The Bob Bailey Matter, Part Four

Continued from Part Three

“You’re not Johnny Dollar.”

The words had to sting. According to Bailey’s daughter, Roberta, Bob Bailey was given this message by CBS Television producers who had flown him across the country to New York to talk about a pilot for a Yours Truly Johnny Dollar television program. Bailey was taken aback. “I am. I’ve been.”

He was then told that Johnny Dollar was six foot tall and 200 pounds. Bailey stood at five feet, nine and a half inches tall, and weighed all of 150 pounds. Unlike the previous Let George Do It pilot, CBS didn’t even bother with any test footage but instead sent Bailey packing. The TV pilot had been announced in Billboard on November 17, 1956, after the end of the serial run, with a script by E. Jack Neumann. But Bailey not fitting the expectations of how a TV hero should look, and the paradoxical fact that Bailey’s radio performance is what made a TV show plausible, essentially ended the project for the time being. In 1962, Blake Edwards, who wrote for the radio series during the Lund era, would produce a TV pilot, but it would never be aired.

Bailey was not the only talented radio actor to be shafted for looks. William Conrad was brilliant as the voice of Matt Dillon on radio’s Gunsmoke but TV executives rejected Conrad and the rest of the radio cast in favor of a completely new cast led by James Arness. The TV cast was talented and lived up to Hollywood’s superficial expectations. Conrad didn’t land a lead role on 1971. In the intervening years, he got away from the superficial life in front of the camera by forging a career as a successful TV producer/director, as well as being a narrator on various shows, including The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Fugitive.

As we talked about in the previous installment, this was the sort of career change Bailey wanted for himself, and he thought that writing scripts would get him there, and, after his disappointment with Johnny Dollar, he hadn’t quite let go of the idea. He and writing partner Hugh King wrote nine scripts of the Canadian TV series Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans, which was also syndicated in the US. The series is remembered for having a more realistic view of America and Native Americans than most other programs of the time.  In addition in a 1957 interview with Zuma Palmer, there were two other projects* mentioned that were not discussed in Part Three.

First, it’s stated that Bailey and King had written thirteen episodes (or one third of a typical syndicated TV season of the time) of a series called The Phantom Pirate. The odd thing about this is that there was a pilot for a series called “The Phantom Pirate” which starred Robert Stack and was produced back in 1952** but no record of a latter project. It’s possible that there had been an attempt to revive the concept that fell through. Regardless, whatever work Bailey and King did on the series didn’t make it to screen.

The same would be true of a film project for RKO, Below the Timberline. There’s no record of the film being made, but that’s no surprise. The situation at RKO had deteriorated. Six months after the release of Underwater! and after a lot of corporate drama, Hughes sold RKO to General Tire, who did their best to revive the studio. But by 1957 General Tire had begun a slow process to shut down and sell off existing productions to Universal. It’s quite possible that Bailey and King had sold another story to RKO, but in all the chaos, it never made it to the production stage.

From all appearances, Bailey’s scriptwriting efforts petered out. He wrote the 1957 Yours Truly Johnny Dollar Christmas radio episode, “The Carmen Kringle Matter”, under the pen name Robert Bainter and wrote one more script for Fury in 1958. There’s no record of him writing further.

In the interview with Palmer, Bailey wondered if he’d have had more success if he’d had greater focus. Bailey was a creative person, but that creativity flowed in a lot of directions. He built early American furniture and even sold some pieces. He’d painted and been encouraged to show work at an art gallery. He’d often take over the kitchen on a whim to try out a recipe. Bailey wasn’t cut from the same cloth as Hollywood workaholics like Jack Webb, who put in ridiculous hours on all the TV and film productions he made. Bailey, at least in 1957, was content with this.  “If I would concentrate on one field, I would probably go further, but being creative in several, I feel, enriches my life.”

The radio show continued as a mostly self-contained half-hour series airing on Sunday evenings, but with several recurring characters both in terms insurance agents and eccentric company clients that wanted Johnny Dollar’s services. The series didn’t land a sponsor and the show’s budget was reduced, which meant that the series eventually couldn’t pay for the high caliber of writers who wrote the serials. Eventually, Jack Johnstone, who didn’t have any writing credits prior to Johnny Dollar, began scripting all the episodes. CBS moved away from the single-sponsor model to taking multiple commercial sponsors. While this would pay the bills, the number of commercials led to a reduction in the actual space to tell a story. Sometimes, Johnstone struggled with only 18-19 minutes. He liked stories that featured little details that made them realistic, having interesting characters, comedy, and heartfelt moments. Sometimes, Johnstone couldn’t do everything he wanted and tell a compelling mystery story too. Still, the audience came back and much of that came down to Bailey, whose performance never faltered.

As Bailey’s scriptwriting waned, he took on more screen acting work. He had a small part in the 1958 film The Line Up, a noir that was connected to the TV and radio show of the same name. He also made his first two confirmed television appearances*** in two separate anthology series. In 1959, Bailey appeared in the first episode of the Mike Connor-led crime drama Tight Rope, and in 1960, he appeared on M Squad.

