Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wild, Wild West

Like most if not all boys I wanted to be a hero, and tuned in to the TV to see what latest models were available. There was one program, black and white at first, called The Wild, Wild West. Maybe you remember it?

Onto a western format, the series grafted a James Bond spy motif with science-fiction plots straight out of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, with a dash of rococo thrown in for good measure. The James Bond secret service hero, named—appropriately—James West, answered directly to President Grant while touring the nation in a glammed-up private railroad train with his sidekick, Artemus Gordon, man of a thousand disguises.

But James West—or Jim, as Arty and others called him—got the fights and the girls. With a combination of martial arts that included lots of kicking, double-hammers, and karate-chops, he could dispatch ten bad-guys at once, flinging them over balconies and out of windows like so many sacks of potatoes. As for the girls, he no sooner flashed them his devastating dimples than they swooned into his arms—often with a dagger or a derringer behind their backs, but that they never got to use: with nothing more than kiss Jim disarmed them.

How I wanted to be that guy. He wore tight gold vests that emphasized the V-shape of his fighter physique, and an equally tight bolero-style jacket and pants that looked painted on (and must have split dozens of times during those fight sequences). I wanted to wear tight clothes like that, and vests made of gold brocade with exploding buttons and knives concealed in secret pockets. I wanted a pair of black boots with triangular heels that opened up to hide exploding balls. I wanted a spring-loaded derringer up my sleeve and ten bad guys to beat up at once, starting with Bobby Mullin, the Catholic school bully who used to beat me up regularly at the bus stop for not believing in God.

But mostly I wanted girls to swoon into my arms, to be rendered paralytic by my dashing good looks—though I had no dimples, devastating or otherwise, and my hair was too curly, and my Italian eyes were too big and too brown, when they should have been squinted and blue. One makes allowances. I bought a pair of black cowboy boots, and had my mom sew me a chest-constricting brocade vest, and wore the tightest jeans I could squeeze into.

Jim West was played by actor Robert Conrad, a short, cocky, chisel-jawed jock, five-foot-eight if that. And that was one of his great appeals to us boys: he was like us, short; we could measure up to him. If he could stand up to a dozen bullies, we could stand a chance with the two or three assholes we had to contend with. He gave us all hope, Conrad/West did. When the series ended after four short years, Conrad went on to do a series of increasingly poor shows; his looks faded and with them his appeal: he was no great actor, never was. But the role of Jim West was his and none could have done it better. He countered Ross Martin (Artemus)'s hammy caricatures with a deadpan delivery that made him salt to Martin's pepper. Conrad did his own stunts, too.

Forty years later, Jim West still represents for me the definition of masculine beauty, strength, and style—an obsolete standard, to be sure, better suited to the black and white world, the world of Playboy clubs and cold wars, than to that of fundamentalist zealots and hardcore: a world that still believed, however ludicrously, in heroes, villains, and damsels in distress. And that by rights I (along with everyone else) should have long ago outgrown.

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