Most “debates” over Yours Truly Johnny Dollar come down to the question of who was the “best” Johnny Dollar actor, with the consensus being that Bob Bailey is the answer (although Edmond O’Brien and Mandel Kramer do have their supporters). It occurred to me that it would be fun to try ranking the seasons for an idea of which is the best and which may be the worst. Plus, it’d be a different way to look at the show than everyone else has been doing.
Defining the Seasons.
So in order to debate the seasons, we have to define them.
I think the entirety of Charles Russell’s run as Johnny Dollar should be defined as Season 1. His tenure was eleven months and encompassed thirty-three episodes.
Edmond O’Brien’s run should be split into two seasons. He played Johnny Dollar from February 1950-January 1952 and again in a Summer 1952 series. So February 1950-January 1951 would be Season 2 and then the rest of O’Brien’s run would be defined as Season 3.
John Lund’s run should be split into two seasons, which would be Seasons 4 and 5. He took over as Johnny Dollar in 1952. His first season would be November 1952-October 1953, and his second season would be November 1953 until the show’s cancellation in September 1954. Bob Bailey’s run from September 1955-November 1960 should be considered Seasons 6-10.
Bob Reddick’s run from November 1960-June 1961 should be considered Season 11, and Mandel Kramer’s tenure should be considered Season 12.
Now, there can be arguments on several of these, but I think it’s a workable framework. So how would I rank the seasons?
1. Season 6
The vast majority of the Bob Bailey serial era featured memorable characters and great stories that were really given a chance to breathe.
2. Season 7
The rest of the Bob Bailey serial run and the first of his half-hour stories had sharp and engaging episodes throughout this entire season.
3. Season 2
Once Edmond O’Brien settled into the role of Johnny Dollar, the series established a well-done downbeat tone that exemplified the ideals of the hard-boiled detective as well as any other on the radio.
4. Season 5
John Lund was fully established as Johnny Dollar, and the series was blessed with the same capable company of actors who would feature in the Bailey era. The series featured scripts from talented writers. While overlooked at the time of its first broadcast, this remains solid radio entertainment.
5. Season 3
O’Brien’s second season saw the series begin to drift as creative forces tried to keep up with what Dragnet was doing. The tone of the series became uneven, with O’Brien being thrust into scripts that didn’t suit him as well as in previous runs. Still, casting and solid location work made this a good listen.
6. Season 4
John Lund was a decent Johnny Dollar from the beginning, with solid supporting actors. However, his early season features far too many inartful script reuses from other detective series or previous runs of Johnny Dollar. Individually, the shows were quite entertaining but the writing for Johnny varied wildly from episode to episode.
7. Season 8
Bob Bailey remained a solid lead during the 1957-58 season, but there was a marked decline in the writing quality as more of the production duties fell on Jack Johnstone. The season did get a boost by a guest appearance by Vincent Price in “The Price of Fame Matter,” a rarity at a time when name Hollywood stars were rare on network radio dramas.
8. Season 1
Charles Russell’s first season has some rough moments and his season is controversial among fans. Some odd ideas were tried, like making Johnny the type of guy who went around giving dollar tips even for services that were eighty-five cents, like he was obsessed with dollars. Much of Russell’s first season was spent adjusting and calibrating the show and its format. By the time they decided what Johnny Dollar would be like, Russell was out and the series would be redefined for Edmond O’Brien. Still, there are some funny moments and Russell does well in what was obviously a chaotic environment.
9. Season 10
Season 10 marks a bit of a rebound from Season 9. This season sees the introduction of a recurring girlfriend for Johnny in Betty Lewis, which allows for a bit more exploration of the character than all the one-shot romantic interests from previous seasons. This also features the celebratory Five Down Matter, which marks five years of Bailey playing Johnny Dollar.
10. Season 9
Season 9 was the worst of the Bailey seasons. The drop-off in the quality of writing, combined with less of each episode being dedicated to stories made for a weaker series.
11. Season 12
Mandel Kramer was a slight upgrade on Bob Readick, but the weakness of the previous season continued. There’d be some solid episodes and Kramer turned in some good performances, but this was definitely a season in decline.
12. Season 11
The series moved from Hollywood to New York for budgetary reasons and Bob Readick replaced Bob Bailey. Readick was no Bailey, but did a good job. The series would also have a more jazzy feel that would be appropriate for the 1960s. On the other hand, the loss of access to the Hollywood character actors who had been at the core of Johnny Dollar since its beginning hurt the quality, as the show feels almost alien and its attempts at continuity from the Bailey era with New York actors is awkward.
Of course, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar does have its strengths and weakness, but some seasons are better than others, and these are my rankings. I’d love to hear in the comments what seasons of Johnny Dollar people like most and least.