Monday, September 27, 2010
Happy birthday, William Conrad!
Actor William Conrad used to jokingly refer to himself as “The Man of a Thousand Voice” because even though he was versatile enough to double in many roles—and in fact, did so one time on a memorable radio broadcast of Suspense entitled “The Waxwork” (05/01/56), in which he plays all the parts—there was something about his voice that always gave him away and let you know that he…well, was William Conrad. I’ve always enjoyed Conrad’s self-deprecation, because I’ve always believed him to be one of the finest actors—whether it be radio, television or movies—in show business.
Growing up, Bill Conrad was the portly detective on my TV screen known as Cannon; it wouldn’t be until much later on in life when I discovered his first-rate work as Marshal Matt Dillon on radio’s Gunsmoke…and all the other radio shows on which he performed (including the memorable announcer on Escape: “…want to get away from it all?”) I’m sure I don’t need to re-tell the story of how CBS screwed Conrad out of the TV version of Gunsmoke along the rest of the fine radio cast (Parley Baer, Howard McNear, Georgia Ellis, John Dehner, Lawrence Dobkin, Harry Bartell, Sam Edwards, Vic Perrin…I could go on and on); they had pretty much settled on James Arness for the boob tube edition of Dodge City’s famous lawman, even though OTR actress-historian Lois Culver once remarked during an online chat that “most real lawmen looked more like Bill than Arness anyway.” Conrad held a grudge against both the series and the network for many years but finally made peace once Cannon became a hit (he’d even direct a couple of shows for the TV western) and would later go on to star in another series in the late 80s/early 90s—the appropriately titled Jake and the Fatman.
Whether he was narrating the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle or following the progress of an accused Dr. Richard Kimble and his quest to locate a certain one-armed man, Conrad was a major presence on television—I’ve been watching a lot of Have Gun – Will Travel episodes on Encore Westerns of late, and I always get a kick out of seeing his name as director or even guest star (he appeared in a genuine WTF installment entitled “The Man Who Struck Moonshine,” playing a poor soul whose attempts to find water result in a well that brings forth whiskey). He also did a tremendous amount of film work, usually playing (if you’ll pardon the pun) the heavy in noirs like Cry Danger and The Killers, where he has that famous line that I often use when sitting down to eat with the ‘rents: “They eat the dinner…they all come here and eat the big dinner.” Bill was born ninety years ago on this date in 1920…and he continues to be a figure that inspires awe and respect here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.