Day 22 of Noirvember: The “What a Character!” Blogathon Presents William Conrad

•November 22, 2015 • 5 Comments

Perhaps most familiar to modern audiences for his television roles in the popular series Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, William Conrad possessed talents that stretched far beyond his portrayals of stocky small-screen lawmen. During his 50-year career, he served in such varied capacities as producer, director, and even lyricist; he portrayed characters on an estimated 7,500 radio broadcasts; and his distinctive baritone voice can be heard on numerous television programs including The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky and The Fugitive. While Conrad’s screen career consisted of fewer than 40 features, the actor nonetheless offered a memorable presence in six films noirs: The Killers (1946), Body and Soul (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Tension (1949), Cry Danger (1951), and The Racket (1951).

The portly, mustachioed actor was born William Cann in Louisville, Kentucky, on September 27, 1920. The son of a theater owner, he once maintained that a career in the field of entertainment was almost inevitable.

“It all came about so naturally that I was never consciously aware of my desire for ‘showbiz’ until I had fallen right in the middle of it,” Conrad said in 1971. “My father, from the time I was two years old, had been a motion picture exhibitor, and I suppose it never occurred to me to do anything else but be an actor.”

When young William was seven years old, his family moved to Los Angeles, California, and after his graduation from Excelsior High School in nearby Bellflower, he enrolled as a literature and drama major at Fullerton Junior College. It was while he was a student at the latter institution that William got his first taste of performing by landing a job at a local radio station, KMPC.

Changing his last name to Conrad, the actor was heard on numerous radio broadcasts, and in his spare time, he took singing lessons that revealed an impressive bass voice with a three-octave range. But with the onset of World War II in 1942, Conrad’s burgeoning radio career was interrupted and he signed up with the United States Air Force, serving in World War II for the next four years as a fighter pilot. During a 1943 furlough, Conrad married a non-professional, June Nelson, but the couple later divorced. The actor married again in 1958, to former fashion model Susan Randall, with whom he later had a son, Charles. He would remain married to Susan until her death in 1979, after a two-year battle with cancer. The following year, Conrad would take a final trip down the aisle, marrying Tippy Huntley, the widow of famed newsman Chet Huntley.

Conrad was a standout as one of The Killers.

Conrad was a standout as one of The Killers.

Meanwhile, after his release from the service, Conrad was immediately thrust into the world of film noir, debuting on the big screen in The Killers (1946). In this tautly directed thriller, Conrad plays a hired assassin by the name of Max who, along with his partner, Al (Charles McGraw), opens the picture with a literal bang. Searching for a small-town gas station attendant known as “the Swede” (Burt Lancaster), Max and Al terrorize a trio of men inside a local diner where the Swede is a regular customer.  (“We’re gonna kill the Swede,” Max nonchalantly reveals.  “He never had a chance to do anything to us, he never even seen us.  We’re killin’ him for a friend.”) When he doesn’t show, the men find the Swede in his apartment and wordlessly gun him down as he lay in bed. The remainder of the film focuses on a series of flashbacks that reveal the reasons behind the Swede’s murder, including his obsession with the duplicitous Kitty (Ava Gardner), his association with a double-crossing gang leader, “Big Jim” Colfax (Albert Dekker), and a $250,000 payroll heist.

The next year, Conrad remained in the realm of noir with his sole screen appearance of 1947, Body and Soul. This feature told the story of prizefighter Charlie Davis (John Garfield), following his triumphant climb from amateur fighter to boxing champion. Conrad portrayed a corrupt promoter who benefits from the boxer’s rise to fame and fortune, and earned mention from several critics, including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who found the actor “revolting as a punk.”

Conrad played a "hands-on" role in Body and Soul.

Conrad played a “hands-on” role in Body and Soul.

Conrad’s next film noir roles were in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and Tension (1949). The first, hailed by one reviewer as a “real chiller,” begins as a bedridden heiress, Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck), overhears a telephone conversation in which two men plot a woman’s murder.  Although the call is disconnected before the name of the woman is revealed, Leona discovers through a series of frantic telephone calls that her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster), is being blackmailed by a former partner – played by Conrad – for $200,000. She also learns that SHE is the intended murder victim.

