If you were to ask character actor Edward James Begley—born in Hartford, Connecticut on this date in 1901—about the highlight of his professional career, he would probably have responded that it came on the night of April 8, 1963…when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (his first and only Academy Award nomination). According to his son Ed, Jr. (also an actor, best known for his role as Dr. Victor Ehrlich on St. Elsewhere), Ed, Sr. never went anywhere without his prize. He even took it with him on car trips, since nothing tickled him more than having people take pictures of him with the statuette.
Ed, Jr. was never allowed to touch the Oscar…until one day when his father asked him to hold it while he purchased plane tickets for a trip from New York to Los Angeles. The nervous Ed, Jr. dropped the trophy, breaking its base. Fortunately, the Academy had the Oscar repaired. If they hadn’t, the young Begley would have never achieved his dream of becoming an actor (Ed, Sr. purportedly had quite the temper). As for the senior Begley…it had been a long slog for the Oscar winner; he didn’t achieve real success until he was in his 40s. Old-time radio fans, however, usually have no trouble picking Ed out of any cast of voice actors, thanks to his distinctive gravelly voice.
Ed Begley, Sr. dropped out of school while he was still in fifth grade, but held on to his dream of becoming an actor, performing in amateur theatricals at his hometown’s Hartford Globe Theatre. He left home at age eleven, and became a “jack-of-all-trades” before joining the U.S. Navy for a four-year hitch. Out of the service, he worked in a bowling alley (as a pin boy), and then in various circuses and carnivals until finding work in vaudeville. His radio career caught fire when he was hired as an announcer…and from there, it was just a short drift into acting. He began performing on Hartford stations before moving to New York to look for work on stage…and got a big break with a part in Land of Fame in 1943.
Ed’s radio career was distinguished by his contributions to soap operas like Myrt and Marge (on which he played Francis Hayfield), and the exhaustive work he did on anthology programs, including Best Plays, The Cavalcade of America, The Columbia Workshop, The Damon Runyon Theatre, Family Theatre, Favorite Story, The Ford Theatre, Green Valley USA, The Hallmark Playhouse, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Radio Hall Of Fame, The Radio Reader’s Digest, The Railroad Hour, The Screen Director’s Playhouse, The Sportsman’s Club, Stars Over Hollywood, Studio One, and Theatre of Romance. But in contrast to many of the serious roles with which he became identified later in his career, Begley demonstrated a flair for comedy before a radio microphone. For a time, he played Will Brown, father of Henry Aldrich’s pal Homer on The Aldrich Family, and was later a regular on The Alan Young Show as Papa Dittenfeffer, the bad-tempered father of Alan’s girlfriend Betty (played by Jean Gillespie and Doris Singleton). Ed also appeared as a regular of Milton Berle’s troupe on Uncle Miltie’s program during the 1947-48 season. In addition, Begley worked on such comedy shows as Blondie, Fibber McGee & Molly, Honest Harold (The Harold Peary Show), and Our Miss Brooks.
Ed Begley’s most unusual radio role would undoubtedly be that of the inscrutable sleuth who’d already gained popularity in motion pictures: Charlie Chan. Yes, just as Charlie was played onscreen by such non-Asian actors as Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, Ed gave voice to the Asian detective on a series of broadcasts over various networks (NBC, ABC, Mutual) and in various formats from 1944 to 1948. Begley later portrayed Sergeant O’Hara on The Fat Man, and for many was the definitive Lt. Walt Levinson on Dick Powell’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective. Crime dramas and mystery programs provided much work for the actor; Ed was heard on the likes of The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Adventures of the Saint, Box 13, Broadway’s My Beat, Casey, Crime Photographer, Crime and Peter Chambers, Crime Doctor, Crime Does Not Pay, The FBI in Peace and War, Jeff Regan, Investigator, Let George Do It, The Line Up, Night Beat, Rocky Fortune, Tales of the Texas Rangers, This is Your FBI, and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Rounding out Begley’s radio resume were guest roles on such popular shows as Creeps by Night, Escape, The Man Called X, The Marriage, The Molle Mystery Theatre, The Story of Dr. Kildare, Stroke of Fate, Suspense, The Whistler, and Words at War.
While keeping busy in radio, Ed Begley saw his stage career start to pick up steam as well. He was cast as tragic patriarch Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s successful All My Sons in 1947 (adapted for the silver screen the following year, with Edward G. Robinson as Joe), and in 1955 played Matthew Harrison Brady opposite Paul Muni’s Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind. Begley won a Tony (1956’s Best Featured Actor in a Play) for his efforts…and when Muni left the production, Ed took a turn playing Drummond. Other stage successes with Begley include Advise and Consent (1960) and Our Town (1969).
Begley’s feature film debut was in 1947’s Boomerang, which started him on a long journey of playing character roles in film noirs such as The Street with No Name (1948), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), Dark City (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Deadline – U.S.A. (1952), The Turning Point (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). His best remembered movie roles include tired businessman Bill Briggs in 1956’s Patterns (written by Rod Serling, Ed had played the same part twice previously on TV) and Juror Number Ten in 12 Angry Men (1957—the fellow with the head cold). As previously stated, Begley took home the Oscar for his portrayal of political “boss” Tom Finley in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), a movie adaptation of the 1959 Tennessee Williams play.
Before his passing in 1970, Ed Begley made many appearances on the small screen in addition to his radio, movie, and stage work. In 1952, he co-starred with Eddie Albert in a short-lived sitcom entitled Leave it to Larry; Begley played Albert’s father-in-law despite there only being about five years’ difference in their ages. This and a brief stint as Reverend Dr. Paul Keeler on the daytime drama The Guiding Light (he was a member of the original cast) would be his only foray into a regular series, but Ed brought the same professionalism and conviction to guest roles on such favorites as The Defenders, Naked City, Route 66, Ben Casey, Wagon Train, The Fugitive, and The Invaders.
Here at Radio Spirits, we have collections featuring Ed Begley, Sr.’s signature role as Lt. Levinson on Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Men, Homicide Made Easy, and Shamus. You can also hear him on The Adventures of Philip Marlowe in Sucker’s Road and the brand-new Lonely Canyons, and on “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills”: Suspense! (Suspense at Work, Ties That Bind). Of course, you shouldn’t forget to check out our collections of Our Miss Brooks (Good English), The Adventures of the Saint (The Saint Solves the Case), Casey, Crime Photographer (Snapshots of Mystery), Jeff Regan, Investigator (Stand By for Mystery), Let George Do It (Cry Uncle), and The Line Up (Witness). May I suggest an aperitif for this special occasion? Birthday boy Ed appears in a May 9, 1948 broadcast of “The Front Page”—available on our popular Stop the Press! set.