I had the great idea of doing a series of articles, ranking the top five radio detectives by Network (i.e. ABC, NBC, CBS, Mutual, and the syndicated shows.)
There was only one problem with the plan. Many radio programs didn’t just stay on one network. In some cases radio actors regularly jumped from network-to-network.
If actor’s change, it’s easy to differentiate between (for example) the 1947 NBC Summer replacement series, “The Adventures of Philip Marlowe” with Van Heflin and the 1948-50 and 1951 CBS Series, “The Adventures of Philip Marlowe” with Gerald Mohr. However, the problem was that several shows jumped networks with the exact same actors, and many of the shows where the star and show changed networks are among the absolute favorites that I’m sure to be asked about.
Thus our first top 5 list will look at Detective Series that played across multiple networks. In addition, I ran a poll on our Facebook page to see who listeners to the program thought was the best. 75 people took part in the survey. The fan results including the percentage of the vote that went for each Detective follow my thoughts on the series:
5) Herbert Marshall as Ken Thurston in, “The Man Called X”
Series Run: 1944-48, 1950-52
Networks: CBS (Summer 1944, 1947-48), The Blue Network (1944-45), NBC (Summer 1946, Summer 1947, 1950-52)
Marshall starred in this iconic role, as an international troubleshooter who faces danger, mystery, and adventures the world over. The British-born Marshall's debonair performance gave the show class and style.
Unlike Dangerous Assignment, The Man Called X dealt more directly with America's actual enemies. This gave Ken Thurston's adventures the highest stakes in radio. While other mystery series were worrying about a plot to steal a $10,000 diamond necklace, Thurston was trying to stop someone from blowing up NATO.
The Man Called X came to television in a 1957 ZIV TV series with Barry Sullivan in the lead. The title also inspired the creators of the feature length Flintstones film, The Man Called Flintstones.
Fan Results: 3%
Fan Comments: Amanda who actually voted for the Saint shared, “I like a Man Called X, too. I suspect it's not getting a lot of votes because not many people have heard of it..”
My response: This is true enough. Many of the spy dramas from the Cold War are considered “dated.” In addition, there were some poorly produced espionage shows, particularly those that appeared on television that gave some of the truly good programs a bad name. Hopefully, we’ll get to share some of the good ones in coming years.
4) The Saint with Vincent Price
Series Run: 1947-51
Networks: CBS (1947-48), Mutual (1949-50), NBC (1950-51)
Vincent Price played many villains in his career, most famously horror movies and on the 1960s Batman TV series as Egghead. He also did several roles in inspirational television shows and movies.
The Saint presented Price in a different role: that of detective hero. Price was not the first actor to play the Saint over the radio (there had been two 13-episode series aired in 1945 starring Edgar Barrier and Brian Aherne respectively). However, Price made the role of the Saint his own. While, the Saint was hardly a hard boiled private eye, the Saint's quick wit and smart mouth were the equal of any detective on the radio.
Price's style was a perfect mix of witty banter, charm, intelligence and toughness that makes each episode of the Saint with Vincent Price a pleasure to listen to.
During the Summer of 1951, Tom Conway took over the role until the series ended in the Fall. In the 1960s, future James Bond Roger Moore brought the Saint to British TV. In more recent years, a movie with Val Kilmer and a BBC radio adaptation have been made
Fan Vote: 5%
3) Howard Duff as Sam Spade
Series Run: 1946-50
Networks: ABC (1946), CBS (1946-49), NBC (1949-50)
Duff's Spade is one of radio's most memorable characters. Spade was tough, sarcastic, a ladies man, and definitely not a boy scout.
Stories were often tongue in cheek with plenty of humor throughout, as Spade would even occasionally mix in a reference to another detective, most notably the San Francisco-based Pat Novak and Johnny Madero. The highlight of each show was when he explained the case to his neurotic secretary Effie (played to perfection by Lurene Tuttle in her most memorable role.)
Two months after Duff’s last episode, Spade was brought back with Steve Dunne in the lead. The series folded after 24 episodes.
Fan Vote: 15%
Fan Comments: Dorothy who voted for Sam said, “It's really a tie between Sam Spade and Richard Diamond for me but Spade's taken my heart.” Score one for Howard Duff.
2) Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
Series Run: 1939-42, 1943-46
Networks: Blue Network (1939-42), Mutual (1943-46)
By far, Rathbone did more radio work as Holmes than any other actor: 217 episodes spread out over six seasons. The Rathbone-Bruce episodes are so sought after as the duo were Hollywood's definitive Holmes and Watson, partially as a result of the radio programs. Without the radio programs, it's doubtful that Universal would have revived the pairing.