After his sinister role as the blackmailer in Sorry, Wrong Number, Conrad switched to the right side of the law for his fourth film noir, Tension. Here, the actor portrayed Lt. Edgar Gonsales who, with his partner, investigates the murder of a wealthy local man, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

During the next two years, Conrad played such varied roles as a police lieutenant in East Side, West Side, a so-so soaper with Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason; a crooked dice shooter in Any Number Can Play (1949), starring Clark Gable; an ill-fated bartender named Chuckles in Dial 1119 (1950), and a French major in the swashbuckling adventure The Sword of Monte Cristo (1951). He also added two more features to his noir repertoire, Cry Danger (1951) and The Racket. The first centered on a motley crew of characters including Rocky Malloy (Dick Powell), recently released after a five-year prison stretch for a murder and $100,000 robbery he didn’t commit; Delong (Richard Erdman), an amiable, hard-drinking marine who manufactured the alibi that earned Rocky’s release; and Castro (Conrad), a hard-boiled racketeer. In his third-billed role, Conrad made his most distinctive film noir appearance; in one chillingly memorable scene, he is forced to confess to his crimes when Rocky repeatedly fires a gun at his head in “Russian Roulette” fashion. For his standout performance, Conrad was singled out in the New York Times for “play[ing] the heavy with unctuous delight.”

Conrad co-starred in The Racket with Robert Mitchum and William Talman.

Conrad co-starred in The Racket with Robert Mitchum and William Talman.

The Racket, the last of Conrad’s films noirs, starred Robert Mitchum as an honest police captain, Tom McQuigg, and Robert Ryan as his nemesis, Nick Scanlon, a seemingly untouchable mobster. McQuigg finds that his efforts to bring Scanlon to justice are stymied by Sgt. Turck (Conrad), a member of the state’s attorney’s special investigations department, and city prosecutor Welch (Ray Collins), who are controlled by the city’s powerful organized crime organization. Conrad’s portrayal of the intelligent but deadly official represented a fitting conclusion to his film noir career.

Between films during this period, Conrad provided the narration for a short-lived television anthology series, Escape, and lent his distinctive speaking voice to numerous radio programs. In 1952, he took on the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on the popular radio series Gunsmoke, which ran until 1961. Throughout the remainder of the 1950s, Conrad divided his time between his radio projects and such feature films as The Ride Back (1957), in which he portrayed a law enforcement officer who tracks down a fugitive played by Anthony Quin. In addition to its first-rate performances, the latter film was notable as Conrad’s first outing as a feature film producer. The following year, the actor further expanded his repertoire when he added directing to his growing list of abilities.

“Directing always held a certain fascination for me and the thought of one day producing seemed like an impossible dream,” Conrad said in 1971. “Acting, at that time, struck me as a kind of child’s play and that a man should have more responsibility in life than just being an actor.”

Conrad and the cast of the radio version of Gunsmoke.

Conrad and the cast of the radio version of Gunsmoke.

Conrad began his career behind the camera at Ziv Studios, one of the top 10 production companies during the early days of television. In his directorial debut, he helmed an episode of the television show Target, hosted by veteran screen star Adolphe Menjou, then agreed to perform in five episodes of the popular western series Bat Masterson on the condition that he be allowed to direct five episodes. As it turned out, Conrad retired from acting after appearing in only one segment of the show, and went on to serve as director on several other series, including the TV version of Gunsmoke (he was rejected for the screen role of Marshal Dillon because of his balding pate and ever-increasing girth). He was also brought in as producer and director in an effort to boost the sagging ratings of the “hip” detective series, 77 Sunset Strip, which was produced by Warner Bros. television. Following Conrad’s work on the series, he was hired to direct several feature films for Warners.

“I was producing 77 Sunset Strip and my contract expired on a Friday. I was putting my junk in my car when I was told Jack Warner was calling me,” Conrad recalled in a 1966 Los Angeles Times interview. “Since I had seen Mr. Warner only once or twice in two years, I thought one of the guys was putting me on. But it was really Mr. Warner, who got me at home about two hours later and said, ‘I want you to act, to direct, to produce – do anything you want.’”

