Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Best Chest in the Wild Wild West

To my knowledge there’s never been a “When Did You First Know?” poll, but if there were, I’d bet heavily that “watching Wild Wild West reruns” would take the number one spot for gay/bi men who grew up in the 60s through 80s. In forum after forum whenever this question is asked, several replies commenting on Robert Conrad’s chaps, cheeks, and, especially, chest immediately hit the board. And whenever someone brings up the subject of Conrad as Old West secret agent James West, any number of guys volunteer that watching his handsome face and muscular pecs/abs/buns, frequently in leather chaps and/or bondage, was how they first knew they were attracted to men.


It’s easy to see why. Even without Conrad, The Wild Wild West was one of the campiest and kinkiest TV shows in the most campy-kinky decade of all, the Pop Sixties of Andy Warhol and Batman and Emma Peel. Combining as it did Western, sci-fi, and spy genres, The WWW took advantage of every opportunity those genres offer – which is plenty – for softcore bondage and shirtless hero striptease. In this context, almost any handsome, decently built actor playing the part of the oft stripped-and-bound James West would have become the object of budding young homosexual lust. But because that actor was the incredibly ripped and exquisitely handsome Robert Conrad, The Wild Wild West was off-the-charts sexy.




 

Conrad had the perfect male torso (make that the perfect male upper body, since his biceps, shoulders, forearms and even back muscles were all perfection as well). His pecs were sharply defined, thick, shield-shaped filets of macho man-meat; his abs looked like they were etched in steel by Dr. No’s laser beam. And both were coated with just the right amount of beautiful brown man-fur.


And then there was the face. At the start of The Wild Wild West, Conrad was in his prime and was about as handsome as any leading man Hollywood has ever produced. He looked like some mad scientist – Dr. Franknfurter if not Dr. Loveless - had taken Tony Curtis and genetically reworked him to make him simultaneously both prettier and more ruggedly masculine. Conrad’s bright green eyes (which often looked blue, depending on what he wore), his walnut brown hair, his round boyish face all combined to make him - no other word for it - gorgeous, but his rugged jawline, sharp cheekbones, and heavy beard kept him from looking too pretty or boyish.






But of course, no man is perfect, and in some departments Conrad came up short – all too literally. He was probably no taller than 5’7” and from the waist down he was a bit less hot than from the waist up. His thighs and even calves were muscular but for my tastes too thick and stumpy-looking. On Hawaiian Eye, where he often wore little more than swim trunks and where he was accompanied by taller male, and sometimes even female, stars, he often looked more like a sidekick than a hero, more of a young punk than an alpha male, especially alongside Van Williams or Anthony Eiseley. The producers and directors on Wild Wild West seemed to have been well aware of Conrad’s shortcomings, however, and accentuated the positive, giving him cowboy boots with significant heels and dressing him in a distinctive quasi-Latin American bolero-vaquero outfit, with tight high-waisted pants that made his legs look longer and more slender. They also refrained from shaving his abs as was done on Hawaiian Eye (although on WWW from episode to episode the manner of and degree to which Conrad’s torso fur is trimmed varies from Shatnerian-shaven to practically Baldwinesque), which definitely pumped up the manliness factor. Thus prepared, the WWW producers/writers/directors then, whenever possible, took his shirt off and often tied his wrists behind his back, to prominently project his pecs and abs. “Shamelessly Shirtless Sexiness” would have been as good a description of WWW as “Weird Way-out Western.”


Conrad went on to other notable roles, especially in “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, where he portrayed Pappy Boyington, and on “Battle of the Network Stars”, where he played an asshole (himself), but none of his subsequent roles have endured in the public memory as WWW has. This is due in no small measure to the show itself of course; it was fun, strange, innovative, and action-packed, featuring some of the best fight scenes every filmed up to that time as well as some of the coolest gadgets that 19th superspy technology had to offer (if you want to see the origin of steampunk, look no further than Dr. Loveless’s lab). But the greatest reason for its enduring popularity was Conrad himself, whose James West set a new standard for secret agent studliness.

6 comments:

  1. YUM! I loved this show as a kid, had the biggest crush on Jim West. So nice to see him shirtless and tied up/down again.

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  2. Definitely, that's how I began to suspect I liked men better than women. He was so freaking hot! Great post!

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  3. The original producer of the WWW was gay. There is a great website out there that gives the back story to this, even claiming that CBS told him at some point that the show was getting "too queer." This producer, Jim Garrison I believe, died but the show continued in more or less his style.

    But why does Conrad have so many gay fans? Sure he was hot and he was on TV, one of only three channels back then. But I think that there is a lot of homoeroticism to Mr. Conrad himself.

    Yeah, as a person he's a dick. He's loud, aggressive and stupid. He brags and boasts. He's opinionated. As it said above he portrayed an asshole (himself) on ABC's Battle of the Network Stars.

    So he's a dick. Conrad's not a lady's mad. He's a man's man, a dick. Think of the opening to the show. The cartoon West kisses the girl, slams her to the ground and walks away. The show always ends up with Conrad and Ross Martin alone, back in the over decorated train.

    Conrad is a guy with an odd sense of his own masculinity. He a male impersonator, a guy posing as a macho guy. What works about it is that he both achieves his role as being a macho guy but you still get the feeling he wants to be more macho - and especially that he wants to be taller, bigger. Conrad is a guy with a colossal chip on his shoulder. The other side of the chip on the shoulder is, I presume (based on seeing him in interviews) is that Conrad also totally worships at the alter of masculinity.

    Deep down the guy is a huge bottom / sub looking to please the Big Sir. I've heard Conrad gush over the Marine Corps and over his band of football playing buds.

    All of this is why Conrad was so iconic being tied up. The little dude loved it. And hated it. And that inner conflict is why he was awesome in that role.

    And you know that Garrison the producer saw all of that in Conrad. Hell, he could have bedded him for all I know.

    To top it all off I saw an interview with Conrad about ten years ago. He talked about growing up with a father. He talked about his mother trying to toughen up her small son. She taught him how to box, probably since boxing didn't depend on size. So the little future stud grew up wanting a father who had left.

    Everything about the guy is homoerotic. I really wonder what some of the old male hustlers from the 1960's could tell us about him.

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  4. I can't resist one more comment.

    Robert Conrad is like they took a bit of Montgomery Clift, threw in some James Dean and gave him Brando's abs from Streetcar and then took away every shred of acting ability. He's got all the parts of a great Hollywood leading man, just none of the talent. I have to also think that his personality limited his roles too. I can't imagine that the actors of his generation would have liked him much - Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, or someone to whom he bears a strong resemblance, Martin Sheen.

    But to me, this is what makes him hotter. He's not an A list star, not by a long shot. He was our own scrappy, short, angry, homoerotic Mr. Bottom in tight pants.

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  5. James West was TV's most remarkable man. The best looking, the best body, and the best fighter. He could beat up any guy, seduce any woman, and look great doing both. On the other hand, Robert Conrad was a weird dude whose insecurities made him almost impossible to work with. A friend who worked on the WWW said that women stars (and many male stars as well) would gush at the chance of meeting him only to leave the set feeling as though a dream had been crushed. But that's TV: it's what's on the screen that counts, not what's behind it. James West was the perfect man. Rejoice.

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