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.
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’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.”
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 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.
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).
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!