William Conrad (John William Cann)

William Conrad

William Conrad estimated that he played more than 7,500 roles during his radio career. At KMPC, the 22-year-old Conrad produced and acted in The Hermit’s Cave (circa 1940–44), the Los Angeles incarnation of a popular syndicated horror anthology series created at WJR Detroit. He was among the supporting cast for the espionage drama The Man Called X (1944–48); the syndicated dramatic anthology Favorite Story (1946–49); the adventure dramas The Count of Monte Cristo (Mutual 1947–48), The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (Mutual 1947–48), The Green Lama (CBS 1949), and Nightbeat (NBC 1950–52); Romance (1950) and Hollywood Star Playhouse (1950–53); Errol Flynn’s The Modern Adventures of Casanova (Mutual 1952); and Cathy and Elliott Lewis’s On Stage (CBS 1953–54). Conrad was the voice of Escape (1947–1954), a high-adventure radio series. He played Warchek, a menacing policeman, in Johnny Modero: Pier 23 (Mutual 1947), a detective series starring Jack Webb, and was in the cast of Webb’s crime drama Pete Kelly’s Blues (NBC 1951). He played newspaper editor Walter Burns opposite Dick Powell’s reporter Hildy Johnson in the ABC radio drama The Front Page (1948). He was Dave the Dude in the syndicated drama anthology series, The Damon Runyon Theater (1948); Lt. Dundy in the NBC radio series, The Adventures of Sam Spade (1949–1950); boss to government special agent Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in The Silent Men (NBC 1951); and a New Orleans bartender in the NBC adventure drama, Jason and the Golden Fleece (1952–53). Most prominently, Conrad’s deep, resonant voice was heard in the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS Radio’s gritty Western series, Gunsmoke (April 26, 1952 – June 18, 1961). The producers originally rejected him for the part due to his ubiquitous presence on so many radio dramas and the familiarity of his voice, but his impressive audition could not be dismissed, and he became the obvious choice for the role. Conrad voiced Dillon for the show’s nine-year run, and he wrote the June 1953 episode “Sundown.” When Gunsmoke was adapted for television in 1955, executives at CBS did not cast Conrad or his radio costars, despite a campaign to get them to change their minds. His other credits include Suspense, Lux Radio Theater, and Fibber McGee and Molly. In “The Wax Works”, a 1956 episode of Suspense, William Conrad performed every part. Because of his CBS Radio contract, he sometimes appeared on shows on other networks under the pseudonym “Julius Krelboyne”.

In January 1956, William Conrad was the announcer on the debut broadcast of The CBS Radio Workshop, a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which Huxley himself narrated. “On the air, The CBS Radio Workshop was a lightning rod for ideas,” wrote radio historian John Dunning, who cites Conrad’s “tour de force” performances in the subsequent broadcasts ‘”The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes” (March 23, 1956) and “A Matter of Logic” (June 1, 1956). Conrad directed and narrated the 1957 episode “Epitaphs”, an adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’s poetry volume Spoon River Anthology. “And ‘1489 Words’ (Feb. 10, 1957) remains a favorite of many, a powerful Conrad performance proving that one picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words,” Dunning concluded. “A lovely way to end a day, a decade, or an era.” As an actor in feature films, Conrad was often cast as a threatening figure. His most notable role may be the first for which he was credited, as one of the gunmen sent to eliminate Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946). Conrad also appeared in Body and Soul (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Joan of Arc (1948), and The Naked Jungle (1954). In 1961, William Conrad moved to the production side of the film business, producing and directing for Warner Bros. film studio. His most notable film was Brainstorm (1965), a latter-day film noir that has come to be regarded as “a minor masterpiece of the 1960s” and “the final, essential entry in that long line of films noirs that begins at the end of the Second World War.” Conrad was the executive producer of Countdown (1968), a science-fiction thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall that was the major studio feature début of director Robert Altman.

William Conrad narrated the documentary “Design For Disaster”, produced by the Los Angeles City Fire Department, about the November 1961 Bel Air wildfire that gutted several neighborhoods, at the time the worst conflagration in Los Angeles history. As a token of appreciation from Jack L. Warner, head of Warner Bros., Conrad received one of the two original lead-metal falcon statues used in the classic film, The Maltese Falcon (1941). The falcon sat on a bookshelf in Conrad’s house from the 1960s. Standing 11.5 in (29.2 cm) high and weighing 45 lb (20.4 kg), the figurine had been slashed during the making of the film by Sydney Greenstreet’s character Kasper Gutman, leaving deep cuts in its bronze patina. After Conrad’s death, the statue was consigned by his widow Tippy Conrad to Christie’s, which estimated it would bring $30,000 to $50,000 at auction. In December 1994, Christie’s sold the falcon for $398,500. In 1996, the purchaser, Ronald Winston of Harry Winston, Inc., resold the prop to an unknown European collector “at an enormous profit” — for as much as $1 million. Late in life, Conrad narrated the opening and closing scenes of the 1991 Bruce Willis feature film Hudson Hawk.

William Conrad guest-starred in NBC’s science-fiction series The Man and the Challenge and in the syndicated skydiving adventure series Ripcord, with Larry Pennell and Ken Curtis. In 1962, he starred in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and guest-starred in episodes of ABC’s crime drama Target: The Corruptors!. The 1970s had him starring in the first of three television detective series which would bring him an added measure of renown: Cannon, which was broadcast on CBS from 1971–76. While starring in the show, he weighed 230 pounds (104 kg), and grew to 260 pounds (118 kg) or more. “I heard that Weight Watchers had banned its members from watching the show, but it turned out to be a gag,” Conrad said in 1973. “The publicist for Weight Watchers did call and suggest that I have lunch with their president. I said sure – if I could pick the restaurant.” He starred in two other TV series, Nero Wolfe (1981), and with Joe Penny, Jake and the Fatman (1987–92). William Conrad died in Los Angeles on February 11, 1994, from congestive heart failure. He was buried in the Lincoln Terrace section of Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery, California.

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Born

  • September, 27, 1920
  • Louisville, Kentucky

Died

  • February, 11, 1994
  • Los Angeles, California

Cause of Death

  • congestive heart failure

Cemetery

  • Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills)
  • Los Angeles, California

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