"The makers of Wrigley’s Spearmint Chewing Gum bring you Edmond O’Brien in another adventure of the man with the action packed expense account, America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator…Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.”
During his thirteen years on radio, freelance insurance investigator Johnny Dollar was played by eight different actors. Bob Bailey, who starred as Dollar from 1955 to 1960, is regarded today as the “definitive” Johnny Dollar, but each of the actors who played “the man with the action packed expense account” brought something unique to the character. This was certainly true of the third actor to try his hand at the character, and whose performance ushered Dollar into the ranks of hard-boiled radio gumshoes.
Edmond O’Brien was born in New York on September 10, 1915. He began his career on the stage after attending Columbia University with a major in drama. At 21, he debuted on Broadway and within the next four years O’Brien performed onstage alongside John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Orson Welles. His film debut came in 1940 alongside Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Following a stint in the Army Air Force during World War II, he returned to Hollywood and established himself as an in-demand character actor. In 1950, just before he started his radio gig as Johnny Dollar, O’Brien finished filming D.O.A.. The film afforded him a starring role (he played a poisoned man with a few hours to live and trying to solve his own murder), and it is celebrated today as a film noir classic. The film hit theaters in April, about two months into O’Brien’s tenure as Dollar. It was a tenure that began after the insurance investigator’s first full year on the air.
In his 1948 audition performance as Johnny Dollar, Dick Powell played him as glib but more than capable of throwing a punch (his Dollar sounded a lot like the character he would eventually play, Richard Diamond). When Powell passed on the show, Charles Russell was tapped to star. Russell had a similar take on the character. His Johnny Dollar was a quipster more akin to Diamond or George Valentine. Russell starred in the series for about a year.
Just as Russell was hitting the airwaves as Johnny Dollar, it seems Edmond O’Brien was looking for his own way onto radio. In May 1949, O’Brien recorded an audition for a potential series about a Chicago reporter who covered the crime beat and played detective as often as he worked a typewriter. Sound familiar? The audition was for an early version of Night Beat. O’Brien starred as “Hank Mitchell,” but it was decided his style and intensity weren’t what was needed for the series. Producers wound up recording a second audition with Frank Lovejoy as “Randy Stone,” and Lovejoy got the gig when Night Beat went to series on NBC in February 1950. This left O’Brien open to take on Johnny Dollar.
This proved to be the right decision for all parties. Lovejoy was perfect as the earnest, idealistic newshound, and O’Brien’s world-weary toughness gave perfect voice to an investigator who lived out of his suitcase and came up against dastardly swindlers. Variety praised O’Brien as Dollar, calling the series “a cut above the average radio whodunit.” During his tenure, the series shed its tongue-in-cheek episode titles (an example from the Russell run was “Press Out My Asbestos Dinner Jacket, Mother, I’m Going To Smoke”). The episode titles were modeled after Johnny’s reports to his clients: “The London Matter;” “The Arrowcraft Matter;” and so on. That seemingly minor change communicated the new tone of the series and its star. Johnny Dollar was out for truth; padding his expense account with a knowing wink was the last thing on his mind. He didn’t shy away from a case after an intimidating warning. He had a sharp eye, two fists he knew how to use, and a gun in his shoulder holster.
The big screen lured O’Brien away from radio crime fighting, and he left the series in 1952. He was succeeded on the air by John Lund. Two years after he left Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, O’Brien won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. He picked up another Oscar nomination in 1964 for his role as an alcoholic Southern senator investigating a planned coup in Seven Days in May. He was a film and TV mainstay through the mid 1970s. O’Brien passed away in 1985 from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.
O’Brien’s performance set the tone for the rest of the Johnny Dollar actors who followed. Not all of them would match his hard-boiled style, but none would slide back to the wise-acre style of Charles Russell. Though he didn’t originate the role, Edmond O’Brien laid the groundwork that would keep Johnny Dollar on the air until the very end of the Golden Age of Radio in 1962.
In Episode 34 of the podcast, Two Fists Full of Dollar, we’ll hear Edmond O’Brien as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar in “The Barbara James Matter,” originally aired on CBS on June 29, 1950..
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"The Many Voices of Johnny Dollar," Program Guide by William Nadel. Copyright 2010 by Radio Spirits.
"Edmond O’Brien Biography." Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0639529/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm