CBS had an instant hit on their hands when The Wild Wild West
made its network debut on September 17, 1965. While many of the popular TV Westerns were running out of steam, series creator Michael Garrison ripped a page from the Ian Fleming/Sean Connery playbook and conceived The Wild Wild West
as a "James Bond Western," energizing the genre by combining a traditional Western setting (primarily the San Francisco region in the 1870s) with the accoutrements of the spy genre. It was a foolproof formula, further refined by producer Fred Frieberger (who later produced the third and final season of Star Trek
), and TWWW
held its popular time-slot (7:30-8:30 on Friday nights) for its entire four-season run. Smart casting proved to be another source of audience appeal: While Robert Conrad fit nicely into his role (and tight-fitting costume) as macho Secret Service agent James West, doing his own challenging stunts and charming each episode's obligatory beautiful female guest star, Ross Martin proved an equally excellent choice to play West's skillful sidekick Artemus Gordon, a debonair dandy whose mastery of disguises and dialects would prove essential as they tackled dangerous crime-fighting assignments from President Ulysses S. Grant.
The series' unique appeal arose from its clever and frequently bizarre plots. Every episode title began with a variation of "The Night of..." (including the pilot, "The Night of the Inferno," with more unusual titles thereafter), and as Jim and Arte plotted strategies from the comfort of their tricked-out custom railroad car, their exploits frequently led them into realms of the occult, mad science, bizarre inventions, and villains so eccentrically twisted that they became instant favorites among the show's growing legion of fans. Best of them all was the nefarious Miguelito Loveless, first appearing in "The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth" (original airdate 10/01/65) and played to perfection by dwarf actor Michael Dunn, a '60s TV regular familiar to Star Trek fans from his memorable role in the original series episode "Plato's Stepchildren." A gifted, intellectual renaissance man (like Ross Martin) with an angelic singing voice, Dunn was an overnight sensation, guest-starring in four of the first season's 28 episodes, with six more appearances in subsequent seasons. Dunn's gleeful malevolence (accompanied by his mute henchman Voltaire, played by giant actor Richard Kiel) was an essential addition to the series' sideshow esthetic; weirdness, humor, gorgeous women, and devious ingenuity (in plotting, action and gadgetry), became the trademarks that set TWWW apart from its more conventional TV Western competition. --Jeff Shannon
On the DVD
For this much-anticipated DVD release, Paramount has made above-average efforts to satisfy fans. Virtually every episode looks and sounds practically brand-new, and with TWWW expert Sue Kesler serving as DVD co-producer, this seven-disc set features a wealth of archival extras, many culled from Kesler's own research as author of the out-of-print guidebook The Wild Wild West: The Series. In addition to excerpts from audio-taped interviews with Frieberger, writer (and "Dr. Loveless" creator) John Kneubuhl (who tells a fascinating story of how Liberace almost guest-starred on the show), music composer Richard Markowitz, and special-effects technician Tim Smyth, each episode includes brief but informative audio introductions by Robert Conrad, who also appears (with Martin) discussing the show (and their subsequent TV-movie revival of TWWW) in a 1978 talk-show appearance. Excerpts from the original music-theme scoring sessions were found in UCLA's Film and Television archive, and other extras include a network series promo clip (from a later season, after TWWW switched to color), a sketch by Ross Martin, a photo gallery, and even one of Conrad's notorious Eveready Battery commercials from the late '70s. All in all, this 40th Anniversary package should give TWWW fans ample reason to celebrate, boding well for the other season-sets to follow. --Jeff Shannon