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Happy Birthday, Antony Ellis!

antony-ellis-ray-bradbury

The last time we got together here on the blog we celebrated Sheldon Leonard’s birthday…and I described his career as a “hyphenate”: actor, producer, director (and even writer on shows like the Andy Griffith and Danny Thomas programs). Today marks the natal anniversary of yet another hyphenate: it’s Antony Ellis, a native Brit (born in the United Kingdom in 1920) who found success on this side of the pond as an actor before expanding his horizons as a writer-director-producer on such radio classics as Escape and Suspense.

ellis2Antony’s early radio career was marked as a performer on such shows as The Lux Radio Theatre, Arch Oboler’s Plays, and The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. It was with Pursuit, a short-lived but excellent series about the exploits of a fictional Scotland Yard detective (played at various times by Ted de Corsia, John Dehner, Herb Butterfield, and Ben Wright), that Ellis demonstrated he had a knack for slapping a noun up against a verb. His writing talents would soon be in high demand on series such as Romance and Escape…and yet he never completely abandoned emoting before the microphone, since several surviving broadcasts from those two series (as well as Pursuit) feature him in a performing capacity (frequently alongside his wife Georgia, best-known as Long Branch proprietor Kitty Russell on Gunsmoke).

ellis1Among Tony’s memorable contributions to Escape: “A Sleeping Draught,” “The Cave” (a classic Christmas fantasy), and “I Saw Myself Running”—a personal favorite of mine that deals with the bizarre, mystifying world of dreams. In the last season of Escape, Ellis found himself seated in the director’s chair numerous times (while Norm Macdonnell continued as producer), adding to his resume of writing and performing. As mentioned, wife Georgia was a regular on Macdonnell’s Gunsmoke, and Tony contributed a few remarkable scripts to that series as well, including that show’s classic Christmas outing (appropriately titled “Christmas Story”) and “Kitty,” an entry that takes a closer look at the “relationship” between the saloon girl and Marshal Dillon when the lawman asks her to be his escort at a dance (Ellis plays a small part in this one as well).

lewisesIn addition, Antony Ellis forged a bond of friendship with none other than “Mr. Radio” himself—Elliott Lewis. Tony wrote and performed on a number of shows overseen by Lewis, notably Crime Classics and On Stage. It was Ellis who adapted Shakespeare’s Othello for the memorable Suspense two-parter broadcast on May 4 and May 11, 1953, featuring Lewis as the titular Moor with Richard Widmark (as Iago) and Elliott’s then-wife Cathy Lewis (as Desdemona). Tony inherited Suspense in December of 1954 as director-producer, and continued in that capacity for two years (he was also directing and producing Romance) until William N. Robson took over. Other series that featured Ellis’ contributions include The Bakers’ Theatre of Stars, The Hallmark Hall of Fame, and O’Hara. Tony also left his stamp on The CBS Radio Workshop with a pair of classics in “The Enormous Radio” and “A Matter of Logic”—both of which dealt with the business that he loved so well.

john-dehner-radio2As an Englishman who became a naturalized American citizen, Antony Ellis turned his fascination with his adopted country and his insatiable interest in the history of the Old West into the series that inarguably remains his greatest radio achievement: Frontier Gentleman. The intro to that classic western says it all: “Herewith, an Englishman’s account of life and death in the West.” The show revolved around London Times reporter Jeremy Brian Kendall (played by John Dehner, who was great friends with Tony in real life) as he traveled throughout the early Western United States in search of subject matter for his contributions to the newspaper. Frontier Gentleman provided rich character studies of people both obscure and famous (among the legends Kendall encountered were Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok), and as old-time radio historian John Dunning once remarked, Gentleman was “the only serious rival to Gunsmoke in the radio Hall of Fame.” Sadly, this superb series only ran from February 2 to November 16, 1958.

ridebackSince it was only a matter of time until radio’s coffin was lowered into the ground, Antony Ellis was soon forced to find other conduits for his creative talents. A Gunsmoke episode he penned (which unfortunately no longer appears to survive in recorded form), “The Ride Back,” was fashioned into a feature film in 1957 starring Anthony Quinn and William Conrad. (I always tell those people outraged by the vetoing of Conrad by the network brass to continue playing Matt Dillon on the TV version of Gunsmoke that Ride Back is an excellent way to imagine him in the role). Ellis had better luck on the small screen, where he wrote for such hits as Zorro, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor (Ellis also penned a few Gunsmoke scripts, too). Ellis was the producer of a TV version of Michael Shayne between 1960 and 1961, and created, wrote and produced Black Saddle (1959-60)—an underrated western (that should have been more successful) starring a pre-Big Valley Peter Breck and a pre-Gilligan’s Island Russell Johnson. Tony’s promising career was cut short in 1967 when he succumbed to cancer at the age of 47.

19833At Radio Spirits, we feature plenty of broadcasts from Antony Ellis’ amazing contribution to radio drama in Frontier Gentleman, featuring such collections as Frontier Gentleman and Life and Death. You can also listen to his creative contributions to Romance as well as Escape (Escape Essentials, Escape to the High Seas, The Hunted and the Haunted) and Suspense (Suspense at Work, Ties That Bind, Around the World). Finally—don’t miss out on Tony the actor with performances on Crime Classics and Voyage of the Scarlet Queen, Volume Two. Happy birthday to the one of the most formidable talents of Radio’s Golden Age!

5 Comments

  1. Michelle Myers says:

    My second cousin. Very talented!

  2. Jack Joyce says:

    The rapt attention radio inspired for many hours of imaginative enjoyment was inspired by Antony Ellis and many of his colleagues. In many ways the community enjoyed by listners huddled around the radio was more congenial than that experienced via the “boob tube.”
    Anthony Ellis’ career is extremely impressive and incredibly multifaceted.

  3. […] Bradbury confabs with Antony Ellis for the “Zero Hour” episode of Suspense, originally broadcast on April 5, 1955. (Radio Spirits) […]

  4. Briana Ellis Isaac says:

    My Dad was so very talented!
    It’s wonderful to see his work still being enjoyed by folks today.
    His brilliant creativity lives on through his stories!

  5. Richard McLeod says:

    A great talent we lost too soon. His excitement in writing showed in the many works he left on many varied radio shows especially Frontier Gentlemen and Gunsmoke. His wife Georgia was a talent unto herself and will always be remembered as the first “Miss Kitty”.

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