Robert Conrad dared Will Smith to do his own stunts on The Wild Wild West movie
It would've been Conrad's fault if The Fresh Prince got trampled by that giant mechanical tarantula thing
In 1999, Will Smith seemed unstoppable. He transitioned seamlessly from television to movies, trading in Fresh Prince for box office receipts. He was a Fourth of July mainstay. Fireworks, hot dogs, Will Smith. With Independence Day and Men In Black under his belt, the actor was a summertime tradition. Expectations (and budgets) were high in anticipation of Wild Wild West, a reimagining of the classic TV western of the '60s.
CBS television network aired The Wild Wild West for four seasons from September 17, 1965, to April 11, 1969. Thirty years later, the series seemed like an odd choice for a movie posed to be the biggest of the summer. Starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, The Wild Wild West came towards the tail-end of the ubiquitous popularity of cowboys on American television. By comparison, Gunsmoke had already been on the air for a decade. The Rifleman, Rawhide, and Wagon Train had already come to an end. Knowing that the genre was in its twilight years, series creator Michael Garrison added the element of espionage, pitching The Wild Wild West as "James Bond on horseback."
Westerns weren't exactly at their peak in popularity in the late-'90s either. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was seven years in the rearview by 1999. The previous year's Mask of Zorro was more "swashbuckling adventure" than strict "Western," and even that succeeded in spite of its genre, not because of it. For every reason that Will Smith seemed like a guarantee, there was a reason why Wild Wild West did not.
Unfettered by negative publicity regarding the ballooning budget, Smith was characteristically upbeat in a July interview with the Scripps Howard News Service. It turns out that he was actually more concerned by the words of Robert Conrad, who originated the role of Smith's character, Jim West. Conrad was, of course, swept up in the press fervor surrounding Wild Wild West, and was given multiple chances to speak his thoughts on the project. He took it as an opportunity to throw the gauntlet, at least in Smith's eyes.
"Early in the process, Robert Conrad did an interview, and they asked him how he felt about Will Smith playing James West," Smith said. "And [Conrad] said 'I just want everyone to know that Robert Conrad did all his own stunts.' So, now I'm trying to do my own stunts."
Those stunts were no small feat; Smith spends one sequence riding a push cart between and under two speeding trains.
"The train was probably doing 45 or 50 mph, and I'm whippin' through, so I have to be whippin' through at 65 mph or something like that," said Smith. "It was a little scary. I'm under there trying to figure out, 'Why the hell did I let Robert Conrad make me do this?'"
Wild Wild West would go on to gross $222 million, a slew of bad reviews, and five Golden Razzie Awards, including "Worst Picture," and "Worst Original Song." By comparison, Robert Conrad spent 1999 starring as himself in a single episode of Just Shoot Me!