From mid-August to early September 1983, I worked for maybe a month on a TV pilot Robert Conrad shot (mostly) in my hometown. The show, Hard Knox, was primarily set in a USMC military school. I was just shy of 14 and was one of many local kids hired as cadet extras.
With several Marine Corps Drill Instructors teaching us, we spent most of our time learning how to march in formation. Marching in heavy wool dress uniforms numerous times around a quad in late summer heat was taxing, but none of us passed out.
During one such scene, while we were standing in formation between takes, the heat and humidity was so intense that a woman from the hair and makeup department was given a spray bottle of water mixed with some sort of cooling menthol liquid. For continuity sake, we weren’t allowed to break formation between camera set-ups.
The sunny sky was clear that afternoon and we were not in a shaded area. Between takes, this woman would walk behind each of us and spray the backs of our necks for temporary relief.
At one point, a male classmate of mine in the formation exclaimed “Goddamn, it’s hot. Where’s the bitch with the Sea Breeze?”.
Conferring with Peter Werner, the film’s director, Robert Conrad was standing less than ten feet away from my classmate. Mr. Conrad’s reaction to the remark was immediate and firm.
Turning around toward our formation, he zeroed in on the commenter– I don’t know how he knew it, but he seemed to know exactly which kid had spoken– and snapped at him, “You don’t talk about my people that way. If I hear that kind of language again, you’re fired.”
Nobody wanted to get fired. I never heard another smart-assed remark from another cadet extra, particularly when the film’s star was nearby.
From my own experience working on Hard Knox, I learned that Robert Conrad was extremely serious about his work, very professional, and had zero tolerance for displays of disrespect on his set.
Watching him act during takes, I thought it was odd that his performance was almost always low-key, low-intensity. He didn’t seem to be doing much Acting.
When I watched the finished film at its local theatrical premiere in January 1984, just a few days before it debuted on NBC’s Friday Night Movie, I realized that Mr. Conrad wasn’t performing for those of us observing from behind the camera, but for the camera itself.
And at that, he was a genuine talent, exuding a relaxed charisma that drew you in. As a younger kid, I’d watched him in episodes of Wild, Wild West and Baa Baa Black Sheep (aka Black Sheep Squadron).
It wasn’t until I had the chance to see him work up close, in person, on a set, and months later able to watch that performance in the context of the finished film, that I realized just how adept Robert Conrad was at acting for the camera.
Basically, it’s when I realized “That’s why this guy’s a star”.
Rest in peace, Mr. Conrad.