Filmed television in the 1960’s sometimes made for strange bedfellows. How else to explain my being booked to direct an episode of THE WILD WILD WEST. My resume at the time was loaded with films about neurotic, suffering people. Lots of angst. I had been tagged in a great many circles as being a “sensitive” director. Let me explain that in Hollywood that was not a compliment. And the script I was handed was for a film that Robert Conrad in his commentary on the released DVD album for the first season states, “This is definitely one of the more bizarre episodes of THE WILD WILD WEST.” I personally think my being hired was due to the Wild Wild Michael Garrison. I am not a television historian. What I report is what I knew from the scuttlebutt of the time. Michael Garrison had created and sold THE WILD WILD WEST to CBS. I am a little vague about whether he started off producing the series and was removed from the project; or whether, at the onset of production, he was denied the right to produce it. But late in that first season he managed to get himself installed to take charge as executive producer. Michael Garrison was an individual, a renaissance man; he was not cut from the same bolt as most producers in Hollywood.
This was my introduction to the great Gene Coon, producer of the series and writer extraordinaire. (I’ve already extolled the talents of Gene in my postings on STAR TREK.) It was on this series that Gene told me that because of the uniqueness of the series, he rewrote most of the scripts; that he used the writer’s first draft submission as a frame for him to build on. So let’s take a gander at his work; let’s take off on this bizarre adventure.
Professor Robey was acted by Don Beddoe. I did not realize at the time the extent of his experience. He was a true Hollywood veteran. At this time he had been in films for almost thirty years. He was a member of that vast army of talented performers I have spoken of who never achieved stardom, but whose face was recognizable because of the frequency of his appearances on the screen. With the advent of television he would continue to perform for almost two more decades. He died in 1991, just a half a year shy of his one hundredth birthday.
In the next clip Simon Scott was part of the new breed of Hollywood hopefuls, never a star but a formidable presence for many years on television and theatre screens. I had known Danny (his real name was Danny Simon) since 1955 when I did the lighting for a production of Maxwell Anderson’s SATURDAY’S CHILDREN at the Players Ring Theatre in Hollywood. Danny starred in the production. He was a superb actor and one I used very frequently in the following two decades.
The first day of filming went swimmingly. Almost ten pages completed right on schedule. It was a double reunion for me. The director of photography was Ted Voigtlander, who had filled in for Harkey Smith four years before on an episode of DR. KILDARE. And the art director for the series was Al Heschong, one of the alternating art directors those many years before on PLAYHOUSE 90. We did a half day of exteriors on the lot filming day for night and then a long sequence on one of the stages. The excitement and fun began halfway through the second day with the arrival of Don Rickles to play our mad magician. Those final four and a half days seemed more like a session in a Las Vegas showroom than a film set. Don was always on, with his incredibly sharp wit and acute skills of observation. It seemed almost no one was safe. Robert Conrad was not the tallest creature on the planet, but according to Rickles he barely reached the height of Billy Barty. Rickles was merciless. -- but funny. He had us all in stitches except when the cameras were rolling.
Rickles between shots was the funnyman in charge, but when it came time to perform for the camera, he was fanatically serious about his work.
This was my introduction to the great Rhys Williams, our Dr, Tristam. A few months later he would guest star in THE ASSASSIN, my favorite episode of THE FBI (see the archives to the right for that posting). And the following year he would guest star for me in the award winning THE TRAIN on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (again you can check the archives to the right).
That first day’s exterior filming was on the CBS Studio Center lot in Studio City. And we filmed it day for night, which under some circumstance I find not only totally acceptable but preferable. If you have any light sources visible (street lamps, lit building windows) night for night is very effective. But if there is to be no light source other than moonlight, I prefer day for night.
I liked the way acts ended with the freeze frame that moved into a corner of the opening THE WILD WILD WEST billboard cartoon drawing.
The next sequence is an illustration of some fine detailed descriptive writing by Gene Coon. Let me show you the script for the sequence. (Again you can enlarge each page by tapping on it. To return click the black arrow in the upper left hand corner.)
Original scripts were printed on white paper. Revised pages were printed on colored paper with the revised date at the top of the page.
And now a look at how that was converted to film.
I remember that Michael Garrison was very impressed and vocal in his appreciation for the silo sequence. He kept saying, “That long sequence and with no dialogue.”
Conrad did all of his own stunt work. However he did not make that high leap from the pail to the girder overhead. We filmed him hanging from the girder and then dropping. In the editing room we reversed the film.
And I must point out the enormous contribution to this sequence by the fine photography of Teddy Voigtlander and the art direction of Al Heschong. Al really had his work cut out for him on this series. Unlike most series, there was only one standing set, the train that was home for James West and Artemus. It was not a large set and not many sequences were assigned to it. But that set, like all of Al’s work, was beautifully designed visually and gave the director fine opportunities for staging.
Have you noticed how literate this script is? So far there has been very little action -- a lot of dialogue, but good dialogue. Thank you, Gene Coon.
I would hate to count the number of real graveyards I worked in during my career. This graveyard was created by Al Heschong on Stage 12 of CBS Studio Center. This studio incidentally was the old Republic Studio where John Wayne (before he became a superstar) was under contract in the thirties, and where Vera Hruba Ralston tried to duplicate on ice the stardom achieved by Olympic champion Sonja Henie at Twentieth Century Fox. She didn’t!
The film breakup in the next clip is not your computer’s fault; it’s due to the age of my copy of the show.
Bob Conrad did all of his own stunt work in that sequence, in fact in all sequences. But we had a stunt double for Don Rickles. Don did do the closer angle shots, and I remember that he was not as adept physically as he was mentally. I especially remember the angle where he climbed into the chest and closed the lid. That bit of business as he did it, take after take, was almost as funny as some of his insulting dialogue. But we finally got it.
Did I say there hadn’t been any action? But good scripts shoud build. Sequences should get more exciting as the story moves along. And that’s what Gene Coon’s script did. Now let’s see how the action in that last sequence is topped by what follows.
Since I told you that Rhys Williams and I worked together again in a few months, I obviously did not burn him up in this scene. The burning coat was added in post production in the lab.
THE NIGHT OF THE DRUID’S BLOOD was the last black and white film I would direct.
THE WILD WILD WEST was set to return for its second season and in color. I was set to return and again I was going to have to deal with a mad scientist. But this time a much prettier one -- Ida Lupino. Next on RALPH’S TREK.