It’s safe to say that without author Dashiell Hammett, the crime rate in Radio Land would be at risk of going on an uptick. Hammett’s legendary gumshoe Sam Spade—introduced in his novel The Maltese Falcon—would become “the greatest private detective of them all” over the airwaves (in The Adventures of Sam Spade), and the Nick and Nora Charles characters from his book The Thin Man (purportedly inspired by Dash and longtime lady friend Lillian Hellman) also enjoyed much radio success (The Adventures of the Thin Man). Seventy years ago on this date, Hammett created a radio “hat trick” when The Fat Man made his debut over the ABC Radio Network.
WOMAN: There he goes into that drugstore…he’s stepping on the scale…
(SFX: Penny tumbling onto scale)
WOMAN: Weight? Two hundred thirty-seven pounds…
(SFX: Click of card popping out of scale)
WOMAN: Fortune…danger! (Music sting) Whooooo is it?
RUNYON: The Fat Mannnnnn…
The actor who played Runyon (and who actually weighed a bit more than his fictional counterpart, coming in at 270) was radio veteran J. Scott Smart, tabbed “The Lon Chaney of Radio” by his peers for his talent in playing character parts. Smart had worked on such programs as The Cavalcade of America and The Lux Radio Theatre, in addition to being a member of Fred Allen’s popular “Allen’s Alley” as windy politico Senator Bloat. Smart’s deep bass voice had a distinctive rumble to it, so when he pronounced “murder” it came out as “murrr-derrr.” Suffice it to say, he was perfect casting for the role of Runyon, a man who despite his girth and “tough as nails” demeanor was also a charming ladies’ man (he could have double-dated with The Great Gildersleeve), which added an interesting dimension to his ability to bring down any suspect before his half-hour came to a close.
The origins of The Fat Man have often been a topic of discussion amongst fans of the series. Some argue that the character of Casper Gutman in Falcon inspired the portly sleuth (one of the chapters in Falcon is titled “The Fat Man”), while others posit that radio’s Runyon bears a striking similarity to the nameless detective Hammett created known to fans as “the Continental Op” (so named because he worked for the Continental Detective Agency). There’s even disagreement as to how much involvement Hammett himself had in the creation of The Fat Man; a number of sources suggest that he might have penned a few of the program’s early scripts before allowing staff writers to take it from there. I myself remain skeptical about this, particularly since Hammett himself declared in 1949 (regarding the radio versions of his literary efforts): “My sole duty in regard to these programs is to look in the mail for a check once a week. I don’t even listen to them. If I did, I’d complain about how they were being handled, and then I’d fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help. I don’t want to have anything to do with the radio. It’s a dizzy world—makes the movies seem highly intellectual.”
Whether or not Hammett was ghost-writing The Fat Man, the fact remains that the show—under the sponsorship of Pepto-Bismol, a match made in heaven—was a very popular one for ABC, frequently occupying the Top Ten in the radio ratings. It was such a smash that, in 1951, Universal brought J. Scott Smart (reprising his Brad Runyon role) to the big screen with a feature film adaptation of The Fat Man that also spotlighted the talents of Julie London, Rock Hudson, Jayne Meadows, John “Lawman” Russell, and legendary clown Emmett Kelly. (The movie, directed by future schlockmeister William Castle, features a climax set against the background of a circus). Sadly, the critical reaction to the movie was rather tepid (one wag remarked that J. Scott “was better behind the microphone than in front of the camera”) and it eventually was relegated to Late, Late Show status allowing television listings to have a bit of fun (“Rock Hudson as The Fat Man”).
It was perhaps for the best, for the radio Fat Man was also having trouble. Despite the program’s popularity, there was pressure being put on ABC to give the rotund detective a pink slip—mostly due to the association it had with Dashiell Hammett, who was being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee at that time for his political affiliations. Hammett’s other creations suffered a similar fate: The Adventures of The Thin Man left a vacant microphone in 1950, and The Adventures of Sam Spade would have followed had not an outcry from its fans given the series a temporary one-year reprieve. The Fat Man was the last Hammett-inspired show to take its final bows at the curtain, departing ABC’s schedule on September 26, 1951.
Time was not kind to The Fat Man. Less than a dozen broadcasts of the 1946-51 series survived, though about three dozen episodes from the Australian version (which went on the air in 1954, starring actor Lloyd Berrell) were saved, and a mixture of episodes from the U.S. and Australian series comprise the content of Radio Spirits’ classic radio detective collection of The Fat Man. At the height of his popularity, the corpulent Brad Runyon was heard by six million listeners weekly, and after listening to his adventures on this set you’ll gain a new appreciation for the sleuth adept at dealing with the art of “murrr-derrr…”