A Tough Guy On Screen and Off

A personal reminiscence on the passing of TV star and producer Robert Conrad, about when he became a friend. His interest in martial arts. And why he always remained an iconic figure for me.

Robert Conrad starred in the 1975 movie, "Murph The Surf" as Allan Kuhn, a wealthy swim instructor and ladies man who had a yacht, a 50-knot speedboat and a Cadillac convertible, and became a mentor to the brazen jewel thief. It was shot on location around Miami and Miami Beach, Florida.

I vividly recall meeting Robert “Bob” Conrad, who passed away Feb. 8 at age 84, more than four decades ago. He had already starred in the hit TV series’ Hawaiian Eye and The Wild, Wild West when we first met in 1974.

At the time he was starring in “Murph The Surf,” about a clever jewel thief, which was being shot on location in Miami, where I was Entertainment Editor of The Miami News. I wrote about him and although we were very different people, we became friends.

Conrad was not just an actor. He was also a martial artist and martial arts movie fanatic. While I wanted to talk about him, he wanted to discuss The Legend of Bruce Lee, the best-seller I had just published - the first serious book examining Lee’s shocking death the year before.

Although he was only about 5 foot 8, and weighted 165 pounds, he was the original Alpha male, with a quick-fisted macho attitude. Conrad was proudly tough and aggressive, earning enemies and lawsuits. Early in his career, he even did his own stunts {Stuntmen later inducted him into their Hall of Fame, rare for an actor).

On The Wild, Wild West, in particular, his fighting style was brilliantly orchestrated into fast moving, almost acrobatic scenes. Black Belt Magazine at the time declared it the number one action show on TV. The show featured futuristic weapons and had a James Bond flavor.

“My martial arts began in 1957 and the "Wild, Wild West" went on the air in 1965,” said Conrad, adding: “I watched Toshiro Mifune’s moves (famed Japanese Samurai Actor) in the ‘Seven Samurai’ and was amazed at his agility.”

He studied Japanese martial arts, including Shotokan. His teacher suggested he also learn dancing.

Conrad knew that Bruce Lee had been a Cha-Cha Champion in Hong Kong, as well as an actor.

“It proved to be as beneficial as his martial arts expertise when he got into movies,” Conrad told journalist Ben Smith, adding he took up Flamenco dancing.

"On the "Wild, Wild West" set,” recalled Conrad, “we did improvised fights in about 15 minutes. We sat around and said, ‘What are we gonna’ do for a fight today… Guys?’ When things went wrong, we knew each other so well that we just improvised.”

Conrad admired Bruce Lee: “He always had that macho attitude no matter where he was. His ability was second to none.”

Those words struck a chord. Bruce Lee’s daughter last summer complained bitterly when “Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood” was released, that her father should not have been portrayed as arrogant and aggressive by director Quentin Tarantino. in two scenes, Lee is seen picking a fight with a stuntman (played by Oscar-winner Brad Pitt).

Brad Pitt and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in Quentin Tarantino's 2019 blockbuster hit, "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood"

Despite a clamor from Bruce Lee fans, Tarantino shrugged off her complaints. He stood by his artistic vision and to their credit, so did Sony Pictures - even after Chinese censors refused to play the blockbuster partly because of complaints by Shannon Lee.

Conrad had his own frustration over a martial arts movie. He called “Return Of The Master” his dream project. His company was to produce and he’d play himself in his later years. At the last minute, backers pulled out and it was never made.

He was also bitter about the 1999 big screen remake of “Wild, Wild West.” First, because Warner Bros. never consulted him. Then when he saw Will Smith as government agent James West, he wasn’t shy about his negative reaction.

“I'm disappointed,” he said at the time.. “I don't care about Will Smith, I don't want to.”

Conrad and Smtih each Go Wild, with different results

On screen and in life, Conrad played the tough guy. He even played off his image in the 1970s in Eveready commercials where he put a battery on his shoulder and said, “Come on, I dare ya’ to knock it off.”

For five decades, it seemed as if nobody could knock it off as he expanded into producing, made hit records and appeared on celebrity athletic competition shows.

However, in a cruel twist of fate, in 2003 everything changed when Conrad caused a horrific car crash. His 1995 Jaguar crossed the center line on a road near his Malibu home, and collided with a 1990 Subaru driven by Kevin Allen Burnett, 26, who died two years later from ailments related to the crash.

Conrad pleaded guilty to a felony DUI, spent six months under house arrest, served five years probation and underwent alcohol counseling.

Nature finally did what Hollywood could not. The crash left him handicapped for his final 17 years. He had head injuries, a shattered leg and was paralyzed on his right side. The proud man suffered from his own limitations.

He died a month short of his 85th birthday and is survived by eight children and 18 grandchildren. He lives through them and in more than 80 movies and hundreds of TV episodes.

Robert Conrad late in his life with part of his family

In a 2006 interview for the Archive of American Television, when asked what advice he would give aspiring actors, Conrad said, “If an actor is committed and dedicated he is going to survive and if he isn’t, he won’t.”

Over 50 years, Conrad didn’t always please critics and made his share of enemies, but nobody could deny his commitment.

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