The series featured the personal chemistry between Rathbone and Bruce which had made the series such a winner on screen. The series included fine writing by Edith Meiser and later the Dennis Green and Anthony Boucher. The Green and Boucher episodes were noted for serious research and educational value, whether it was Guy Fawkes or the Blarney Stone, you’d most often learn something along the way. The episodes often included moments of culture with more than an average share of violins and beautiful singing voices popping up. In addition, they also worked into the plot scenes where Rathbone would be able to show his incredible talent for dialect or read from a famous play.
During the three seasons on the Blue Network, 74 episodes were done. Over Mutual, the production pace was more frentic, with the show broadcast 107 weeks in a row before taking a Summer break before coming back for a 39 episode season. Despite continuing sponsor interest and chance to continue pull in lots of money, Rathbone had had enough and went back to Broadway.
Of course, Sherlock Holmes went on, but most actors since then have been stuck in Bruce’s shadow. In particular, the next two actors to take the role tried to follow Rathbone’s lead and sound like him to an extent. After all, that was what Sherlock Holmes was supposed to sound like.
Fan Vote: 56%
Fan Comments: While the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes show won by a landslide, not everyone is a fan. Dorothy, who voted for Spade, complained of the disrespect for Dr. Watson, “I know they had their reasons for doing that but really, it lessens the impact of Holme's brilliance to be placed next to an albeit lovable but blustering fool.”
1) Dick Powell as Richard Diamond
Series Run: 1949-52, 1953 (Reruns)
Networks: NBC (1949-50) ABC (1951-52), CBS (1953 Reruns)
Up until 1949, Dick Powell could be divided into periods. Prior to his 1944 break-out performance as Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet, Powell had played in romantic comedies, often of the musical variety, as the light-leading man. After Murder My Sweet, Powell played a series of hard-boiled Noirish Characters in films such as Johnny O’Clock. Now, if only these two halves could be combined…
And they were in Richard Diamond. The first half of the show, Diamond would be on the trail of desperate figures, there would be gun play, violence, and then lots of hardboiled smarting off. Then, after the bodies were carried away, he’d steal a few moments with his girl and sing her a song.
Houston, we have synergy.
It’s a fun show, with a great mix of action, comedy, and romance, the direction and writing talents of a young Blake Edwards, and the charisma of Dick Powell at the center of it all.
Richard Diamond ended as Powell focused more on television. In 1957, Richard Diamond came to television with David Janssen in the lead as Powell thought it was time for someone new. The series ran until 1960. Also, series creator Blake Edwards adapted an episode of Richard Diamond for his Peter Gunn series, “Let’s Kill Timothy.”
Fan vote: 21%
Honorable Mentions: Dick Powell in Rogue’s Gallery, Alice Curtain and Joseph Frost in Mr. and Mrs. North, and Claudia Morgan in The Thin Man.
Next week: ABC shows. Become a friend on Facebook to participate in this week’s poll at http://www.facebook.com/radiodetectives
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Johnny investigates a theft from a bank with all evidence pointing to a trusted young bank employee.
Reherasal of program that aired May 26, 1951
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Holmes is hired to guard a car from sabotage before an endurance race.
Original Air Date: February 24, 1947
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In response to the plea of waitress, George tries to help a young man suspected of murdering a truck driver, who has a big problem with the truth.
Original Air Date: November 28, 1949
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A strange old man delivers Archie and Wolfe a letter requesting immediate help. Archie heads to the home, only to be told that no detective is needed.
Original Air Date: March 30, 1951
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While touring a steel plant, Pat and Jean see a worker fall to his death into a caldron, and that's just the first body to fall.
Original Air Date: May 22, 1955
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Many old time radio shows made their way to television. In the 21st Century, are we ready for one more?
Broadway's My Beat was one of the finest radio detective dramas and an underrated one at that. It aired from 1949-53, and again in the Summer of 1954. It was written by Mort Fine and David Friedkin. Friedkin and Fine went on to produce the 1960s TV hit, I Spy. Broadway's My Beat has remained little more than a forgotten gem in radio history.
Fast forward to 2010 and Gregory Friedkin (David's son) produced a pilot for a television adaptation of, Broadway's My Beat with the series transported from New York to Los Angeles, with references to "Broadway" rewritten as references to "The Boulevard," which is also the title of the new series, set in 1953. The episode was posted online, so I got a chance to take a peak.
The pilot episode that's been released has a very noirish feel to it as Danny Clover (played by Jon Jacobs) searches for the kidnapped wife of a bank teller before the case becomes a murder investigation.
The music helps to establish a fittingly haunting mood for the story and they manage to make most of the scenes look old enough to be in the 1950s. Jon Jacobs was far older than I imagined Clover to be. Larry Thor, who voiced Clover on the radio was 33-38 during the show's run. Jacobs appears to be in his 50s.
