Wild Wild West?

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The Wild, Wild West obviously owed a lot to James Bond. Pitched as a cross between Bond and cowboys, the U.S. television series lasted four years on CBS. It wasn’t a huge hit, never cracking the top 25-rated television programs, but it was a solid performer nevertheless.

The show developed its own character. The friendship between Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) was the one down-to-earth element in a show that featured fiendish drarves, villainous magicians and lots of Jules Verne-style technology (even stuff Verne had no inkling of, like force fields).

In short, this was a show that had a very delicate balance of elements. Everything from man-to-man fistfights (Conrad taking on entire roomfuls of stunt doubles) to over-the-top performances (particularly Michael Dunn as the dwarf villain Dr. Loveless and Victor Buono as the magician Count Manzeppi).

Perhaps that explains why two attempted revivals — filmed some 20 years apart — were mixed successes at best. The Wild, Wild West Revisted, a somewhat entertaining 1979 television film, and Wild Wild West, a gargantuan, $105 million (at least) theatrical movie, both had some of the elements right. But neither could be considered a smash success. Each shows how it can be difficult to recapture lighting in a bottle. Here’s a closer look at both.

Robert Conrad in the series pilot for The Wild, Wild West
Robert Conrad in the series pilot for The Wild, Wild West

The Wild, Wild West Revisited (1979)
Writer: William Bowers
Director: Burt Kennedy

This TV movie seemed to have a lot going for it. The series original leads were back in the saddle, with 44-year-old Robert Conrad looking extremely fit and ready to get back into those tight, tight pants. Ross Martin, about 15 years older, didn’t come across quite so dashing, but he really didn’t have to be. The chemistry was there, at least among the actors.

The problem was the script by William Bowers gave too much weight to humor. In the original show, the humor was (mostly) understated and sly. Bowers made it over-the-top and obvious. Some of this may have been due to circumstances a decade earlier. WWW got canceled even though its ratings were good enough for renewal. CBS brass soured on the show at a time television was getting criticized for violent programming. So CBS jettisoned the series, even though it was an in-house production of the network.

Whatever the reasons, Bowers — who had never written for the original show — decided to make things too jokey. This story is set in 1885, about a decade after the original series. James West is living in Mexico (with multiple wives) and Artemus Gordon is a hammy actor traveling with a travelling show that’s hardly a glamorous gig. They’re summoned by the new head of the Secret Service, Robert T. “Skinny” Malone (Harry Morgan) who suspects Dr. Michelito Loveless Jr. has taken up where his late father left off.

Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon in the series pilot
Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon in the series pilot

There are some amusing bits. Gordon gets West back into fighting shape, including having West run behind the pair’s train (which luckily has been found and restored). “You’re doing fine, a little weak in the sprints,” Gordon tells West. “I’ll have the engineer speed up the next five miles.” To which West responds: “Hey Arty! I hope you don’t wear yourself out pulling on that rope!”

Where the script goes awry is having West and Gordon being portrayed (almost) as outclassed bunglars. Granted, they might need a little time to get up to speed. But, hell, West could fight six guys and once and Arty was both a brilliant master of disguise and an inventor. But much of the time, they seem to be reacting to Dr. Loveless Jr., not to mention agents from England, Spain and Russia that are operating on American soil.

The guest cast was fine. Paul Williams as Dr. Loveless Jr. managed to effectively mimic some of Michael Dunn’s manic energy (Dunn died in 1974). And he had some good scenes with the leads. “Hey, little man,” West says. Loveless replies: “Little man?! In my family, I was a giant among the men! I towered over my father!” Arty, though, gets in the last word. “Well, who didn’t?”

The plot itself had some promise. Dr. Loveless, ahead of his time like his father was, has invented atomic bombs and created cyborgs. Naturally, he wants to take over the world, and has clones in the place of President Cleveland, Queen Victoria, the Czar of Russia and the King of Spain. However, it’s not until the last half hour that James West fights, well, like James West.

Even more disconcerting is an epilogue tacked onto the end where Robert T. “Skinny” Malone IV (Morgan, naturally) tells us that officials recently discovered Secret Service files that seem hard to believe. Then he shows off a drawing of Loveless’s atomic bomb suggesting if the viewer has seen one of these “to contact your local sheriff. Or, better yet, your United States Secret Service. Good night, and sleep well.” Echh.

