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Classic TV

How William Conrad’s Distinct Voice Made Him a Star Before His Role in ‘Cannon’

His vocal talents had him playing the first Marshall Dillon on 'Gunsmoke' years before James Arness did.

William Conrad began his on-screen acting career in the 40s, his gravelly voice demanding attention from anyone who heard it. As an actor in feature films, Conrad was busy throughout the decade, appearing in the noir thriller The Killers (1946) as Max, hired to finish off Burt Lancaster’s character, and between that and 1949’s East Side, West Side, he was in eight others. There would be 17 more in the 1950s before he began embracing television, which would really thrust his career forward.

William Conrad, 1973
William Conrad, 1973Getty

The early life of William Conrad

Born John William Cann, Jr. on September 27, 1920 in Louisville, Kentucky, it seems that Conrad was destined to be a performer: His parents owned and operated a cinema in Lexington, Kentucky, so there were many days and nights that he spent watching movies on the big screen.

He continued his fascination with film when the family moved to Los Angeles, and throughout his teen years Conrad fixated on his ambition to become an actor. He majored in literature and drama at Orange County, California’s Fullerton College, and began working as an announcer, director and writer for the KMPC radio station in Los Angeles.

August 1956:  Promotional photo of American actors William Conrad and Georgia Ellis smiling at each other during a break from rehearsal of the Western drama radio series 'Gunsmoke'
August 1956: Promotional photo of American actors William Conrad and Georgia Ellis smiling at each other during a break from rehearsal of the Western drama radio series Gunsmoke Getty

During World War II he was a fighter pilot, leaving the Air Force with the rank of captain and working as a director-producer of the Armed Forces Radio Service. He would continue from there, reflecting that he had played more than 7,500 roles throughout his time on radio.

Actress Hazel Brooks and William Conrad in a scene from 1947's 'Body and Soul'
Actress Hazel Brooks and William Conrad in a scene from 1947’s Body and Soul Getty

One of his most renowned accomplishments was creating the role of Marshal Matt Dillon for the radio series Gunsmoke (1952-1961) several years before James Arness met Miss Kitty on television. Interestingly, he was originally rejected from the part because his voice was so recognizable due to his many other radio roles.

The parts kept coming his way due to that authoritative and powerful voice, which eventually brought him to television as the narrator of the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle TV series from 1959 to 1964.

The star of 'Cannon' in 1976
William Conrad, 1976Getty

Since his weight – which at one point tipped the scales at 260 pounds — barred him from playing a muscular western hero, Conrad was rejected from portraying his radio character on the television series, so he turned his attention to directing and producing films and TV in the early 1960s while also making guest appearances or providing the narration for, among others, This Man Dawson (1959 to 1960) and the David Janssen television series The Fugitive.

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He finally got the chance to step in front of the camera on a weekly basis with the starring role in the surprise hit Cannon, one of his most famous roles that saw him as Detective Frank Cannon, a Korean war vet and former Los Angeles cop with a no-nonsense personality who becomes a fixer of all things.

The actor in 1973
William Conrad, 1973Getty

Cannon ran from 1971 to 1976 for a total of 122 episodes, with Conrad bringing the Frank Cannon character to two episodes of Buddy Ebsen’s detective series Barnaby Jones in 1973 and 1975, and reprising it in the 1980 TV movie The Return of Frank Cannon.

His subsequent shows include the detective series Nero Wolfe (1981) and Jake and the Fatman (1987 to 1992). Sadly the latter would prove to be his final role due to declining health, the actor passing away of a heart attack on February 11, 1994 at the age of 73.

Conrad was married three times, to June Nelson from 1943 until 1957, Susan Randall from 1957 until her death in 1989, and Lewis Tipton Stringer Huntley in 1980. He had one child.

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