Wally Maher in Old Time Radio

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It could be every mother’s nightmare. Her darling boy leaves home, meets with early success, and then moves out West to Hollywood where he is killed.

In Wally Maher‘s case, getting killed may not have been the most appealing thing he could have done, but it kept him working in pictures! During his career, he was chewed on by alligators, gassed, electrocuted, attacked by vampires and shot. It wasn’t always like that for Wally, he said that he had never played a bad guy until he moved to California, in fact, his specialty had been a light comedy. He joked that he had been killed more times than any other actor working in radio. In the 127 pictures he made, he had a light comedy role in perhaps half a dozen, in the rest he was the heavy.

On the radio, he was Everyman, and Everyman was a busy man! Producers look for definite “types” when they are casting a leading role, even more so when they are looking for someone to fill a character/sidekick role. But what about all those voices that fill the background of the story? The hotel clerk, the cop on the corner, the gas station attendant, the waiter who brings the leading man and his sidekick their soup, all of these are real people who are needed to move the story along. You don’t want them to stand out too much, but they have to be believable in what they are doing or the whole broadcast suffers.

As an Indiana native, Wally Maher was about as Midwestern as could be. Born in 1908, he got his start as a baggage clerk for the Southern Pacific. This may not seem like acting training, but it exposed Wally to people and dialects from all over the place. He was also good at mimicking what he heard, a useful talent that helped him land a job on the dramatic staff at WLW Cincinnati, “The Nation’s Station”. Sensing that he was capable of bigger things, he moved to New York and established himself as a reliable character actor. In 1935, he moved to Hollywood to get into pictures.

The  heavyweights of network radio were making the move to the West Coast about the same time Maher did. On June 1, 1936, The Lux Radio Theater made its first broadcast from Hollywood, and Wally Maher was there. As he was the next week, and the next. Maher would be in Lux’s acting company for at least 43 episodes.

With a history of respiratory problems, Maher was listed 4F and watched while so many of his contemporaries shipped out. Undoubtedly, Wally would have found work on his own merit, but with the shortage of talent his 4F status put him in high demand. In addition to playing “Everyman”, shows like Cavalcade of America began to press him into service as sailors, airmen, soldiers, doctors, engineers, War correspondents, merchant seamen and factory workers.

Maher’s versatility helped him to become a regular player on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”. He starred in one of Suspense‘s most frightening episodes, “Dead Ernest”, a tale about a man who suffers from catalepsy, a condition where the patient goes into a fit making him appear to be dead. The story follows Ernest into the hospital, the morgue, right to the embalmer’s table.

Given the huge variety of roles he played, Maher is best remembered on radio for his portrayal of Michael Shayne, Private Detective. On the surface, Shayne was just another of the dozens of hard-boiled private eyes filling the airwaves, but Maher put his own touch on the role. Shayne had a more relaxed style, seeing the humor in situations without degrading into sarcasm or self-parody. Wally played Shayne from 1945 until 1947, when his health forced a hiatus. Jeff Chandler took over the role when Maher was forced to step down.

Wally was not out of the game for long, returning in 1948 as police lieutenant Riley, doing his best to keep George Valentine in line in Let George Do It. He filled a similar role opposite Dick Powell in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and had a more legitimate law enforcement role on This is Your FBI.

Maher’s most impressive police role was as Sgt Matt Greb in The Lineup, opposite Bill Johnstone as Lt Ben Guthrie. Wally’s health was failing quickly at this point, however. He had a lung removed just before the program began the 1950 season in the hope of clearing some of his respiratory issues. He managed to soldier through, but Raymond Burr had to take over the role on a number of occasions. Wally Maher died on December 27, 1951, at the age of 43.

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