Sep 27, 2017
Even if you don’t know his name, chances are you know William Conrad’s voice. You may know it from the jovial narrations of the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle or the somber voice-over that followed Richard Kimble, The Fugitive. Maybe you’ll recall his heavyset but still hard-nosed private eye Frank Cannon or the rascally courtroom antics of J.L. “Fatman” McCabe. Or you may remember him as Matt Dillon, “the first man they look for and the last they want to meet,” on the old time radio classic Gunsmoke. Audiences had ample opportunities to meet the actor in his five decades in show business, and it all began when he was born September 27, 1920.
Conrad was born John William Cann, Jr. in Lexington, Kentucky, and he began a career in radio as an announcer and writer for a Los Angeles station before he entered the Air Force in World War II. Like other radio professionals who were enlisted men, he worked with the Armed Forces Radio Service. After the war, Conrad was in demand as a supporting radio player. He could be heard in a variety of roles, with a seemingly endless variety of accents and characterizations, on shows like Escape, Suspense, The Man Called X, and The Adventures of Sam Spade. Some believed he was heard a little too often, and perceived overexposure almost cost Conrad a shot at what would prove to be his biggest radio role.
Producer-director Norman Macdonnell had been tasked by CBS President William Paley to develop a series that would be a “Philip Marlowe of the Old West." Paley was a big fan of Macdonnell’s The Adventures of Philip Marlowe starring Gerald Mohr, and wanted a show with a similar feel. (Coincidentally, Bill Conrad filled in for Gerald Mohr and played Marlowe in "The Anniversary Gift," the April 11, 1950 episode of the series. You can hear it in Episode 43 of the podcast.) Up until that point, radio westerns were primarily kids’ stuff. The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, and others rode the range in what amounted to little more than B-movie entertainment (no knock against those shows; it is thrilling to hear the Ranger and Tonto chase down bandits, but compelling drama it is not). Just as Jack Webb brought grit and realism to the police drama with Dragnet, Macdonnell and scriptwriter John Meston saw an opportunity to revitalize the western. When it came time to cast their lead of Matt Dillon, the US Marshal who tried to keep the peace in the "suburb of hell” known as Dodge City, Kansas - Meston pushed hard for William Conrad. CBS had other ideas.
Conrad recalled years later, “I think when they started casting for it, somebody said, ‘Good Christ, let’s not get Bill Conrad, we’re up to you-know-where with Bill Conrad.' So they auditioned everybody, and as a last resort they called me. And I went in and read about two lines…and the next day they called me and said, 'Okay, you have the job.’”
Gunsmoke premiered on April 26, 1952, with a powerful script involving Matt Dillon facing down a lynch mob. The episode (listen to it here) erases any doubts as to whether William Conrad was the right choice for the role. Backing him up every week was one of radio’s strongest regular casts. Parley Baer was Dillon’s easygoing deputy Chester Proudfoot; Howard McNear was the wry Doc Addams; and Georgia Ellis was Kitty, the saloon owner (and, although it was never explicitly said on the show, prostitute) and Matt’s love interest. Rounding out the supporting company every week was a repertory company of actors assembled by Macdonnell, including John Dehner, Larry Dobkin, and Harry Bartell.
There were attempts to bring Gunsmoke to TV as early as 1953, and by 1955 CBS was ready to move ahead. Conrad, Baer, Ellis, and McNear were given token auditions, but none were seriously considered to reprise their roles on the small screen. Conrad never had a shot due to his growing obesity; the network believed viewers wouldn’t believe the short, heavy actor as the rugged hero, even though he effortlessly sold the role on radio. Losing the role to James Arness left Conrad embittered. He’d continue to work in radio until the end of network radio drama in 1962, and he went on to a career off-camera in television. Conrad directed episodes of Have Gun - Will Travel, 77 Sunset Strip, and even the TV version of Gunsmoke. He narrated the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and the exploits of Richard Kimble on The Fugitive (it’s from his prologue to that series that we get our podcast title this week - “Fate moves its huge hand.”)
A starring role on the small screen came at last in 1971 when Conrad starred as the titular character in Quinn Martin’s Cannon. It was the glorious era of "gimmick" TV detectives - Longsteet was blind, Barnaby Jones was old, Kojak was bald, and Frank Cannon was...portly. But Conrad's performance elevated the series above the "fat detective" concept. The private eye drama ran for five seasons and earned Conrad two Emmy Award nominations. Conrad gave TV one of its most memorable detectives, and Cannon’s adventures continue to air today in syndication.
There was an attempt to revive Cannon with a 1980 TV movie, and the following year Conrad played Nero Wolfe in a short-lived series on NBC. Conrad was a tremendous fan of the character, and you can tell he's having a ball opposite Lee Horsley's Archie Goodwin. Unfortunately, the series only aired for 13 episodes before it was cancelled. Following a well-received turn as a D.A. opposite Andy Griffith on Matlock, Conrad returned to the small screen in a starring role in 1987 with Jake and the Fatman. Conrad played J.L. “Fatman” McCabe, a Los Angeles prosecutor who relied on investigator Jake Stiles (Joe Penny) to do his legwork (shades of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin again). The show ran until 1992.
Conrad passed away February 11, 1994 at the age of 73. In 1997, he was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. With thousands of performances across dozens of shows, Conrad’s voice will live forever, wherever Rocky and Bullwinkle get into misadventures or whenever Matt Dillon is forced to draw his gun to keep the peace.