Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar

Bob Bailey in his natural element.
When Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar began as a regular series on CBS in February of 1949, the show was already on its second leading man. The first one, movie star Dick Powell, took the lead role in another program after doing just a single audition show - a pilot episode used to convince network executives and sponsors of a show's potential. By the time the show's run ended in 1962, a total of eight actors had played the title role, including Powell and one other actor who had appeared only in audition shows. Of the leads who did more than a single episode, Edmond O'Brien may be best known to general audiences from his starring role in the classic movie D.O.A., but for aficionados of old-time radio the man who defined the role was Bob Bailey who filed his first expense report in 1955.

Though Bailey had appeared in several feature films, including two with Laurel & Hardy, he was best known as a radio actor. From 1946-1954, he had been playing another title role, that of George Valentine in the detective series Let George Do It. The start of Bailey's tenure coincided with another key change in the show, the shift from weekly standalone episodes to serialized storylines that ran each weekday night. While this alternative approach to storytelling was a big part of the show's appeal, Bailey's approach to the character was also key.

Aside from the insurance-based nature of the cases, neither the original incarnation of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar nor its leads were all that different from the multitude of hard-boiled detectives that came  and went during the golden age of radio. The additional air-time provided by the shift to daily installments allowed the writers to adopt a more character-driven approach to stories aided by a repertory group that included radio mainstays such as Robert Conrad, John Dehner and Bailey's Let George Do It co-star Virginia Gregg. It wouldn't have worked as well, though, had the show's lead not been on the same level as the supporting players.

Though Bailey's Johnny Dollar could be as tough as any detective this side of Sam Spade and wasn't above skirting the law in the interests of justice, there was also a streak of sensitivity that distinguished him from more traditional private eyes. This trait came to the forefront when the program reverted to individual weekly episodes and more emphasis was given to recurring characters and plot threads that dealt more with Johnny's personal life.

Bailey left the show after five years and hundreds of episodes, one of which he wrote, and $135,311 in expense reports (over a million dollars by current rates). Johnny Dollar would get two more voices before filing his final expense report in 1962. Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer were good in their own right and the continued input of Jack Johnstone as a writer ensured that Dollar's cases were still engaging. For most fans, though, the true voice of Johnny Dollar will always be a guy named Bob.