William Conrad became a television star relatively late in his career. In fact, the former Army Air Corps World War II fighter pilot began his screen career playing heavies. He was Max, one of The Killers (1946) hired to finish off Burt Lancaster in his dingy lodgings. He was the corrupt state inspector Turck working for the syndicate in The Racket (1951). He was a mobster in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), the murderous gunslinger Tallman in Johnny Concho (1956) and sleazy nightclub owner Louie Castro who claimed to be 60% legitimate in Cry Danger (1951).
When not essaying outright villainy Bill played characters like the tough fight promoter Quinn in Body and Soul (1947) or the doom-laden province commissioner in The Naked Jungle (1954). The portly, balding, crumple-faced, self-confessed gourmand had an ever-present weight problem (at one time 118 kg) which proved to be a natural obstacle to progressing to more substantial leading film roles. That, however, didn’t hinder a very successful career in radio. In fact, Bill himself estimated that he had played in excess of 7,000 radio parts. Even if that was an exaggeration, his gravelly, resonant voice was certainly heard on countless broadcasts from “Buck Rogers” to “The Bullwinkle Show”, from impersonating Marshall Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke” (before James Arness got the part on screen) to narrating the adventures of Richard Kimball in the television program The Fugitive (1963). In one episode of the anthology series Suspense (1949) in 1956, he voiced each and every part.
Since his corpulence effectively precluded playing strapping characters like Matt Dillon, Bill began to concentrate on directing and producing by the early 1960’s. This, ironically, included episodes of “Gunsmoke”. In 1963 he contributed to saving 77 Sunset Strip (1958) for yet another season. Later in the decade he produced and directed several films for Warner Brothers, including the thriller Brainstorm (1965) with Jeffrey Hunter and Anne Francis. In 1971 he returned to acting and became the unlikely star of the Quinn Martin production Cannon (1971), for which he is chiefly remembered. Bill imbued the tough-talking, no-nonsense character of Frank Cannon with enough humanity and wit to make the series compelling but, despite the show’s popularity, he made his views clear in a 1976 Times interview that he found himself poorly served by the scripts he had been given. A planned sequel, The Return of Frank Cannon (1980) failed to get beyond the movie-length pilot, but the actor’s popularity resulted in another starring role in Jake and the Fatman (1987) as District Attorney McCabe, co-starring with Joe Penny) and a brief run as eccentric detective Nero Wolfe (1981). A self-effacing man with a good sense of humor and never afraid to speak his mind, Bill Conrad died of heart failure in February 1994. He was elected to the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame and (posthumously) to the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997.
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