The ballad of Bill Conrad: Old-time radio listening, 10 July

Gunsmoke: Reluctant Violence (CBS, 1960)

William Conrad (right, with director Norman Macdonnell), bringing to original life the "lonely, sad, tragic" Matt Dillon. (Photo: CBS.)

William Conrad (right, with director Norman Macdonnell), bringing to original life the “lonely, sad, tragic” Matt Dillon. (Photo: CBS.)

In person, William Conrad resembles anything but the laconic, rugged, but quietly humane federal marshal he’s played with such jarring realism on radio for almost a decade even as network radio is on life support. The portly actor with the quietly stentorian voice simply doesn’t reek of horse sweat and tapered manliness as a 1950s sensibility seems to prefer, reaching instead for James Arness when the show arrived on television in 1955.

It wasn’t always so. Conrad, in fact, had been rather slender when he landed his Gunsmoke role; various accounts since have said he expanded considerably once the show was established by 1953. The radio cast received no consideration for the television version other than a kind of token audition (thanks to a persistent if unidentified newspaper columnist, according to several recollections), but Conrad would not exactly go unseen by the show’s television audience, even if they had no idea who they were seeing. That would be Conrad shot down when outdrawn by his television counterpart, James Arness, in the opening credit sequence.

As things transpire, four years before Gunsmoke rides off into the sunset for the last time, Conrad—whose distinguished radio career has included a reported 7,500 roles, and whose sporadic television presence afterward will include roles on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and (as narrator) The Fugitive, not to mention narrating the cleverly written but terribly animated Rocky and Bullwinkle—is established at last as a television lead, as the brainy, fat detective Cannon.

Conrad will be far from the only member of Gunsmoke‘s nonpareil radio cast to enjoy a kind of last laugh. In time Parley Baer, who has brought Chester Proudfoot to life on radio, and would consider it the highlight of his own long career in radio and television, would find it nothing less than a laugh and a half that Dennis Weaver—whose portrayal of Chester on television would help make him a star—would come to despise the role.

Baer came to find more mirth out of the television version than Conrad would, according to Dunning:

For Bill Conrad, the television show was a bitter loss. He became unavailable to interviewers, especially when they wanted to talk about his radio career. He became Cannon on TV, and a generation came of age never knowing the declining Matt Dillon (age overtook even James Arness) they watched on Monday nights owed his existence to the fat detective who waddled across their screens on Tuesday. The acrimony was probably unavoidable; certainly, it was understandable. There would always be champions of radio vs. TV, and among radio people Gunsmoke is routinely placed among the best shows of any kind and any time. That radio fans considered the TV show a sham, and its players impostors, should surprise no one. That the TV show was not a sham was due in no small part to the continued strength of (original radio writer John) Meston’s scripts.

For myself, I never thought the television Gunsmoke was a sham so much as it was a kind of letdown, once I got even a small taste of the radio original. As indelible as his portrayal was, Arness seems to be to deliver Matt Dillon as just a little too wooden compared to his radio antedecent. Conrad gives the laconic marshal depth; Arness seems to shorten it a little too much, even working with the best of John Meston’s radio scripts, as he had in the television show’s early years. Even one taste of the radio original’s absolute best (and, once the show found its footing, where on earth would you begin to find it?) and the television Gunsmoke becomes at best an acquired taste.

Dillon was a “lonely, sad, tragic man,” said (creator-director Norman) Macdonnell. “He played his hand and often lost. He arrived too late to prevent a lynching. He amputated a dying man’s leg and lost the patient anyway. He saved a young girl from brutal rapists, then found himself unable to offer her what she needed to stop her from moving into town and a fairly obvious life as a prostitute. Meston rejoiced in such freedom. In a letter to the New York Herald-Tribune, he welcomed the opportunity to destroy a character he had always loathed, the western guitar-thumping hero, singing his synthetic, nasal ballad. “I spit in his milk, and you’ll have to go elsewhere to find somebody to pour out the lead for his golden bullets.” In Meston’s view, Dillon was almost as scarred as the homicidal psychopaths who drifted into Dodge from every direction. “Life and his enemies have left him looking a little beat up. There’d have to be something wrong with him or he wouldn’t have hired on as a United States marshal in the heyday of Dodge City, Kansas.

