The Five Best NBC Old Time Radio Detectives

Previously, we’ve done multi-network, ABC, and Mutual Programs in this series.

NBC’s best detective shows are clumped between 1949 to the mid-50s.  NBC had fallen behind CBS which had raided much of its talent.  Well-known is the raid on NBC’s comedy teams including Jack Benny and Burns and Allen, but Mr. and Mrs. North had also moved to CBS.

Several great detective dramas had stopped in at NBC for Summer runs including Rogue’s Gallery (1945-47) and The Man Called X (1945 and 1946) before heading off to other networks.

This changed in 1949, Richard Diamond was introduced in April,  Dragnet in June and Dangerous Assignment in July. In the fall, NBC brought Sam Spade over from CBS and in 1950, The Saint came over Mutual.  Other shows would follow that would give NBC a place in the mystery market. While NBC never produced anything that rivaled CBS’ anthology franchises, this era saw NBC turning out some of the most memorable detective shows of the golden and silver era.

As always, we asked our Facebook fans their opinions and received 53 votes which we’ll share below.

5) The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe

Aired: 1950-51

Sidney GreenstreetThis series was marked by the inspired casting choice of Sidney Greenstreet as Nero Wolfe. There were also seven different Archies during the show’s 26 episode run. The show’s difficulty in finding an Archie as well as its  digressions from the traditional Wolfe characters.

The show remains beloved by fans and characters due to Greenstreet’s characterization of Wolfe, decent mysteries, and the chance to see Wolfe-Archie interplay over the radio. While the show had trouble keeping Archie’s, the list of actors who played the role was impressive including three actors who had played leads in other detective shows (Wally Maher of Mutual’s Michael Shayne, Larry Dobkin of Ellery Queen, and Gerald Mohr of Philip Marlowe) which meant listeners got to enjoy a variety of Archie Goodwin interpretations.
Fan Vote:  32%

Timothy Dunning said, “I have to vote for Nero Wolfe because I loved the books and the radio shows were good adaptations.”

4) Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator

Aired: 1951-55

Barrie CraigBarrie Craig was a different kind of detective show and Craig as played by Gargan was a different type of detective: a big gentle easy going guy who always believed his clients until evidence proved otherwise.

In some ways, it poked fun at the private detective genre by giving Craig police-type powers and duties such as filling out making arrests and filling out paperwork. This played off the wide variety of functions and investigations that other PIs took on that were really police functions.  Another time, Craig began his voice over narration by saying, “Manhattan’s my beat,” a clear reference to CBS’ Broadway’s My Beat.

Other episodes took a serious turn such as Craig’s poignant caper with a mentally ill young woman.

Gargan’s light and easy going style make each episode of Barrie Craig is like a visit with an old friend talking about his detective adventures. Listeners were more than happy to visit for four years.

Fan vote: 4%

3) Dangerous Assignment with Brian Donlevy as Steve Mitchell

Aired: Summer 1949, 1950-53

Brian DonlevyDonlevy reportedly told his agent that he wanted to play nothing other than unambiguous he-man roles. Certainly, the role of Steve Mitchell was cut from that cloth. Mitchell was an international troubleshooter working for an unknown government agency. Each week he’d go to the office of the Commissioner (played by Herb Butterfield) who would end the interview by saying something like, “Well Steve, you’ve got your assignment. Good luck.”

Mitchell would then be off to an exotic location where he’d usually be undercover as a journalist. He’d encounter mystery and adventure as he protected U.S. interests and peace. Much like The Man Called X,  Dangerous Assignment had a similar feel to other detective shows but with higher stakes, although Dangerous Assignment steered clear of Cold War plots that were popular on The Man Called X.

Dangerous Assignment came to television in 1952 with Donlevy in the lead. The television version wasn’t as good. Donlevy was sliding towards 50 and not looking the action hero part. More importantly, early television could not capture the richness of foreign locales that the imagination of radio listeners could conjure up.

Fan Vote: 8%

2) Nightbeat starring Frank Lovejoy as Randy Stone

Aired 1950-52

“Stories start in many ways…”

Brian DonlevyWith these words, Randy Stone begins telling how he came to write his latest Nightbeat column to the Chicago Star about his late night adventures searching for news. The show starred radio veteran Frank Lovejoy who had been the second choice for the lead, with Edmond O’Brien auditioning for the part in 1949.

