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 is 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 can go into action. Vance is called in to solve murders that are so basic that in other cities, the local police can solve them, 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 becomes unsure of the guilt of the man he was prosecuting. Rather than having the case dismissed or trying to use legal maneuvering to delay proceedings, he brings Vance in and gives him a deadline to find the real killer. This seems to be a ploy designed so that if Markham dismisses the case, he can quickly find a substitute murderer, thus limiting the political fallout 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 is unlucky, very unlucky. He has an embarrassing tendency to find himself waking up next to murdered people just as Hellman enters the room. Hellman invariably accuses Novak of committing the crime and threatens to have the state of California snuff out Novak, despite usually lacking any physical evidence that 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 hints that Hellman isn’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, unjust, 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), and 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 Ahab-esque 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 leads 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 shows Greco’s family and gives some background that even makes 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.