Category: Golden Age Article

The Four Worst Old Time Radio Detective Police Characters

While certain characters such as LIeutenant Riley on Let George Do It and Captain Sam Sabbaya are exemplary agents of the law, others are far less so. After looking at the best police foils in old-time radio, we now turn to some of the worst police characters in old time radio.

Ranging from the brutal and corrupt to the painfully inept, there are some figures who engendered little confidence and respect for law from listeners. This isn’t to say their badness made the show bad. In fact, it often served as comic relief or gave the hero an obstacle to overcome. To qualify, the character has to have been a regular recurring member of law enforcement on an old-time radio detective program.

4) Sergeant Otis (Wilms Herbert) from Richard Diamond, Private Detective 

Sgt. Otis was the perfect comic foil for Richard Diamond. As long as Otis remained on the program (prior to Herbert’s sickness and eventual death), Diamond would take joy in nothing more than spending a couple of minutes befuddling and belittling the dimwitted Sergeant. He was also a source of consternation for Lieutenant Levinson as he was easily confused and frequently made serious blunders. This isn’t to say he was completely incompetent. He could go several basic police tasks passably. Sgt. Otis was a likable and endearing character, however, as a Sergeant of Homicide, he’s well below replacement in terms of actual competence.

3) District Attorney John Marham (George Petrie) from Philo Vance

It might reasonably be argued that a District Attorney is not a police officer. The problem is that Markham didn’t seem to know this. He insisted on being involved personally in every single homicide investigation in the city of New York. It would have been one thing if Markham were some investigative genius. Sadly, he was not.

He seems unacquainted with even basic investigative processes and makes ridiculous and illogical accusations (at one point a suspect had to explain why someone else asking him why he’d committed a  murder wasn’t actually evidence he’d done it.) Markham’s best friend is Philo Vance and they both eagerly anticipate when a murder might occur so that Vance go into action. Vance is called in to solve murders that are so basic that in other cities, the local police can solve, but under Markham’s oppressive micromanagement, the city’s demoralized police force becomes more and more accustomed to being sidelined so Vance can impress Markham with his brilliance, which is usually just decent deduction and fair police methods.

Markham’s not much better as a District Attorney. At one point, he became unsure of the guilt of the man he was prospecting. Rather than having the case dismissed or trying to use legal maneuvering to delay proceedings, he brought Vance in and gave him a deadline to find the real killer, This seems to be a ploy design so that if Markham dismisses the case, he can quickly a substitute murderer thus limiting the political fall out from his flimsy prosecution. While everyone on this list makes someone’s life worse, Markham is the only one to do that for an entire city.

2) Inspector Hellman (Raymond Burr) from Pat Novak for Hire

Pat Novak was unlucky, very unlucky. He had an embarrassing tendency to find himself waking up next to murdered people just as Hellman entered the room.  Hellman invariably accused Novak of committing the crime and threatened to have the state of California snuff out Novak despite usually lacking any physical evidence Novak did it. Hellman would usually let Novak go but scare him enough to do all the heavy lifting for Hellman in solving the case and then have Novak in on bringing in the suspect in the final scene.

Hellman’s abusiveness was further illustrated by him once beating up Novak (admittedly on this series, everyone beat up Novak). Novak also hinted that Hellman wasn’t above robbing the bodies of the dead for extra cash. We don’t know whether that’s true or just Novak taking a free dig at someone he understandably loathed. It’s not necessary to put Hellman on this list. The programs reveal Hellman to be lazy, unust, and badge-heavy.

1) Sergeant Greco (Lou Krugman) from Rocky Jordan

Rocky Jordan features the best police foil in old time radio in Captain Sam Sabaya (Jay Novello), it also has the worst in Sgt. Greco. Greco hates Rocky Jordan and often acts out of malice piling up an impressive record of false arrests in his Captain Ahabesque pursuit of the owner of the Cafe Tambourine for whatever imagined crimes Greco wants to prosecute him for on a given week. Greco’s animus towards Jordan led him to encourage a mob that would have ripped Jordan apart if they’d caught him.

The only thing to check Greco’s incompetence is his obsequiousness, his ambition to rise in the police, and his knowledge that if he goes too far, he could, at last, bring the wrath of Captain Sabaya down upon himself. Sabaya is understanding and to the credit of the writers of Rocky Jordan, they featured an episode that showed Greco’s family and gave some background that even made Rocky more sympathetic. So much so that Jordan extended the hand of friendship only to have Greco classlessly slap it away.

