On this date in 1909 in New York City, Maria Paoli and Pasquale DeSantis welcomed Joseph Vito Marcello DeSantis into the world. The shorter version of that name is Joe DeSantis, a man who would become one of the most celebrated character actors on stage and radio, and in movies and television. Interestingly, Joe’s first ambition was to become a sculptor; he studied at the prestigious Leonardo da Vinci Art School after attending public schools in NYC and graduating from City College of New York. He served as an apprentice to Onorio Ruotolo at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design beginning in 1927, and during his early stage career in the 1930s taught sculpting at both New York’s Henry Street Settlement and the 92nd Street YMHA.
Sculpting might have been DeSantis’ first love, but during his college years Joe also actively pursued the study of drama, with his first stage performances delivered in Italian. His footlights resume is lengthy; among the plays in which he performed include Cyrano de Bergerac, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Arsenic and Old Lace. Even after achieving success on radio, the lure of stage work proved difficult to resist; DeSantia would later work in such productions as The Front Page, Golden Boy, Strictly Dishonorable and A Stone for Danny Fisher (later brought to the silver screen in 1958 as King Creole, starring Elvis Presley).
Working and residing in the Big Apple would prove most advantageous for DeSantis, for the world of radio immediately opened up to him and he made his debut on the popular soap Pepper Young’s Family. He later starred on the Mutual crime drama Under Arrest in 1948, playing Captain Jim Scott. Joe’s extensive ether C.V. could fill a medium-sized library, but he appeared on programs like 21st Precinct, Casey, Crime Photographer, The Cavalcade of America, The CBS Radio Workshop, The Columbia Workshop, Crime and Peter Chambers, Crime Club, Dick Tracy, Dimension X, Famous Jury Trials, Gangbusters, The March of Time, Mr. District Attorney, NBC Star Playhouse, Official Detective, Radio City Playhouse, Studio One, Suspense, The Chase, The Clock, The FBI in Peace and War, The Goldbergs, The Mysterious Traveler, The Radio Reader’s Digest, The Shadow, The Silent Men, X-Minus One, and You Are There. Joe continued to keep his hand in the medium even after the passing of Radio’s Golden Age, appearing on the likes of The Eternal Light, The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, and The General Mills Adventure Theater.
DeSantis supplemented his impressive radio resume with numerous roles in motion pictures, drawing on his talent for dialects and chameleonic method of playing a wide variety of characters. His first on-screen credit was in 1949’s Slattery’s Hurricane, and he followed that by playing a butler in The Man with a Cloak (1951). His third film is one of my favorite Humphrey Bogart vehicles; in Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), Bogie is a crusading newspaper editor who, while trying to save his paper from folding, is engaged in the pursuit of taking down a notorious racketeer (played by Martin Gabel…and Larry Dobkin plays his mouthpiece!). As Herman Schmidt, DeSantis is the man who provides evidence against Gabel’s gangster…and ends up being murdered by a pair of goons who drop Joe off a catwalk and onto a printing press below.
Joe continued to shine in such films as The Last Hunt (1956), Full of Life (1956), I Want to Live (1958), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), The Case Against Brooklyn (1958), Al Capone (1959) and A Cold Wind in August (1961), where his portrayal of “Papa Perugino” has been acknowledged by many as the high point of his cinematic career. After appearances in such films as The Professionals (1966) and The Brotherhood (1968), however, DeSantis landed a role in a made-for-TV movie, Contract on Cherry Street (1977)—in which he played opposite one of his idols, Frank Sinatra. The Chairman of the Board was so impressed with Joe’s acting that he told him, “You should have played The Godfather”—a compliment Joe DeSantis cherished to his dying day.
In addition to film work, DeSantis worked extensively in television…and as a confirmed couch potato, I know this because I’m always coming across something Joe appeared in—recently, it was an episode of Rawhide entitled “Incident at Alabaster Plain.” Joe guest-starred on such classic favorites as 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66, Naked City, The Defenders, The Fugitive, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Mission: Impossible and many, many more.
Though Joe DeSantis would work in two additional TV-movies before his death in 1989—Suburban Beat (1985) and How Rare a Possession: The Book of Mormon (1987)—the actor had made the decision to retire in 1978, relocating to Provo, Utah to spend time with his family. In addition to his sculpting, he generously donated his time to Provo’s Eldred Center. In recognition for his many contributions to radio, DeSantis was inducted into the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters’ Diamond Circle in 1985.
Here at Radio Spirits, we’re proud to feature today’s birthday celebrant on Words at War: World War II Radio Drama, a collection of broadcasts from the 1943 wartime series that features Joe DeSantis displaying that on-the-air talent we cherish so well. Joe can also be heard on our Dimension X set, Adventures in Time and Space, and the series that followed in Dimension X’s wake, X-Minus One (Time and Time Again). In addition, we’re proud to showcase DeSantis’ work on Casey, Crime Photographer (Blue Note), The Shadow (Silent Avenger), and his starring role on Under Arrest in the collection Police and Thieves: Crime Radio Drama. Happy birthday to you, Joe!