Nightbeat stories are full of suspense and mystery, but unlike traditional detective shows, the solution is far more likely to be psychological and driven by the human element. While most traditional detective shows focused on finding murders, Stone would be more likely to try and prevent a murder or a suicide. In one episode, Randy has to find a businessman who decided to commit suicide after being falsely diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Nightbeat didn’t require a body to get a story. In one episode, Randy investigates an apartment building where everyone is terrified due to threatening notes they’ve received with the words, “I know your secret,” in them.

Randy Stone did make it to television in one episode of Dick Powell’s Four Star Playhouse. Frank Lovejoy starred in two TV detective series, Meet McGraw
and a mid-50s revival of the show, Man Against Crime, but neither achieved the depth or quality of Nightbeat.

Fan vote: 6%

Said Kent in support of Nightbeat, “The show has a captivating quality as Randy has many insights into the people with whom he is involved moving toward his story. SO REWRITE–C O P Y B O Y as music fades until another episode.”
Fan Vote: 6%

1) Dragnet starring Jack Webb as Joe Friday

Aired: 1949-55

Jack WebbDragnet began out of conversation that radio detective star Jack Webb had with a police officer who objected to the lack of realism in the portrayal of police on the radio.

Webb remembered this conversation when he needed a summer project when ABC put Pat Novak for Hire on Summer hiatus. What Webb produced was a masterpiece that would redefine crime dramas and the treatment of police in popular media,

Webb made a study of the police: how they talked, worked, and solved cases, and used this knowledge to create the framework for Dragnet.

Dragnet was based on actual police cases. At first, there was nothing new about this as several other crime dramas such as, This Is Your FBI, Gangbusters, and Calling All Cars.  What made Dragnet different was that most prior procedurals spent as much if not more time following the criminals as it did the police. Dragnet’s took you “on the side of the law” from start to finish which meant that most episodes of Dragnet were mysteries as all we knew was what the police knew.

More than just mystery, Dragnet gave a feel for what life was like for the working policeman and it introduced us to the resources they used in a way that was captivating to audiences across America.

Dragnet also created compelling and real characters: victims, witnesses, or perpetrators, they all demanded the audience’s attention in unique ways. From the fiancé of a dead traffic officer, to an 8 year old boy who saw his best friends die from a gun shot wound, to a train-loving hijacking victim, no show ever did better at characterization.

Dragnet also sounded better. Webb’s dedication for details didn’t stop with the finer points of police procedure, when Webb used five sound effects men on this show.  They made every scene come alive, so that whether the show was taking place in a warehouse or at a grocery store, you were transported there. Webb’s policemen interact with people in their daily lives and those sounds don’t stop because a policeman wants to ask a question.

Dragnet also served the public by taking on topics that were often taboo such as child abuse and drug use.  In addition, Dragnet’s practice covering multiple departments gave powerful lessons to the public on how to remain safe and avoid con games.

Dragnet came to television for eight seasons in the 50s and staged a four season revival from 1967-70 and became a motion picture in 1954.  Dragnet’s realism has shaped crime dramas to this day. It gave the police a new level of respect that carried over to other networks and even to the private detective genre. For most of the 1950s, the old stereotypes of domineering, corrupt, or stupid cops were replaced by smart cooperative cops. The Radio,Crime and Peter Chambers and Television’s Lock Up were good examples of this, both featuring intelligent and sincere police officers who were friends with the hero. Also, new programming begin to air that chronicled the work of law enforcement such as Treasury Men in Action and Man Behind the Badge.

Fan Vote: 51%

Honorable Mentions:

Tales of the Texas Ranger: This police procedural followed the adventures of Ranger Jayce Pearson and were based on real case files from the Texas Rangers. This was probably the best of the Dragnet imitators.

A Life In Your Hands: This fascinating series came from the mind of Erle Stanley Gardener, the creator of Perry Mason. The series focused on Jonathan Kegg, a lawyer who had already made his fortune. He inserted himself into cases by acting as an Amicus Curiae, a lawyer who represented neither the prosecution or the defense, but rather cross-examined or called witnesses with the sole goal of getting at the truth. Each case would pivot on Kegg calling a disinterested witness whose memory of a seemingly inconsequential fact. The series was meant to teach the public to be good and observant witnesses as they could stumble on to a crime at any time and they could have “a life in your hands.”

Next week, we take a look at CBS.

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