American Record Guide
|Eisenberg, Adam. "Wizards and Warriors: Jeff Conaway Crosses
Swords and Matches Spells in a World of Magic and Myth." Prevue February
1983: 36 - 41.
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Wizards and Warriors
Jeff Conaway Crosses Swords and Matches Spells in a World of Magic and Myth
by Adam Eisenberg
It's not easy being a prince. After all, there are always fire-breathing dragons to slay, beautiful princesses to rescue and evil wizards to battle. Those labors leave little time for the lesser things in life, like eating or getting a good knight's sleep.
On this day in particular, it's not easy playing a prince for actor Jeff Conaway. At the moment, he's shooting a scene for his new comedy-fantasy series, Wizards and Warriors, perilously clutching a shaky rope bridge while a fusillade of darts miss his head by scant inches.
That really wouldn't be so bad, except that Conaway strained his back two days earlier while wearing a cumbersome armored chest plate. Concerned with the actor's condition, director Richard Colla offers some advice: "Do whatever makes you feel comfortable!"
Conaway retorts, "How about a sitcom?"
Wizards and Warriors follows Conaway as Erik Greystone on an adventurous odyssey through life with his trusty vassal Marko, played by Walter (The Last Resort) Olkewicz. Theirs is an arduous journey teeming with a thousand sudden dangers, not to mention offbeat demons, snobbish princesses, evil-but-seductive witches, and the wicked Dirk Blackpool, an arch-enemy whose most gracious ambition is to control the entire world.
"It's not easy being a hero," Conaway laments as he pauses from derrings-do in his trailer during a lunch break. "The job is a tough one, but I like it because I get to be a role model. When I was growing up, there were the Marlon Brandos, the James Deans, the anti-heroes, the good bad guys. I think that image was confusing for kids. You're either a good guy or a bad guy, and the way the world is today, it's nice to know the difference.
"I play the good guy -- a cool, good guy. I'm smart, I'm together, I make the right decisions -- there's a reason and a philosophy behind them. I'm not a barbarian. I don't just play someone who has a sword, and knows how to swing it. I'm a sophisticated-type dude, a swordsman-about-town."
Conaway, who starred in both film and stage versions of Grease, indeed has the sophisticated look of a prince, dressed in a swashbuckling-type white lace shirt and tan tights, his trusty sword just behind him -- quite a switch from the days when he played the struggling actor, Bobby Wheeler, in Taxi.
"Wizards and Warriors is a big change for me, but it's a nice one," the 33-year-old actor adds. "I left Taxi because I felt that creatively I had done all I could do with it. I mean, how many more times could Bobby almost get a job, or get one and then lose it? Early on, I wanted to project a different image of an actor; the producers said 'Fine!' But, in production, I still ended up playing the stereotype, and really hated it."
Besides presenting his new heroic persona on camera, Conaway says Wizards affords him a role behind-the-scenes as well.
"This is my step into adulthood," he observes. "I'm Number One here, and people watch to see how I react. On the set, after the director, everyone looks to me for an attitude. If both the director and I are hysterical, then everyone else will be, too. But, if the director's hysterical and I'm calm, they'll be calm. It works almost subconsciously because people always watch the guy whose head will roll if the show doesn't go well."
Wizards and Warriors (the name may change before air time) was created by executive producer Don (M*A*S*H) Reo. Dressed in blue jeans and tennis shoes, he enters Conaway's trailer, and sits down in a corner, interjecting his viewpoint about the fantasy series. "It's set in a time that never was in a place that never existed. We're inventing our own reality as we go along, unencumbered by history or logic. It's fun because it's wide open to our imaginations -- but, that can also cause problems. After all, we have to decide everything. How does a battlefield look in an era which never was? What would a cannon be like, and if there are cannons, why aren't there any handguns? Being unencumbered can be cumbersome."
Reo, who entered show business as a straight man to comedian Slappy White in the late '60's, says he enjoys placing Greystone and Marko in jeopardy. "Four times each hour we put them in life-and-death situations that they can't possibly escape. For instance, they're on horseback, and suddenly ride off a cliff edge and plunge into the Ocean of Death, filled with sea serpents. Cut to the commercial -- but what happens next? It's fun to accept that challenge because it's like playing make believe when you were a kid."
