William Conrad (born John William Cann Jr.; September 27, 1920 – February 11, 1994) was an American actor, producer and director whose career spanned five decades in radio, film and television. A radio writer and actor, he moved to Hollywood, California, after his World War II service and played a series of character roles in films beginning with the quintessential film noir, The Killers (1946). He created the role of Marshal Matt Dillon for the popular radio series Gunsmoke (1952–61), and narrated the television adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959–64) and The Fugitive (1963–67). Finding fewer on-screen roles in the 1950s, he changed from actor to producer-director with television work, narration, and a series of Warner Bros. films in the 1960s. Conrad found stardom as a detective in the TV series Cannon (1971–76) and Nero Wolfe (1981), and as a district attorney in the legal drama Jake and the Fatman (1987–92).
William Conrad (also known as John William Conrad) was born John William Cann Jr. on September 27, 1920, in Lexington, Kentucky. His parents, John William Cann and Ida Mae Upchurch Cann, owned a movie theatre, and Conrad grew up watching movies. The family moved to southern California when Conrad was in high school. He majored in drama and literature at Fullerton College, near Los Angeles, and began his career as an announcer, writer, and director for Los Angeles radio station KMPC. Conrad served as a fighter pilot in World War II. On the day he was commissioned in 1943 at Luke Field, he married June Nelson (1920–77) of Los Angeles. He left the United States Army Air Corps with the rank of captain and as a producer-director of the Armed Forces Radio Service.
William Conrad estimated that he played more than 7,500 roles during his radio career. At KMPC, the 22-year-old Conrad produced and acted in The Hermit's Cave (circa 1940–44), the Los Angeles incarnation of a popular syndicated horror anthology series created at WJR Detroit.:319 He was among the supporting cast for the espionage drama The Man Called X (1944–48); the syndicated dramatic anthology Favorite Story (1946–49); the adventure dramas The Count of Monte Cristo (Mutual 1947–48), The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (Mutual 1947–48), The Green Lama (CBS 1949) and Nightbeat (NBC 1950–52); Romance (1950) and Hollywood Star Playhouse (1950–53); Errol Flynn's The Modern Adventures of Casanova (Mutual 1952); and Cathy and Elliott Lewis's On Stage (CBS 1953–54).:431, 244, 181, 706, 299, 507, 584, 326, 467, 512 Conrad was the voice of Escape (1947–54), regarded as radio's greatest high-adventure series.:232 He played Warchek, a menacing policeman, in Johnny Modero: Pier 23 (Mutual 1947), a detective series starring Jack Webb, and was in the cast of Webb's crime drama Pete Kelly's Blues (NBC 1951). He played newspaper editor Walter Burns opposite Dick Powell's reporter Hildy Johnson in the ABC radio drama The Front Page (1948). He was Dave the Dude in the syndicated drama anthology series, The Damon Runyon Theater (1948); Lt. Dundy in the NBC radio series, The Adventures of Sam Spade (1949–50); boss to government special agent Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in The Silent Men (NBC 1951); and a New Orleans bartender in the NBC adventure drama, Jason and the Golden Fleece (1952–53).:374, 541, 273, 189, 12, 615, 368 Most prominently, Conrad's deep, resonant voice was heard in the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS Radio's gritty Western series, Gunsmoke (April 26, 1952 – June 18, 1961). The producers originally rejected him for the part due to his ubiquitous presence on so many radio dramas and the familiarity of his voice. But his impressive audition could not be dismissed, and he became the obvious choice for the role. Conrad voiced Dillon for the show's nine-year run. In addition, he wrote the June 1953 episode "Sundown." When Gunsmoke was adapted for television in 1955, executives at CBS did not cast Conrad or his radio costars, despite a campaign to get them to change their minds. His other credits include Suspense, Lux Radio Theater and Fibber McGee and Molly. In "The Wax Works", a 1956 episode of Suspense, Conrad performed every part. Because of his CBS Radio contract, he sometimes appeared on shows on other networks under the pseudonym "Julius Krelboyne". In January 1956 Conrad was announcer on the debut broadcast of The CBS Radio Workshop, a two-part adaptation of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World which Huxley himself narrated. "On the air, The CBS Radio Workshop was a lightning rod for ideas," wrote radio historian John Dunning, who cites Conrad's "tour de force" performances in the subsequent broadcasts '"The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes" (March 23, 1956) and "A Matter of Logic" (June 1, 1956).:144–145 Conrad directed and narrated the 1957 episode "Epitaphs", an adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters's poetry volume Spoon River Anthology. "And '1489 Words' (Feb. 10, 1957) remains a favorite of many, a powerful Conrad performance proving that one picture is not necessarily worth a thousand words," Dunning concluded. "A lovely way to end a day, a decade, or an era.":145