September of 1960 would mark Bailey’s fifth year as the star of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, and the series did something unusual: it turned the episode “The Five Down Matter” into a celebration in which several of the series’ recurring characters threw a party for Johnny. The uninformed observer who listened to the episode out of its context could be forgiven for finding it cheesy and self-indulgent. It was also unusual for the Golden Age of Radio, where if an honor or a milestone were honored, it would be marked by the announcer or occasionally a guest giving a thirty-second presentation and the star saying a brief thank you.

Yet, in context, it was entirely appropriate. The past five years had been an achievement Golden Age radio programs were beginning canceled left and right. New programs had struggled to get started. The idea that the relaunched Yours Truly Johnny Dollar would still be standing in 1960 was worth celebrating. The series also stood out because it was neither a Western nor a daytime soap. “The Five Down Matter” was a love letter to loyal listeners, to the supporting players who created memorable recurring characters, and of course, to Bob Bailey himself.

Also, if “The Five Down Matter” seemed like a lot of pomp and circumstance, it may have been because Johnstone knew that if the show ended, it would be unceremonious. I doubt that, when Johnstone wrote the script, he knew what fate exactly awaited the series. However, the brief recession of 1958 had hastened the end of the Golden Age of Radio and led to lots of discussions about the future. In September, there was an affiliates meeting and then CBS management began to discuss how to enact a new plan.

In October, the producers of all of CBS’ soaps were given a month to resolve all of their long-standing storylines and bring their shows to a conclusion. Have Gun Will Travel and Suspense were canceled. The radio version of Gunsmoke would continue. Yours Truly Johnny Dollar would also continue, but in New York rather than in Hollywood. Bob Bailey declined to move his family to New York. Given the general trajectory of radio that would lead to the end of dramatic radio less than two years later, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he’d have agreed to the move. On November 27, 1960, the last Hollywood episode of Yours Truly Johnny Dollar aired. It ended with no acknowledgment of Bailey’s years on the show or notice of a new actor taking over the role next week.

The casual radio listener who didn’t pay attention to radio news would tune in the next week to find a young man named Bob Reddick playing Johnny Dollar.

After Radio

Bailey continued to work on-screen though less so than many of his former radio peers. According to IMDB, Bailey made three TV guest appearances in 1961****. Compare that to nine for Gerald Mohr or more than a dozen by Herb Vigran. In 1962, Bailey had a short uncredited role in the film The Bird Man of Alcatraz and also made a guest appearance on 87th Precinct. In 1962 and 1963, Bailey had his only recurring TV role, playing a judge in three different episodes of NBC’s legal drama Sam Benedict, which starred fellow former Johnny Dollar Edmond O’Brien.

The radio listener who had been a fan of Bailey and caught one of his early 1960s TV appearances might have smiled on hearing Bailey’s familiar voice and imagined he was doing well after the end of the Golden Age of Radio. This couldn’t have been more wrong. Bailey was dealing with more than career disappointments.

His life was falling apart.

In 1961, his nine-year-old son died. In 1962, his quarter-of-a-century marriage came to an end. Bailey, who was secretly an alcoholic, and had been an AA member for twenty-two years, gave up his sobriety and began to drink heavily. We don’t have enough information to understand how each of these things fed into each other. What we do know is that Bailey’s life headed downhill fast.

His daughter Roberta lost touch with him after the divorce. But that wasn’t the last the world heard of Bob Bailey. He made one final uncredited appearance in the 1964 Disney film A Tiger Walks. The film began shooting on May 13, 1963, a month before Bailey’s 50th Birthday.

Bailey’s fifth decade had begun with a family trip to Hawaii and a promise of an exciting new career in screenwriting. Even though that hadn’t worked out, he’d done the best work of his career, but two and a half years after he left Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Bailey had lost everything: career, family, home, and car. Reviewing stills of Bailey, it was clear that the hardness of the years had taken a toll, as he looked far older than fifty.

Around the time of his fiftieth birthday, in the few weeks that A Tiger Walks was in production, Bob Bailey went to the Disney movie lot and filmed his last acting role, likely in one day, certainly no more than two.

And then, as far as anyone who cared about him knew, Bob Bailey dropped off the face of the Earth.

Concluded in Part Five

Next time: A comeback, another tragedy, gratitude, and then comes the Internet.

*Palmer’s article also mentioned The Big Rainbow and Underwater! as separate projects when “The Big Rainbow” was the story that was adapted into Underwater!

**One source suggested that producer William Broidy intended to make a series about the history of piracy. In Pioneers of B Television by Richard Irvin, it’s stated that the Phantom Pirate “fought for justice and thwarted criminals on the high seas’: which suggests a slight lack of understanding of the nature of pirates!

***Prior to 1958, IMBD credits Bailey as appearing in a 1954 episode of Mr. and Mrs. North, but the character listed did not appear in that episode. It also lists a 1957 episode of the TV version of The Line-Up, but that appearance has not been verified.

****One of the three programs Bailey appeared in during 1961 was the pilot episode of the short-lived crime program The Asphalt Jungle. Additional footage was shot to extend the runtime and turned into the movie The Lawbreakers which was released in Europe and Mexico starting with West Germany in August 1961. An earlier version of this article stated Bailey made four TV appearances in 1961.

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