (he’d had a heart attack in 1968) died before it could materialize. Publicity photos for the reunion movies unintentionally played up how much the men had “matured” since the original.
Also in 1979, he headlined the major, very-lengthy miniseries Centennial, playing a French-Canadian trapper whose offspring play a part in the settling of Colorado. He and Richard Chamberlain kicked off the epic story, though Conrad’s character was in the project for a bit less time overall than Chamberlain’s. Interestingly, that same year, he was cast in the film The Lady in Red as John Dillinger, this time he was in support of Pamela Sue Martin, of all people, as the title character.
Conrad began taking on uncharacteristic parts that offered more of an acting challenge, such as portraying a wheelchair-bound athletic director in Coach of the Year and, particularly, playing the title character in Will: The Autobiography of G. Gordon Liddy, for which he wore brown contacts and underplayed his beefcake attributes in order to lend authenticity to the part. A short-lived series, A Man Called Sloane (again, he was cast as a spy), aired in 1979 with his old costar from Hawaiian Eye Anthony Eisley appearing in one episode.
Now moving into a sort of hunky daddy phase, he continued to headline TV movies while occasionally winning supporting roles in big screen fare. Wrong is Right had him working with Sean Connery. The TV flick Two Fathers’ Justice had him up against George Hamilton and the men played ex-soldiers who have to take the law into their own hands when their married children are murdered in a case of mistaken identity.
This middling project was deemed popular enough to warrant a sequel nine years later, Two Fathers: Justice for the Innocent. Here it was his turn to look the more aged one in the comparison photos next to the otherworldly smooth, slick and tan (and tall!) George Hamilton. Another series attempt, High Mountain Rangers, based on his own experiences as a part time ranger, went nowhere. Later, High Sierra Search and Rescue also failed after about eight episodes. He also made the TV-movie Anything to Survive with a young Matt LeBlanc.Still, Conrad worked rather steadily in TV-movie fare, often in rugged projects or ones that at least had a high quotient of action in them. An occasional film came along, such as Samurai Cowboy, that put him as a lightly grizzled hand who assists a Japanese businessman who buys a ranch and is swiftly targeted by a competitor who wants it. Catherine Mary Stuart played a cowgirl opposite him.
When the big screen film Wild Wild West was released, featuring Will Smith in his old role, Conrad was pointedly dismissive of the changes made to the concept and publicly lambasted the movie. He wasn’t alone as the movie won five Golden Raspberry “Razzie” Awards and even Smith later apologized to Conrad for having been a part of the celluloid turd.
In recent years, some very unfortunate incidents have punctuated Mr. Conrad’s life. In 2003, he caused a very serious auto accident while intoxicated that left him with paralysis in his right hand and arm. He was placed on house arrest, followed by probation and the suspension of his license. The other driver was heavily injured in the accident and died two years later at the age of just 28, possibly due to his ongoing condition following the accident.
Even as a golden oldie, Conrad stressed the importance of fitness in his life and still sported rock hard abs even as a senior citizen. However, the inclusion of alcohol in his regimen, even now, makes for an uneasy combination. He currently hosts a weekly radio program called The PM Show with Robert Conrad and youtube.com clips from the recording display him swilling glasses of red wine during breaks. Now a balding, elderly man with thick glasses, it can’t be easy to look back at how things once were.
I prefer to think of Mr. C. when he was in his prime, a bronzed, beautiful, buff babe whose mere presence onscreen or in a photograph was enough to elicit a gasp from whoever saw him. There have been very few men who possessed the combination of elements that made him one of the dreamiest hunks every to come out of H-town. Fortunately, there is an endless supply of photographs and film to document his existence!