The Skinny on The Fat Man

Fans of Old Time Radio are used to creating a portrait of character just from their voice. The announcer who tells us “There he goes into that drugstore. He’s stepping on the scales…” is a slender but not underweight dandy. The voice of the scales reads the card: “Weight, 239 pounds, Fortune, Danger!”

Even before the intro tells us, we know we are listening to The Fat Man. However, if we tuned in late, we still know just who we are listening to when we hear the the thick, rich, almost syrupy voice of J. Scott Smart flowing luxuriantly from the speaker.

The Fat Man was built on the success of The Thin Man, itself ironic since the Thin Man we heard on the radio was not the Thin Man in the title. Nick and Nora Charles were not so much a husband and wife detective team as they were a hustler with a heart of gold doing his best to drink his wife’s fortune away (the Thin Man in the original story was a former client of Nick’s and the focus of the mystery). The characters were created by “the dean of hard-boiled detective fiction” Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man was Hammett’s last novel, and it would provide him with a surprisingly steady income. Not only were the book and the movie it inspired successful, the film spun off into six sequels and a popular radio series, and Hammett continued to collect royalties on them.

Since nothing succeeds like success, Hammett was encouraged to create a Fat Man to go with The Thin Man. The new character, Brad Runyon, was designed to be everything that Nick Charles was not. Nick took advantage of his position as Nora’s husband to hold the rest of the world in disdain, while Runyon was a consummate professional for whom the welfare of his clients was foremost. Runyon was based on the anonymous character who narrated Hammett’s early stories, the Continental Op, but The Fat Man would be “fleshed out” by the actor who played him, J.Scott Smart.

A native of Philadelphia, John Kenley Tener Smart found his way to the stage via the orchestra pit. Born in 1902, Smart found an aptitude for music after the family moved to Buffalo, New York. Jack, as he was known, graduated from Lafayette High School in 1922, and was a classmate of Fran Striker, who would gain radio fame as the creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Smart began finding jobs with local stage bands but it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to realize that the actors on the stage were having more fun, getting more recognition, and being paid better than the musicians in the pit. He apprenticed with the McGarry Majestic Players, a stock company, and toured the eastern seaboard as a journeyman actor before settling in New York.

The New York Stage was in for hard times after the Stock Market Crash, but fortunately for Smart, radio was just beginning to take off. He found small roles on NBC’s dramatic staff until moving to CBS as Joe on Mr and Mrs, a show about spouses who had tired of each other that became the forerunner of The Bickersons, The Naggers and TV’s The Honeymooners and Married With Children. After Mr and Mrs‘s two season run, Smart stayed with CBS and eventually became a regular player on The March of Time impersonating a number of real people as the show dramatized current events. His versatility won him the nickname “The Lon Chaney of Radio”, a moniker that would not be lost on his next boss, Fred Allen.

Fred wasn’t sure what to make of radio in 1932, but he could see that the format his fellow vaudevillians were using could not last. Vaudeville used a visual and aural connection with the audience, but Fred instinctively knew that radio audiences couldn’t see what he was up to. He needed voice talents to sell his stories. He needed the Lon Chaney of Radio!

Jack worked with Fred Allen’s company of players on The Linit Bath Club, The Best Foods Salad Bowl Review and The Sal Hepatica Review. He played everything from pimply faced kids to blow-hard politicians to sissyfied artists to Samson Souse, Allen’s Alley’s resident tippler. In 1944, Jack left radio to take a role in the stage play “A Bell for Adano” which enjoyed a successful run in New York and Washington D.C. After the show closed, he auditioned for a new detective show on ABC, The Fat Man.

Any casting director would have tapped Smart for the role based on his looks alone, but it was his voice and expression that really won him the part. Although the character was based on Hammett’s creation and fleshed out by series writer Richard Ellington and producer Mannie Rosenberg, It was Smart who breathed life into the character. He often quipped that “it takes a fat man to sound like a fat man” (Runyon weighed between 235 and 244, depending on which episode you listened to, while Smart tipped the scales at 270 on a 5’9” frame).

Smart took an active role in creating the scripts, and had a clause inserted into his contract that he would receive a copy of the script two weeks before broadcast so that he could make changes he felt were necessary. He became the show’s “continuity man”, ensuring that the business of an episode would not contradict something that the audience would have learned about the characters in a previous episode. One touch that outsiders would not have known was Smart’s delight in changing character names for people he knew in his personal life. A friend in Ogunquit, Maine, tuned in one night to discover that he and his fishing boat had been lost at sea!

The popularity of the series was not lost on Hollywood, and a movie based on The Fat Man seemed like a natural. As it turned out, the 1951 film was used as a vehicle for Universal’s new star, Rock Hudson, and featured famous Barnum and Bailey clown Emmett Kelly but Smart was still the standout player. One of the picture’s running gags involved Runyon driving around town in a rented MG. 270 pound Smart disengaging himself from the tiny British roadster was not to be missed!

It seemed inevitable that The Fat Man‘s success would continue on the strength of the film and four seasons on radio. However, even though he had little to do with the series after creating the character, when Dashiell Hammett was named in the Red Channel’s Scandal and refused to “name names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, sponsors began dropping show’s related to him. (NBC TV did bring The Thin Man to the small screen on Friday nights from 1957-59).

J. Scott Smart did some more acting after The Fat Man, but for the most part he had retired from show business to a fisherman’s shack in Ogunquit, Maine, where he worked at painting and sculpting. He died of pancreatic cancer in January, 1960.

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