Old-time radio fans know that when Orson Welles made the decision to abandon his role as Lamont Cranston (aka The Shadow) and go on to better things (scaring the daylights out of listeners on Halloween, for example), actor William Llewellyn Johnstone was there to take his place as the “wealthy young man-about-town.” Johnstone, born in New York City on this date in 1908, was no doubt well-acquainted with wunderkind Welles, having worked with Orson when the two were employed on CBS’ The March of Time (where Bill impersonated Cordell Hull and King Edward VIII). The two actors would also share a microphone on Welles’ first Mercury radio presentation, Les Miserables, in 1937.
In fact, you can hear Johnstone on Welles’ first Shadow broadcast, “The Death House Rescue” (09/26/37)—Bill plays the innocent man headed for a date with the electric chair. The actor would work on The Shadow several more times before donning the slouch hat and cloak in the fall of 1938…and though Johnstone always performed in an exemplary style, more than a few people thought he sounded a bit too grandfatherly to play the considerably younger Lamont Cranston. (I’ve joked in the past that Bill was more of a “wealthy old man-about-town.”)
Bill Johnstone’s early radio career was dominated by a genre not uncommon to radio artists: soap operas. He emoted on a good many of them, including Five-Star Jones, Irene Rich Dramas, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Valiant Lady, and Wilderness Road. His exposure on The Shadow led him to become one of the busiest actors in the radio business, working on such anthologies as Arch Oboler’s Plays, The Columbia Workshop, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, The General Electric Theatre, Great Plays, Hallmark Playhouse, The Railroad Hour, Romance, Screen Director’s Playhouse, Stars Over Hollywood, The Theatre Guild on the Air, and The Theatre of Romance. He was practically a regular on The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, and later continued his association with Orson Welles with appearances on Campbell Playhouse, The Mercury Summer Theatre, and This is My Best.
Bill appeared many times on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” Suspense, in the early days of that long-running anthology…and during its sponsorship by Auto-Lite, he would interact with announcer Harlow Wilcox in the role of “Hap the mechanic.” Escape and The Whistler also called upon his talents (Johnstone even briefly played the titular narrator on the latter program). To list every show on which Johnstone collected a paycheck would be a Herculean task, but some of the better-known programs include The Adventures of Frank Race, The Adventures of the Abbotts, The Adventures of the Saint, Broadway’s My Beat, Crime Classics, Dangerous Assignment, Diary of Fate, Dr. Sixgun, Dragnet (a powerful performance in the Yuletide classic “.22 Rifle for Christmas”), Ellery Queen, The FBI in Peace and War, I Was a Communist for the FBI, Let George Do It, The Man Called X, The Mysterious Traveler, Nick Carter, Master Detective, Night Beat, Pursuit, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The Roy Rogers Show, The Silent Men, The Six Shooter, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, T-Man, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
William Johnstone was the first actor to play Sanderson “Sandy” Taylor, sidekick of sleuthing San Francisco importer Gregory Hood on The Casebook of Gregory Hood (he was replaced by Howard McNear), and enjoyed stints as Lieutenant Ybarra on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and as Inspector Cramer on The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe. The actor’s range was such that he was also adept at comedy, with roles on such sitcoms as Amos ‘n’ Andy, The Bill Goodwin Show, The Halls of Ivy, My Favorite Husband, Our Miss Brooks, The Penny Singleton Show, and The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Early in his radio career, Johnstone played “Wilfred Mason,” the father of the teen heroine on Maudie’s Diary, a sitcom that predated the better-known A Date with Judy and Meet Corliss Archer. In the summer of 1946, he would reunite with his former Shadow leading lady Agnes Moorehead on her sitcom The Amazing Mrs. Danberry.
Outside of his turn as Lamont Cranston, Bill Johnstone’s best-known radio gig would inarguably be that of Lieutenant Ben Guthrie on the police procedural The Line-Up, an outstanding crime drama that aired on CBS Radio from 1950 to 1953 featuring Wally Maher and, later, Jack Moyles. The series would later make a successful transition to television (and produce a big screen version in 1958), but Johnstone was not asked to reprise his role when it was brought to boob tube audiences. Bill would never completely abandon radio; he was heard in a version of Pepper Young’s Family in 1966, and made a number of appearances on The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in the 1970s.
While William Johnstone’s radio career was an industrious one, he didn’t appear in many feature films. But when he did step in front of the cameras, he displayed the same professionalism that was evident when he stood before a microphone. You might know him as John Jacob Astor in 20th Century-Fox’s 1953 Titanic release, and his movie resume also includes All My Sons (1948), The Magnificent Yankee (1950), My Favorite Spy (1951), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and Down Three Dark Streets (1954—a personal favorite). On the small screen, Bill reprised his turn from “.22 Rifle for Christmas” when it was done on the TV Dragnet, and he also guested on such series as Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, Four Star Playhouse and The Big Story. For many years, Johnstone was the law in the fictional city of Oakdale as Judge James T. Lowell on the daytime drama As the World Turns, a gig that ran from 1956 to 1979. William Johnstone would pass on in 1996 at the age of 88.
If you were to ask us (rhetorically, of course) “Might there be some Radio Spirits collections featuring today’s birthday boy?” we would chuckle in a sinister manner, mutter something along the lines of “the weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” and invite you to check out Bill Johnstone’s signature role as The Shadow on Bitter Fruit, Crime Does Not Pay, Dead Men Tell, Dream of Death, Knight of Darkness, Radio Treasures, Silent Avenger, and Strange Puzzles. Our set of broadcasts from The Line-Up (Witness) also features some of Bill’s outstanding radio work. In addition, there’s The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, Amos ‘n’ Andy (Volume Two), Crime Classics (The Hyland Files), Defense Attorney, Escape (Essentials), The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe (Parties for Death), Night Beat (Human Interest), The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Show (Smoother and Sweeter), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy), The Six Shooter (Gray Steel, Special Edition), Stop the Press! (with the Night Beat episode “Doctor’s Secret”), Suspense (Around the World, At Work, Ties That Bind), Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, The Weird Circle (Toll the Bell), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar). Last—but certainly not least—listen to Mr. Johnstone “walk by night” as one of the many Whistlers in the new Whistler: Voices compilation! Happy birthday to one of the true radio greats!