Saturday, October 2, 2010
Happy birthday, Barton Yarborough!
It wasn’t easy choosing the individual for today’s TDOY birthday shout-out—both Groucho Marx (b. 1890) and Bud Abbott (b. 1895) celebrate natal anniversaries today. But the birthday boy in the spotlight is a Texas-born actor who, although he appeared in a handful of films, is best known by OTR fans for three iconic performances: Cliff Barbour on the long-running serial One Man’s Family, Doc Long in the blood-and-thunder adventure I Love a Mystery…and Ben Romero, the first partner to Sergeant Joe Friday back when Dragnet was heard and not yet "seen."
Yarborough was born in Goldthwaite, TX one-hundred-and-ten years ago today—and ran off at an early age to hook up on the vaudeville stage…but got sidetracked into a radio career instead. Carlton E. Morse, the creator of radio’s One Man’s Family, cast the soft-spoken Texan as Clifford Barbour, the family ne’er-do-well and twin brother of Claudia, in the long-running soap opera…and liked his voice so much that he also tabbed him to play Doc Long, the boisterous knuckle-duster who hailed from the Lone Star State and played comrade to Jack Packard (Michael Raffeto), the head of the A-1 Detective Agency. (Raffeto played eldest son Paul Barbour alongside Yarborough on Family as well.) Both characters were a positive delight to listen to (and remain so today) but I always enjoyed Barton’s performance as Long just a bit more—as should be evident by my casual swiping of his constant exclamation, “Honest to my grandma!” Yarborough was the only actor on the radio version to make the transition to the short-lived film series based on the I Love a Mystery show produced at Columbia—which brought I Love a Mystery (1945), The Devil’s Mask (1946) and The Unknown (1946) to motion picture audiences. (You can see all three films in the ILAM “trilogy” on October 12th of this month on TCM beginning at 6:00am EDT, by the way.) Yarborough would also reprise his role as Doc in the short-lived I Love Adventure series that aired on ABC Radio in 1948.
Yarborough’s other radio roles included working on the series Hawk Larabee—an interesting situation in that he started out as the sidekick when the show was called Hawk Durango (the titular role played by Elliott Lewis), then graduated into the main role (with Barney Phillips taking over as sidekick) and then moving back to sidekick when Lewis returned to the series. (Barton would also do a few episodes of Lewis’ celebrated series Voyage of the Scarlet Queen.) He also appeared as Skip Turner in a few of the serials syndicated as Adventures by Morse, though Jack Edwards—an actor who was a dead ringer for sounding like Doc Long—played the role as well.
In 1949, Yarborough took on the role for which I personally remember him best—as Officer Ben Romero, the partner of Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) on Webb’s seminal radio cop show Dragnet. Barton’s courtly Romero was the perfect compliment to the crisp, no-nonsense Friday, and when Dragnet transitioned over to television Yarborough reprised his role alongside Webb. But after filming the second episode and getting ready for the third, Barton suffered a heart attack and died…and his Romero character was replaced by a few fill-ins (including his former Larabee co-star Phillips as Officer Ed Jacobs) before Jack finally settled on Officer Frank Smith (played by Ben Alexander, another radio veteran). (On One Man’s Family, Cliff was written out of the series, referenced only in an occasional letter sent to the Barbour clan.)
Apart from the I Love a Mystery movies, Yarborough only made a handful of films—but because of his distinct voice he’s devastatingly easy to spot: he’s the young assistant in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) who’s the first to die at the hands of the Monster, and he has a quick bit as one of the Feds questioning Barry Kane (Bob Cummings) in Saboteur (1942). (He’s also noticeable in Humphrey Bogart’s Deadline – U.S.A. .) Curiously, Barton also appeared in a pair of Columbia comedy two-reelers starring Vera Vague (Barbara Jo Allen), The Jury Goes Round and Round (1945) and Hiss and Yell (1946); Yarborough and Allen were briefly married at one time. But as an individual who’s championed the radio Dragnet—long before it became the laughable “fuzz industrial” of the late 60s/early 70s on TV—I revere Yarborough’s work on the series; he was the first to back up Joe Friday when needed…and he was the best.