William Conrad’s longtime silence, which included constant refusals to attend gatherings of the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety, and Comedy (SPERDVAC), even at the invitation of former colleagues and longtime friends, would end at last, not long before his death in 1994. All it takes is film critic Leonard Maltin, by way of a go-between to Conrad, agreeing to find Conrad a copy of the 1939 film Of Mice and Men. The critic found it within a day, and got two hours talk time with the man who made Matt Dillon live, breathe, and ride in the first place, for Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age (1997).

And if you want to take it as a further kind of final laugh for the radio original, be advised that nearly all 480 radio episodes can still be found and heard, and in the public domain, while the television version’s 635 episodes still exist–but only the first nine seasons are available for purchase on DVD.

Tonight: Matt (William Conrad) breaks up a small brawl involving an otherwise harmless old man kicked to the ground for no apparent reason—except that he crusades quietly from town to town against gun violence, even in self defence, ever since he saw the worst of the siege of Atlanta, and the becalmed marshal can’t convince him otherwise—which proves a serious problem in due course, when Dillon is forced to face a fight . . . and the elder gent has removed the marshal’s pistol.

Chester: Parley Baer. Kitty: Georgia Ellis. Doc: Howard McNear. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: George Fenneman. Music: Rex Khoury. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: Marian Clark.

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

Our Miss Brooks: Telegram for Mrs. Davis (CBS, 1949)—Connie’s (Eve Arden) absentminded but beloved landlady (Jane Morgan) already has a feeling of foreboding when the telegram arrives . . . from her uncle (Joseph Kearns), a longtime popular local Santa at Christmas, leaving Mrs. Davis—and just about everyone else in her orbit—reluctant to open it, and leaving Connie to try convincing someone else to open it. No, I have no idea why the series airs a Christmas-themed show in July, either, even allowing for a few such entries in Vic & Sade‘s far more absurdist canon. Connie: Eve Arden. Herbie: Jerry Hausner. Walter: Richard Crenna. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Additional cast: Peter Leeds. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.

 

Crime Drama

Let George Do It: Island in the Desert (Mutual—Don Lee, 1950)—An old friend lures Valentine (Bob Bailey) and Brooksie (Virginia Gregg) to Mexico, where they become involved in trying to find the killer of one of the country’s first known private investigators, whose specialty was investigating suspicious fires—and who kept his actual identity secret enough that he left his identification behind in the States. Tasco: John Dehner. Place: Sidney Miller. Al: Peter Leeds. Slim: Herbert Butterfield. Mackie: Anthony Ballard. The Dutchman: Larry Dobkin. Announcer: John Hiestand. Music: Eddie Dunstedter. Director: Don Clark. Writers: David Victor, Jackson Gillis.

 

Mystery/Thriller

Suspense: Murder by the Book (CBS, 1947)—Silent screen legend Gloria Swanson isn’t even close to silent tonight, in what could be considered a very distant pilot to future television hit Murder, She Wrote: she plays mystery writer Emily Carlisle, who’s asked to look into the death of her doctor—a request she accepts reluctantly because her stepdaughter was one of his staff—and who believes a woman who confessed to the crime isn’t the actual killer. One of three Suspense episodes broadcast from New York. Additional cast: Berry Kroeger, Joseph Kearns, Lurene Tuttle, June Havoc. Announcer: Truman Bradley. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Director: William Spier. Writer: Robert L. Richards.

 

Quiz/Game

Information, Please: Deems Taylor, Roland Young (NBC, 1942)—Music conductor/critic Taylor, a frequent enough radio guest of Fred Allen and other sophisticated comedians, and film star Young, join the panel once again. Host: Clifton Fadiman. Panel: John F. Kieran, Franklin P. Adams. Director: Dan Golenpaul. (Note: Surviving sound files of this broadcast mistakenly list the second guest panelist as composer/librettist/screenwriter H.I. Phillips, whose credits include Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 and Life Begins at 8:40, and who would write in due course for television’s Robert Montgomery Presents in the 1950s.)

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