Sixty-seven years ago on this very date, actor Dick Powell whistled his very first rendition of “Leave it to Love” on NBC’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective—a light-hearted radio crime drama that successfully blended Powell’s popular image as a happy-go-lucky crooner (with a flair for comedy) and his newly-earned movie reputation as a two-fisted tough guy. Powell’s resume over the ether stretched back as far as Hollywood Hotel (a big-time variety hour featuring gossip maven Louella Parsons)—but with the success of his career-changing role as Philip Marlowe in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet, Dick began to flirt with radio vehicles that would capitalize on his new hard-boiled image…like Rogue’s Gallery and The Front Page.
Dick’s film debut was as a bandleader in Warner Brothers’ Blessed Event (1932), but it was with the introduction of the studio’s Depression-era musicals like 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933) that Powell honed his cinematic chops as the apple-cheeked boy-next-door who could not only sing but act. His popularity during the 1930s was not unlike that of Frank Sinatra’s in the next decade, but with each musical he made for Warner’s Powell began to grow more and more dissatisfied (he complained that the studio made movies with “the same stupid story”). Dick moved to Paramount in the 1940s and had luck with features like Christmas in July (1940) and True to Life (1943)—but it wasn’t long before his new studio started treating him like his old one; truth be told—they simply didn’t know what to do with him. He lobbied hard to play the Walter Neff role in the Billy Wilder-directed Double Indemnity (1944), but lost out to Fred MacMurray.
RKO would offer him silver screen salvation when they tabbed him to play Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet. The success of the film led to a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation in June of 1945, and while performing as the star of The Fitch Bandwagon from 1944 to 1945, Powell convinced F.W. Fitch (the sponsor) to let him take over as the summer replacement for that program with a private eye series informally known as Bandwagon Mysteries (but eventually renamed Rogue’s Gallery). Powell enjoyed doing Gallery so much that he stayed with the series when it got a promotion to a weekly slot on another network (Mutual) in the fall, and then for one final summer run back at its home on NBC.
Rogue’s Gallery would soldier on with other actors in the starring role. In the meantime, Dick Powell accepted another assignment as one of the stars of The Front Page, a 1948 newspaper drama broadcast over ABC and based on the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play. Later that year, Powell would do an audition as the titular “fabulous freelance investigator” of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. But it would be a detective drama created by a young writer named Blake Edwards that attracted the attention of Powell’s agent Don Sharpe: Richard Diamond, Private Detective.
The premise of Richard Diamond was that the main character was an ex-cop who had decided to hang out his shingle as a private investigator after World War II. Diamond’s shamus services did not come cheap: he charged $100 a day plus expenses, but he was worth every penny because his previous experience as a homicide dick had taught him that cases were solved with persistence and a lot of legwork. The Diamond series, however, also mixed in elements of comedy (Rick always had a ready quip in his holster) and romance. Diamond’s lady love was Helen Asher, played by Virginia Gregg—whose husband, Jaime del Valle, directed many of the show’s broadcasts. (Okay, it sounds a little like nepotism…but for a brief period in the summer of 1950, Frances Robinson—“Brooksie” on Let George Do It—took her turn as Helen as well.)
While doing his best to resist the temptation of marrying a woman with a Park Avenue address and $10 million in her bank account (move over, Nick Charles!), Richard Diamond defied the traditional conventions of bad P.I.-cop relations by bouncing ideas off of (and often consulting with) Lt. Walter Quincy Levinson, played by Ed Begley. Rick and Walt enjoyed a pleasant association, and actors Powell and Begley displayed great chemistry, but it didn’t last long. Begley left the show and was replaced briefly by character veteran Ted de Corsia. Then Arthur Q. Bryan stepped into Levinson’s shoes, and it was about that time that jokes about the lieutenant’s girth (a reference to actor Bryan’s own corpulent figure) started appearing hither and yon in the scripts. Alan Reed later inherited the role of Levinson as the series drew to a close.
Of course, Diamond had to have someone to pick a fight with, and that’s where the character of Sergeant Otis Ludlum (also referred to as Loveloon) came into play. Ludlum seemingly had a force field of stupidity surrounding him, much in the manner of the various detectives who assisted Richard Lane’s Inspector Farraday in the Boston Blackie movies. Otis was played by Wilms Herbert, who did double-duty on the series as Francis, butler to Helen Asher. Francis had a rather mood-killing habit of interrupting Helen and her boyfriend just as the champagne was on ice and the lights were beginning to dim, if you get the idea (and you probably do).
Richard Diamond, Private Detective was a sustained series until it landed a sponsor in Rexall Drugs. The Rexall sponsorship came in handy because, when the company needed a summer replacement for Amos ‘n’ Andy in the summer of 1953, they just raided the Diamond library for repeats. The NBC-Rexall collaboration lasted until December 27, 1950. January 5, 1951 found our hero with a new sponsor (Camel cigarettes) and a new network (ABC)—which necessitated that Rick reach for a cigarette on occasion (Powell’s whistling of “Leave it to Love” segued rather nicely with Camel’s theme, “How Mild”). Diamond stubbed out his last butt on June 27, 1952…not because the network or sponsor was dissatisfied with the program, but because the actor was becoming busy as a director of films (Split Second) and a television producer (he was one of the “four stars” in Four Star Productions). Richard Diamond did make a brief transition to the small screen in the summer of 1957 (and bounced around CBS and NBC’s schedule until 1960), with Powell deciding to turn over the role to future Fugitive David Janssen.
So you’re probably asking: does Radio Spirits have plenty of “the singing detective” on hand? We do indeed—in the form of such Richard Diamond, Private Detective collections as Homicide Made Easy, Dead Men, Mayhem is My Business, and Shamus. Richard Diamond is also one of the many radio gumshoes showcased in Great Radio Detectives (“Central Park Murder”) and there’s a yuletide Diamond—which might remind you of a famous story by Charles Dickens—present on Christmas Radio Classics. Finally, if you’re curious as to what David Janssen did before having to outrun the reach of lawman Barry Morse, check him out as TV’s Richard Diamond (“Picture of Fear”) on the DVD set TV Guide Spotlight: TVs Greatest Crime Stoppers.