Around the time I first started the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio, I did a series of articles ranking radio detectives by network, listing the top five detectives from ABC, CBS, NBC, Mutual, Multi-network shows, and Syndicated shows.
After more than seven years, and a great deal more exposure to all radio detectives, we’re ready to do this in a way that’s less complicated. So, over the course of the next three weeks, we’ll take a look at my lists of the top 10 best performances in American-made radio detective programs. I’m limiting this list to American programs because that’s what I have the most experience with:
10) William Gargan as Barrie Craig in Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator (1951-55)
After the first half of 1950, it was hard to get a radio detective show off the ground. NBC tried several and all but one were cancelled after less than a year. That one was Barrie Craig. Barrie Craig lasted four years and it’s all chalked up to Gargan’s performance. Gargan had been a real-life private operative and had been born in New York City (where the series was set) and that authenticity helped as well as his natural charisma. Craig was easy going with a wry sense of humor that often poked fun at genre tropes. However, he was not a man you wanted to cross, though violence was not his usual means of resolving conflict. Craig was driven by a strong moral code and was one of the best and noblest characters we’ve ever featured on the show.
9) Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (1939-46):
For nearly half a century, Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes was the definitive one until Jeremy Brett’s performance in the 1980s and early 1990s Grenada television version emerged as a challenger. Even then, Rathbone’s performance influences Sherlock Holmes producers to this day. There are a number of reasons for this and it makes Holmes a treat whether on film or on radio.
Rathbone had a superb range and was not only able to play Holmes as the genius detective, but also was able to play some moving and emotional moments like in “The Guileless Gypsy,” as well as for comedy such as he did in, “The Second Generation.” Rathbone had great chemistry with his Watson (Nigel Bruce) which made the duo a delight to listen to despite Dr. Watson being occasionally written as a bit daft. Rathbone succeeded in making Holmes a truly likable character and handling all challenges with unmatched professionalism even as he began to tire of being typecast as Holmes.
8) Natalie Masters as Candy Matson (1949-51)
The series was broadcast from San Francisco and only heard on the West Coast, which was a shame. The series focused on Candy, who was a former model and a hard-boiled private detective. This was a very unusual series and an unusual role for a woman at a time. Masters plays it to perfection, creating a characterization of Candy that’s competent, smart, and tough, while still being very likable and compassionate. The series didn’t take itself too seriously, but it never turned Candy into a joke. Masters’ performance was both slightly ahead of its time, and also immensely entertaining.
7) Bob Bailey as George Valentine in Let George Do It (1946-53(?)
Bob Bailey is best remembered for playing Johnny Dollar for five years. That’s so well-remembered, his work on this series is often forgotten, and it shouldn’t be. While Let George Do It began as a somewhat weak detective sitcom, it quickly took off to become one of the smartest and best written detective/mystery shows of the Golden Age of Radio, with Bailey’s detective at the center of the action. As the show changed co-stars and styles, Bailey continued to turn in solid performances whether they required kindness and profundity, action, or humor, Bailey’s performance as George Valentine could always be relied upon to get the job done.
To be continued next week…