Jacobs, does however do a solid performance as Clover. His voice is perfect for the part. If anything, his age tends to add a bit of credibility to the world-weariness of Clover.
If the pilot has a weakness, it was the performance of some of the supporting actors. Michael Wayne James was too hammy in the role of the missing woman's husband. Give Friedkin and Jacobs a good cast and I think this could be a solid program.
Of course, whether it will make it remains an open question. If the writers keep to adapting Broadway's my Beat episodes, it will most likely end up a half hour TV-PG rated period cop show. They don't make them like that anymore. Still, over the years I've learned is that there's a demand for this type of program.
Of course, Friedkin may want to write new Danny Clover cases that could be stretched to an hour. It could be done with actual Broadway is My Beat episodes being mixed with originals. It could definitely work.
Whether Friedkin can a right network and get them to realize the potential for this show t is an open question. Either way, I wish him well.
Many people, while enjoying old time radio, would like to hear new radio dramas produced. However, the U.S. has very few producers of new radio dramas. One of them is the Colonial Radio Theatre. The Colonial Radio Theatre in Boston has been producing new radio dramas for the past sixteen years. Recently, they’ve begun to make some of their material available through Audible, giving me an opportunity to, for the first time, sample their wares. I chose their Father Brown Mysteries Volume 1 download from Audible.
Father Brown is a challenging character to adapt for two reasons. First of all, Chesterton didn’t really write the stories to be dramatized, they were intended more as puzzles than as plays. Thus the stories often require a little bit of tweaking to even fit be suitable drama. Then, there’s a temptation to change the Father Brown character to make him more in line with current social trends, an irritating thing the BBC did with many of the episodes in its 1970s adaptation.
What the Colonial Radio Theatre managed to do in this set was to produce sold radio dramas that were faithful to Chesterton’s vision. Colonial Radio Theatre has recorded sixteen episodes, of which their first set contained four. They were:
The Blue Cross: Perhaps, one of my favorite mystery stories of all time. A French detective is on the trail of an International Thief named Flambeau. He figures out that Flambeau is attempting to steal a priceless relic from a seemingly comical priest. The story then takes several turns on the way to a conclusion that was probably quite startling for the original readers. On this one, I couldn’t help but feel the Colonial Theater drug out the ending too much and took away some of its punch. However, their ending helped me appreciate the connection between this story and the next one.
The Secret Garden: Father Brown is in the background at a dinner party, but that all changes when a headless corpse is found. This one is a very solid detective story as Chesterton wrote it, and I think the adaptation was nearly flawless. The mystery is slow starting, but is truly a mind-bender heading towards it conclusion. Keeping up with Brown and the Detective, Valentin as the identity of the murderer, and even the identity of the corpse becomes a question.
The Queer Feet: This story features another audacious crime by a master criminal and Father Brown is on the case before the crime is even discovered. This story includes a little bit social commentary by Chesterton, which the adaptors handled pretty well. This particular story gives you an idea of why William Link reportedly drew from Father Brown in creating a detective that occasionally irritates others, Lieutenant Columbo.
The Arrow of Heaven: This one was a very fine murder mystery. A millionaire is found with an arrow through his heart standing by window where no one possibly could have fired the arrow without a lot of help. This was perhaps the most entertaining adaptation on the set. Though, I admit, it may have been that unlike the other three, I hadn’t read this one before. There is plenty of wild speculations that Father Brown plays with, leading up to a solution that will have the reader slapping his head and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
One thing the Colonial Radio Theatre did change, actually covered a mistake by Chesterton in writing the original story. Chesterton took a long break from writing Father Brown and when he wrote this story, he stated that Father Brown hadn’t been to America before, apparently forgetting that a short story appearing in the Wisdom of Father Brown, “The Mistake in the Machine.” The CRT was aware of the other short story and so they had Father Brown state instead that he’d only been to America as a prison chaplain.
Even knowing of Chesterton’s mistake shows the understanding and respect they have for the source material. The first set of the Father Brown Mysteries are faithful, fun, and well-done adaptations of a classic. Not only am I excited about the Colonial Radio Theater’s next Father Brown set due out in August, but I can hardly wait to listen to the Zorro and Perry Mason sets I’ve recently purchased.
The Colonial Radio Theatre of the Air offers first run programming over Sirius-XM on the Book Radio Channel. Details are available on its website.
This post contains affiliate links, which means that items purchased from these links may result in a commission being paid to the author of this post at no extra cost to the purchaser.
An insured sends Johnny to find some missing jewelry, claiming to know who did it. Johnny finds the woman but she has a different explanation.
Original Air Date: May 5, 1951
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Holmes and Watson head to Edinburgh to investigate a report of haunted tenements involving the devil and a bagpiper.
Original Air Date: February 17, 1947
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