In the October, 2011 edition of this esteemed journal, we covered the life and broadcast history of Bob Bailey, the voice most commonly associated with the character "Johnny Dollar". In this issue, we will look at the five full-time Johnny Dollars (Charles Russell, Edmond O'Brien, John Lund, Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer), and two actors who auditioned for the role (Dick Powell and Gerald Mohr).
Charles Russell (1918 - 1985) was the first actor to answer that weekly phone call, starting in February, 1949, and running until January 1950 – a total of 35 YTJD programs (25 of which are available for listening). As I have opined in my book, "The Who is Johnny Dollar Matter?", the role that Russell played was of a sarcastic, irreverent, droll and somewhat lecherous person. Johnny always got the bad guy, but he always seemed to get the girl as well—sometimes to his undoing and always, it seemed "on" the expense account. Russell's programs were unique in that there were usually several subtitles for each story.
Russell came to Johnny Dollar after having made 17 "B" grade movies, of which two are available online at www.archive.org. After he left YTJD in early 1950, there seems to be very little with Russell's name on it. RadioGoldIndex only lists 2 programs after the YTJD run, one of which is a role in a Phillip Marlowe program. However, there is a clue to what he might have been up to. I have a photo of Russell taken from the St. Louis Dispatch. In that photo he is sitting at a paper-strewn table holding a pencil. The inference in this picture is that Russell is writing, but the question is: what?. While there is a Charles Russell in the Internet Broadway Database, it is a different Charles Russell. So, the quest continues.
Edmond O'Brien (1915 – 1985) was a bona fide star when he took his turn answering the phone as Johnny Dollar in February, 1950, and running until September 3, 1952 – a total of 106 YTJD programs (76 of which are available for listening). O'Brien had already appeared in 9 Broadway plays and 18 movies when he took his turn at the microphone.
O'Brien grew up in the Bronx, and was reportedly a neighbor of Harry Houdini, and learned magic from him. O'Brien got his start treading the boards on Broadway – mainly in Shakespearian roles. In 1939 O'Brian made the move to the silver screen. Between 1939 and 1974 O'Brien's career included 120 movies – everything from the film-noir D.O.A. to Disney's Wonderful World of Color and an Academy Award for The Barefoot Contessa in 1954. Notable of his YTJD programs is the announcer intoning the name of O'Brien's latest movie in the closing credits. O'Brien was also the only Johnny Dollar to have his wife (Olga San Juan) appear in an episode.
O'Brien was a decidedly different Johnny Dollar; he took off slowly but quickly intoned a darker film-noir personality that at times was more inclined to work on a case of bourbon than an insurance case. He was a no nonsense investigator who, much in the manner of Russell did the job, but seemed to wonder why. According to RadioGoldIndex, O'Brien appeared in 116 radio programs, 35 of which are other than YTJD.
John Lund (1911 - 1992) was the third actor to take a turn answering the phone, starting on November 28, 1952 and running until September 9, 1954 a total of 98 YTJD programs (81 of which are available for listening).
Lund was also an accomplished actor when he stepped up to the microphone. By 1953 he had already appeared in two Broadway Plays between 1941 and 1945, and 12 movies. Lund made 6 movies during the years he played Johnny Dollar, and went on to make 9 more after hanging up the phone.
Lund came to acting accidentally; he was working for an advertising agency and was asked to appear in an industrial show during the 1939 World's Fair. He was hit by the acting bug, and two years later he was on Broadway, and wrote the book and lyrics and performed in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1943.
Making the move to Hollywood, Lund started out in romantic leads, but settled into "stuffed shirt/third wheel" type roles. Many of Lund's movies are available on-line or through NetFlix. Lund retired from films in 1963.
As a Johnny Dollar, Lund came across as the opposite of Edmond O'Brien. Whereas O'Brien almost growled "Johnny Dollar!" when he answered the phone, Lund almost seems polite and a little shy. His roles are solid though, and enjoyable as a change-of-pace.