Conrad went on to direct several feature films for Warners, and was also hired as executive producer for Warner Brothers television.

One of Conrad's TV Guide covers as Cannon.

One of Conrad’s TV Guide covers as Cannon.

He also kept a hand in the performing end of the business, providing narration for such series as The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky, The Fugitive, The March of Time, George of the Jungle, and The Dudley-Do-Right Show. But late in the decade, he was convinced by a friend to step back in front of the camera, which led to a second acting career. After playing the role of a longshoreman’s union boss in the hit television series In the Name of the Game, Conrad was tapped for the lead role in a new detective series, Cannon. Unlike most television detectives up until that time, Frank Cannon was – as described by Conrad – “a non-glamorous, rather portly private eye who has a weight problem and doesn’t always outwit the villain.”

Despite his many years in the entertainment business, Conrad earned the honor of “Most Promising New Male TV Star” from Motion Picture Daily-Television Today after the first season of Cannon. Although the show enjoyed a successful run on CBS-TV from 1971 to 1976, however, Conrad later expressed disappointment with the series.

“Most of television is crap.  Cannon was crap,” he said shortly after the show left the air.  “I was delighted to see it cancelled.”

After Cannon, Conrad appeared in two short-lived television series and several made-for-television movies, including The Mikado (1982), the Gilbert and Sullivan musical in which he surprised viewers with his singing ability. He also briefly returned to the big screen to play the head of a local syndicate in Moonshine Country Express (1977), and later provided the narration for three television series, Tales of the Unexpected (1977), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) and Manimal (1983).

With Joe Penny, Conrad's co-star in Jake and the Fatman.

With Joe Penny, Conrad’s co-star in Jake and the Fatman.

Then, in 1987, Conrad landed the lead role in his second successful TV series, Jake and the Fatman, a spinoff of an episode of the popular Andy Griffith legal series, Matlock. As Jason Lochinvar “Fatman” McCabe, Conrad portrayed a curmudgeonly, slovenly former cop turned Honolulu district attorney with a weakness for Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps. Although the series was a modest hit, Conrad soon became disillusioned with the writing of the show, and said at one point, “I want to get out. When I say what I think, I get in trouble.” Still, the actor remained with the series throughout its five-year run, and was later praised by the show’s executive producer.

“[Conrad] could be irascible and very blunt and direct in his opinions,” said Dean Hargrove, “but underneath it all he was a very decent, thoughtful, and considerate gentleman.”

Prior to the cancellation of Jake and the Fatman, Conrad was tapped as the narrator for Hudson Hawk (1991), a critical and financial disaster starring Bruce Willis. It would be Conrad’s last feature film. On February 11, 1994, the actor suffered a heart attack at his home and died later at the North Hollywood Medical Center. He was 73 years old.

William Conrad will primarily be remembered for his television series roles, but his prolific radio appearances earned him a posthumous induction in 1997 in the Radio Hall of Fame. In addition to his radio and television work, he should also be honored for the versatility that allowed him to wear the hats of producer, director, executive, and one of the greatest screen heavies of film noir.

“You get a guy like Bill, he simply wasn’t concerned about whether he was successful or not,” Conrad’s wife, Tippy, said after his death. “He just had a strong notion about what he wanted and he went ahead and did it.”


This post is part of the What a Character! Blogathon, presented by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club. Visit these blogs to check out the great posts offered as part of this annual event! You only owe it to yourself.

And join me tomorrow for Day 23 of Noirvember!


Day 21 of Noirvember: All About Jean (Hagen)

•November 22, 2015 • 1 Comment

Blessed with a talent for versatility, Jean Hagen is probably best known for her performance as a self-centered silent screen star in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but she was also featured in three films noirs: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Side Street (1950), and The Big Knife (1955). Today’s Noirvember entry shares some fun facts about this underrated actress.

Born in Chicago in 1923, Hagen’s given name was Jean Shirley Ver Hagen. After shortening her name, she would later lament, “I wish I’d kept it Ver Hagen.”