Nevertheless, CBS was pleased enough that the network commissioned a follow up TV film, More Wild, Wild West in 1980, which was even jokier and more off-kilter. A year later, Ross Martin died of a heart attack at age 61. And that, seemingly, closed the book on future Wild, Wild West adventures. Then again….

Will Smith and Kevin Kline in a publicity still for Wild West West
Will Smith and Kevin Kline in a publicity still for Wild West West

Wild, Wild West (1999)

Screenplay: S.S. Wilson & Brent Maddock
and Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman
Story: Jim Thomas and John Thomas
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

Two decades later, Hollywood is more marketing-driven than ever. Over the past 10 years, studios have turned to old television shows as fodder for films. The thought is such films would have a built-in audience (particularly Baby Boomers who liked the original shows) and name recognition.

So, naturally, James West and Artemus Gordon got summoned from creative limbo. But when you venture into the high-ego world of the movies you can’t just make a movie version of a TV show. You have to somehow make it your own. At least that seems to be the notion that guided director Barry Sonnenfeld.

Over the past five years, Sonnenfeld has emerged as big player in Hollywood. His Men In Black was a huge smash and he had other successful movies. So nobody at Warner Bros. yelped (of if they did so it was inaudible) when Sonnenfeld decided to cast his MIB lead, Will Smith, as the new James West.

Well, one person, yelped a little. That was George Clooney, initially announced as the new Artemus Gordon. In a magazine interview, Sonnenfeld revealed that Clooney really wanted to play James West but signed on for the Gordon part, hoping to change the director’s mind. When that didn’t happen, Clooney dropped out and versatile Kevin Kline took his place.

Smith’s presence meant there would be a lot of humor in the film. But, unlike The Wild, Wild West Revisited, the jokes mostly were not at the expense of the James West character. However, this is a big-budget Hollywood movie. And that means the filmmakers, wanting to hedge their bets, brought in lots of writers to fiddle around. At least six got a credit of some kind, and there’s no telling how many others spent time on this project.

Hiring writers is a sort of security blanket. What’s another $1 million or so for writers to tinker when you’re going to spend more than $100 million? While logical, it doens’t necessarily mean good film making. And that’s the case here, with the viewer getting a kind of mish-mash, serious one moment (though not many) and hokey the next.

And while the movie cost about four times what the entire original series cost, I’m not sure that was such a good idea. Production designer Bo Welch came up with a doozy with Dr. Loveless’s 80-foot tarantula, but one wonders if the movie would have been better if the film makers maybe had $10 million or $20 million less to play with for special effects.

The movie WWW also drastically changes the Loveless character. Michael Dunn’s original was a character who railed against the world, the direct result of being a dwarf. Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless, is a demented Confederate mastermind who’s out to avenge the South’s loss in the Civil War. The problem is Branagh is hammy without the endearing style Dunn had. And Selma Hayek mostly is a waste, around only for decorative purposes.

At this writing, WWW has had a $35 million opening weekend. Not bad, but surely Warners hoped for more. The latest Austin Powers sequel had a $54 million opening weekend in June. And, with apparent bad word of mouth, it doesn’t seem likely WWW will have a long run at the theater, but only the studio’s accountants know for sure.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s an old one. You really can’t go home again. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood executives will glean the same moral.

2015 epilogue: In the fall of 2010, CBS aired a rebooted version of Hawaii Five-0 (which was spelled Five-O in the original). In November of that year, the DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD WEBSITE reported the network wanted to have a new version of The Wild, Wild West as well.

It has been more than four years since then and no sign of a new version of the adventures of James West and Artemus Gordon. Meanwhile, as I was re-reading this story, I was amused at how quaint the idea that a budget of $105 million was seen as expensive. Today, in 2015, it’d be considered a bargain. As I type this, the 24th James Bond film, SPECTRE, is in production. It’s going to cost more than $300 million, making it one of the most expensive movies ever made not adjusted for inflation.

As far as The Wild Wild West is concerned, the notion of that you can’t go home again is even more true than when this article first appeared.

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2015 by William J. Koenig

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6 thoughts on “Wild Wild West?”

  1. as much as I like will smith, he was the director’s wrong choice in casting him
    as character james west. with the information here George Clooney would of
    been an ideal choice.
    also I didn’t think kevin kline played the character artemus Gordon true
    to it’s original t v version.
    I maybe wrong but actor jeff goldblum strikes me as a perfect person
    to match Clooney if the casting did work in this way.
    however it’s not to late to have a reboot t v or film version
    of the classic ‘wild wild west.

    Like

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