Old Time Radio

Man of a Thousand Voices when One was Enough: William Conrad

William Conrad in Gunsmoke

The movie hero generally fits a specific physical type. Not necessarily handsome in the classic sense, he has a manly, rugged appearance, tall, with a V-shaped torso, tapering from wide, solid shoulders to a narrow waistline. In classic films, he may not have the chiseled “six-pack abs” which are the trademark of modern leading men, but there is an undeniable masculine toughness about him. Fortunately, Hollywood has nearly as many of this type running around as it does pretty girls.

On the radio, the equivalent of broad shoulders and a narrow waist is a commanding basso profundo voice. Several actors were blessed with such a commanding voice, but few were able to use it to the degree William Conrad did, especially when we consider how far Conrad was physically from the leading man type.

William Conrad Hazel Brooks

William Conrad was born in Lexington, Kentucky, 1920, where his parents owned and operated a movie theater. Little Bill was babysat by the flickering light of the projector and growing up with the scent of popcorn in his nostrils there is little wonder that he dreamed of becoming one of the screen heroes who were a part of his daily life. It seemed that he might have his chance during high school when the family left Kentucky for Los Angeles. The youngster soon discovered that, as mentioned above, there were dozens if not hundreds of leading men types in town, all looking for their big break n the studio system.

One place that surprisingly few of them were looking was in local radio. In 1934, Detroit businessman George A “Dick” Richards paid $125,000 for a controlling interest in Los Angeles station KMPC, making it the third jewel in his “Good Will Broadcasting Company”, along with WGAR Cleveland and WJR in his native Detroit. Partially to raise capital but mostly as a marketing move, Richards sold minority shares in KMPC to Bing Crosby, Freeman Gosden and Charles Corell (Amos ‘n’ Andy), Paul Whiteman, and Harold Lloyd, and began advertising KMPC as “the Station of the Stars”. All-American tackle Bob Reynolds was retiring from the Detroit Lions (Richards owned the team) in 1938 and joined KMPC’s marketing department and soon became general manager.

Cast of “Hermit’s Cave”

Bill Conrad joined KMPC as part of the acting company for The Hermit’s Cave. The horror anthology was a rather direct rip-off of Mutual’s The Witch’s Tale, but it had been successful on WGAR and WJR, so Richards and Reynolds were happy to bring it to the L.A. market.  Conrad’s deep voice and willingness to experiment with microphone technique made him a welcome addition to the company. Other work at KMPC followed and soon he was producing The Hermit’s Cave.

When the War started, Conrad had earned enough of a showbiz background that he might have found a “behind the lines” job but he chose to join the Army Air Corps and train as a fighter pilot. Soon after he won his commission, however, he was diagnosed as suffering from night blindness and was transferred to AFRS as a producer-director. When he mustered out as a Captain, he was in a very good position to continue his radio career. He joined the acting company of The Man Called X and The Whistler along with numerous “Radio Row” gigs.

One of Conrad’s most recognizable parts was intoning the introduction to the CBS adventure anthology Escape: “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you… Escape!” In fact, the announcing duties for Escape were shared with Paul Frees, one week one of the deep, rich voices would announce while the other acted in the episode, and the next week they would trade places. In addition to a classic part, Escape also gave Conrad a chance to work with director/producer Norman MacDonnell and writer John Meston.

When CBS boss Bill Paley asked for ‘a Philip Marlowe set in the Old West’, MacDonnell and Meston came up with Gunsmoke. It was Meston who first advocated for the Escape announcer to breathe life into US Marshal Matt Dillon. Marshal Dillon would be a heroic yet tragic figure. He was determined to uphold the law in a generally lawless territory but saw first hand that the rule of law was not always a civilizing influence at the very edge of civilization. He was prepared to give his own life to preserve justice and it affected him deeply to see examples where even the force of law failed to bring justice to those who deserved it most. Dillon was no matinee hero who would win in every given situation, he enjoyed a beer at the end of a hard day and sometimes he needed something stronger to deal with his job. Miss Kitty was euphemistically described as someone the marshal “has to visit every once in a while”.