Hagen’s father was a native of Holland who came to the United States at the age of 25 to study opera.

After attending high school in Elkhart, Indiana, Hagen attended Northwestern University, where her roommate was another aspiring actress – Patricia Neal. Hagen’s first child, Patricia Christine, is named after Neal.

When she was just starting out as an actress in New York, Hagen made ends meet by ushering at the Booth Theatre. The play on stage at the Booth was written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur – Hecht was at the theater one night and asked Hagen what she thought of the production. “’It stinks,’ I told him quite frankly,” Hagen recalled. “He argued with me, and asked me how I would like to appear in it. Did I!” Hagen was given a small part in the play, but before she was able to assume the role, she came down with appendicitis and was hospitalized. After her recovery, she took over the part, making her Broadway debut in 1946.

Hagen made her screen debut in Adam’s Rib (1949), starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hagen played “that tall job” who is responsible for disrupting the marriage of Tom Ewell and Judy Holliday.

For her performance in Singin’ in the Rain, Hagen earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but she lost to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and The  Beautiful (1952).

Hagen played Margaret Williams, Danny Thomas’s wife on TV’s Make Room for Daddy. She was twice nominated for an Emmy, but after just a year, she’d grown tired of the role. “Margaret Williams is a dear,” Hagen said, “but I can’t see her raising any male blood pressure.” She eventually left the series and her character was killed off.

Join me tomorrow for Day 22 of Noirvember!

Day 20 of Noirvember: Neville Brand’s Road to Noir

•November 21, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Neville Brand was once told that his face looked as though the entire Russian Army had conducted a three-day battle on it in their mountain climbing boots. The actor with the craggy kisser and villainous reputation wasn’t offended.

“Guys like me will be around this town a lot longer than the pretty boys because we are . . . one of a kind,” he said. “We may produce nightmares instead of pleasant dreams, but we aren’t forgotten.”

A bonafide hero of World War II who waged and won a hard-fought battle against alcoholism, Brand was typed throughout his film and television career as a “heavy,” but was able to show his versatility in roles such as the kind-hearted guard in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and the loud-mouthed, good-hearted Texas Ranger in TV’s Laredo. But it is the roles that called for a gun in his hand and a sneer on his lips that stand out in the memory, and these were the roles that he played in his six films noirs: D.O.A. (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), The Mob (1951), The Turning Point (1952), and Kansas City Confidential (1952).

Today’s Noirvember entry talks about Brand’s war years and the road he took to the realm of noir.

One of seven children, Neville Brand was born on August 13, 1920 (some sources say 1921), in Griswold, Iowa. His father, Leo, a bridge builder, moved the family to Kewanee, Illinois when Brand was seven and divorced his wife, Helen, a few years later. To help support his large family, Brand landed a series of jobs, including soda jerk, waiter, and shoe salesman.

“I even worked in a bookie joint,” he told a TV Guide reporter in 1966.

According to Brand’s Paramount Studio biography and other published reports, the future actor joined the First Ranger Battalion at the age of 16 and was one of only 99 survivors of a 3,000-man unit that fought at Dieppe, on the coast of France. There is no evidence that Brand was ever a member of the Rangers, however, and his brother, Bryce Brand, later said that “there was a lot they printed about Nev that wasn’t true.” Other sources state that Brand’s graduated from high school, entered the Illinois National Guard, and was later inducted into the U.S. Army.  Regardless of his origins of service, it is a fact that Brand distinguished himself during World War II; among his many medals, he was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery during an encounter with German soldiers. When his unit came under a machine-gun attack from a hunting lodge being used as a German command post, Brand dodged the enemy fire, entered the lodge from a rear door, and sprayed the occupants with a Tommy gun.

“I must have flipped my lid,” Brand later said of his actions.

Shortly before the war’s end, in April 1945, Brand was felled by a gunshot to his upper right arm and nearly bled to death while penned by enemy fire. (“I knew I was dying,” he said in 1966. “It was a lovely feeling, like being half-loaded.”) After his rescue, Brand was awarded the Purple Heart, and received a series of other decorations, including the Good Conduct Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the American Defense Service Ribbon, and the European/African/Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with three Battle Stars. His honors earned him the status of the fourth most decorated soldier of World War II.

