Question: What was the name of the train on The Wild, Wild West? — Anthony C., Amityville, N.Y.
Televisionary: The gadget-laden train in which undercover agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) tooled around the old West was called the Wanderer, and a beauty it was.
Exteriors were shot using a real antique locomotive and train cars from Nevada's old Virginia and Truckee Railroad. Interiors were shot in CBS sets. The Wanderer's cars were upgraded and changed over the course of the show (The Wild, Wild West ran from 1965-70), but initially they included a bedroom, a parlor, a kitchen and a combination gun room-laboratory, all of which cost only about $35,000 to build.
"People are fascinated by this train," associate producer Len Katzman told TV Guide in 1966. "It has everything from a 75 mm cannon to carrier pigeons.... On a coffee table we had two mounted pistols — decorator pieces — but they could be fired via foot pedals at each end of the car. And there's that gun rack. It slides down from behind the pigeon loft — with its fake eggs, actually bombs. And what looks like a hot plate on the kitchen stove is actually a pistol. Trigger's on the handle. That stove can also emit a smoke screen when a pellet is dropped into the fire. We had pool cues that were rifles. Of the three billiard balls, two were smoke bombs and the third was a real bomb. There is also a statue that flips over — with a gun in its base."
Essentially, gadgets were built for the train when a writer dreamt one up to incorporate into a story. But the tech-driven aspects of the show didn't stop there. Often, a team led by former scriptwriter (The Donna Reed Show), ad designer and cartoonist Henry Sharp would come up with a weapon or machine to be wielded by a villain. Then it was the writers' job to make up a story around it. Dastardly devices born on the sketch pads of Sharp and his people included a set of robot knight's armor worn by arch villain Miguelito Loveless (Michael Dunn), a dragon-headed torpedo, a telescopic-sighted bow that fired explosive arrows and "Amorous Amanda," a set of giant hands intended to kills its victim with a lethal toss into an electric inferno.
The gadgets were king on this show. ("Make no mistake about it," wrote TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory, "they are the wild.") But as might be expected, Conrad wasn't about to admit that.
"I like being a star," he said of his work on the show in 1965. "Having the responsibility for making the show a success... that's exciting. I like the people I work with and they like me."
And if they didn't, they were in trouble. "If somebody doesn't like me, I don't want him making a living off of something I'm connected with," Conrad told a reporter. "You talk to anybody on this set who doesn't, let me know. I'll get rid of him."
Ruthless? Sure. Driven, too. But it was that drive which put Conrad in front of the right people, and got him the part despite some naysayers who thought he was undistinguished. ("He has everything to learn," said one unnamed producer shortly after the series launched, "how to move, how to talk, everything.")
Conrad didn't take such insults lying down. He made a curious choice in defending his talent, though, when he pointed to how well he put the boot to a woman as evidence that he had the stuff. "With the right part — any part — you name the actor, I'm as good as he is," he said. "Show me anybody who could kick Suzanne Pleshette in the fanny week after week and make it believable — Olivier couldn't."
For his part, costar Martin knew where he stood on the show. ("I can't say I'm happy being a second banana," he said in 1966, obviously forgetting to put the gadgets atop the list the way nearly everyone else did.) And unlike his costar, the former vaudeville comic and announcer was self-effacing, describing himself as "a warm, somewhat talky, even-dispositioned, multi-interested, bright dilettante."
Which certainly helped protect Conrad's confidence and allowed him to stand tall as the leading man. And if that wasn't enough, there were the 3-inch heels he wore on his boots (you didn't really think they were just for hiding his derringer in, did you?) and the rule about choosing actresses for the show. The casting office was reportedly under orders not to hire any women over 5-feet-6.