Apr 24, 2017
“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…” (Richard Diamond, Private Detective)
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.