Following his honorable discharge from the Army, Brand got his first taste of acting with his appearance in a 1946 U.S. Army Signal Corps propaganda film, which featured another future star, Charlton Heston. After this experience, Brand took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights to study acting in New York and began appearing in a series of off-Broadway plays, including Jean-Paul Satre’s The Victors. He was spotted in this production by Hollywood producer Harry Popkin, who gave Brand a small role in his picture, D.O.A. (1950) , which served as Brand’s foray into the world of film noir.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Join me tomorrow for Day 21 of Noirvember!



Day 19 of Noirvember: My Top 25 Noirs

•November 20, 2015 • 6 Comments

Thanks to a recent comment from fellow blogger Carol over at The Old Hollywood Garden, I was reminded of a list I wrote last year that consisted of my top 25 classic movies. It includes all types of films, from Gaslight to It’s a Wonderful Life to All About Eve — and six noirs! But I’ve never done such a list strictly for film noir. Top 10, yes. Top 25, no.

So, for today’s Noirvember entry, I decided to offer up my 25 favorite films noirs. It was harder than I expected to narrow down the list — but so much fun! Here goes . . .

Ace in the Hole

The Asphalt Jungle 

The Big Combo

The Big Heat

The Damned Don't Cry: What's a top 25 list (or any list, really) without Joan Crawford???

The Damned Don’t Cry: What’s a top 25 list (or any list, really) without Joan Crawford???

Born to Kill

Criss Cross

The Damned Don’t Cry


Double indemnity


Gun Crazy

The Killing


Leave Her to Heaven

Mildred Pierce

New York Confidential

Nora Prentiss

You just knew Out of the Past would be on here, didn't ya?

You just knew Out of the Past would be on here, didn’t ya?

Out of the Past

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Shield for Murder

Sudden Fear

Sunset Boulevard

They Live By Night

Too Late for Tears


Did I include any of your favorites? What are your top 25? Share them here!

And join me tomorrow for Day 20 of Noirvember!

Day 18 of Noirvember: Confidential Trivia

•November 18, 2015 • Leave a Comment

New York Confidential (1955) is one of my favorite lesser-known noirs. It stars Richard Conte – and that fact alone is worth the price of admission – who’s ably backed by a stellar line-up that includes Broderick Crawford, Anne Bancroft, J. Carroll Naish, Marilyn Maxwell, and Mike Mazurki. Penned by the writers of D.O.A. (1950), New York Confidential is a briskly directed, hard-hitting story about organized crime in the “city that never sleeps.”

Today’s Noirvember entry serves up a few tidbits of trivia about this first-rate feature – along with an emphatic recommendation that you check it out the first chance you get!

  • Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse were responsible for more than just the screenplay for New York Confidential. Greene was the film’s producer and Rouse directed.
  • The mother of mob boss Broderick Crawford was played by Celia Lovsky, who was Peter Lorre’s first wife.
  • Ralph Clanton, the uncredited narrator of the film, had a busy, if low-key career, appearing in films and TV from the 1940s through the 1980s. His last role was in the Eddie Murphy-Dan Akyroyd hit, Trading Places (1983).

    Marilyn Maxwell in one of her last feature film roles.

    Marilyn Maxwell in one of her last feature film roles.

  • New York Confidential gave Marilyn Maxwell one of her last feature film roles. Throughout the rest of the 1950s, until her death in the early 1970s, she appeared on numerous television shows, including GunsmokeMake Room for Daddy, and Here’s Lucy. Maxwell was a radio singer before signing with MGM in 1942. Upon the insistence of studio head Louis B. Mayer, she dropped her real first name, Marvel, in favor of her middle name, Marilyn.
  • Beefy Mike Mazurki, who played a gunman in the film, played professional football for a while, and then turned to wrestling, fighting for several years under the moniker of “Iron Mike.”
  • Broderick Crawford’s voice was once likened to a cross between “the love call of a caribou and the horn of a diesel streamliner.”