While the character is well-played by Krugan and used to great effect by the writers to create a thorn in Jordan’s side, Greco is and always will be the worst recurring police character in old time radio.

Telefilm Review: The Rockford FIles: White on White and Nearly Perfect

In this Season Five episode of The Rockford Files, Jim Rocko (James Garner) is hired by an industrialist to find his kidnapped daughter. However, Rocco runs into an obstacle in the form of fellow private eye Lance White (Tom Selleck) who, despite claiming to be there just as “a friend”, becomes Rockford’s partner and annoys him with his almost perfect luck.

The episode is a comedy gem. As a series, The Rockford Files was known for having a somewhat cynical view of the world. Lance’s sunny optimism and classic do-gooder hero status clashes beautifully with that attitude, and Rockford’s annoyance with Lance makes for good comedy. Lt. Doug Chapman (James Luisi) is usually quick to bite Rockford’s head off about being involved as a private investigator in police manners. In this episode, he’s ridiculously chummy with Lance, and Rockford’s incredulity is priceless. Rockford has to deal with this sunny optimism while facing off against dangerous criminals and dealing with a client who is not being entirely straight with him.

“White on White and Nearly Perfect” was inspired by a 1959 episode of the Western series Maverick (which starred Garner as Bret Maverick) called “The Saga of Waco Williams”.

Selleck was a lot of fun in this role. His character was written in an absurd way and he leaned into it, making it a memorable outing. The episode is a treat for mystery fans, as Selleck was only a couple of years away from the premiere of his own hit detective series, Magnum, PI. The series features the most popular detective star from the 1970s with the most popular detective star from the 1980s.

This alone makes this a fun viewing experience for fans of vintage television. Add in Selleck’s comedy and this is a definite winner.

Rating: 4 out of 5

This episode can be viewed for free on Tubi on Freevee

Audio Drama Review: Murder from the Bridge and Six More

Murder from the Bridge and Six More collects a total of seven audio dramas written by Steven Olney and chronicling the adventures of retired police captain Waverly Underhill (Dave Ellsworth), as reported by his faithful friend Doctor Scofield (Wally O’Hara).

The series was broadcast as part of The Cape Cod Mystery Theater and has a wonderful local flavor to it, similar to the way The Adventures of Harry Nile captures Seattle. These sort of productions are really fun and I wish there were more solid detective audio dramas written in locations throughout the country. I will also say right off the bat that if you’re looking for detective stories that aren’t your typical whodunit, you’ll probably find a lot to like in this set.

The set opens with Murder from the Bridge, which is the shortest release in the set. Captain Underhill arrives to take a young man to the spot where his uncle jumped to his death from the Sagamore Bridge in an obvious case of suicide…or is it? This is a really good, suspenseful piece that builds tension and allows Captain Underhill to really shine, and show that sort of Columbo-like cunning of putting a killer at ease before bringing down the hammer.

In The Mystery of Anna Gale, Underhill investigates the apparent kidnapping of a little girl. This is a good one for showcasing Doctor Scofield’s superior humanity, and his ability to understand and be gentle with kids as a lifetime family doctor. It has an unusual and surprising solution.

The Curse of the Whale’s Tooth is a really solid Gothic mystery complete with a family curse, a cursed heirloom, and the mysterious appearance of a lion. It evokes a sort of New England Hound of the Baskervilles vibe, with a very modern twist ending.

The Mermaid on Halloween Bridge is about a mysterious mural of a topless mermaid being painted on Halloween Bridge. The painter is a young woman who is painting at night to avoid getting into trouble, and there’s an old man with gout who doesn’t like it and calls the police. This is a hard one to evaluate. My biggest problem is that Captain Underhill is shoehorned into the story. There’s a police shortage so severe that they decide to put the 70-year-old retired police captain out on the beat driving a prowl car that makes two appearances. The second problem is that it’s not really a mystery story as most fans expect. Technically, I guess the question of who is painting a mural is a mystery to the townspeople, but it’s not really a mystery to listeners. The story is not bad at all. The characters are decent, and the acting’s good, but the story is eighty-nine minutes long. There’s not enough going on in this story to make this worth a feature-length listen. This should have been no more than 45 minutes.

