The Five Best ABC Old Time Radio Detectives

Continuing our series from last week where we began with radio detectives who crossed networks, we turn to radio detective actors whose performance stuck to one network. Examining the four networks that were prominent during the Golden Age, we’ll begin with ABC.

Of course, finding a great detective show on ABC was a challenge. ABC was originally the Blue Network of NBC and was formed as a result of an FCC ruling. It was slow starting out. Many of its programs were really bad including the obnoxious Danger, Dr. Danfield and the low-budget Deadline Mystery with a seemingly non-existent sound-effects budget. In addition, with less stations and less listeners, this also means that even of the good programs, there are less available transcriptions.

Some of the biggest shows to air on ABC were revivals of other networks cast offs such as Richard Diamond, Michael Shayne, Rogue’s Gallery, and The Casebook of Gregory Hood. With the exception of Diamond, all of these shows had zero or one episode in circulation and starred a different actor than the one most commonly associated with the role.

How bad were the available ABC shows and the selection of potential shows? Abbott and Costello regularly did a detective parody for the last half season on the air called, “Sam Shovel.” It almost made the list.

Like last week, we ran a poll on Facebook.  This week, 68 listeners voted for their favorites. One listener Sue commented on the poll, “Never heard of any of them.” Sue’s not alone. While there’s a show or two that wouldn’t be considered if they’d aired on CBS or the Mutual Broadcasting System, there were some unheralded gems on ABC. With that, here are the top 5 Old Time Radio detectives from ABC:

5) William Gargan as Bob Dolan in,  “I Deal in Crime”

Aired: 1946-47

William GarganThis is a show that wouldn’t have made my list had it aired on any other network.  Academy Award Nominated Actor William Gargan on screen had been invited time and time again to play police officers and detectives, even playing Ellery Queen in three movies.There was good reason for that Gargan had been a real life private investigator spending a year of his life as a store investigator, and then as a private detective.  At six foot tall and more than 200 pounds, Gargan also looked the part. He was a natural to become one of radio’s first hard boiled private eyes and give the fledgling ABC network a leg up on the rush to the hard boiled detective shows.

However, the role of hard-boiled private eye was relatively new over the new radio. Dick Powell had just brought Richard Rogue to the  radio in a portrayal that featured a tongue in cheek treatment of the private detective genre. In I Deal in Crime, Gargan went way over the top with his initial portrayal of Bob Dolan.  However, the show did get better. The three transcriptions that survive, one from January, one from April, and one from September showed steady improve.  The September one showed Dolan as a more laid back private detective that had much more in common with Gargan’s Martin Kane and Barrie Craig. In fact,  I Deal in Crime was probably  vital in Gargan’s career in helping him develop the type of detective character that would keep him in demand for years to come.

While the show may not be a great, it was a pretty good for an ABC show.

Fan Vote: 1%

4) Tom Conway as  Sherlock Holmes

Aired: 1946-47

Tom ConwayWith Basil Rathbone’s decision to leave the Sherlock Holmes franchise and strike out with another (ultimately unsuccessful) radio series, “Scotland Yard,” Sherlock Holmes faced change. Both the show’s sponsor and its network opted to continue the Summer Series, The Casebook of Gregory Hood. This led to a coup for ABC picking up the series and retaining Nigel Bruce as Watson, with Tom Conway from the Falcon pictures taking over as Sherlock Holmes.

There are certainly ways that the ABC’s Holmes could be seen to be a downgrade from the Rathbone episodes, including the decline in commercials from Petri Wine to Kremel Hair Tonic, the drop in chemistry from amazing  to only good, and that Rathbone was more charismatic and a better actor.

That said, given that the previous series was one of radio’s finest, being a notch or two below that isn’t too shabby, particularly for ABC.  The show maintained remarkable quality thanks in part to the continuity in writing and Conway did a decent Holmes voice that seemed almost a Rathbone imitation at times. Basil Rathbone left huge shoes to fill and Conway did as well as anyone could in filling them, and the world got 39 more episodes with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, with 38 surviving to this day. Definitely worth a spot on the top 5.

Fan Vote: 44%

Fans who voted for Sherlock Holmes tended to be huge fans of literature’s greatest detective, and think if Holmes is done well, it just can’t be beat.

Tim said, “As much as I love the Pat Novak banter, Sherlock is always top dog in the detective’s pack.”  Walter said, “Like ’em all but Sherlock and Dr. Watson reign supreme.”

3) Mercedes McCambridge as Marsha Ellis Bryant in  Defense Attorney

Aired: 1951-52

Mercedes McCambridge Orson Welles called Mercedes McCambridge the world’s greatest living radio actress.  High praise indeed. It was no wonder that she was one of the few women to serve as a lead in a detective series.

In 1951, NBC prepared a pilot for The Defense Rests with a plot similar to the Jimmy Stewart movie, Call Northside 777. The show didn’t make the cut at NBC and was not aired.  One advantage of being ABC was that the network had little to risk by giving an unusual show a shot, so in the fall of 1951, Defense Attorney came to ABC. The show featured McCambridge as Marsha Ellis Bryant.  The show shared some similarities with Murder and Mr. Malone in that Bryant was rarely in the courtroom, and solved her cases usually on the street with the aid of her reporter-boyfriend (played by Howard Culver.) The three episodes of Defense Attorney that survive in circulation are well-done mysteries, with McCambridge’s solid acting carrying the show. From the last episode, we know that the show did better than many other ABC shows in that it garnered a sponsor. Not only that, but McCambridge was named best dramatic access by the Radio Television Mirror magazine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save the show which was canceled after one season. Truly this one show where I’d love to see more episodes come into circulation.

