Apr 24, 2021
“I was sitting in my office shooting paper clips at a King size horse fly. It was a little sadistic but he was bigger than I was. Well, about the time I had him down on his knees begging for mercy, the door opened…”
There’s nothing in Dick Powell’s early career to suggest he was destined to play hard-boiled private eyes. Had his bosses at Warner Brothers had their way, he’d have stayed in the song-and-dance roles on which he built his career. But thanks to a gamble by a director, Powell kicked off a new chapter to his career and the result were some great radio shows, including one of the medium’s best - Richard Diamond, Private Detective.
Powell got his start in Hollywood in the 30s as a singer in Warner Brothers musicals, including 42nd Street, and On the Avenue. He was frequently cast in the role of a boyish crooner, even as he approached his 40s. Despite his success, Powell was eager to expand into other roles. His efforts were resisted by Warner Brothers, who wanted to keep Powell right where he was, even if he thought it was the wrong place to be. He pursued the lead role in Double Indemnity, but it ultimately went to another actor pegged in “nice guy” roles - Fred MacMurray.
But later in 1944, RKO and director Edward Dmytryk gave Powell the role he’d been waiting for - Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, the film adaptation of the Marlowe novel Farewell, My Lovely. The film was a success, and Powell received rave reviews for his performance. In a flash, he had shed the crooner image he’d been desperate to shake and he embarked on the next stage of his career.
Powell recreated his role as Marlowe on the June 11, 1945 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of Murder, My Sweet, and he starred as private detective Richard Rogue in Rogue’s Gallery from 1945 to 1946. While it was a fine series, it failed to stand out from the crowd of hard-boiled private eyes littering the airwaves in the postwar years. For his next radio effort, Powell wanted to “make something a little bit different of a standard vehicle.” He recorded an audition show as “the man with the action packed expense account,” Johnny Dollar, but he passed on the series for a show that sprang from the mind of Blake Edwards. Edwards would later create the outstanding police procedural The Line-Up for radio, develop Peter Gunn for television, and would become a celebrated writer and director of film arguably most famous for the Pink Panther film series with Peter Sellers.
Powell and his producer, Don Sharp, asked Edwards if he had any ideas for a vehicle for Powell. Edwards said he did (a lie), and went home to write what would become the pilot for Richard Diamond, Private Detective. In Edwards’ original script, Diamond was a former OSS agent; he would evolve into an ex-cop. One trait he would retain as the script evolved was that Diamond was as quick with a quip as he was with his fists. This played to Powell’s natural comedic strengths, and it helped to give the show a unique voice in the sea of detective programs from the era. Unlike other radio shamuses, Diamond would keep up a friendly relationship with his old colleagues on the force - Lt. Walt Levinson, his former partner; and the oafish Sgt. Otis Ludlum, the long-suffering butt of Diamond’s jokes. Diamond flirted with every skirt that came through his office door, but he only had eyes for his Park Avenue girlfriend, Helen Asher. Shows would often close at her apartment, where Diamond would sum up his case and (in a nod to Powell’s old career) Helen might coax him to do a little singing.
Richard Diamond, Private Detective premiered on NBC on April 24, 1949. Powell was supported by Virginia Gregg as Helen; Ed Begley as Levinson; and Wilms Herbert doing double duty as Sgt. Otis and as Helen’s butler, Francis. Joseph Kearns, Peggy Webber, Bill Johnstone, Jack Kruschen, and other West Coast actors filled out the cast. Later in the show’s run, Frances Robinson would take over the role of Helen, and Ted de Corsia, Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), and Alan Reed (Fred Flinstone) would rotate in and out as Levinson.
The show ran without a sponsor for the first year before being picked up by the Rexall Drug Company (“Good health to all from Rexall!”) in June 1950. In January 1951, the show switched networks and picked up Camel cigarettes as its new sponsor. The show took its final bow on June 27, 1952 (although repeats popped up in the summer of 1953). Powell pulled the plug on the show as he entered a third phase of his career as a successful director and producer.
It was in this capacity that Powell brought Richard Diamond to television in 1957 for a four-season run starring David Janssen in the title role, minus the crooning of the radio series. Janssen would later star as Dr. Richard Kimble on The Fugitive. The Diamond TV show is perhaps best known today for its character of Diamond’s secretary, Sam, who was only shown from the waist down to show off her legs. The first actress to furnish Sam’s legs was a young Mary Tyler Moore.
In honor of his anniversary, here are ten of my favorite Richard Diamond radio adventures. Sit back and enjoy some sleuthing and singing with Dick Powell and company in these sensational stories.
"The Lillian Baker Case" - This one is a good showcase for Diamond's girlfriend Helen Asher, who gets to take a rare role in the case of the week. At a department store, Helen witnesses an elderly woman shoplifting. It turns out she's a wealthy eccentric, and later that afternoon she dies - allegedly after leaping from her balcony. (9/3/49)
"The Jerome J. Jerome Case" - Joseph Kearns plays the titular eccentric character - a man who claims to be a millionaire, a genius inventor, and a private detective. He wants to partner with Diamond, but as soon as the gumshoe tries to dismiss him it turns out the kook may have information about an actual murder. (9/17/49)
"The Louis Spence Case" - An unusual, but very exciting, episode finds Diamond racing against time to save his old friend Lt. Walt Levinson. A deranged bomber has escaped from prison, and he's taken the lieutenant hostage. Unless the mayor jumps to his death from city hall within the hour, the bomber will blow the precinct - and Walt - to kingdom come. (3/5/50)
"The Statue of Kali" - It's Richard Diamond's version of The Maltese Falcon (complete with Paul Frees doing his best Sydney Greenstreet). An ivory statue is delivered to Diamond by a dying man, and it's being hunted by nefarious characters from all around the world. (4/5/50)
"The Martha Campbell Kidnap Case" - Diamond is hired to deliver the ransom when a wealthy woman is kidnapped, but both he and the lady's nephew are knocked out, the ransom money is taken, and the kidnap victim is killed. Rick has to use some creativity and theatricality to figure out what happened. (7/26/50)
"The Oklahoma Cowboy Murder Case" - Diamond trades the bright lights of the big city for the clear skies of the plains in this episode that was later adapted as an episode of Peter Gunn. Rick heads west to investigate a suspicious death - a wealthy rancher who expired when he fell from his horse. (9/27/50)
"The Cover-Up Murders" - Rick and Walt partner again when a serial killer stalks the city. Part of his MO is to call the police and boast that he'll kill someone that night at eight o'clock. But what appears to be random madness may have a clear motive, and it's up to Diamond to stop the killings before more bodies drop. (11/22/50)
"Blue Serge Suit" - Jim Backus (later Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island) is Diamond's new client - a tailor whose supply of blue serge is raided and stolen by intruders. When Diamond's own suit is snatched, he's on the trail of a gang of spies. (2/9/51)
"Lady in Distress" - A beautiful woman hires Diamond, and then she drops dead in his office. With nothing to go on - he didn't even know her name - Rick takes the case and tries to learn what had her so scared and what led to her death. It's a story that was recycled quite a few times. Jeff Regan and Johnny Dollar both solved variations of this script, but the Richard Diamond version is my favorite. (2/23/51)
"The Red Rose" - In another story later reworked as a TV episode of Peter Gunn, Diamond is hired to keep a client alive. The man hired a hit man to do away with himself, but he's had a change of heart. Unfortunately, the hit man is a committed professional and he intends to finish the job. (3/2/51)