In The Case of the Automatic Murders, Waverly investigates a case where a young woman is waking up at night and apparently writing very creepy and spooky things in her journal. This one is a decent mystery with a good amount of atmosphere and probably one of the more spooky ones in the set.

The final two were released posthumously, after the death of star Dave Ellsworth.

The Spirit of Christmas finds Captain Underhill investigating an assault and robbery on a blind Salvation Army bellringer. This is probably the most humorous Captain Underhill adventure, although I really found its resolution to be a bit morally problematic.

The set concludes with The Final Case of Captain Underhill. Underhill had often jokingly pretended he was senile or had dementia. In an ironically sad twist of fate, our story ends with him on the cusp of the last stage of dementia, with only a few lucid moments. His friend of 50 years, Doctor Scofield, is working on staff at the facility where Captain Undersell is being cared for, so that he can be near his friend until the day comes when Underhill doesn’t remember him anymore. Underhill discovers a plot that could ruin the life of two young people and is determined to help them. Can Captain Underhill save the day one more time?

On one hand, this is a fitting final adventure that shows Underhill’s strength of character, tenacity, and resourcefulness, even when facing the toughest challenge of his life. On the other hand, without being maudlin, the story captures the devastating effects of Alzheimers and dementia on those who suffer it, and the heartbreak of those who care for them. It’s a poignant story that never feels manipulative, and is probably the best-written of the Captain Underhill stories.

This is a solidly written and well-acted set of stories. While there are stories I don’t like as much as others, on the whole I enjoyed the set. Waverly Underhill was truly a great detective and his adventures continue to be well-worth listening to.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

 

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Book Review: The Corpse Came Calling

In the opening chapter of The Corpse Came Calling, a private detective acquaintance of Michael Shayne stumbles into the office where he and his wife are bantering and collapses dead after calling ahead and saying he wanted to stay Shayne. Shayne collects $200 from the dead man’s wallet as well as taking a piece of cardboard off him before heading upstairs to his apartment and pretending that his wife Phyllis was in the office alone when the dead man arrived where he encounters a beautiful blonde with a simple request: ,murder her fugitive ex-con husband.

While Shayne is used to playing fast and loose with the law, he could pay a much bigger price as his wife Phyllis ends up in jeopardy and his antics are of even more concern when a man from the FBI comes around alleging the murdered PI was a traitor and tied up with the theft of defense secrets. This is a particularly sensitive time as America had just entered World War II.

I did spend quite a bit of this book doubting Shayne. Even his newspaperman buddy Tim Rourke turns on him at one point when he sees what Shayne appears to be doing. At the best of time, Shayne’s methods are dicey but will he really carry on in such a reckless fashion with his country at war? I also have to say there was one scene I absolutely hated where Mike and Phyllis were held in their apartment by thugs and Phyllis was the recipient of rapte threats that were uncomfortably direct, particularly for the era the book was written in.

Despite these moments, the book is a solid entry in Shayne’s adventures with a lot of big twists and surprises that really showcase the strength of this series. The book may try the reader’s patience in the early chapters but really does pay off nicely in the end.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5′

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Top Ten Police Foils in Old TIme Radio, Part Two

Continued from Part One

5) Detective Sidney Brooks (Larry Haines) from The Amazing Mr. Malone 

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, radio began to move away from the depiction of clowning police officers portrayed in many programs and towards a depiction of police as more competent. The Amazing Mr. Malone did a great job of this in its all-too-brief summer run in 1951. This was a series in which the police foil was allowed to be right, and our crime-solving hero lawyer John J. Malone would find this out the hard way. Larry Haines, a veteran star of many New York-based detective programs, did a great job making Brooks a slightly hard-boiled, yet believable and fun character.

4) Lieutenant LaSalle (Jack Webb) from The New Adventures of Michael Shayne

Before he played Joe Friday in Dragnet, and in the midst of starring in several other detective series, Jack Webb played the recurring police foil to Michael Shayne (Jeff Chandler) in one of the most hard-boiled radio detective series of them all. LaSalle was tough and often appropriately annoyed at Shayne, as well as being wise and street-smart. LaSalle was no one’s fool and made for a believable voice of authority in the wild world of Shayne’s New Orleans.

