Today is the birthday of William Conrad (John William Cann, 1920-1994).
Conrad was one of those figures I frequently write about who were cheated of respect by their times. Conrad was a show business veteran with an amazing resume stretching back decades: an actor, director and producer who was successful in all three media: radio, television and cinema. And yet to millions of Americans in the 1970s, he was just “the fat guy on Cannon“.
My dad was a fan and had remembered him from his radio stardom, so as a kid I had an inkling that Conrad was more than just the portly tv detective. Conrad studied drama at Fullerton College, and was already writing, producing, directing and acting in local Los Angeles radio in his early 20s. Gifted with one of the best voices in the business, deep, resonant, forceful and stentorian, he ranks with Orson Welles as one of the medium’s most successful actors, playing over 7,500 roles over the decades, most famously Matt Dillon in the radio version of Gunsmoke (1952-1961).
Unlike Welles, Conrad was not associated with classics and literature so much as noir and crime stories and the like. By the mid 40s, he had broken into films, too, and you can see him in such gritty classics as The Killers (1946), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Naked Jungle (1952). Among other movies, he also produced and directed the camp horror classic Two on a Guillotine (1965), as well My Blood Runs Cold and Brainstorm (both also 1965–busy year!), and produced the rock and roll musical The Cool Ones (1967), and the early Robert Altman film Countdown (1968).
In the post radio days he was still in demand as a voiceover artist and narrator. That’s him as the announcer on the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959-1964) and The Fugitive (1963-1967), in the 1970 John Wayne film Chisum, and the tv nature series The Wild, Wild World of Animals (1973-1978).
And of course, his trilogy of portly policemen on Cannon (1971-1976), Nero Wolfe (1981), and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992). One of his last gigs was narrating the movie Hudson Hawk (1991).
These are just a few benchmarks. To truly detail all of his career accomplishments would take a blogpost many times this length. One of the things that interests me a great deal is the parallelism with the career of Orson Welles, and the ways in which they diverged. In a way, Welles was a prisoner of his brilliance as an actor and director — ironically it kept him from getting more of the bread and butter type work that paid the bills and that he was fully qualified to do. He barely achieved even a toe-hold in television. Whereas Conrad was admittedly much more of a journeyman. Because of it, there was room in his life to become the major television star he was during his last couple of decades. But that came with its own ironic twist — very few people knew about his own credits behind the cameras.
And then there’s the obvious fact that they both possessed similar body types, especially in later years. I imagine the pair of them butted heads over many a gig over the decades.
At any rate, a man to be celebrated — he kept millions of people entertained for over half a century.