‘Wild Wild West’ weathered tough final season

As Heath Ledger’s recent death and Patrick Swayze’s current illness remind us, larger than life celebs are no different than anyone: They’re human, and they’re subject to illnesses, accidents and worse, just like all of us. And that brings us to Tuesday’s release by CBS DVD of The Wild Wild West: The Fourth Season, a season which was hit hard midway by its own human frailty when star Ross Martin suffered a heart attack.

He was just 48 years old at the time (1968). Martin recovered, but he lived only until 1981, when another heart attack proved fatal at age 61.

His famed series about 1870s U.S. secret agents ended too, after that fourth year, though its production values never faltered. If anything, The Wild Wild West looks better than ever for its swan-song season, when guest stars include the likes of Harvey Korman, Kevin McCarthy, Ted Knight and even singer Jackie DeShannon (What the World Needs Now).

With Martin’s Artemus Gordon ostensibly sent to Washington, D.C. on assignment, co-star Robert Conrad’s James West soldiered on with a substitute sidekick, Charles Aidman. The show must go on, as they say.

Conrad also continued to do his own stunts (no absurdly dissimilar stuntmen for him, unlike William Shatner on Star Trek)  and this proved both a plus and a minus. It was a plus because the action looked more realistic. It was a minus because networks were smarting after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that year, and violent TV programming came under fire. Thus, after four fine seasons, WWW was axed — though, to be fair, it was far more fanciful than realistically violent.

But that end was only a beginning, in some ways, and you can still see all 104 episodes in four boxed sets. That’s more than you can say for many shows which emerge on DVD for one or two seasons, then subside. And while human frailty may halt some things, digital entertainment is forever.

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