3) Lieutenant Walt Levinson (Multiple) from Richard Diamond, Private Detective 

Richard Diamond (Dick Powell) was an ex-cop and Levinson was his buddy on the force. At his best, Levinson was a combination of police foil and straight man to Diamond’s antics, while also struggling with the oafish Sergeant Otis (Wilms Herbert). However, when it came time to get down to business, Levinson was a capable and competent cop. The character managed to be both comedic and serious when needed. Four different actors played the role during the series’ run. In my opinion, the best portrayal was Ed Begley during Richard Diamond’s initial 52-episode run, followed by Arthur Q. Bryan (best know as Elmer Fudd).

2) Lieutenant Riley (Wally Maher) from Let George Do It

Lieutenant Riley was a delightful character to listen to. He was friendly towards George Valentine, but not too chummy. He could lay down the law about where police jurisdiction should lie without feeling like he was acting out of some insecurity or being overbearing. He was smart and generally personable. However, when he got agitated, Wally Maher’s performance made it a delightful bit of comedy.

1) Captain Sam Sabayya (Jay Novello) from Rocky Jordan

Rocky Jordan is set in Cairo, Egypt, a setting different than any other old time radio detective series. In order for it to work, it requires a police foil unlike any other, and Captain Sabayya certainly fits the bill. He’s from an entirely different culture than expat Rocky Jordan, yet they have a grudging respect and even friendship between them. Sabayya is probably one of the most cunning characters in old time radio but plays his cards close to the vest. While Jordan usually starts out ahead, Sabayya catches up and as often as not, overtakes Jordan in getting to the criminal. While he upholds the law, he’s civil and sympathetic to human frailty. Most episodes of Rocky Jordan end with Jordan and Sabayya sharing a cup of Egyptian coffee, the strongest drink a devout Muslim like Sabayya would drink. Overall, Sabayya is one of the most interesting characters in old time radio and by far, the best police foil in old time radio.

The Top Ten Police Foils In Old Time Radio, Part One

For many radio detective programs featuring private detectives or amateur sleuths, the friendly or not-so-friendly recurring police officers become a key part of the series. Sometimes they lay down the law and warn against involvement. Other times, they might ask for help and drag the detective in. Whatever the case, some of these characters were far more helpful than others, and became huge positives for both the sleuth and the series. Over the next two weeks, we’re going to take a look at the top ten police foils.

10) Captain Logan (Bernard Renfroe) from Casey, Crime Photographer

Captain Logan was reliable. While not endowed with any genius or great intuition, Logan was competent and did a solid job at typical police investigations. While he and crime photographer Jack “Flash” Casey were friends, he would be careful not to give Casey and his newspaper any unfair advantage over their competitors. Captain Logan generally remained open with Casey and reporter Ann Williams about the status of his investigation and even took their suggestions when warranted. Logan showed concern for the civilians by offering them protection when needed, and rarely thought of having them serve as decoys or do undercover work that really should be handled by the police.

9) Noah Danton (Norman Fields) from Mystery is My Hobby

Danton may have been the one with official authority, but that was merely to give an air of legitimacy to the investigations of Barton Drake (Glenn Langan). While Danton could go wrong, he always got there in the end and was often smarter than the suspects gave him credit for. He had a high arrest record, which was impressive, even if his success was due to a guy who only viewed solving crimes as a hobby.

8) Inspector Farraday (Joe Forte) from Michael Shayne, Private Detective

Not to be confused with the better-known Inspector Farraday from Boston Blackie, Michael Shayne’s Farraday was a competent, good cop and a friend of Mike Shayne’s. He had plenty on the ball, which was evident whenever he, Mike Shayne (Wally Maher), and Shayne’s secretary Phyllis (Cathy Lewis) talked over a case. He respected Mike and was never too territorial. If only the literary version of Michael Shayne could be so lucky.

7) Lieutenant Ray Mallard (Henry Neff) from Candy Matson

Ray Mallard was not only the police foil, but the love interest of model-turned-private investigator Candy Matson (. While Mallard could be unduly dismissive of her hunches, he also was a great help and came to her aide in some big cases.

