Monday, December 21, 2009

Going Conway

Though the Irwin Allen TV series Land of the Giants only ran for two seasons in the late 60s, it made an impression on quite a few little boys at the time and continues to inspire a following even now.

During a brief re-airing on cable TV in the late 80s or early 90s, I finally got to see the show that several men had remarked to me was their childhood favorite.

Instantly, I found the leading man attractive, though it’s no surprise since I almost always fall for the stereotypical handsome leader type. Cary Conway starred as Captain Steve Burton, a strong-jawed hunk with a winning smile, whose transport ship (in the far-flung future of 1983!!) containing a total of seven passengers and crew (plus one dog) crashes onto a planet in which all the inhabitants are almost 15 times taller than they are.

Conway was born Gareth Carmody in Boston, Massachusetts before his family moved to Los Angeles around the time he was fourteen. Gary was a highly athletic youth with an impressive figure, but was a creative and artistic young man as well. He balanced an active and successful interest in sports with studies in painting, something at which he excelled. At some point, he moved away from his art studies and took up theatre at UCLA (supplementing his income by posing in a strap as a physique model, something quite a few fit young men who later became famous did as well.)

While at UCLA, he met the woman who would not only become his wife, but would be named Miss America 1957, Marian McKnight. They were married in 1958 and remain together to this day. The beauty queen and the gorgeous fledgling actor would go on to have two children together and later on manage a successful business.

First, however, Conway found work in some pretty dire films. Herman Cohen cast him in I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, a corny low-budget flick that had the nerve to hide Conway’s face under ghoulish prosthetics.

Next came the hysterically titled Roger Corman extravaganza The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent,
the title almost taking as long to read as the sixty-six minute film took to watch. At least he was out from under the horror make-up and, according to accounts, dressed in skimpy pelts this time.

Sadly, he was back in monster makeup again in another Herman Cohen gem How to Make a Monster the following year.

Saved from further humiliation by a contract with Warner Brothers, he then hopped on the same acting treadmill that all his fellow WB actors existed on: a slew of guest spots on the cookie cutter series Bourbon Street Beat, Surfside 6, 77 Sunset Strip and Hawaiian Eye. This work, however, granted him experience and exposure on network television and led to his being hired on the Aaron Spelling-produced show Burke’s Law.

Burke’s Law concerned Amos Burke, played by Gene Barry, the wealthy chief of detectives in L.A. who solved a murder mystery each week, with each episode featuring a plethora of glamorous and well-known performers. (This format would be utilized many times afterwards, most successfully in the less glitzy, but still very well appointed Murder, She Wrote.) Conway played Barry’s right-hand man, but, in actuality, the two men didn’t get along at all, thus Conway wasn’t particularly devastated when the series format changed after two years and he was written out. (The show was cancelled, too, soon after, when the new format was rejected by many viewers.)

Which brings us to Land of the Giants. Produced by adventure (and later disaster) lover Irwin Allen, the series was the most expensive one ever seen to that date. The format required many oversized props and special effects, whi
ch also made for a tight and busy shooting schedule.

A lavish pilot was shot and the series was prepared for airing as a midseason replacement. However, no series needed replacing and so the show didn’t air until the fall. This accounts for the noticeable differences in the cast’s appearance between seasons one and two. In particular, the boy of the show, Stefan Arngrim (brother of Alison Arngrim, the immortal Nellie Oleson of Little House on the Prairie) grew a foot or more in between time!

The show also has to have set some kind of record for having inspired the most amusingly goofy publicity photos of all time. Time and again, Conway and his fellow cast mates were placed next to giant scissors, pencils, plugs, telephones… you name it! Conway and his female costar Deanna Lund appeared on the cover of TV Guide situated inside a laboratory beaker.

He was always kept busy running, climbing, ducking and darting and Conway was grateful for his athletic background, as were several of his costars who performed similarly challenging tasks themselves. In certain episodes, one can see how gaunt he is from all the exercise, but with little time for any sizeable lunch! He had to remember to eat heartily to keep his weight up.

Just as he composed the music for all four of Irwin Allen’s 60 s TV series, John Williams came up with the rousing theme song for Land of the Giants. In fact, he wrote two equally exciting themes, though the second one tends to become forgotten (especially since a recent set of reruns on The American Life channel superimposed the first theme over the opening credits of the second season! There ought to be a law…)

Though the show proved popular with children, inspiring various tie-ins such as View-Master reels, comic books and other items, it was cancelled after two seasons.

Conway then worked in the TV-film The Judge and Jake Wyler in support of no less than Miss Bette Davis in a pilot idea that didn’t evolve into a series in the end. He also took a small part in the Jim Brown blaxploitation film Black Gunn as one of the few “nice” white guys and played a murder victim on an episode of Columbo.

Then, in a surprising move, in an effort to generate interest in his career through a still-enviable physique, he posed semi-nude in Playgirl! Though a number of mid-level male stars did this in the early 70s, it’s not something one might expect from a father of two, married to a former Miss America. However, since he did no frontal (or even full rear) nudity, it wasn’t quite the eye-opener that some other stars provided such as Peter Lupus and Christopher George, to name two.

When the film version of Jacqueline Susann’s sultry and sexually explicit novel Once is Not Enough was made into a film in 1975, Conway was given a featured role. Sadly, his part is unbelievably thankless. He was featured on many of the posters, but some versions of it cruelly removed his image and replaced it with an image of the book! The film offered precious little titillation despite a sexy promotional photo, most of the raunchy scenes from the book never making it into the movie, but it remains a campy, hooty delight nonetheless. As gravy, Conway’s character jogs on the beach in some tiny, clingy and very sexy shorts. However, as an acting exercise it was next to nil.

Conway produced a film vehicle for himself in 1977 called The Farmer, a tough, violent revenge flick concerning a war hero who returns to his spread only to see his friend and his girlfriend victimized by some criminals, thus kicking off a quest for blood on his part. It was one of many, many films of its type that came out in the wake of Death Wish and it made little box office impact and is very difficult to find these days.

Since then, Conway has concentrated mostly on his successful (and in several ways progressive) vineyard, an enterprise his wife and daughter work hard on as well. He has occasionally done a dot of TV or film work here and there, and has even dabbled in writing and directing (though it must be said that he is responsible for the storyline of the execrable Sylvester Stallone film Over the Top!)

He also makes appearances at occasional sci-fi conventions and/or reunions of Land of the Giants, remaining friends to this day with his male costars Don Matheson and Don Marshall.


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