I began my examination of the top ten American radio detective performances in parts one and two, now we get to the big three.
3) Gerald Mohr as Philip Marlowe (1948-51):
That opening. It’s impossible to talk about the Adventures of Philip Marlowe’s performance without talking about one of the best openings in old time radio when Mohr comes on the air as Marlow and proclaims:
“Get this and get it straight. Crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end, but they never learn.
It’d be tweaked throughout the series run, but it’s simply the best introduction to any golden age detective program. Mohr’s delivery conveys a mix of danger, excitement, and world-weariness. Even better were the teasers for the adventure Marlowe delivered in the earlier episodes of the series:
“This time it started as a routine search for a rich girl’s fiancé and the trail led to a silent house haunted by a face at the window and blood in an open cedar chest. But before it was over, it became a search for a corpse that wouldn’t sit still.”
You feel like you’re about to experience a true hard-boiled detective tale. It sets the tone perfectly.
Mohr’s performance goes beyond a superb opening. He’s superb from start to finish in every episode. Mohr portrays a Marlowe who could be as tough as nails with a touch of biting cynicism, but at other times he could show great kindness, a sense of humor, and also a philosophical side.
To be sure, Mohr benefited from some of the best writing and direction in the golden age of radio, but his performance took great material and made it excellent.
2) Phil Harper as Harry Nile (1976-78, 1991-2004)
The title of this list intentionally didn’t tie making this list to having appeared radio’s golden age. Of course, there haven’t been many contenders for this list since the end of the Golden Age. But then there’s a detective called Harry Nile and the actor who first portrayed him, Phil Harper.
Harry Nile originated as a part of the anthology series Crisis. He was a Chicago private detective in early 1940 with deep gambling debts, forced to go west to commit a murder. Harry was no fan of the idea and didn’t end up going through with it and instead drifted around until he settled in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to Seattle. Nile was assisted by Murphy, (Pat French) an LA librarian who was a recurring character who became his secretary and eventually his partner.
Harry Nile appeared in twenty-four episodes in 1976-78 and returned with an unaired Christmas special in 1990, and then in June 1991, Harper would begin playing Harry Nile regularly for the rest of his life.
Harper was incredibly versatile as Harry Nile. The original premise had Nile as simply a private detective who always seemed to be under a rain cloud of bad luck, such as clients who never paid. Yet, over time, the character grew and Harper brought him to life as a fully formed private eye. He could play the comedy of the chronically late and cheap boss and senior partner, the professional talking to a potential client, but also show a great deal of compassion. Nile’s Chicago-based siblings were recurring characters and Harper’s performance captured his realistic concern for them. Then there was the interplay between Harry and Murphy. Harper’s Nile never went beyond friendship with her despite hints that Murphy was interested in more, yet Harry often showed a tenderness and protectiveness towards that was very sweet.
Phil Harper grew up in 1940 and dreamed of appearing in radio dramas only to find he was born too late. However, Jim French offered Harper the opportunity to play Harry Nile and he jumped on it. His inspiration came from his memories of the golden age of radio, particularly Howard Duff as Sam Spade and Edmond O’Brien as Johnny Dollar. Harper fulfilled his boyhood dream of appearing in radio drama and managed to be the equal of the best Golden Age radio performances and surpassed many.
1) Bob Bailey as Johnny Dollar (1955-60):
Bob Bailey makes our list twice. As good as he was as George Valentine, it’s his role as the fourth on-air Johnny Dollar that he’s best known for. There are a number of reasons for this. One is the fact, for most of his run, Johnny Dollar was the only detective program still on radio, so he wasn’t competing with twenty other shows doing the same thing. The series re-aired frequently on Armed Forces Radio and Television Services even after it went off the air. Thus there’s a sub-generation for whom Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar is the Radio Detective they grew up with.
That Bailey made it five years was remarkable. 1955 was a horrible time for anything on radio other than adult Westerns. So many detective programs came to air only to be cancelled after less than a year. Johnny Dollar was initially to be serialized and was the third show they had tried as a serial after Mr and Mrs. North and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.
Bob Bailey’s Johnny Dollar was different than nearly every radio detective that came before because he was a fully fleshed out character. He had friends who weren’t just introduced as plot devices. He had ongoing relationships with recurring characters. He had a favorite hobby and a favorite vacation spot. And Bailey did a superb job pulling this off.
His Johnny Dollar had the best range of any performance on this list. He had a lot of times when he was fairly easy going. The character could get along with and connect with a lot of people. Bailey had good chemistry with every actor to appear on the program which made this seem effortless. His Johnny Dollar was smart and often brilliant in his deductions, but he also often blundered by jumping to wrong conclusions, which gave him a great humanity. Dollar also could be tough, at some times hitting Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer levels of intensity on deserving targets. At the same time, the character often showed a great deal of kindness and fell in love a few times. He was more believable in romance than most any other detective and this often led to heartbreak particularly in serials like the Lamar Matter and the Valentine Matter.
Bailey’s first year on Johnny Dollar was the best. The series was using multi-part fifteen minutes episodes often adapted from other detective radio series and they were brilliant. The Johnny Dollar serial era is the best year of dramatic production during the entire Golden age of radio. After that, the series went to once-a-week broadcasts and the quality declined as series producer Jack Johnstone had to write every script. He did the best he could while CBS’ budget cuts left him unable to pay writers and forced him to operate outside of his genius. He was a great producer and great director. And he was great at creating interesting characters, but he was not equipped to put out great detective scripts every week for years on end. That’s why there’s many weaker scripts in the later part of Bailey’s run.
The fact the writing worked against Bailey for the last three years of his run on Johnny Dollar was a testament to how good his performance was. He elevated every script he was given. Listeners love episodes that are subpar from a writing standpoint solely based on Bob Bailey’s performance.
Bailey’s performance with both good material and weaker material shows his strength as an actor. In the golden age of radio, where there were so many good performances, this one stands out head and shoulders above them all.
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