Fan Vote: 1%

2) J. Scott Smart as Brad Runyon in the Fat Man

Aired: 1946-51

J.Scott SmartThe Fat Man was by far ABC’s longest running and most successful series. The character was created by Dashiell Hammett, although Hammett had nothing to do with writing the show.

The Fat Man was unique for the time. Unlike Nero Wolfe, Brad Runyon was active and hard boiled. He was as tough as other any hard boiled eye and as popular with the ladies. He also possessed a great mix of toughness and compassion, mixed with only a little bit of sensitivity to his weight.

“Nobody loves a fat man.” he lamented.

Audiences disagreed as the Fat Man was a hit for five seasons. The show’s signature opening with our hero stepping on a scale, and his pronunciation of “murderrrr” became famous.

The show was so popular that Smart got to bring Brad Runyon to the silver screen. The Fat Man was the first radio detective show to be made into a motion picture with the original star. The movie was well-received and even modern viewers who see it would like to see a sequel. Unfortunately, a combination of radio’s decline and the Communist ties of the show’s absentee creator Hammett brought the show to an end.

It’s influence did not end, however as the idea of a chubby PI kept resurfacing. In the 1970s, William Conrad starred as tough gourmet private detective Frank Cannon.  Cannon and every rough and tumble pudgy action hero owes a debt to the Fat Man for showing how it was done.

In the mid-1950s, Fat Man reached a new audience overseas when Grace Gibson purchased the rights to re-perform 52 scripts with an all-Australian cast. There are more of these Australian episodes in circulation than there are the American canon.

Fan vote: 9%

Speaking of the American Canon,  Tamara comments, “I wish more shows had been made of the Fat Man.”

Tamara raises a good point. There are only 13 U.S. episodes of the Fat Man in circulation, which, while better than Defense Attorney and I Deal In Crime is still very low. Of course, the problem is not so much that not many shows were made, but that most didn’t survive.  One log suggests that 289 episodes of “The Fat Man” aired over radio, which suggests that nearly 96% of them were lost.

Pat Novak1)  Pat Novak for Hire starring Jack Webb

Aired: 1949

Pat Novak for Hire is a show that was all in the execution and delivery of the show’s star, Jack Webb. The plots were very similar and can be boiled down to a simple formula as we do on the Pat Novak for Hire page.

The show followed Pat Novak, the owner of a boat rental store who also took on other’s trouble as a profitable sideline, routinely taking jobs he knew better than to accept that put him on the wrong side of San Francisco Homicide Inspector Hellman. Every episode he’d beat a murder rap with some last second deduction and some help from ex-boozer and doctor Jocko Madigan.

The plots were formulaic, but Pat Novak for Hire wasn’t popular for its highly original plots but for its rich dialogue, and Noirish poetry.  As Novak, Jack Webb spins similies faster than a politicians press secretary during a scandal. These There’s Novak’s descriptions:

The street was as deserted as a warm bottle of beer.

There were his encounters with John Law (in the form of radio’s worst cop not on the take, Inspector Hellman):

Your men couldn’t follow a moose through a revolving door.

And then there were his descriptions of San Francisco (definitely not approved by the Chamber of Commerce) that made it one of radio noir’s darkest settings:

You can dress it up to look honest, but that doesn’t do any good; because down on the waterfront in San Francisco, if you had to eat morals, you’d have bone rattle in three days.

In voting for Novak, Tim shared two of his favorite quotes, “She was at least 50, because you can’t get that ugly without years of practice.” and “She sauntered in, moving slowly from side to side like 118 pounds of warm smoke.”

In addition to this, there’s the wonderful monologues of Jocko Madigan. More Pat Novak quotes are here.

While the show ran for two years down in San Francisco (with Actor Ben Morris playing Novak after Webb left in 1947 for Hollywood), it’s national run over ABC lasted only 20 weeks, ended not by lack of popularity but by ABC’s decision to put the show on Summer hiatus and Webb beginning a Summer replacement for NBC radio called, Dragnet.

The 18 episodes of Pat Novak that have survived are dynamite. (Indeed, given all the problems that all the shows on our listen other than Conway’s Holmes had with having episodes in circulation. That 90% of the Novak episodes survive says something about the show.

I have to admit I debated myself on this one. The Fat Man had huge influence with the power of Cannon all the way to Paul Blart, Mall Cop. They all owe something to the original Fat Man.

However, I give the nod to Novak as it really continues to fascinate equally new listeners and OTR superfans, and has inspired both a Graphic Novel and a recent stage production in Seattle, which is a sign of a show that’s got staying power.

Fan vote: 46%

Next week…Mutual Detective shows

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  3 comments for “The Five Best ABC Old Time Radio Detectives”

  1. May 14, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    The Fat Man was certainly a big favorite of mine when I was a kid, and I saw the movie in the theater when it opened. Too bad so few episodes of the show have survived.

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