Besides creating impossible cliffhangers, Reo has also masterminded some very exotic monsters, including lightning hawks, bonecrack demons (named after the sound produced as they break their victims' bodies) and a grox, which he describes as "a 7-foot-tall creature made from phlegm that's really repulsive. I want every kid in the country to go, "Yechhh!"
Actually, the gruesome menagerie might be considered house pets compared to other dangers Greystone and Marko encounter during their travels. Reo mentions The Sword and Skull, a quaint, but slightly odd, tavern and tourist trap frequented by Blackpool's henchmen. Inside, the intrepid heroes discover patrons playing Armdeath, a form of arm wrestling with a unique payoff: contestants battle on a table with holes in either end inhabited by cobras. The winner watches as the loser suffers the agony of defeat -- a fatal bite in the arm.
"Behind the bar, we have a guy mixing drinks by milking a rattlesnake," Reo elaborates, "and two barmaids. One's 6'8" -- she's the short one."
To help Reo realize his fantasy world, CBS is spending almost a million dollars per episode, making Wizards and Warriors the most expensive weekly series in the network's history. Nevertheless, there are some situations envisioned by the producer which were simply too costly.
"We originally planned for a hedge maze and a fire-breathing dragon in the pilot," Reo says. "But, the studio said, 'This can't be shot; it costs too much money!' We talked it over and I suggested, 'OK, how about an invisible dragon?' I figured the bit might still work dramatically. They replied, 'Great!' How about an invisible hedge maze, too?' That did it, we threw out the scene altogether.
"Making a pilot on a regular television schedule is insane in the first place. Time problems prevented us from even seeing one set involving our slime monster until 20 minutes before shooting. What a nightmare! It was two stories high, with a tank in it, and was constructed with foam which has been illegal to use since 1976, the same stuff that burned down a Goldwyn soundstage when a set made of it caught fire. So, we had fire marshals everywhere. We were all very nervous."
The scene required that Conaway and Olkewicz first find themselves surrounded by deadly snake people, then drop into a steaming pit, home of a rather nauseating slime beast. As Conaway recalls, it was a very singular experience.
"First, we had to get into the scummy water mixed with olive oil. Then, before we went under the surface, we were told, 'Listen, when you come up, don't breathe.'
"What do you mean, 'Don't breathe?' I asked.
"'Well,' they said, 'we're using carbon dioxide to create mist on top of the pot. While it won't kill you, it'll fill your lungs so you won't be able to get any air.'
"We held our breath when we came up, but the stuff burned our eyes anyway. Though we couldn't actually take in air, we had to act as if we did because that's what normal people do when they reach the surface -- even on TV."
To assist the heroes in this breathtaking stunt, several frogmen were stationed underwater to give them air when necessary. The task still proved difficult for Olkewicz who had not only never used a snorkel before, but suffers from asthma.
"If it hadn't been 4:30 AM and we weren't already behind schedule, we all would have been laughing," Conaway adds. "Between breaths."
In addition to slime pits and invisible dragons, every episode pits Conaway against Duncan Regehr (Blackpool) for some serious swordplay. Often, the scenes are especially dangerous because the weapons are wired to an electrical current to shoot off sparks when they clash.
"It's scary, but it's also exciting because we don't hold back," Conaway confesses. "Duncan and I trust each other, and hope the swords will be in the right places. It's got to look real because it's a matter of Good against Evil!
"Sometimes it's too real. At one point, Duncan didn't parry when I lunged and I touched his arm. Suddenly, there was a shower of sparks, and he jumped ten feet in the air! I could feel the current pulsing through my blade. It was a tense 30 seconds; he wasn't hurt but he definitely knew he had been zapped."
Despite the rigors of lensing a weekly fantasy series, both Conaway and Reo manage to enjoy themselves even at the toughest times. The actor was barely concerned, for example, while riding his trusty stallion, Southwind, through the Forest of Gloom, a dreaded studio set, where serpents crawl and coil around every branch.
"I looked at the bloody things and figured, 'If the horses can work with them, so can I,'" Conaway recalls. "If I worry about snakes biting me, instead of being a hero, I'd end up like my agent saying 'Do you realize those are real snakes down there?'
"Actually," he adds, "we weren't that close, maybe about five or six feet away from them."
Reo corrects him. "I don't think you were aware of it, Jeff, but, in one shot, a boa constrictor fell out of a tree and swung about three inches over your head."
Conaway roars with laughter. Then, with just a twinge of nervousness, he shouts, "Show business! I love it!"
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