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The Men From Laramie

Before actor Raymond Burr stepped into his first courtroom in the fall of 1957 as TV’s Perry Mason, he was known primarily as a movie heavy (if you’ll pardon the obvious pun).  He practiced villainy in films noir such as Pitfall (1948), His Kind of Woman (1951) and The Blue Gardenia (1953).  He also had high-profile cinematic showcases in both A Place in the Sun (1951) (as the fiery District Attorney out to convict Montgomery Clift) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) (as the suspected killer peered at by invalid James Stewart).

Burr was also making a name for himself on radio.  As a close friend of future Dragnet creator Jack Webb, he worked alongside his friend in the hard-boiled detective drama Pat Novak for Hire (as Inspector Helmann)…and appeared briefly on Webb’s famous police procedural as Ed Backstrand, Chief of Detectives.  Other radio programs on which Burr was heard include Suspense, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, The Whistler, The Line-Up and The CBS Radio Workshop.

Fifty-seven years ago on this date, Raymond Burr began his best-known radio gig—that of stern-but-sympathetic Lee Quince, “Captain of Cavalry,” on CBS Radio’s Fort Laramie.  The western series, created by Gunsmoke’s Norman Macdonnell, bore many stylistic similarities to its “adult western” cousin.  The “sound patterns” on the program were supplied courtesy of Bill James and Ray Kemper, and many of Laramie’s scripts were written by people who did double-duty on Gunsmoke: John Meston, John Dunkel, Les Crutchfield and Kathleen Hite (the show’s head writer).

Many members of Gunsmoke’s “stock company” also added their rich characterizations to Fort Laramie—Vic Perrin portrayed the laid-back sergeant Ken Gorce, and Harry Bartell (who was 42 at the time, older than both Burr and Perrin) was completely convincing as Lieutenant Richard Siberts, a greenhorn junior officer.  The fourth member of Laramie’s quartet, and Captain Quince’s superior, was Major Daggett, played by Jack Moyles (best remembered by radio fans as the titular hero on Rocky Jordan).  Other Gunsmoke regulars heard on Fort Laramie included Sam Edwards, Howard McNear, Jeanette Nolan, Howard Culver, Ben Wright, Lawrence Dobkin, Jeanne Bates, Virginia Gregg, Parley Baer and John Dehner (who appeared as Quince on the show’s audition record in 1955).

Fort Laramie depicted the harsh and often challenging experiences of soldiers on a U.S. Army post in the 1880’s, “the saga of fighting men who rode the rim of empire.”  It was remarkably devoted to authenticity and realism.  It was also groundbreaking in that it depicted both female and Native American characters in bracingly positive ways, and moved radio’s barriers by being fearless enough to tackle the themes of death, repentance and betrayal in many of its stories.  But, it could also present lighter moments, poking gentle fun at the ways men sought to combat the humdrum rigors of cavalry life.

Fort Laramie spent its entire radio run as a sustaining program on CBS, but its swift cancellation on October 28, 1956 wasn’t due to its inability to attract a sponsor.  By that September, Raymond Burr had received word that he was going to be starring as Erle Stanley Gardner’s famed literary creation, Perry Mason, on a primetime series for the network.  The question as to whether or not the program could have (again, excuse the pun) soldiered on is best left to OTR fans to discuss when they’re not listening to the show…but as a series, it’s one of radio’s finest.  The complete run of forty episodes is available in two collections (Volume 1 and 2) from Radio Spirits.  On a list of the best old-time radio westerns of all time—Gunsmoke would inarguably rank as Number 1…but I’d personally fight for the inclusion of Fort Laramie in second place.  “At the gallop…full!”

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