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Overview for William Conrad
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: Cast ... actor announcer producer director radio announcer trumpet player radio writer fighter pilot
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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 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

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