On Rex Stout and “Nero Wolfe”

It was very cool to realize last night I am related to Rex Stout (1886-1975), and pretty close, too, as things go. His great-great grandfather Charles Stout (1742-1822), was my (6th) great grandfather. I’m not going to waste time today calculating what that makes us in relation to each other (i.e., 4th cousins, 4x removed or whatever it is), but maybe I will in future, just out of curiosity. I’d assumed, I think, that in the author’s name had been a nom de plume like “Ellery Queen“, but no, he was a proper Stout. And that’s a thing. The Stouts are a very old American Quaker family. They were fruitful and multiplied; there are many notable ones in American history.

I first became acquainted with the author when I was a tween and had a summer or two when I read a lot of anthologized mysteries and paperbacks at the beach. Stout is most famous for his character Nero Wolfe, a gourmandizing, plant-loving, overweight recluse who literally solved most of his crimes from the comfort of his armchair. The character was from Montenegro, so Stout borrowed a little from Agatha Christie’s Poirot, I think: a fastidious, food loving foreigner. That’s another reason I think I may have assumed the author’s name was a pseudonym: how perfect that Nero Wolfe’s creator was named “Stout”!

There were many, many film, radio and tv adaptations over the years. I’ll only mention a few of the notable ones. The first film, Meet Nero Wolfe (1937) starred Edward Arnold as the detective, Lionel Stander as his sidekick Archie, and a young Rita Hayworth. A 1950 radio version starred Sydney Greenstreet! Too bad we didn’t get to see that on screen! Most tantalizing of all, Orson Welles had been interested in doing films of the books in the classic studio era, but Stout, disappointed with past versions, turned him down. After Stout died, ABC started work on a TV version with Welles in the role. Astoundingly, Welles finally passed on the project in 1977. Too bad for us fans. Apparently at various times Charles Laughton and Victor Buono were also considered for the role.

In 1981, NBC brought it to the small screen with the next best thing to Welles in the part, William Conrad. Fans of the character were not ecstatic about the adaptation, which was updated to the present day, and altered the prickly main character to make him more likable. The network thought they had a hit on their hands and hyped it heavily, as evidenced by these TV Guide ads:

But the show went head to head with The Dukes of Hazzard in its time slot and only lasted one season. Today its remembered as a blip between William Conrad’s hit shows Cannon (1971-76) and Jake and the Fat Man (1987-1992).

This wasn’t Nero Wolfe’s last hurrah on American TV. In 2001 and 2002 A&E ran A Nero Wolfe Mystery, which was set in the 1940s and ’50s. It featured Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie (which feels a bit of stunt casting as his dad Jim Hutton played Ellery Queen, also set in the ’40s).