Join me tomorrow for Day 19 of Noirvember!

Day 17 of Noirvember: Fun with Tommy Udo

•November 17, 2015 • 5 Comments

SSRichard8Did you catch Kiss of Death on TCM the other night? You know, the one where Richard Widmark rolls a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs, and then cracks up laughing? (Yikes.)

For today’s Noirvember post, here’s one of my favorite lines from the film, delivered by Widmark’s character. He’s talking to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), and believe me, he ain’t talkin’ about Tiddly Winks.

“We’re goin’ right on being pals, you and me. We’re gonna have some fun together. Lots of fun, just like we used to. You got a wife and kids, ain’t ya, pal? They’re gonna have some fun, too. I’m gonna enjoy meetin’ your family. Kids like to have fun. We’ll all have some fun together. You and me. And your wife. And your kids. From now on, lots of fun.”

— Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark)

Day 16 of Noirvember, Part 2: The Trials of Tom Neal

•November 16, 2015 • 3 Comments

Tom Neal’s life was like a movie. A tragic one.

He was born with the proverbial “silver spoon,” received a quality education at the nation’s finest schools – he was the All-American boy. When he decided to pursue an acting career, he had little trouble getting started, and while his films were not usually of top-notch caliber, he at least never wanted for assignments. But his career was cut short due to a romantic entanglement and a volatile temper, he was faced with tragic circumstances when trying to turn his life around, and he finally wound up imprisoned for killing his wife.

Not exactly the stuff of which dreams are made.

The luckless actor with the rugged good looks was born on January 18, 1914, in Evanston, Illinois, the first of two children of to Mary Martin Neal and her wealthy banker husband, Thomas C. Neal. He graduated in 1934 from Harvard University, where he excelled at track, golf, tennis, skiing, and boxing, and made All-American on the football team. Neal’s interest in acting was first demonstrated through his performances in college plays, and after his graduation, he did summer theater in the Catskills, toured in the play The Old Maid, and appeared in a number of productions. One of these attracted the notice of MGM talent scout, Martin Stein, who arranged for a screen test and promptly signed the 24-year-old to a contract.

Neal made his screen debut in Out West with the Hardys (1938), the fourth in the long-running series. The following year, he appeared in nearly a dozen films, mostly forgettable; his best performance that year came in Within the Law (1939), for which the critic in Variety wrote: “Tom Neal, displaying a rugged and vigorous personality similar to John Garfield, gets his first crack at a lead and puts it over most competently.”

By now, Neal had established himself as a reliable member of the MGM family, and his efforts were rewarded when he was cast in the big-budget Joan Crawford-Clark Gable starrer, Strange Cargo (1940). Instead of capitalizing on his big break, however, Neal made the first of many mistakes. Before filming began, Neal made an unwelcome pass on Crawford, who reported the incident to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer. Neal was unceremoniously removed from the film, replaced by actor John Aldridge, and as additional punishment, was loaned out to RKO for Courageous Dr. Christian (1940), starring Jean Hersholt. Although Neal received good notices for his performance, he was dropped by MGM after small roles in just three more pictures.

Before long, Neal was picked up by Columbia Studios, and in his first film there, Under Age (1941), he earned praise in Variety for his “life-like character” portrayal. Although Neal was still not on his way to star status, he was nonetheless kept busy, and also appeared in a number of films featuring such Hollywood elite as John Wayne in Flying Tigers (1942) , Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees (1942), Gene Tierney in China Girl (1942), John Garfield in Air Force (1943), and Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray in No Time for Love (1943).

Another big break appeared to come Neal’s way in 1943 when he was cast in RKO’s Behind the Rising Son, in an interesting cast that included Margo, J. Carroll Naish, Robert Ryan, and Mike Mazurki. Termed by one reviewer as an anti-war feature focusing how the “Japanese military machine . . . can turn an upright and honorable man into a snarling and killing cur,” this film was a huge box-office success and earned Neal some of the best notices of his career. He followed it up, however, with starring roles in a series of duds, including Klondike Kate (1943), The Racket Man (1944), and Two-Man Submarine (1944).

