The media tends to throw the term “legend” around rather loosely these days, but Robert Conrad truly fits the definition of a show business legend. He starred in three hit television series (Hawaiian Eye, The Wild Wild West, Black Sheep Squadron) spanning three decades, and guest starred in countless other TV shows dating back to the late 1950s. He has excelled at numerous other roles in the entertainment industry and is the only actor to be inducted into the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame.
In 1977, Mr. Conrad won the People’s Choice Award for Favorite Male Performer in a New TV Program for his role as Colonel Greg “Pappy” Boyington in Black Sheep Squadron. The following year, he was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best TV Actor in a Drama for the same role. In 2010, he was featured in the PBS documentary series Pioneers of Television.
Though not currently acting on screen, Mr. Conrad can be heard weekly on his popular radio program, The PM Show with Robert Conrad, which reaches a national audience in excess of 5 million listeners. The show airs live every Thursday from 3-5 p.m. PT on the CRN Digital Talk Radio network.
Q. In preparing for this interview, I was trying to make a list of everything you’ve done in your career and it’s almost endless. You’re an actor, a writer, a musician, a singer, a stuntman, a pilot – what am I leaving off?
A. Producer and director.
Q. It’s really an amazing list of achievements. How many years have you been in show business all together?
A. Years? 58.
Q. 58 years. It’s such a long career. There have been many actors who burst on the scene and then they’re a flash in the pan and you never hear from them again. What is it about you that gave you such longevity in show business?
A. I think it’s that I’ve had the opportunity to do different things. When I was younger, I was a singer. Then, I came out to Hollywood and became an actor and, as part of my acting talent, I came into directing and writing, and it just kind of kept moving forward.
Q. When you were growing up, did you know that you wanted to be an actor or did you have other ambitions?
A. When I was young, I thought I was going to be the President of the Teamsters. When I got older, I thought I was going to have a singing career. Then, I fell into acting and it turned out to be the career I wanted.
Q. What do you think about people who break into the business today through reality shows — do you see a difference between that and the career ladder that you had to climb?
A. I don’t think that’s meaningful. You know what I’m saying?
Q. Yes. Do you think it was harder coming up as an actor when you were younger than it is today?
A. No, I don’t think so. If you can act, you can act. If you can’t, then move on.
Q. Given your five decades in the entertainment industry, you must have gone through some lean times. What helped you get through those times and keep going?
A. I didn’t experience that. I had a career that kept going on and on. I didn’t have, as you mentioned, any difficult times.
Q. Well, what about this: If you could go back and change one decision – maybe take a part that you turned down, or turn down a part that you took – is there anything that stands out in your mind as something that you wish you had done differently?
A. No, I don’t think so. I think the choices I made, looking back, were the right ones at the time.
Q. No regrets?
A. No. I have no regrets. I was lucky to have had the career I had and I’m grateful for it, very grateful. I appreciate the audience, and the radio show I do now is just my way of saying thank you to those people that have been with me for a long period of time in my career.
Q. How did the radio show come about and how long has it been on the air?
A. We’ve been on the air five years. Someone asked me if I’d be interested in doing a radio show and they wanted kind of a controversial political show. I said, ‘No, that’s not my format. My format would be that I’ll do a show if we can do a talk-and-listen with the audience.’ They said, ‘Well, that won’t work. That will last about six or eight weeks.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s try it.’ And it’s lasted five years.
Q. You seem to seize opportunities when they come along – for example, becoming a stunt man and ending up in the Stuntman’s Hall of Fame. It seems like, no matter what show you were on, you expanded beyond that role.
A. Yes, that’s kind of unique, I think. When I was doing Hawaiian Eye, I became a surfer, and then when I was doing Wild Wild West, I became a stunt man, and when I was doing Black Sheep Squadron, I became a pilot.
Q. Maybe that has been the key to your longevity. Let’s say someone is just thinking about going into the entertainment field. Is there something that would surprise them – from your perspective as an insider – about what it’s like to be a professional actor?
A. Acting is what it is. It’s very difficult. There are long hours. Like I said, it is what it is.
Q. Watching you on screen, I’ve always admired the chemistry you seem to have with everyone you act with, whether it’s on TV or in movies. Can you explain what ‘chemistry’ is between actors? Is it something that can be taught?
A. It’s innate. It can’t be taught. When you have a scene that you do with someone, you commit to it. You play a scene and you play it with some depth. It’s fundamental.
Q. What is your best career advice for young people interested in pursuing an acting career today?
A. I think what you do, as a young, aspiring actor, is that you study. You go to acting school and you study the trade. You do auditions and you’re prepared. My advice to young actors is to get out there and learn and you’ll get it. If you want to be an actor, study, learn, audition, and eventually you might get work. And, then, you might not. It’s very difficult.
Q. So, you have to be able to handle the rejection.
A. I don’t think you ever handle that. The rejection is very, very difficult.
Q. How did you handle it?
A. I didn’t. I never liked it. It was always difficult.
Q. I guess you just have to dust yourself off and get ready for the next audition.
A. Right. You say, ‘Okay, well, get up off the floor and try again.”