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Happy Birthday, Lou Merrill!

An item in the September 25, 1939 edition of The Van Nuys News trumpets the motion picture debut of actor Louis Merrill—born in Winnipeg, Canada on this date in 1912.  The blurb is a little hyperbolic; Lou had previously appeared (uncredited) in the 1938 cliffhanger serial Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. In addition, his voice had been heard as the narrator of the 1935 Boris Karloff feature The Black Room. However, his Tropic Fury (1939) role as Porthos Scipio, a menacing South American rubber baron, would be the first time the character great received billing on the silver screen.  There would be motion pictures to follow, of course, but Merrill was first and foremost a radio actor…described in the News article as “a veteran of the networks for the past eight years” and who “has mastered nine different dialects for his widely varied characterizations.”

If you can call being a choirboy in Montreal “show business,” then Lou Merrill was bitten by the bug from a very early age.  His big break in American radio was sharing a microphone with silent film queen Mary Pickford on Parties at Pickfair, and one of Lou’s earliest high-profile assignments was working on radio’s prestigious The Lux Radio Theatre. Not only was he on the latter program weekly as a member of the series’ repertory company of supporting players, but he also served as an assistant director, handling “crowd scenes” in the show’s broadcast plays.  On Big Town, Lou’s hefty 250 lb. frame gave him the gravitas to play a variety of “heavies”; he excelled at portraying gangsters—a nod to star Edward G. Robinson’s cinematic stock-in-trade.  (Merrill even served as Robinson’s “stand-in” whenever Eddie G. was unavailable.)  Throughout the 1930s, Lou racked up radio credits on shows like Calling All CarsDr. ChristianThe Joe Penner ShowThe John Barrymore TheatreThe Mickey Mouse Theatre of the AirStrange as It SeemsThose We Love (as con man Ed Neely), and Woodbury Playhouse.  Merrill was even a participant in the classic Yuletide radio production The Cinnamon Bear, where he played “the big man” himself: Santa Claus.

In the 1940’s, Lou Merrill scored roles in two films directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille: North West Mounted Police (1940; as Lesure) and Reap the Wild Wind (1942; as the Captain of “The Pelican”).  He was identified onscreen for those turns, but most of his film work consisted of uncredited roles in offerings like New Wine (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), and Passport to Suez(1943).  Lou’s radio career, on the other hand, was going like “gang busters.”  He was a favorite of radio auteur Arch Oboler, who made use of his talents and dialects on Lights OutArch Oboler’s PlaysEverything for the BoysFree World Theatre, and Plays for Americans.  Orson Welles also liked the cut of Merrill’s jib, casting him in parts on Hello AmericansCeiling Unlimited, and Radio Almanac.  (Lou also has a nice turn in Orson’s The Lady from Shanghai [1948] as “Jake Bjornsen.”)

For the most part, however, Lou Merrill leveraged his experience as a Lux Radio Theatre player to work scads of radio anthology programs, among them The Cavalcade of AmericaDark Venture, Encore TheatreThe Eternal LightFamily TheatreHollywood Star TimeThe NBC University TheatreThe Pacific StoryThe Railroad HourScreen Directors’ PlayhouseStudio OneThe Theatre of Famous Radio Players, and Theatre of Romance.  Merrill’s versatility also brought him to such venues as The Alan Young ShowThe George Burns & Gracie Allen ShowThe Jack Benny ProgramThe Life of RileyMail CallPoint Sublime (as Aaron Saul, the town jeweler), Request PerformanceThe Rudy Vallee Show, and Smilin’ Ed’s Buster Brown Gang.  He starred briefly as Captain Craig McKenzie on an early adult science-fiction series, Latitude Zero, and racked up appearances on Ellery QueenIntrigueThe New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Rogue’s Gallery.

Merrill also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with “Mr. Radio,” Elliott Lewis; he appeared frequently on the Lewis-produced Broadway’s My Beat, as well as On Stage and Suspense.  In addition, Elliott cast Lou in the radio role for which old-time radio fans remember him best: as Crime Classics host/narrator Thomas Hyland—“connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders.”  A short-lived crime anthology that is nevertheless revered by radio devotees even today, Classics allowed Lou-as-Hyland to be his droll, deadpan best as he regaled listeners with tales of true criminal cases presented in a macabre, tongue-in-cheek fashion.  The departure of Crime Classics (a crime in itself) didn’t slow Merrill down, however; his radio resume continued to bulge with entries such as The Adventures of Sam SpadeThe Adventures of the SaintThe CBS Radio WorkshopThe Hallmark Hall of FameThe Halls of IvyHeartbeat TheatreThe LineupLuke Slaughter of TombstoneThe Man Called XNight BeatObsessionPresenting Charles BoyerRetributionRocky FortuneThe Silent MenThe Six ShooterSomebody KnowsStars in the AirStars Over HollywoodThat’s RichThis is Your FBIWild Bill Hickok, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

Although a dedicated “radio man,” Lou Merrill was not a stranger to the small screen.  He appeared in several installments of a series entitled The Oboler Comedy Theatre (for his old boss Arch Oboler) and guest-starred on such hits as I Love LucyThe LineupColt .45The MillionaireSugarfoot, and Shirley Temple’s Scrapbook.  Most of his movie appearances allowed him to fall back on his love of radio. For example, that’s Lou as the radio announcer in the loopy morality film The Next Voice You Hear… (1950), and like his fellow radio thespian Paul Frees, Merrill enjoyed narrating trailers for such AIP features as It Conquered the World (195x), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), and A Bucket of Blood (1959).  His credited films include roles in Charge of the Lancers (1954), The Iron Glove (1954), The Crooked Web (1955), and a schlock favorite of mine, The Giant Claw (1957).  His cinematic swan song was 1961’s The Devil at 4 O’Clock; Lou Merrill passed on two years later at the tender age of 54.

If you’re in the mood—and you know you are—to celebrate Lou Merrill’s birthday, you’re going to want to own our Crime Classics collection The Hyland Files, featuring his signature role as Thomas Hyland.  However, Lou is present and accounted for in three of our Broadway’s My Beat sets: Dark WhispersGreat White Way, and our just-released The Loneliest Mile (with liner notes from your humble narrator).  In addition, you’ll hear Merrill working his microphone magic on Big Town: Blind JusticeDark VentureLights Out, Everybody and Lights Out: Later Than You ThinkThe Line Up: WitnessThe Man Called XRogue’s Gallery: Blue EyesSherlock Holmes: ElementaryThe Six Shooter: Gray SteelSomebody Knows; the Suspense compendiums Beyond Good and Evil and Wages of Sin; and the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar collections Murder Matters and Wayward Matters.  Believe you me—Lou Merrill is no April fool!

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