But the highlight of Neal’s film performances was just ahead. In 1945, he starred opposite Ann Savage in his sole film noir, Detour, a grim story about a hard-luck everyman who makes wrong choices and finds him caught up in circumstances beyond his control – not unlike Neal himself. (Click here for more on this film.)

A low-budget feature that cost only about $20,000 to make, Detour turned out to be one of the sleepers of the year, and decades later, ranks among film noir’s most famous entries. Upon its release, Neal was singled out for praise in numerous reviews; the critic for Variety said he “does well with a difficult role that rates him a break in something better,” and the Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote: “Tom Neal grips you with every move and facial expression.”

However, as much as Detour was the highlight of Neal’s career, it also marked the turning point. He continued his spate of non-stop filming, but the only picture of note was First Yank Into Tokyo (1945), the first American film to depict the atomic attack on Japan. After this picture, Neal returned to his roots on the stage, touring during the summer of 1945 with Miriam Hopkins in Laura, portraying the role popularized by Dana Andrews in the 1944 film. Back in Hollywood after the tour ended, Neal was signed to a contract by Universal, starring opposite Martha O’Driscoll in a silly whodunit, Blonde Alibi (1946) and in The Brute Man (1946), with disfigured character actor Rondo Hattan, who died before the film was released. During the shooting of this gruesome feature, Universal merged with International Pictures and, along with most of the studios contract players, Neal was dropped. He spent the next several years playing lackluster roles in mediocre films for such poverty row studios as Monogram, PRC, and Lippert, which signed him to a contract.

Off-screen, Neal married for the first time in 1948, to actress Vicki Lane, whose best screen role was probably her portrayal of a half-ape, half-woman in Universal’s The Jungle Captive (1945). The couple divorced in 1950. The following year, Neal was introduced to actress Barbara Payton at a party – the meeting would signal the onset of a drastic descent in the actor’s personal life. Payton, a buxom, attractive blonde, was well on her way to a promising screen career, having starred opposite James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) and with Gregory Peck in Only the Valiant (1951). At the time of their meeting, Payton was involved with actor Franchot Tone, but she and Neal plunged headlong into a whirlwind romance and after just a few weeks, Payton ended her romance with Tone by announcing to the press that she and Neal were engaged. The actress then changed her mind, and resumed her relationship with Tone, only to once again reverse her affections two months later and return to Neal. The couple told the press that they would marry on September 14, 1951.

On the night before the wedding was to take place, Neal learned that Payton was on a date with Tone, and he waited at Payton’s home for their return. According to newspaper accounts, Payton and Tone arrived at her house in the pre-dawn hours and Neal confronted them on the front lawn. An argument ensued and, while there was dispute about who threw the first punch, the facts are plain that Neal’s battering of Tone left him with a brain concussion, a broken nose, and fractured cheekbones. The enraged actor struck Payton as well.

Neal was arrested and charged with “using his fists as a weapon.” In addition, Tone sued him for $150,000. Although Payton visited the ailing Tone in the hospital and had tearfully declared her love for him to the press, newspapers reported just days after the incident that she was once again seeing Neal on the sly. Still, following Tone’s was released from the hospital, he and Payton were married on September 28, 1951. Afterward, Hedda Hopper commented on the union in her column, saying “Thank God, now we can all relax.”

But the story didn’t end there.

Just seven weeks later, Payton and Tone separated, and were divorced the following May. Meanwhile, after Neal served eight months in the Los Angeles County Prison for the incident, and was ordered to pay tone $100,000 in damages, he and Payton once again resumed their volatile relationship. But the scandal had taken its toll on both their careers. Barbara was fired from a Walter Wanger production she’d been scheduled to star in, Lady in the Iron Mask (1952), and replaced by Patricia Medina. Instead, she was loaned out by Warner Brothers for a low-budget horror flick, Bride of the Gorilla (1951). Neal found the doors in Hollywood closed to him as well. With only one more picture left on his contract with Lippert, the studio craftily attempted to capitalize on Neal and Payton’s notoriety by casting them together in a quickie western, The Great Jesse James Raid (1953). It would be Neal’s last film appearance. The couple also toured Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh in a production of The Postman Always Rings Twice, billed as “The Tempestuous Colorful Hollywood Stars.”

