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Happy Birthday, Ben Alexander!

With the death of Barton Yarborough in December of 1951, Jack Webb was anxious to find a replacement for the actor who had portrayed Ben Romero to his Joe Friday on the radio and television versions of his hit police procedural Dragnet.  Webb relied on several actors in the interim, including Barney Philips and Herb Ellis, before spotting the man born Nicholas Benton Alexander III on this date in 1911. Alexander was hosting a local TV game show, Watch and Win, and Webb’s people told him to forget about getting him for Dragnet.  Ben was, for all intents and purposes, retired from show business (having invested well in businesses like gas stations and automobile dealerships). He only emceed Watch as a lark (he owned the show).  When word got to Webb that Alexander was interested in doing an episode of Dragnet (Ben had mentioned it to his friend Cliff Arquette), Jack persuaded him to take on the role of Joe Friday’s new partner, Frank Smith, for four outings…but Alexander went the distance until the TV show ended in 1959.

Ben Alexander called Goldfield, Nevada his birthplace—his parents originally hailed from Tennessee, so how they wound up in Nevada is anybody’s guess.  But the Alexander family didn’t linger long in the Silver State; they relocated to Los Angeles when Ben was three years old, ostensibly to get the youngster into motion pictures.  They didn’t have to wait long: five-year-old “Bennie Alexander” got a job playing “Cupid” in the 1916 film Each Pearl a Tear, and after that enjoyed a prosperous career as a child thespian with movie appearances in the likes of The Little American (1917), Hearts of the World (1918), and Little Orphan Annie (1918).  (This last entry on Ben’s resume, one of silent film star Colleen Moore’s surviving movie showcases, recently underwent a restoration to Blu-ray/DVD through a Kickstarter campaign.)

Ben’s movie career continued throughout the 1920s—he starred in a version of Penrod and Sam (1923), playing Booth Tarkington’s famous creation of Penrod Schofield—allowing him to transition into both mature roles and the talkies.  His best-known movie from this period is All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in which he plays Kemmerich, the amputation victim — but he also did fine work in vehicles like High Pressure (1932), The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), This Day and Age (1933), and Stage Mother (1933).  Alexander continued to make sporadic appearances in motion pictures (a lot of B-pictures and second features) and by this time he started to turn his attention to radio, where he found steady work as an announcer.  In fact, his work in the aural medium encouraged him to return to Stanford University (his second go-round—the first time he dropped out because he couldn’t afford the tuition) to study business administration…and then he learned an individual could make more money acting and/or announcing.  (The business classes he took at Stanford, however, were a boon to Ben later in life when he achieved great success outside the acting field.)

On radio, Ben Alexander was in huge demand as an announcer and emcee; one of his earliest gigs was on a variety show called Little Ol’ Hollywood, which was heard over the Blue Network from 1939 to 1942.  (The inaugural broadcast of this series has survived, and Ben is introduced as “Hollywood’s oldest young actor.”)  He also announced a few times on Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, and from 1941 to 1942 worked on The New Old Gold Show alongside Herbert Marshall, Bert Wheeler (with his new partner Hank Ladd), and Lucille Ball.  Alexander stood before the microphone on the wartime series Eyes Aloft and the comedy serial Point Sublime, and in later years worked on Red Ryder and Favorite Story.  From 1939 to 1940 he played “Philip West” on the nighttime serial Brenthouse, and performed with future Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge as “Junior Sheldon,” boyfriend of the titular heroine in the short-lived This is Judy Jones in 1941.

Before his role on Dragnet, Ben’s best-known radio showcase was portraying “Bashful” Ben Waterford on The Great Gildersleeve—Ben being one of Marjorie Forrester’s many suitors before she became Mrs. Bronco Thompson.  Alexander’s work on Gildersleeve paved the way for later gigs with Fanny Brice (he was a “utility man” on The Baby Snooks Show) and Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis (as their announcer in 1949), not to mention hosting several “audience participation” programs (Lady Be Beautiful, It’s a Living)—the best-known being a Queen for a Day-knockoff called Heart’s Desire from 1946 to 1948.  Rounding out Ben’s radio resume are gigs with I Love a Mystery, Hollywood Star Time, The Lux Radio Theatre, and Free World Theatre.  Ben can also be heard on surviving broadcasts of Mail Call; during World War II the actor-announcer served as a naval lieutenant aboard an aircraft with the radar division…later, he provided work for his old war buddies managing his various gas stations.

Ben Alexander eventually tackled behind-the-scenes work in radio and TV as an account executive with Foote, Cone & Belding…though the performer in him couldn’t resist a stint hosting Party Time at Club Roma (a 1950-51 TV show that was part Truth or Consequences-type stunt show and part talent contest).  Ben really didn’t need the TV work; his shrewd investments (including a hotel and a brewery) paid the bills, but it almost seems as if his Officer Frank Smith role was destiny.  He took an aptitude test before enrolling at Stanford, and the results revealed that Alexander “should become a pilot or a policeman.”  (The actor often noted in interviews that he was hired for Dragnet because “I looked like a cop.”)  There had been occasional light or comic relief moments on the series during the Barton Yarborough years…but Ben Alexander upped the ante with his humorous portrayal of Frank Smith, whether he was fretting about his wife Fay or expressing concern about his health. (Frank was a bit of a hypochondriac.)  A running gag on the program often had Smith excitedly describing a new food recipe that he had tried at home, much to his partner’s bemusement.

Many of the qualities that were established with the Frank Smith character would later be transferred to Bill Gannon, the partner played by Harry Morgan when Dragnet was revived on NBC-TV from 1967 to 1970.  Ben Alexander would have reprised the role of Frank when Jack Webb started the Dragnet revival…but he had already committed to another series that had premiered over ABC in the fall of 1966, a half-hour crime drama called The Felony Squad.  Co-starring with radio veteran Howard Duff and newcomer Dennis Cole, Alexander played desk sergeant Dan Briggs in this entertaining series that ran three seasons (Cole was Briggs’ son Jim).  It was Alexander’s last television credit; he suffered a coronary occlusion at his L.A. home and passed away at the age of 58.

About the time that getTV was rerunning The Felony Squad for a short period, a friend of mine noted that Ben Alexander had a cameo in an episode of Batman as a police detective (it’s not indicated as to whether he’s playing his Dan Briggs character—but I’d like to think he was).  Until someone decides to release Felony Squad to DVD, Alexander fans will have to settle for his iconic role as Frank Smith on Dragnet—and fortunately for you, Radio Spirits has two outstanding collections featuring Ben’s work on Big Crime and The Big Gamble.  But be sure to check out our birthday celebrant’s flair for comedy on The Great Gildersleeve set Neighbors and his dramatic turn on our Dark Venture collection, too!


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