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Happy Birthday, Ben Wright!

“Ben was one of the last of the true English gentlemen in the Edwardian sense of the word, with an accent on the gentle,” remarked Joe Bandille in 1989 on the passing of his good friend, actor Ben Wright. “He was also a scholar in the best tradition of the self-educated man.” Old-time radio devotees know that the man born Benjamin Huntington Wright in London, England on this date in 1915 was one of the most skilled character actors in the medium. One would also be hard-pressed to find a more practiced dialectician, in that Ben’s roles ranged from portraying the titular sleuth on The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (in the 1949-50 season) to Toku, the devoted Tibetan assistant to Jethro Dumont, a.k.a. The Green Lama.

At the age of 16, Ben Wright scratched the itch left by the acting bug by joining the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). (Ida Lupino was one of his classmates!) After graduation, Ben appeared in a number of stage productions in London’s West End. Wright enlisted in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps as World War II was underway. His arrival in Hollywood in 1946 was ostensibly to attend a cousin’s wedding (Ben’s father was American—his mother British) but he decided to stay…and found ample acting opportunities in radio.

Ben Wright quickly established himself in radio as a valuable supporting player, particularly when it came to dialects. Of course, he could be in the center spotlight on occasion…like his previously mentioned Sherlock Holmes gig and his portrayal of “Inspector Peter Black” in the 1951-52 season of Pursuit. Ben’s undeniable performing strengths, however, would be showcased in supporting roles like his “Nicholas Lacey” on the long-running One Man’s Family. During the 1940s, he was also heard on popular programs such as The Adventures of Philip MarloweChandu the MagicianEncore TheatreEscapeFamily TheatreThe Lux Radio TheatreMystery in the AirThe NBC University TheatreOur American HeritageRocky JordanRomanceScreen Directors’ PlayhouseSuspenseTell it AgainVoyage of the Scarlet QueenThe Whistler, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.

In the 1950s, Ben Wright was doing some of his best radio work, particularly on shows directed and produced by Elliott Lewis: Broadway’s My BeatCrime ClassicsOn Stage, etc. Ben’s credits include appearances on The Adventures of Christopher LondonThe Adventures of MaisieThe Cisco KidDangerous AssignmentThe General Electric TheatreThe Hallmark Hall Of FameHallmark PlayhouseThe Halls of IvyInheritanceLuke Slaughter of Tombstone, Let George Do ItThe Man Called XThe Modern Adventures of CasanovaNBC Presents: Short StoryNight BeatO’HaraRichard Diamond, Private DetectiveThe Screen Guild TheatreThe Six-ShooterThe Silent MenStars Over HollywoodThe Story of Doctor Kildare, and T-Man. Wright would continue as radio was struggling on life support with quality programs like The CBS Radio Workshop and Gunsmoke.

When the CBS Radio Network issued a press release announcing the February 2, 1958 premiere of a new program, Frontier Gentleman, the copy read: “Featured in the leading role of J.B. Kendall, a quiet-spoken freelance correspondent for a London newspaper and a veteran of a long service with the British army in India will be the versatile radio and TV actor Ben Wright, who has appeared in many of CBS Radio’s most popular dramatic programs…” This was a bit of a faux pas on the network’s part; while Ben auditioned for the role of Kendall (a recording of which exists today), he lost out to actor John Dehner, who would play the part for 41 broadcasts until Frontier Gentleman’s cancellation on November 16, 1958. The following week, however, would see the two performers working together on a radio version of the TV hit Have Gun – Will Travel. Dehner portrayed “Paladin,” the gun-for-hire made popular on the small screen by Richard Boone, and Wright used dialect to play “Hey Boy,” the Chinese houseboy at the Carlton Hotel. The radio version lasted until November 27, 1960. Ben never really abandoned radio, acting on 1960s dramas like Arch Oboler’s Plays and Horizons West and 70s revivals such as The Hollywood Radio Theatre and The Sears Radio Theatre.

Ben Wright made his Hollywood movie debut (billed as Ben H. Wright) in 1947’s The Exile, and included among his credited roles are such features as Botany Bay (1952), The Desert Rats (1953), Johnny Concho (1956), The Power and the Prize (1956), Pharaoh’s Curse (1957), The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), Operation Bottleneck (1961), and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Ben’s best-remembered live action role (as “Herr Zeller”) is in a film that’s now become a holiday viewing staple, The Sound of Music (1965)…but sharp-eared fans will immediately recognize his familiar clipped tones voicing “Roger Radcliff” in the Walt Disney animated classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and “Rama” (Mowgli’s wolf father) in The Jungle Book (1967). Wright’s final motion picture credit was in a Disney movie (released after his death), voicing “Grimsby” in The Little Mermaid (1989).

Ben Wright was kept quite busy on the small screen, too, with guest appearances on the usual suspects: Barnaby JonesBonanzaCannonDeath Valley DaysGunsmokeHave Gun – Will TravelHogan’s HeroesIronsideThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.Mission: ImpossiblePerry MasonQuincy, M.E.The Rockford FilesThe Twilight ZoneThe Virginian, and The Wild, Wild West, to name just a few. Ben Wright died in July of 1989 at the age of 74 from complications during heart bypass surgery.

Radio Spirits wants you to celebrate Ben Wright’s birthday in style, which is why we can’t recommend highly enough three CD collections featuring the actor’s signature role on Have Gun – Will TravelBitter VengeanceBlind Courage, and Dressed to Kill. Ben can also be heard on sets of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (Lonely CanyonsSucker’s Road) and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Confidential, Expense Account SubmittedFatal MattersThe Many Voices of Yours Truly, Johnny DollarMedium Rare MattersWayward Matters). Rounding out our physical media offerings are Broadway’s My Beat: The Lonesomest MileChandu the MagicianCrime Classics: The Hyland FilesEscape: PerilFrontier Gentleman: The Violent YearsGreat Radio Private EyesGunsmoke: Dead or AliveNight Beat: Human InterestRomanceSherlock Holmes: Cue for MurderThe Six Shooter: Special EditionStop the Press!Suspense: Wages of Sin, and The Whistler: Root of All Evil.

In our digital downloads store, we have classic broadcasts of Broadway’s My Beat (Neon Shoals), Crime Classics, Escape (Classics, Essentials, High Adventure, The Hunted and the Haunted, Journey Into Fear, To the High Seas), Frontier Gentleman (Aces and Eights, Frontier Gentleman), Great Radio Detectives, The Halls of Ivy, Have Gun – Will Travel, Let George Do It (Full Details), Night Beat (Lost Souls, Nightside is Different), Pursuit (When Man Hunts Man), Radio Christmas Spirits, Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Mayhem is My Business), Suspense (Around the World, Tales Well Calculated, Ties That Bind), The Voices of Christmas Past, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (Volume One and Two), The Whistler (Eleventh Hour), and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar (Phantom Chases). Happy birthday, Ben!

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