6 overlooked TV shows with Robert Conrad in the lead role

By: H&I Staff    Posted: February 11, 2020, 9:00AM

Robert Conrad was the ultimate man's man on television. The actor proudly performed his own stunts, even going so far as taking a 12-foot fall from a swinging chandelier onto the hard saloon floor while filming The Wild Wild West. He was perfectly cast as the charming, pugilistic special agent Jim West on that pioneering sci-fi western. 

A decade later, Conrad was again the ideal choice to play real-life World War II fighter ace Pappy Boyington on Black Sheep Squadron. No wonder Eveready cast Conrad in commercials to tout the long-lasting power of their batteries. "Come on, I dare ya," he taunted in the ads.

But the legendary TV star headlined far more than those two favorite series. Elsewhere, he was a beefcake beach detective, a hard-hitting prosecutor, a boxer-turned-private-eye, and multiple spies. Let's take a look.

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Hawaiian Eye


Conrad's first major role lasted just as long as The Wild Wild West — 104 episodes — but has since been overshadowed. Warner Bros. had an immediate hit in 1958 with 77 Sunset Strip, so the studio quickly repeated the formula of mixing P.I.s working vacation destinations. Hawaiian Eye, Bourbon Street Beat and Surfside 6 formed a TV universe of crime-solvers with tans and hep talk. Hawaii had just become a state, so the timing was perfect. Conrad played Lopaka, a half-Hawaiian investigator working alongside Tracy Steele (Anthony Eisley) in Honolulu. Much of the cast — Poncie Ponce, Connie Stevens and "Bob Conrad" included — even released pop records around the time to capitalize on the popularity of the show.

Image: The Everett Collection


The D.A.


Conrad's next major role following Jim West was that of Paul Ryan, a hard-boiled Deputy District Attorney that appeared in two made-for-TV movies and a short-lived series. The D.A. tales somewhat applied the Dragnet model to legal drama, from the Los Angeles setting to the matter-of-fact voice-over narration. Oh, and former Dragnet star Harry Morgan himself played Ryan's mentor. The unlikely killer of this show? The Brady Bunch! Some NBC affiliates refused to air The D.A. in competition against ABC's The Brady Bunch.

Image: The Everett Collection


Assignment: Vienna


Following the flop of The D.A., Conrad returned to his most comfortable character type — a dashing, two-fisted spy. This series, a sort of James Bond meets Casablanca, cast the star as Jake Webster, a spy operating a bar in Austria. The strength of the show was its location shooting. Yep, they actually filmed it in Vienna. The pilot film had been called Assignment: Munich and featured Roy Scheider as Jake. However, the Munich Olympics massacre forced a change of location, and Scheider left to pursue a film career.

Image: The Everett Collection


The Duke


When you hear "The Duke," you likely think of John Wayne, and Conrad was certainly as tough. This pilot cast Conrad as Duke Ramsey, a boxer who becomes a private eye in Chicago. Conrad also brought along Red West for the cast, the former Elvis Presley bodyguard who had once traded punches with Jim West on The Wild Wild West. Action maestro Stephen J. Cannell produced the show, but only a few episodes were made. The studio bundled them together and retitled it as an action film called Up Against The Odds for VHS release.

Image: The Everett Collection


A Man Called Sloane


At the close of the Seventies, Conrad slipped back into what was essentially an modern reboot of Jim West. Here, however, he played a debonair spy named Thomas R. Sloane III, who worked for a secretive organization called UNIT. All good spy agencies need a nemesis. CONTROL had KAOS on Get Smart. UNIT squared off against KARTEL. James Bond was an obvious reference point, and the pilot's title, "Death Ray 2000," underlines that we're talking Roger Moore Bond as influence.

Image: The Everett Collection


High Mountain Rangers / Jesse Hawkes


Later in his career, Conrad settled into a stereotype as a rugged mountain man. High Mountain Rangers, about a rescue squad in Tahoe, was a personal project for the veteran star. His sons, Christian and Shane Conrad, pictured here, co-starred. His daughter, Joan, served as executive producer. Conrad himself wrote and directed many episodes. His character, ex-Marine Jesse Hawkes, even got a spinoff series, essentially the same show in all but name. In 1995, Conrad returned to the mountains for a quite similar series, High Sierra Search and Rescue, though that time his character was named Griffin "Tooter" Campbell.

Image: The Everett Collection