Amid the snow-covered cliffs and pines of California’s High Sierra, Robert Conrad is taping a scene for his new CBS adventure series, High Mountain Rangers. The afternoon is cold and the crew is tired when, suddenly, a scream loud enough to roust a bear out of hibernation rings through the wintry air. It is Conrad, and he is enraged. “We had a chopper in the scene, and there was a storm, but the skiers on the back side of the mountain could still hear him,” marvels Joan Conrad, the show’s producer and the star’s daughter. The reason for his fury? “One of the actors,” says Joan, “missed his mark.”
Conrad, 53, has never been known for his mellowness. The swaggering former star of Hawaiian Eye, The Wild, Wild West and Black Sheep Squadron has been sued seven times for engaging in fisticuffs—once with a punch-happy Santa Claus, no less. And when he glared at the camera in those memorable Eveready commercials a few years back, snarling “I dare you to call it regular” at anyone foolhardy enough to think the battery on his shoulder was an ordinary one, timorous viewers’ hearts skipped a beat. But on this set, his tough-guy act is greeted with yawns. Five members of the crew have heard it all before: Producer Joan, 30ish, is Conrad’s eldest daughter; co-stars Shane, 16, and Christian, 23, are his sons, and the show’s caterers, Nancy, also in her 30s, and Norton Flynn, are his daughter and son-in-law.
“Dad is a hard worker,” says Nancy. “If people drag their feet he gets impatient.” Impatient? “He starts ranting and raving,” says Joan. “It takes a while to patiently take him aside and show him why things might not be going well.” Sometimes it’s all a bit of a strain. “I hope I’ve inherited his creative ability,” adds Joan, “but I hope I haven’t taken too much of his personality.”
That kind of plain speaking, typical of his offspring, is just fine with Dad, who has never put much store by diplomacy. “My wife and I tried to see that our children were honest, hardworking, basically moral people,” he says. The wife he’s referring to is Joan Kenlay, to whom he was married for 25 years and who has continued to run the family’s financial affairs even after their divorce. (Their daughter Christy, 20, the only child not on the set, is a senior at Pepperdine University.)
Conrad thinks his offspring have turned out well—so well, in fact, that he likes to have them around when he works. Last year, when he pitched his idea about a series featuring mountain search-and-rescue workers to CBS, he pitched his kids too. “I wanted a family-oriented show with shmaltz,” he says. “I’d used my children in other films. It’s fun to work with family.”
The network wasn’t so sure. Christian had done only two TV movies with his father, and incipient teen heartthrob Shane’s previous acting experience was just as limited. Joan had already produced six TV movies, however, and Conrad ultimately got his way. High Mountain Rangers, starring Bob as a reclusive mountain man and Shane and Chris as his strapping, spandex-clad sons (“Tight pants worked for me, why not for my kids?” reasons Bob), debuted in January. It has been holding its own in the ratings—though just barely—since.
In general, life on the Rangers set in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., involves more teasing and laughter than inter-generational combat. The family is a close one, and the Conrads’ fondness for each other is obvious. Today, Shane and Chris, taking a break, have been checking out Shane’s latest spreads in the teen fanzines. “Oh, you have such a pretty face,” jeers Chris. “Hey,” retorts Shane, “I’m not 23 and in 16 magazine like you were, buddy.” Enter the father figure, clutching a beer. “I was better looking than both of you when I was young,” he announces.
Nearby, Joan is poring over the bills. Her father, who is financing the show himself in hopes of cashing in big if it’s successful and goes into syndication, is unquestionably top gun here, but he happily concedes his daughter her role. “I’m glad I’m not producing this,” he admits. “I’ll lead into combat, but I can’t fire people.” In fact, for all his strutting, Conrad is more than willing to share power across gender lines. “I have this machismo image,” he says, “but you won’t find a larger percentage of women on TV crews than here.”
Their father has always been enlightened about sexual equality, his kids say. Well, sort of. “The boys were taught how to iron and sew, and I remember Dad taking me to work out at Gold’s Gym,” says Joan. But, probably because they came first, only the girls were spanked. “We’d run to the bathroom and look at the handprints on our bottoms,” remembers Nancy. “Maybe Joan and I wore him down.”
Himself the product of a working-class Chicago home, Conrad was a strict parent. He sent the girls to Catholic schools, allowed them no dating before the age of 16 and expected spotless rooms. But he was delighted when his children showed an interest in show business. Although neither Joan, the practical one, nor Nancy, the sweet-natured free spirit, were inclined toward acting, Shane and Christian loved it from the start. “I was raised on the set of Wild, Wild West,” says Chris. “I got to play all these fantasies on the backlots of studios.” Shane’s fantasyland was the Black Sheep Squadron set, a short-lived series Bob starred in from 1976-78.
All four children are delighted with their current project. “I’m glad I started with the support of my family,” says Shane. “If you do talk shows it’s a lot easier having your brother or your dad next to you than being all alone.” Adds Joan: “We never dreamed we’d all do this together successfully.”
Just how successfully remains to be seen. Critics, for the most part, have scorned the show, calling it “Chippendales on Ice,” or worse. That doesn’t faze Conrad. “I’m looking for escapism,” he says.
And not just on TV. Five years ago, Conrad moved with his second wife, LaVelda, 28, to secluded Bear Valley, Calif., a town of only 100 people. “You’ve really got to be into a guy to want to move with him and live this kind of life,” he says, and LaVelda apparently is. Since moving to Bear Valley, she and Conrad have had three children, Kaja, 4, Camille, 2, and Chelsea, 1. The parents met in 1978, when she was a 17-year-old Miss National Teenager and he had flown to Atlanta to emcee the pageant at which she was passing on her crown. “I asked her on the air when she would be 18,” says Conrad, who was 43 at the time and still married. “She said in a week, and I said, ‘Call me in a week.’ She didn’t, but I called her. That wasn’t robbing the cradle, it was grand theft.” Remarkably, he seems to have gotten away with it. His two families get along famously. “I never thought I’d dance more than once, but LaVelda is the most honest, real person I know,” he says.
With a little fancy footwork, he could be just as lucky with his midlife career. “There are three cycles in showbiz,” Conrad says. “They don’t know you, then they love you, and then you’ve been around so long they hate you. Now I’m starting all over again.” And this time he’s got plenty of company.
—By Kim Hubbard, with David Hutchings in South Lake Tahoe