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Happy Birthday, Jackson Beck!


Though he personally considered himself foremost an actor, radio veteran Jackson Beck—born in New York City on this date in 1912—remains best known for announcing in his unmistakable, deep voice: “Yes, it’s Superman—strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!” Beck joined Mutual’s popular The Adventures of Superman in 1943, and stayed on as the show’s announcer-narrator until its cancellation in 1950. As we will see, however, Jackson was in the Man of Steel’s circle of friends both before and after his seven-year radio stint.

beck1Beck was the son of silent film actor Max Beck, and began his radio career as far back as 1931, when he worked on the daytime drama Myrt and Marge. Jackson became one of the medium’s most reliable narrators, heard frequently on The March of Time and serving as the announcer on The Adventures of Babe Ruth. The actor never ventured far from his home base of NYC, and was part of the city’s extensive pool of first-rate radio performers, which allowed him to appear on such New York-based shows as The Brownstone Theatre, Bulldog Drummond, The Busy Mr. Bingle, Casey, Crime Photographer (as Inspector Logan), Cloak and Dagger, Creeps by Night, The FBI in Peace and War, Grand Central Station, Hercule Poirot, Inner Sanctum, Joe and Ethel Turp, The Joe DiMaggio Show, Life Can Be Beautiful, The Man Behind the Gun (replacing Everett Sloane as the show’s narrator), Matinee Theater, The Mysterious Traveler, Valiant Lady, Words at War, Woman of America, X-Minus One and You are There. Even as the curtain was about to close on radio in the 1960s, Beck could be heard on some of the medium’s last remaining programs like Have Gun – Will Travel, Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar…and participated enthusiastically in the radio revivals of the 1960s/1970s with appearances on Theater Five and The CBS Radio Mystery Theater.

BlutoBefore landing the Superman gig, Jackson Beck was already associated with the comic strip character: he provided the voice of Perry White in the series of theatrical animated cartoons produced by Max Fleischer beginning in 1941. When Paramount took over the Fleischer outfit—and renamed it Famous Studios in 1942—Beck stayed on the payroll, voicing the father of cartoon heroine Little Lulu and Buzzy the Crow, a minor star paired with the company’s Herman the cat (of Herman and Katnip) in a series of shorts that aren’t revisited much today (Beck was asked to use a dialect voice for Buzzy). Jackson can also be heard in several of the Casper, the Friendly Ghost shorts and Little Audrey cartoons…but most members of that generation know his unmistakable tones in Bluto, the nemesis of cartoon star Popeye. (Once again, Beck was ahead of the curve—he played Bluto on the spinach-eating gob’s short-lived radio series in the mid-1930s.)

beck3On Superman, even though he became immortal as the program’s announcer-narrator (“I’m still often asked to recreate the famous opening today,” he once observed, “It’s nice to be part of a legend”), Jackson got the opportunity to do more than just observe the adventures of the visitor from Krypton. He provided the voice of Beany Martin, the Daily Planet’s copyboy, and whenever Supe got a visit from the Caped Crusader, Jackson would play the part of Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. The actor would achieve major success with an association in radio fare aimed at juvenile audiences; he served as a narrator on Mark Trail and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and played Tank Tinker on Hop Harrigan. From 1942 to 1945, Beck was the first actor to portray O. Henry’s “famous Robin Hood of the Old West,” The Cisco Kid. Beck also flexed his thespic muscles as one of radio’s popular gumshoes; from 1948 to 1950, he played S.S. Van Dine’s famed creation Philo Vance in a series syndicated by prolific producer Frederic W. Ziv. Jackson’s Superman co-worker Joan Alexander emoted beside him as his assistant Miss Deering, and George Petrie played district attorney Frank Markham. Beck also briefly played the titular sleuth of The Casebook of Gregory Hood over Mutual in 1949.

king-leonardo-of-bongo-congoIf you’ve ever watched Woody Allen’s 1969 mockumentary Take the Money and Run, you no doubt know that Jackson Beck served as the movie’s tongue-in-cheek narrator of the plight of hapless criminal Virgil Stark. Allen was a fan of Beck’s; he later used the actor’s vocal talents as the on-the-spot newsman in his homage to those thrilling days of yesteryear, Radio Days (1987). Unlike his fellow narrators Reed Hadley and Paul Frees, Jackson rarely did much acting before a television camera. However, he did make an exception in the late sixties with a brief appearance on the daytime soap The Edge of Night as mobster Willie Saffire. Still, Beck maintained a presence on TV: he was the narrator of the 1958-59 series Steve Canyon, and voiced the characters of King Leonardo and Biggie Rat in the fondly remembered cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects.

beck7Jackson also returned to past triumphs: he reestablished his inner Bluto when a series of made-for-TV Popeye cartoons were produced in the 1960s, and was reunited with Clayton “Bud” Collier and Joan Alexander for The Adventures of Superman in 1966 (Beck was the narrator, and once again played editor Perry White—but he also took on additional work as the Man of Steel’s evil nemesis, Lex Luthor). Throughout the 1980s/1990s the actor served as the narrator on the G.I. Joe cartoon series and was everywhere in the advertising arena, serving as an enthusiastic pitchman for Little Caesar’s, Thompson’s Water Seal, Brawny paper towels and Infusium shampoo. He passed away only a few days after his 92nd birthday in 1994.

19905The adventures of our birthday boy in his signature role as Philo Vance are available in a nice Radio Spirits collection, and you can also enjoy hearing him on Bulldog Drummond: Out of the Fog. Jackson is also featured in all three of our The Adventures of the Falcon sets: Count Me Out Tonight, Angel, Private Eye to Super Spy and Shakedown (with liner notes by yours truly!). You’ll also enjoy hearing Jackson on the Words at War collection, featuring WWII dramas with the likes of Lesley Woods, Maurice Tarplin and Lon Clark, and Beck rings down the Final Curtain in our set of Suspense programs from the final years of “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills.” Happy birthday to the multi-talented Jackson Beck!

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