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William Conrad

William Conrad

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Also Known As: Died: February 11, 1994
Born: September 27, 1920 Cause of Death: heart attack
Birth Place: Louisville, Kentucky Profession: actor, announcer, producer, director, radio announcer, trumpet player, radio writer, fighter pilot

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

With his imposing physical presence and sonorous baritone voice, actor-director-producer William Conrad enjoyed a vibrant career on and off screens across several mediums, spanning more than five decades. Although he made early onscreen appearances in noirs like "The Killers" (1946), Conrad achieved early fame as the voice of Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running radio show "Gunsmoke" (CBS Radio, 1949-1960), helping to define the role later portrayed by James Arness for 20 years on television. His resonant voice made Conrad a favorite for narration work in efforts as diverse as the indelible cartoon classic "Rocky and Bullwinkle" (ABC/NBC, 1959-1964) and the wartime docudrama "The Battle of the Bulge" (1965). A deal with Warner Bros. also allowed Conrad to produce and direct B-movie potboilers like "Brainstorm" (1965), as well as executive produce director Robert Altman’s feature debut, "Countdown" (1968). It was, however, a pair of late-career roles for which the portly performer would be most fondly remembered. First as the hard-nosed private eye "Cannon" (CBS, 1971-75) and then as the larger half of the investigative team of "Jake and the Fatman" (CBS, 1987-88; 1989-1992), Conrad at last...

With his imposing physical presence and sonorous baritone voice, actor-director-producer William Conrad enjoyed a vibrant career on and off screens across several mediums, spanning more than five decades. Although he made early onscreen appearances in noirs like "The Killers" (1946), Conrad achieved early fame as the voice of Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running radio show "Gunsmoke" (CBS Radio, 1949-1960), helping to define the role later portrayed by James Arness for 20 years on television. His resonant voice made Conrad a favorite for narration work in efforts as diverse as the indelible cartoon classic "Rocky and Bullwinkle" (ABC/NBC, 1959-1964) and the wartime docudrama "The Battle of the Bulge" (1965). A deal with Warner Bros. also allowed Conrad to produce and direct B-movie potboilers like "Brainstorm" (1965), as well as executive produce director Robert Altman’s feature debut, "Countdown" (1968). It was, however, a pair of late-career roles for which the portly performer would be most fondly remembered. First as the hard-nosed private eye "Cannon" (CBS, 1971-75) and then as the larger half of the investigative team of "Jake and the Fatman" (CBS, 1987-88; 1989-1992), Conrad at last achieved the fame denied him after losing out to Arness all those years before. One of the hardest working professionals in the entertainment business for decades, Conrad more than made his mark in Hollywood by the time of his 1994 passing.

Born John William Cann, Jr. on Sept. 27, 1920 in Louisville, KY, he was the son of a local theater owner. William was still quite young when the family moved to California, where he quickly grew enamored with literature and drama while attending school. After graduation, Conrad enrolled at nearby Fullerton College and began his early career with work on Los Angeles radio station KMPC as a writer-director-announcer in the late 1930s. In 1943, at the height of World War II, he enlisted with the United States Army Air Corps, but not before marrying his sweetheart, June Nelson. Serving as a fighter pilot, Conrad eventually rose to the rank of captain and also performed duties as a producer-director with the Armed Forces Radio Service. Upon his return to civilian life, he returned to radio and, thanks to his deep, resonant baritone voice, quickly became one of the medium’s busiest actors. Conrad appeared on the hugely popular mystery-thriller series "Suspense" (CBS Radio, 1942-1962) and was one of the more regularly featured players on the similarly themed adventure program "Escape" (CBS Radio, 1947-1952). So ubiquitous a presence was the actor, that a fear of overexposure on the part of the producers almost prevented Conrad from landing his first iconic role – that of Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running Western "Gunsmoke" (CBS Radio, 1949-1960). Regardless of their concerns, the actor’s audition for the role was strong enough to win him the role and his authoritative, stoic characterization set the tone for a show considered one of the best of its kind in any format.

