Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Lost Pilot(s) Matter

Though television ultimately put an end to radio drama as a mainstream form of entertainment, the medium also gave second (and, in many cases) longer lives to of radio's best loved dramas. Sometimes the shows had completely different casts, such as Gunsmoke where the radio cast was never seriously considered, while others were very much the same as their radio incarnations. Jack Webb's Dragnet and the soap opera Guiding Light are two such programs, the latter being the ultimate example by virtue of the TV and radio versions having been produced simultaneously for a number if years using the same scripts and cast.

Many other radio shows fell quickly into obscurity in television's wake, and others gave it their best shot but fell a bit short. The latter was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar's fate. Not surprisingly, considering the off-beat nature of the radio version, the attempt to transfer the program to television has a murky history in its own right.

One of the few things that's certain is that at least one Johnny Dollar pilot got made. Produced in 1962 by Blake Edwards, who also wrote for the radio series, it starred character actor William Bryant in the title role and martial-arts pioneer Ed Parker is known to have worked on it in some capacity. Beyond that, very little else is clear.

It's not even clear whether this was the only attempt at adapting Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar for television. In his book The Encyclopedia of Television Pilots, media historian Vincent Terrace refers to the 1962 pilot as the second attempt but there's very little that can be determined about this predecessor. A pre-1962 timeframe, when the radio show was still going, suggests that this earlier version would be the one for which Bob Bailey was supposedly rejected for not being the right physical type, but even that's pure speculation. The main thing we know is that the efforts to put Johnny Dollar on TV were ultimately unsuccessful.

That's probably for the best, though, because I don't think the medium would have been kind to the man with the action-packed expense account. On radio, Dollar's narration could take us anywhere in the world and, though they occasionally got details wrong (as any Maryland resident who's listened to "The Chesapeake Fraud Matter" can attest), it was always believable. The budget restraints of television would not have been so forgiving. Similarly, the supporting characters couldn't possibly be quite as colorful as those that populated the radio series. Even if Bob Bailey had played the title character on-screen, the character of the show would have been fundamentally different. Fortunately, we'll always have radio.