Bob Readick (1925 - 1985) was the fifth actor to answer the phone as Johnny Dollar, and by most accounts, Bob had the difficult job of convincing the audience that he was Johnny after stepping into the role vacated by Bob Bailey. Bob played the part from December 4, 1960 to June 4, 1961– a total of 29 YTJD programs (21 of which are available for listening).
Finding information for Readick is difficult. IMDB has him in 2 movies in the mid 1940's as a teen actor. The Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) lists Bob as a slightly younger actor in 2 plays (1941 and 1942). RadioGoldIndex lists Readick in 83 programs from 1939 to as late as 1977. Beyond that, there is little, if any, reliable information on Readick.The Johnny portrayed by Readick a step above John Lund in vocal energy, but he followed the epitome of Johnny Dollar, so no matter how good he was (and he was a good actor) he will always be compared to Bailey.
Mandel Kramer (1916 - 1989) was the final actor to take a turn answering the phone as Johnny Dollar, starting on June 18, 1961, and continuing until September 30, 1962 – the day that radio died. Kramer had the distinction of being on one of two radio drams which aired their last programs on that date, the other being Suspense. Interestingly, the writer of both of those programs was Jack Johnstone.
Kramer did a total of 68 YTJD programs (61 of which are available for listening). Kramer was a well established voice in the New York radio airwaves. RadioGoldIndex lists Kramer in 319 programs. Kramer was heard regularly in New York based programs such as "Counterspy"," It's A Crime Mr. Collins", "X Minus One", "Suspense", and in the 1970's in "The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre".
Kramer made a successful transition to television in the early 1950's – in the soap opera "Guiding Light", in which he played District Attorney Richard Hanley. Between 1959 and 1979, Kramer played a recurring role as police Chief Bill Marceau in the soap opera "The Edge of Night".
Kramer is typically rated as the second most popular Johnny Dollar. His character is upbeat, a little hip, and business like. The program's music was jazzier and the characters supported by the best of the New York radio actors, but the die was cast.
Two actors are known to have auditioned for the roles of Johnny Dollar; one at the beginning of the program and one at mid course in 1955 when the program came back from a one year hiatus.
Dick Powell (1904 - 1963) auditioned for the role of Johnny Dollar on December 7, 1948. The audition program was Milford Brooks III, which was later done by Charles Russell on March 25, 1949.
Powell was 16 years into his career as a singer/actor when he did the audition. But Powell was no stranger to radio, having started in 1934. RadioGoldIndex lists 334 programs for Powell. Powell starred in Rogue's Gallery in the mid 1940's. But it was immediately after the YTJD audition that Powell starred in the program he is best known for, Richard Diamond, Private Detective.
Gerald Mohr (1914 - 1968) auditioned for the role of Johnny Dollar on August 29, 1955. The program was The Trans Pacific Matter, which had been done by Edmond O'Brien as the Trans Pacific Export Matter on August 23, 1950. Mohr gave a solid and convincing performance in the audition, but the part went to John Lund.
Mohr owed his acting career to appendicitis. While in the hospital another patient suggested (correctly) that his voice would be great for radio. Mohr gave up his plans to be a doctor, got a job as junior reporter, and the rest is history. During his career, Mohr made 150 appearances in movies and television programs between 1939 and 1968. But it was on the radio where Mohr made his name. RadioGoldIndex lists 561 appearances in programs such as Ann of the Airlanes, That Was the Year, The Shadow of Fu Manchu, The Lux Radio Theatre, The Whistler, and many more. But there is one role of which Mohr has sole ownership: the hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe in The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Just as Bob Bailey is Johnny Dollar, Gerald Mohr is Philip Marlow, no matter who else pays the role.
So, we have now looked at all 6 of the full-time Johnny Dollars and two audition actors. Over the 12 years and 812 programs of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, everyone has identified Bob Bailey as the defining actor. However, the runner-up, in my opinion, is up to you. In the final analysis, the best Johnny Dollar is probably the one you are listening to.
The vast majority of what is known about these actors is taken from the Internet Movie Database, the Internet Broadway Database, RadioGoldIndex, or other OTR related web sites.