Obituary: William Conrad
Monday 14 February 1994
AS THE PRIVATE eye Frank Cannon in the Seventies, William Conrad proved that you do not have to be young, slim and fit to make it as a television detective. It was the portly American actor's biggest role, although his booming voice had previously been heard as the narrator of other international successes such as The Fugitive and The Invaders.
Born in Kentucky in 1920, Conrad was the son of a theatre-owner who moved to southern California, where he excelled at drama and literature while at school.
He began his career as an announcer, writer and director for the Los Angeles radio station KMPC, before becoming a Second World War fighter-pilot in 1943. Two years later, he left the US Air Force with the rank of captain, having finished his time in it as producer-director of the Armed Forces Radio Service.
Back in civvy street, Conrad acted in radio dramas and was the original Marshal Matt Dillon in the so-called adult western Gunsmoke, which ran for 11 years on CBS, before it switched to television, with James Arness taking over the lead role.
Conrad entered films in 1946 with The Killers and followed it with pictures such as Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), East Side, West Side (1949), Lone Star (1952), The Desert Song (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954) and -30- (1959, retitled Deadline Midnight in Britain), playing the newspaper city editor.
As a producer for Warner Brothers, he made a string of feature films, including An American Dream (1966, retitled See You in Hell, Darling for British release), A Covenant With Death (1966), First to Fight (1967) and The Cool Ones (1967), and also directed My Blood Runs Cold, Brainstorm and Two On a Guillotine (all 1965).
On television, he produced and directed Klondike and This Man Dawson, produced the popular private eye series 77 Sunset Strip (starring Efrem Zimbalist Jnr and Edd Byrnes), and directed 35 episodes of the series True.
His voice was one of those heard in the classic Fifties American animated children's series Rocky and His Friends, whose sophisticated comedy made it appeal just as much to adults, and he narrated the hit Sixties series The Fugitive (1963-67, starring David Janssen) and The Invaders (1966-67, starring Roy Thinnes), as well as the 1976 television movie The Macahans: How the West Was Won (starring James Arness and a pilot for the series).
But it was as the fat, balding detective Frank Cannon that Conrad found small-screen fame. Cannon, which started in 1970 with a television movie of the same name, was turned into a series the following year and ran for five years, becoming one of the most successful programmes of its genre.
'For 15 years before Cannon,' said Conrad in the middle of the programme's run, 'I couldn't get much work as an actor because I was too fat and unattractive. I'm 53 years old, 5ft 9in tall, look like an overfed walrus, and I'm bald to boot.'
Ten years after the programme began, Conrad revived the character in the television movie The Return of Frank Cannon (1980). There was no room for another series, but Conrad bounced back with a new character, the tough policeman- turned-district-attorney Jason 'Fatman' McCabe, in Jake and the Fatman, first in a 1987 television movie, then in a moderately successful series (1987-92).
An animal-lover and conservationist, Conrad was also known in the US as narrator of The Wild, Wild World of Animals (1973-78).
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