Among Conrad's various film roles, where he was usually cast as threatening figures, perhaps his most notable role was his first credited one, as one of the gunmen sent to eliminate Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946). Conrad also appeared in Body and Soul (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Joan of Arc (1948) and The Naked Jungle (1954). In 1961 Conrad moved to the production segment of the film business, producing and directing for Warner Bros. film studio. His most notable film was Brainstorm (1965), a latter-day film noir that has come to be regarded as "a minor masterpiece of the 1960s" and "the final, essential entry in that long line of films noirs that begins at the end of the Second World War." Conrad was the executive producer of Countdown (1968), a science-fiction thriller starring James Caan and Robert Duvall that was the major studio feature début of director Robert Altman. Conrad received one of the two original lead-metal falcon statues used in the classic The Maltese Falcon film (1941), as a token of appreciation from Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. The falcon sat on a bookshelf in Conrad's house from the 1960s. Standing 11.5 in. (29.2 cm) high and weighing 45 lbs. (20.4 kg), the figurine had been slashed during the making of the film by Sydney Greenstreet's character Kasper Gutman, leaving deep cuts in its bronze patina. After Conrad's death the statue was consigned by his widow Tippy Conrad to Christie's, which estimated it would bring 30 to 50 Grands at auction. In December 1994, Christie's sold the falcon for 398,5 Grands. In 1996, the purchaser, Ronald Winston of Harry Winston, Inc., resold the prop to an unknown European collector "at an enormous profit" — for as much as $1 million.
Conrad moved to television in the 1960s.
He narrated the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle series from 1959 to 64 (as "Bill Conrad"). He returned to voice work as the narrator of This Man Dawson, a 33-episode syndicated crime drama starring Keith Andes in the 1959–1960 television season and then became the familiar voice narrating The Fugitive, starring David Janssen, on ABC television from 1963–67. He could also be heard introducing Count Basie's Orchestra and Frank Sinatra on Sinatra's 1966 "Live at the Sands" LP. Conrad intoned a rhyming narration heard over the credits of the 1970 John Wayne film Western Chisum. His voice is heard in the Clio Award-winning 1971 public-service announcement about pollution featuring Iron Eyes Cody, created for Earth Day by Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council. From 1973 to 78, Conrad narrated TV nature program The Wild, Wild World of Animals Also, during the 1970s he appeared in and narrated a number of episodes for ABC's American Sportsman, and 1979 narrated and appeared in CBS documentary, The Lost Treasure of the Concepcion, and he later narrated The Making of Star Wars (1977), the 1978 World Series U.S.-baseball highlight film, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979). He performed the role of Denethor in the 1980 animated TV version of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Return of the King. Other voice work included narration for Knight Rider and The Highwayman. Late in life with a voice no longer as strong as the one familiar to his fans, he narrated the opening and closing scenes of 1991 Bruce Willis feature film Hudson Hawk.
He guest starred in NBC's science-fiction series The Man and the Challenge. In 1962, Conrad starred in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and guest starred in episodes of ABC's crime drama Target: The Corruptors!. The 1970s also saw him starring in the first of three television detective series which would bring him an added measure of renown, Cannon, which was broadcast on CBS from 1971–76. While starring in the show he weighed a hefty 230 pounds (104 kg), and grew to a portly 260 pounds (118 kg) or more. "I heard that Weight Watchers had banned its members from watching the show, but it turned out to be a gag," Conrad said in 1973. "The publicist for Weight Watchers did call and suggest that I have lunch with their president. I said sure – if I could pick the restaurant." He starred in two other TV series, Nero Wolfe (1981) and, with Joe Penny, Jake and the Fatman (1987–92).
He and Sam Peckinpah directed episodes of NBC's Klondike in the 1960–61 season. Conrad's credits as a director include episodes of The Rifleman, Bat Masterson, Route 66, Have Gun – Will Travel, and 77 Sunset Strip, as well as ABC's crime drama Target: The Corruptors!. In 1965, Conrad directed and produced two theatrical films: Two on a Guillotine, and Brainstorm, starring Jeffrey Hunter and Anne Francis. Conrad had previously directed Jeffrey Hunter in the pilot episode of what was to be a Warner Bros. TV series, Temple Houston.
In 1957 Conrad was married to former fashion model Susan Randall (1940–79), and the couple had one son, Christopher. In 1980, Conrad married Tipton "Tippy" Stringer (1930–2010), a TV pioneer and the widow of NBC newscaster Chet Huntley. She helped manage his career during their 14-year marriage.
William Conrad died in Los Angeles on February 11, 1994, from congestive heart failure. He was buried in the Lincoln Terrace section of Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery, California.
Conrad was posthumously elected to the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1997.