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Happy Birthday, Charles Russell!

Fans of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are generally in agreement that it was actor Bob Bailey who made “America’s fabulous freelance investigator” the old-time radio icon he is today.  (I apologize in advance to all the John Lund fans out there.)  As revered as Bailey was as “the man with the action-packed expense account,” Johnny Dollar devotees know that he wasn’t the first radio thespian to tackle the role: that honor belongs to an actor born in New York City on this date in 1918.  We know him as Charles Russell.

While we know the name of the first of the Johnny Dollar thespians (excluding Dick Powell, of course, who starred in the show’s first audition), Charles Russell’s biography is a little sketchy…as author John C. Abbott acknowledged in his book The Who is Johnny Dollar Matter?  A 1949 issue of Radio Mirror offers but the briefest biographical blurb for Russell, noting that he turned down employment in his hometown of Tarrytown, NY for a career on the stage.  “After starving several years in Little Theater roles,” observes Mirror, “Charles wangled a screen test and subsequently made several pictures.”

The IMDb notes that Charles Russell’s first foray into motion pictures was an uncredited bit as a ball player in 1943’s Ladies’ Day, a romantic baseball-themed romp starring Eddie Albert and Lupe Velez.  Russell’s second film featured his first onscreen credit: Bombardier, a WW2 docudrama that also featured Albert…though the stars of that picture were Pat O’Brien and Randolph Scott.  Both Ladies’ Day and Bombardier were released by RKO, and on the strength of those appearances Charles was soon signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox.

Charles’ first film for Fox was a prestigious one: The Purple Heart (1944), an all-star war drama whose cast included Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, and Farley Granger.  It would prove to be one of the studio’s biggest hits that year, and Russell would be pressed into service (if you’ll pardon the pun) for other “military” roles in Captain Eddie (1945—a biopic on Captain Eddie Rickenbacker) and Johnny Comes Flying Home (1946).  Charlie also appeared in a “B” mystery, Behind Green Lights (1946—you can read a review of this at my home base, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear), and a romantic tale with Fox headliners John Payne, June Haver, and Charlotte Greenwood: Wake Up and Dream (1946).

Charles Russell’s biggest success at 20th Century-Fox was 1947’s The Late George Apley—a sprightly comedy satire (based on the best-selling novel by author John P. Marquand, best-known as the man who introduced Asian sleuth Mr. Moto to bookshelves) about a proper Bostonian family whose lives are turned upside down when their children announce that they’re marrying “beneath their station.”  Charlie played the fiancé of the Apley daughter, Ellie (Peggy Cummins), and his would-be father-in-law was portrayed by an actor who was certainly no stranger to radio: Ronald Colman.

Russell finished out his stint at Fox with appearances in Give My Regards to Broadway (1948), Night Wind (1948), Trouble Preferred (1949), and Tuscon (1949).  Night Wind was one of only two pictures where Charlie received top billing; the other was an independent production entitled Inner Sanctum (1948)…which, despite the deceptive poster art, had very little connection to the popular radio show (I reviewed it for Radio Spirits here).  (Russell was also in the cast of 1948’s Canon City—a nifty little prison break noir that makes the rounds of Turner Classic Movies every now and then, so keep an eye out for it.)  Charles then drifted over to Columbia to make three pictures…but in only one of them, Chinatown at Midnight (1949), did he receive onscreen billing (the other two were Mary Ryan, Detective [1949] and Breakthrough [1950], his final film).

By the time Mary Ryan, Detective was released to theaters, however, Charles Russell had already made his “radio debut” in the role of the titular insurance investigator on Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.  Russell’s first show aired February 11, 1949, and he would be kept busy itemizing his expense accounts for a total of 35 broadcasts (until motion picture star Edmond O’Brien replaced him in January of 1950).  John C. Abbott describes Russell’s portrayal of Dollar as “a sarcastic, irreverent, droll and somewhat lecherous person. Johnny always got the bad guy, but he always seemed to get the girl as well—sometimes to his undoing and always, it seemed ‘on’ the expense account.”  After his stint on Dollar, Russell would make appearances on such radio favorites as Family Theatre and The Adventures of Philip Marlowe.

Not much is known about Charles Russell after 1950. We do know that he married fellow Fox player Nancy Guild in 1947, and that the two divorced three years later.  In a 2012 issue of Radio Recall, Abbott writes: “…there is a clue to what he might have been up to. I have a photo of Russell taken from the St. Louis Dispatch. In that photo he is sitting at a paper-strewn table holding a pencil. The inference in this picture is that Russell is writing, but the question is: what?”  Curiouser and curiouser, to borrow a famous literary phrase.  Charles Russell passed on at the age of 66 in 1985.

The Radio Spirits collection of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe features our birthday boy in a January 28, 1950 broadcast entitled “The Hairpin Turn.”  But to get maximum Charles Russell in front of the mike, you’ll want to collect his signature role as Johnny Dollar in our compendiums of Medium Rare MattersMysterious Matters, and of course, The Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

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