William Conrad and microphone

Although it aired when the Golden Age of Radio beginning to lose ground to TV, Gunsmoke was easily one of the greatest dramas commercial radio ever produced, thanks in no small part to the character created by William Conrad. However, adapting the program to television was inevitable, and while he was a great actor there was no way Conrad would be able to carry off the physical appearance the network expected for Matt Dillon at 5’7″ and tipping the scales more than 250 pounds, he was hardy the tall, broad-shouldered and narrow waist type envisioned as a leading man. The fact that his leading man could not play the part on TV may have been one of Norman MacDonnell’s biggest objections to “confining” Gunsmoke to the small screen, but the fact that James Arness was able to play the role for twenty seasons shows that his judgment may have been off.

Conrad seems more accepting of the fact that he would not be acting on TV’s Gunsmoke. He contributed scripts and directed episodes of the TV series and narrated a two-part story during the 1973 season. He managed to land a few roles which took advantage of his girth, including starring in Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992). His voice work continued on television, including commercials and narrating the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. In 1981, he starred as the famous Masked Man in the animated reboot The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger.

William Conrad suffered a fatal heart attack on February 11, 1994, in Los Angeles. He was posthumously inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997.

Gunsmoke Have Gun Will Travel John Dehner Old Time Radio Western William Conrad

“Have Gun, Will Travel” and “Gunsmoke”

Two very high quality Westerns from the Golden Age of Radio are Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel. Comparison of the programs should prove educational and entertaining.

And they are both very entertaining, but adult oriented programs. And both were, to a greater or lesser degree, products of both Radio and the junior medium, Television. Gunsmoke came to the radio in the spring of 1952, and from the start fans began asking when the show would come to TV. The TV version of the show began airing in the fall of 1955, and go on to have the highest number of scripted episodes of any US primetime series. Have Gun, Will Travel is unique in broadcasting because the series began on television during the 1957 fall season and came to radio on Nov 23, 1958.

In both cases the old time radio shows and the TV programs had a somewhat different “feel.” Part of this is due to different casts on radio and TV, but other differences may be due to differences in the medium.

The heroes on each program contrast. William Conrad’s “Matt Dillon” is the hardened product of a hard life, with a strong sense of justice and duty to the law he is sworn to uphold. He tries to keep the peace, but the listener won’t be surprised to hear him flatten a no-good with his fists. “Paladin,” first portrayed by Richard Boone on TV and later on the radio by John Dehner, is highly educated. In his back story we find that he was educated at West Point, and served as an officer in the Union Calvary. (Dehnermade several appearances on Gunsmoke, usually as a Bad Guy, but not as a recurring character.) Although he carries an impressive arsenal of weapons, it is his education that usually saves the day. Matt Dillon is a representative of the US Government, but Paladin charges highly for his services (however he usually winds up defending the “little guy.”)

Marshall Dillon is the lead character, but Gunsmoke is an ensemble story. Chester Proudfoot is the somewhat slow-witted but likable Deputy. Doc Adams is the grumpy town doctor; somewhat mercenary ion early episodes, he becomes more warm-hearted as the seasons pass. Kitty Russell is a saloon girl who may or may not be a love interest for the Marshal; she does provide a feminine perspective on Dodge City.

The only recurring characters besides Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel are “Hey-Boy”, the Chinese bell-hop at Paladin’s Carlton Hotel headquarters, and his girlfriend Miss Wong. The Chinese bookend each Radio Episode, helping to define the setting in San Francisco, and also function as a Greek Chorus, commenting on Paladin and the situations he encounters.

Gunsmoke has been praised for its “realistic” treatment of the Old West. Have Gun, Will Travel is more fantastical, Paladin sometimes called a Western James Bond for his sophistication. Dehner’s “Paladin” is both more refined and more formidable than Boone’s TV “Paladin”. William Conrad‘s “Matt Dillon” is much closer to the Radio Noir/Philip Marlow roots of the program; James Arness comes closer to the mid-50’s matinee ideal for a western hero. Most of the women that Paladin encounters fall into the “damsel in distress” role (unless they turn out to be a female Bad Guy, and even then they usually start out appearing as Damsel in Distress). Miss Kitty on Radio’s Gunsmoke works in a saloon, drinking with and “entertaining” customers. On TV she is the good hearted owner of the Long Branch Saloon.

One last Radio/TV difference: there were only 106 weekly episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel on the radio; the TV program lasted until 1963. However on the closing Radio Episode, Nov 22, 1960, we receive the resolution of Paladin’s character. We find out that he retires in the East to manage the large estate he has inherited.