Sam Spade on the Radio

You’ve heard the boast: America is the country that invented rock and roll; America invented jazz, the car, the Big Mac, baseball.  It seems fair enough to add Sam Spade, and indeed, hard-boiled detectives to the list.  That is, there’s something quintessentially American about the droll jokes, the world-weary attitude, the careful selection of haberdashery.  The irascible man in the trench coat who didn’t like his boss and despised authority but was ultimately on the right team and knew a bad guy when he saw one.  Perhaps all of this reflected the increasingly complex and frightening realities in a country that was increasingly industrialized, spread out, and urban. Americans had lost some innocence in World War I, and perhaps longed for heroes who could give them an unvarnished version of what they saw around them. 

You probably know that Sam Spade was the product of the imagination of legendary author Dashiell Hammett.  S-squared set up office in San Francisco in the 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon, which of course was brought to the silver screen with Humphrey Bogart starring.

Sam first came to life on the radio in the form of adaptations of Falcon, with examples being the Lux Radio Theater adaptation from February of ’43 and that of Academy Award Theater in 1946 (with the latter starring Bogey himself)

But his main incarnation was on the relatively long-running series The Adventures of Sam Spade, masterminded by entrenched producer William Spier. 

There isn’t a major radio network that didn’t carry the show at one time or another: for ABC it was  Jul-Oct, 1946; CBS, Sept. ’46-Sept. ’49; NBC, Oct. ’49-Apr. ’51.  

Spier, the show’s creator and producer, had risen quickly through the CBS ranks to become the head of program development.  In that capacity, he produced the acclaimed series Suspense.  Moving to ABC, he developed for the airwaves The Adventures of Sam Spade.

William Spier

To play the title character, Spier brought in Howard Duff, a newcomer, freshly returned from service in the Air Force’s radio services.  Duff had just a bit of theatre experience but was already developing something a tough-guy persona, which he filtered through a bit of sarcasm, helping to achieve a less serious approach than Falcon and other radio series focusing on detectives.  

Lurene Tuttle was tapped for the all-important role of Sam’s secretary Effie Perrine, who took down Sam’s observations, which served as major support beams for each narrative. Unlike Duff, Tuttle was far from being a newcomer to the silver airwaves.  She was quite the opposite, an overworked character actress who also appeared on The Great Gildersleeve and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  She would at some point in her career work on as many as fifteen shows concurrently, and would eventually be known as “The First Lady of Radio,” though she happened not to be radio’s only “first” lady, and probably not its last.

But while something in the free-wheeling nature of Spade suggests a frontier mentality native to America, the show’s fate would be affected by a part of this nation’s history of which not many are proud.  The Communist hunt of the 1950’s had wide-ranging effects, and this program was not immune. First, Hammett, whose name was originally announced at the beginning of each episode, was swept into the dragnet of those seeking anti-American behavior.  An anti-fascist from way back, Hammett was also a member of the Communist party. This brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the major arm of McCarthy’s witch hunt. Just like we imagine Spade woulda, Hammett stood his ground and refused to implicate some of his cohorts, and this earned him some jail time for a contempt charge.

NBC, to no one’s surprise, had no interest in taking a political stand, and it dropped Hammett’s name from the show early in the writer’s persecution. 

With, Duff, however, things weren’t so easy for the show’s producers.  Duff was also far Left, and when he was outed as a sympathizer of the Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and producers who refused to testify before HUAC, he lost his job as Sam Spade.  He was entered onto some blacklists, though he did manage to continue acting in film.

Steven Dunne took over in 1950.  Dunne was a blossoming talent, a just-known commodity, having played roles in the films Doll Face, Colonel Effigham’s Raid, and The Big Sombrero.  He would go on to star in Professional Father and would appear in two of the late episodes of The Brady Bunch. Noted radio historian John Dunning referred to Dunne as “a boy-ish sounding Spade,” and it’s hard to find a source that gives rave reviews to the actor’s performance as the iconic detective.

The show’s last episode was “The Hail and Farewell Caper,” aired April 27, 1951.  Sam Spade is, of course, an enduring element of Americana, an exemplar of the hard-boiled detective.  The program goes down as one of the best-made detective shows, a cohesive package of acting, sound effects, production, writing and directing.

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.