In 1953, Neal accompanied Payton to London where she was scheduled to star in an English feature. Neal hoped to make Payton his wife, telling the press of his plans to “marry her and have five or six children,” but Payton was less enthusiastic. “Marry Tom?” she was quoted in one article. “I just don’t know. My career is so important.” During their stay in London, Neal and Payton fought constantly, and Neal ultimately returned to Hollywood alone, finally signaling the end of their turbulent union. (Payton would only appear in three more films. In later years, she was arrested for passing bad checks, turned to alcohol and prostitution, and died in 1967 at the San Diego home of her parents in 1967. She was 39 years old.)

As for Neal, after the demise of his relationship with Payton, he moved to Chicago, where he appeared on a local soaper, A Time to Live. The following year, he returned to Hollywood but, unable to find work, he moved to Palm Springs, where he worked as night manager in a restaurant.

At this point in Neal’s stormy life, things finally began to look up. Having had an interest in gardening since his childhood, he obtained a license for landscape architecture and started a successful landscaping business. “It was tough work at first under the broiling desert sun, but it was worth it,” Neal told United Press writer Vernon Scott in 1957. “I really found myself – the first time in my life.” Neal also began studying the Christian Science faith and remarried, this time to Patricia Fenton, a local girl, with whom he had a son, Tom, Jr. “I’m a very fortunate man,” he told Scott. “I wouldn’t go back to acting for anything. I’ve found religion, a good wife and work I can be proud of.”

But Neal’s happiness wouldn’t last. In 1958, Patricia died of cancer, their young son was sent to live with Neal’s sister in Evanston, Illinois, and the former actor’s life began another downward slide. He began drinking heavily, and in 1961 married Gale Bennett, a former hostess in a tennis club, but the stormy marriage was doomed from the start. His business later failed, and he was forced to file for bankruptcy. Then, in 1965, while Neal was visiting his son in Evanston, his wife filed for divorce. It was upon Neal’s return to Palm Springs that things truly took a turn for the worse. On April 2, 1965, newspaper headlines screamed the news that the body of Gail Neal had been found on the living room sofa in the couple’s home. She had been shot in the head.

Neal was charged with murder.

According to Neal, his wife was accidentally shot while they struggled for a gun that she had pulled on him, angered because of Neal’s accusations of infidelity. During Neal’s subsequent trial, however, witnesses told a different story. One, the co-owner of a local restaurant, said that Neal had come to his establishment on the night of the shooting and told him: “I shot her. She was napping.”

In November 1965, Neal was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced by Superior Court Judge Hilton H. McCabe to 1 to 10 years at Soledad State Prison. “Even God has to answer to McCabe, I guess,” Neal told reporters after the sentencing. “This is his vengeance.”  The former actor served part of his sentence there, then was later assigned to the work-furlough program at the state’s Institution for Men in Chino, California, where he was paroled in December 1971.

Following his six-year imprisonment, Neal, now appearing far older than his years, returned to Hollywood, where he took up residence with his then-15-year-old son, Thomas. He told reporters that he planned to join an Encino-based television firm, but it wasn’t to be. Just eight months after his parole, on August 7, 1972, Neal was found dead in his bed by his son. An autopsy later determined that he died of heart failure.

Ironically, almost two decades after his father’s death, Tom Neal, Jr., starred in a remake of his father’s best-remembered film, Detour, playing the same role of the hapless musician that his father had portrayed in the mid-1940s. The remake, unfortunately, failed to live up to the original and after playing in limited theatrical release in 1992, was finally released to video in 1998.

There are few Hollywood stories as grim and relentless as the life of Tom Neal. Like the character he played in his famed film noir, he often seemed caught up in circumstances beyond his control. In a description of the character his father played, Tom Neal, Jr., seemed to accurately typify his father’s fate as well:  “[He wasn’t] a loser in the classic sense – he’s a guy in a jam. And once he gets there, there’s no getting out.”


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