Unfortunately, Conrad’s considerable girth and balding pate did not lend themselves to what the producers visualized for the character of Marshall Dillon when "Gunsmoke" made the transition to television in 1955. Although that coveted role may have gone to James Arness, Conrad had nonetheless already made substantial gains as an onscreen actor in both film and television by that time. As an actor he made his first notable appearance as one of the titular gunmen sent to take out Burt Lancaster in the classic film noir "The Killers" (1946). Conrad’s subsequent credits spanned various genres, although he tended to gravitate toward shady character roles in crime dramas like "Body and Soul" (1947), "Sorry, Wrong Number" (1948) and "Cry Danger" (1951). He appeared opposite Charlton Heston – who played the lead role originated by Conrad in a radio serial version of the tale – in the man-vs.-nature adventure "Naked Jungle" (1954). A few years later, he graduated to co-starring status alongside Anthony Quinn in the Western "The Ride Back" (1957), a feature which also marked Conrad’s debut as a film producer.

The ambitious Conrad soon embarked upon a robust directing career on such popular television programs as the Western "The Rifleman" (ABC, 1958-1963) and the crime drama "Naked City" (ABC, 1958-1963). Over the decade or more that followed, he would helm dozens of episodes for various networks. Not surprisingly, Conrad’s commanding vocal abilities also led to a profitable sideline as a narrator and announcer. For five years Conrad lent colorful commentary to the cartoon adventures of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" (ABC/NBC, 1959-1964) and introduced many of producer Quinn Martin's television productions, most notably "The Fugitive" (CBS, 1963-67). As a producer-director under contract with Warner Bros. for 15 years, Conrad competently churned out a number of low-to-medium budget genre programmers like the Western "The Man from Galveston" (1964). Over the course of a single year, the indefatigable filmmaker produced and directed a trio of thrillers – "Brainstorm" (1965), "My Blood Runs Cold" (1965) and "Two on a Guillotine" (1965). Other behind the scenes duties included narrating the big-budget, star-studded World War II docudrama "The Battle of the Bulge" (1965) and executive producing the realistic sci-fi drama "Countdown" (1968), the feature film debut of director Robert Altman.

Of all of Conrad’s many onscreen roles, however, he was best remembered as the star of two popular crime-dramas, beginning with "Cannon" (CBS, 1971-75). As former police detective-turned-private investigator, Conrad’s Cannon solved crimes in sunny L.A. while indulging his taste for good food and fine automobiles. When the occasion called for it, tough guy Cannon could take a beating or dish one out, sometimes delivering a blow to the bad guy with his substantial belly. Far less taxing were the multiple voice roles Conrad continued to pick up throughout the decade. During this time he narrated the nature program "Wild Wild World of Animals" (syndicated, 1973-78), introduced the first season of the sci-fi adventure "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (NBC, 1979-1981), and voiced Denethor, the ruler of Gondor, in the Rankin-Bass animated adaption of Tolkien’s "Return of the King" (ABC, 1980). As steady as his professional life remained, Conrad’s personal life underwent a series of changes near the end of the decade when, after 30 years of marriage, he lost his wife June in 1977. Although he quickly remarried to former fashion model Susan Randall, that marriage ended within a few short years when she also passed away. Conrad returned to the altar one last time to wed Tipton "Tippy" Stringer – the widow of famed NBC newscaster Chet Huntley – in 1980.

Looking to return to regular series work, Conrad starred as the wealthy, eccentric crime solver "Nero Wolfe" (NBC, 1981) for a short-lived detective show based on the characters created by prolific crime novelist Rex Stout. And while that endeavor failed to take hold with audiences, the actor remained busy with supporting work and guest turns until his next successful show presented itself. That project came to Conrad in the form of "Jake and the Fatman" (CBS, 1987-88; 1989-1992), as the eponymous portly district attorney who loved his pet bulldog almost as much as he seemed to enjoy bickering with his freewheeling, younger associate (Joe Penny). By the time "Jake and the Fatman" ended its five-year run, Conrad had effectively retired, the exception being his narration of the opening and closing sequences of the much-maligned Bruce Willis comedic adventure, "Hudson Hawk" (1991). A few years later, Conrad died of heart failure in Los Angles in February 1994 at the age of 73. On a historical side note, at some point in the 1960s, Jack Warner gifted Conrad with one of the two original Maltese Falcons used in the iconic 1941 film as a token of appreciation for his years of work at Warner Bros. The leaden statuette sat on Conrad’s office shelf until after his death, when his widow auctioned it off at Christie’s, where it reportedly sold for nearly $400,000 in 1994. A long overdue honor was finally bestowed upon the late actor when he was posthumously elected to the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1997.