6) Detective Louie Parker (Bill Zuckert) from Crime and Peter Chambers

Louie Parker was both friends with Peter Chambers, and a good, honest cop. This could lead to some difficult situations, as his friendship and sense of duty could come into conflict. Parker always seemed to do the right thing. He might bend a rule, but he’d never break it. He would be fair, but always believed in Chambers as a person and as a detective. Zucker gave a good performance and his take on Parker is of a cop who is lovable while still being tough and fair.

To be continued next week.

Telefilm Review: Walker, Texas Ranger: One Riot, One Ranger

In the feature-length series premiere of Walker, Texas Ranger, Ranger Cordell Walker (Chuck Norris) hunts down a dangerous criminal who is planning a big job by doing a series of dry runs in Fort Worth. In a bank robbery, Walker’s partner is shot down. He takes on a new partner in the form of rookie ranger Jimmy Trivette (Clarence Gilyard). Together the two set out to discover who is behind the murders, get justice, and thwart their evil plans.

Review (Some Spoilers Follow):

You get all the high-powered action you’d expect from Walker, Texas Ranger, with a lot of big action scenes and even an explosion thrown in for good measure.

The villain is menacing, with a combination of ruthlessness, a CIA background, and a disregard for human life. But he’s also a bit cartoonish and so is his plan. If he has a CIA background, it seems that he should be able to gather intelligence to find the right partners for his big heist, rather than using a series of smaller heists as trial runs that will draw the attention of the police and the Texas Rangers.

Despite the flaw in the villain’s plan, the case is still interesting, as there are a lot of details teased out over the course of the episode, and Walker and Trivette have to figure out the villain’s endgame.

Beyond the main plot, One Riot, One Ranger serves as an introduction to the series’ cast of characters. We get back story exposition from both Walker and Trivette. While not an ideal way to introduce characters, it’s at least done in a way that’s natural, and I think it was actually pretty effectively weaved in, as Walker shared his own trauma to comfort a young lady who’d also been a victim. We get far less time with prosecutor Alex Cahill (Sharee Wilson), but a good performance and well-selected scenes capture the combination of compassion and a passion for justice that are so key to her character. The series also introduces ex-Ranger and barkeeper C.D. Parker (Gailard Sartain) in the pilot episode, who serves as a mentor to both rangers.

Walker’s partner leaves no impression at all in the scenes he’s in before being killed. His inclusion seems like an unnecessary and pointless trip to the cliche-o-matic. Even in the 1990s, if you’re going to make “They killed his partner” part of your hero’s motivation, you have to make some effort to sell the audience on it, either by getting the audience to care about the dead partner, or by showing how deeply it affected the hero. None of that happens here.

While I thought Walker’s character worked well for the most part, the writers had him intentionally mispronouncing Trivette’s last time for the entire episode. Really, I can’t think of any non-illegal behavior that’s more insufferable than that. It’s a weak joke that could have sabotaged the show if other factors weren’t in its favor.

Even in the pre-9/11 days, it’s hard to believe it would be as easy to drop off a bomb at the Texas Rangers’ headquarters as is portrayed in the episode.

Also, while I thought Galiard Sartain did a decent job, I did find myself longing for the late Noble Willingham, who would play C.D. in the main series.

Overall Thoughts:

In some quarters, the original Walker, Texas Ranger is a bit of a joke, and you can see hints of why in this episode. But I think you also see why it remained a ratings hit for most of its eight-year run.

It’s a fun show to watch, the action is good and the characters are likable, even if they have some rough edges. Walker himself is perhaps the most prickly. He’s tough, relentless, and very gruff. Yet, at the end of the day, he lets a rape victim take sanctuary at his ranch in the midst of big investigations, and agrees to a dangerous rodeo stunt, one which landed him in the hospital the last time he tried it, in order to help out orphans.

While some may view the show as corny, the series really seems to be quite earnest. In particularly, Trivette’s story of his own origins, growing up as a fan of The Lone Ranger, reflects the sort of heroic tradition that the series puts its protagonists in. It was a very intentionally a throwback even in 1993.

Fundamentally, viewers approved and liked hanging out with these characters in between the big fight scenes.

The pilot has some weak spots that the series would improve on a little. It’s still a fun way to spend ninety minutes for anyone curious as to how a cultural phenomena like Walker, Texas Ranger began.

Rating 3.25 out of 5

The full episode is available for free on YouTube.