This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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NERO WOLFE ADVENTURES ON RADIO AND TV
by John Heimann . © 2016
(From Radio Recall, April 2016)
" ... (F)ame is fleeting ... " Grantland Rice warns us in his poem "Casey's Revenge", which may be true for baseball players but certainly not the case for the most famous fictional detective of them all. Introduced to the public in "A Study in Scarlet" in 1887, Sherlock Holmes is still going strong in both old and new media 128 years later.
But if Holmes is surely the most widely known detective of fiction, who, a small voice asks, is the greatest of them all? We have an unequivocal answer for that question as well because his creator has informed us time and again in the 33 novels and 39 short stories Rex Stout produced between 1934 and 1975 on the adventures of Nero Wolfe.
For the sake of those hopefully few readers who are not familiar with the Great Man, the following is a brief biography: Nero Wolfe was born in Montenegro, was an energetic and intrepid young man who appears to have traveled widely in Europe, Africa and Asia, came to New York City in 1930 and purchased a Brownstone mansion on West 35th Street. He leads an extremely sedentary and intellectual life, is a dedicated orchid fancier, devoting several hours a day to their care in a greenhouse atop his house, and employing a full-time live-in floral assistant.
Wolfe is also a gourmet for whom the regularity of planning, timing and consumption of his meals is critical, and for which he has a live-in master chef, Fritz Brenner. His opinion of women is "guarded", but in fact, he suffers fools of either sex with little grace or respect. Since he leaves his home only under the direst of circumstances, his live-in associate Archie Goodwin, like Wolfe a licensed private detective, serves as Wolfe's eyes and ears. Archie also has superb secretarial skills and, like his boss, a wonderful memory. He is a natty dresser, handsome, charming, an excellent dancer and woos and is wooed by an amazing array of attractive women whom he meets in the course of his professional duties.
My first introduction to Wolfe and his faithful associate was via radio, one of the occasional selections on WAMU-FM (88.5) by the former host of Recollections, John Hickman, or possibly his successor and former host of The Big Broadcast, Ed Walker. The tale was drawn from a 26-part series which originally ran between 1950 and 1951, entitled The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe and starred the formidable British-born actor Sidney Greenstreet of "Casablanca" fame as the 300-pound detective and, as Archie, Lawrence Dobkin, Gerald Mohr, or Harry Bartell.
The Greenstreet episodes were the third radio series-to portray the great detective. The first series, The Adventures of Nero Wolfe (1943-1944), successively starred J. B. Williams, Santos Ortega or Luis Van Rooten, with John Gibson or Joseph Julian as Archie. The second series, The Amazing Nero Wolfe (1945-1946), featured the silent film star Francis X. Bushman as Wolfe and Elliott Lewis or Charles Victor as Archie. Apparently only one episode from each of these two earlier radio portrayals exists. An interesting sidelight of the only extant (and final) episode of the Bushman series is that the announcer was Peter Lorre. The complete Greenstreet series, however, is freely available on the Old Time Radio Researchers website as New Adventures of Nero Wolfe at otrrlibrary.org/n.html.
While unfamiliar with the predecessors to the Greenstreet portrayals, I suspect they suffered from the same failings as the later series. None of them were written by Rex Stout or used his plots. Their stories were cut from wholly new cloth. Furthermore, the episodes were all 30 minutes in length, which simply does not provide sufficient time to present either the intricate plotting of the typical Nero Wolfe case or the complex personalities of Wolfe, Archie and their relationship, which make the original stories so absorbing and amusing.
Then in 1982 (January 16-April 10), the Canadian Broadcasting System (CBC) aired an all-too-short series of 13 hour-long broadcasts which fully captured the charm and complexity of the Rex Stout originals. Here at last was a series worthy of the Master. The stories in title, substance and atmosphere came directly from Rex Stout. Each program lasted an hour. The musical accompaniment was excellent. The - actors were top-notch. The series was written, produced and directed by actor Ron Hartmann. Mavor Moore played Wolfe, Frank Perry his master chef Fritz Brenner. Don Francks was Archie Goodwin, Cec Linder the intrusive and quarrelsome Homicide Inspector Cramer of the New York City Police Department, and Alfie Scopp was Saul Panzer, a skilled free-lance private detective upon whom Wolfe called for assistance when the need arose.
All of the other parts were played by a repertory group of actors of admirable versatility (attested by the fact that it is challenging to identify individual actors as they move in different roles from story to story.) Fortunately, as with the Greenstreet series, the CBC episodes can also be found on the Old Time Radio Researchers -website as "'Nemo Wolfe - CBC" at otrrlibratu.org/n.html. (A cautionary note: The website lists 14 titles. but the last of them is not part of the CBC series. It is one of the Greenstreet episodes and erroneously listed here. Communication of this error to the OTAR organization failed to elicit a correction or a response.)
One day while rooting about Wikipedia for information on other adaptations of Nero Wolfe novels and stories, I discovered that a couple of Nero Wolfe series had been created for television One, starring the great William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Hersley as Archie, ran in prime time for 14 one-hour episodes on NBC from January 16 to August 21, 1981. Unfortunately, the casting, including the principals, was almost uniformly awful. And the stories. even those based on Rex Stout plots, were changed significantly and for the worse. Thirdly, the episodes were set in the then-present time.