By Bryce Coleman

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Side Show (1981) Director
2.
  My Blood Runs Cold (1965) Director
3.
  Two on a Guillotine (1965) Director
4.
  Brainstorm (1965) Director
5.
  The Man From Galveston (1963) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Hudson Hawk (1991) Narrator
2.
 Killing Cars (1991) Mahoney
3.
4.
 In Like Flynn (1985) Sergeant Dominic
5.
 Side Show (1981) Voice Of Ring Announcer
6.
 Turnover Smith (1980) Thaddeus Smith
7.
 Return of Frank Cannon, The (1980) Frank Cannon
8.
 Murder That Wouldn't Die, The (1980) William Battles
9.
 Keefer (1978) Keefer
10.
 Night Cries (1978) Dr Whelan
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Worked as a writer-announcer-director at L.A. radio station KMPC
:
Served in WWII with the US Air Force as a fighter pilot; eventually attained the rank of captain
:
Served as a producer-director for the Armed Forces Radio Service
:
Returned to radio and became a mainstay of network radio drama
1946:
Feature acting debut, "The Killers"
:
Starred as Marshall Matt Dillon for the 11-year run of the CBS radio series, "Gunsmoke" (dates approximate)
1950:
TV debut, narrated the CBS-TV version of the anthology radio series, "Escape"
:
Spent 15 years under contract as a producer-director for Warner Bros.
1957:
Feature producing debut, "The Ride Back", a Western
:
TV producing and directing debut, "Klondike", a period adventure series set in Alaska
:
Produced some seasons of "77 Sunset Strip", a popular detective series on ABC from the late 50s through the mid-60s
:
Directed 35 episodes of "General Electric True Theater/General Electric True/True", a dramatic anthology series that emphasized true suspense stories
:
Narrated the "Rocky and Bullwinkle" segments of ABC's cartoon classic, "Rocky and His Friends"
:
Narrated the hugely successful drama series, "The Fugitive"; first work in a Quinn Martin (QM) Production
:
Narrated the "Dudley Do-Right" segments of "The Bullwinkle Show"
1964:
Feature directing debut, "The Man From Galveston", a Western
1965:
Final directing credit, "Two on a Guillotine", a Gothic melodrama (also produced)
1966:
Feature executive producing debut, "An American Dream", based on a Norman Mailer novel
:
Narrated "The Invaders", a QM-produced sci-fi series
1968:
Final producing credit, executive produced "Countdown", the first studio-backed fiction film directed by Robert Altman
:
TV series debut as a star, "Cannon", a QM production about a suave private investigator
1977:
Hosted and narrated "Tales of the Unexpected", a QM-produced suspense anthology
:
Introduced the sci-fi series "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century"
1980:
Recreated his most celebrated role for "The Return of Frank Cannon", a CBS TV-movie
1981:
Starred as Rex Stout's literary detective "Nero Wolfe" on an NBC detective series
:
Provided the voice of the Lone Ranger on "The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour", an action-packed Saturday morning cartoon
1986:
Played the recurring role of Art Patterson on "Hotel"
1986:
Played the recurring role of District Attorney Brackett on "Matlock"
:
Starred as J L 'Fatman' McCabe, a tough district attorney who teamed with a smooth private investigator on the CBS series "Jake and the Fatman"
:
Reprised TV role on "Jake and the Fatman"
1991:
Final TV voice credit, provided the narration for "Of Moose and Men: The Rocky and Bullwinkle Story", a PBS special
1991:
Final feature credit, narrator of "Hudson Hawk"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Excelsior High School: Bellflower , California -
Fullerton College: Fullerton , California -
Fullerton College: Fullerton , California -

Notes

We have found three different starting dates for the CBS Radio "Gunsmoke" series: 1954 (from "Radio's Golden Years" by Vincent Terrace); 1952 (from "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows" by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh); and 1949 (from Marquis' "Who's Who in Entertainment"). We have chosen the latter as it seems to jibe best with his other credits.

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Tippy Conrad.

Family close complete family listing

son:
Christopher Conrad.

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