Among the significant charms of the original tales is precisely the fact that they take place in an earlier time, and the protagonists do not age. Rex Stout was quoted as saying this was fully his intention. It was a more-formal time, when dress and behavior were less casual and, to this observer, more interesting. Suits and ties were typically worn at work and in public. Both sexes wore hats. Behavior was more predictable, and social conventions more widely acknowledged and practiced. All of this was lost when the stories were cast by NBC as contemporaneous.
The other adaptation to television, a 2- season series of 26 one-hour shows produced by A&E Television and titled "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" remained true to Rex Stout's creation. Like the CBC 1982 radio adaptations previously mentioned, the A&E producers succeeded brilliantly in capturing and preserving the physical and social charms of the period. And like the successful CBC radio series, the casting consisted of a core of lead actors played by an unchanging group of superb performers including Murray Chaykin as Nero Wolfe, Timothy Hutton as Archie, Colin Fox as chef Fritz Brenner, Bill Smitrovich as Homicide Inspector Cramer, and five others filling smaller but continuing roles, all of whom were supplemented by an excellent repertory company which included the likes of George Plimpton and Marion Seldes. It should also be noted that Timothy Hutton, who is the youngest male actor to have received an OSCAR as Best Supporting Actor in "Ordinary People" (1980), not only played the role of Archie in the A&E series, but also directed and produced a number of the shows.
The 26 one-hour shows aired weekly from April 22 to July 15 of 2001 and April 14 to August 18 of 2002. Because of the length and/or complexity of some of the original stories, a number of them were presented in two episodes - In all, 8 novels and 12 novellas were brought to the screen. The series was actually preceded by a 2-hour made-for-television movie, "The Golden Spiders". which aired on March 5, 2000 and was based on a Nero Wolfe novel of the same name. Because of its enthusiastic reception, the company decided to produce a one-hour series on Wolfe's exploits rather than several 2- hour feature films.
This series was filmed in Toronto, with the exception of several exterior shots filmed in Manhattan. The entire series, including "The Golden Spiders". is available on Youtube at no cost. I have found that providing the following information to GOOGLE is fully effective in obtaining access to the individual films: "Youtube, Nero Wolfe, (title of story)". Since I access them -with some frequency, here is a list prepared for my own use, providing the title of each novel/ story, the number of aired episodes, the publication date and nature of the source material. The list is arranged in the order the shows were aired.
Six of the titles have been asterisked, to indicate the cases which were portrayed by both A&E Television and the Canadian Broadcasting System, previously described as available without cost on the Old Time Radio Researchers (OTRR) website. I think anyone interested in listening to, or viewing, either the OTAR or A&E productions will find it both illuminating and enjoyable to compare their efforts. For what it's worth, I suggest approaching each of the six matches by listening first to the radio presentations and forming your own images of the performers and their settings before -viewing the filmed episodes. I believe you will amazed at the charm and authenticity with which the filmed episodes were executed. For those who have never read a Nero Wolfe novel or novella but might be interested to try one, I suggest you choose from the asterisked titles.
THE GOLDEN SPIDERS: 2 (1953 Novel)
THE DOORBELL RANG: 1 (1965 Novel)
CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE: 2 (1958 Novel)
PRISONER'S BASE: 2 (1952 Novel)
*EENY MEENY MURDER MO'. 1 (1962 Story)
*DISGUISE FOR MURDER: 1 (1950 Story)
DOOR TO DEATH: 1 (1949 Story)
*CHRISTMAS PARTY: 1 (1957 Story)
OVER MY DEAD BODY: 2 (1940 Novel)
DEATH OF A DOXY: 1 (1966 Novel)
THE NEXT WITNESS: 1 (1955 Story)
DIE LIKE A DOG: 1 (1954 Story)
MURDER IS CORNY: 1 (1964 Story)
THE MOTHER HUNT: 2 (1963 Novel)
POISON A LA CARTE: 1 (1960 Story)
TOO MANY CLIENTS: 2 (1960 Novel)
*BEFORE I DIE: 1 (1947 Story}
HELP WANTED, MALE: 1 (1945 Story)
THE SILENT SPEAKER: 2 (1946 Novel)
*COP-KILLER: 1 (1951 Story)
IMMUNE TO MURDER: 1 (1955 Story)
Much of the information contained in this brief article was taken from the wealth of information on the Internet. I found the following topic titles to be particularly helpful: (Most comprehensive) "Nero Wolfe"; (The four radio serializations) "The Adventures of Nero Wolfe", "The Amazing Nero Wolfe", "The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe", and "Nero Wolfe (1982 radio series)"; (The A & E Television series);"The Golden Spiders - A Nero Wolfe Mystery - and "A Nero Wolfe Mystery".
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Heimman was born and raised in Minnesota and resides in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, where he spent 35 years working for the Federal Government. He does not own a television set nor a "smart" cell phone and believes that the fate of Western Civilization was sealed with the removal cursive writing from elementary educational curricula. Currently he is happily living out the 5.2 years of life Google estimates are remaining to him.