From the current Autumn 2017 Issue
Actor, writer, director, producer… Elliott Lewis could do it all -- and did
By Jordan Elliott
The Golden Age of Radio had no shortage of big name stars — but of course, for every star, there were a dozen actors who toiled in comparative anonymity as supporting players. Some even became reasonably well-known for a certain comedic or dramatic role that only hinted at the range radio allowed them to use.
Still, for all the talented performers radio employed during its Golden Age, only Elliott Lewis earned the nickname “Mr. Radio.” It was an appellation with which no one disagreed. Many of his peers maintained that Lewis was the best actor radio ever produced. Certainly he was one of the most versatile, capable of switching from chilling drama to rugged action to broad comedy without a hitch.
Along the way, he also established himself as a versatile, innovative writer and director — and during the war, he did as much as anyone to preserve the Golden Age of Radio for future generations to enjoy. It was once estimated that Lewis worked in one capacity or another on nearly 1,000 radio shows. If he seemed unduly modest by saying “I never thought of myself as an actor,” perhaps it’s only because he proved himself capable of so much more.
Lewis was born in New York on November 28, 1917. As a young man, he imagined growing up to become a lawyer, but he managed to find time to appear in the occasional school play.
These two worlds intersected in the 1930s, when he headed west and enrolled at Los Angeles City Colleges. At this point, Hollywood was establishing itself as a movie capital and just beginning to make a mark as a radio epicenter; as a result, the school offered a class in Radio Acting and Lewis passed the audition that allowed him to join.
That semester, he took advantage of a campus visit by LACC alumnus True Boardman, who had become a writer for KHJ/Los Angeles and had invited the students in the class to audition for work. Lewis did so and soon found himself working on the locally produced, Dragnet-before-there-was-Dragnet crime drama Calling All Cars.
Later that year, Lewis cemented a place for himself in radio history when he appeared in the beloved holiday adventure The Cinnamon Bear. The syndicated serial featured a horde of future radio legends (including Joseph Kearns, Verna Felton, Frank Nelson and Hanley Stafford), with Lewis as Mr. Presto, the hapless magician who studied his craft by correspondence course — which meant that once he made something disappear, it might take weeks before he could make it reappear.
Not bad for a kid who was still in his teens.
In fact, bigger things were still to come. The Young and Rubicam advertising agency hired Lewis as a de facto cast member on its dramatic anthology Silver Theatre, where he appeared in supporting roles alongside such established stars as Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery and Ginger Rogers. “Some weeks I had four lines,” Lewis recalled to radio historian Chuck Schaden, “and some weeks I was the leading man opposite whoever the leading woman was.”
That wasn’t the only national exposure Lewis received during this time; in the fall of 1938, he began a long association with the great Jack Benny by appearing on Jack’s show as a dim-witted moving man.
Lewis described Jack as “very, very sweet” and recalled that the comedian was so impressed with Lewis’ ability to get laughs that the actor’s pay envelope included not only a note from the grateful comedian but also — contrary to Benny’s image as a cheapskate — a second check. “From that day on,” Lewis recalled to radio historian John Dunning years later, “I did three or four Benny shows a year.” He was almost always part of the show’s “Christmas shopping” broadcasts, where he would play a lummox character that Benny referred to as “The Moolie.”
Given his success in Hollywood, it took a trip to Chicago for Lewis to become a leading man in earnest; it was there that he starred on CBS’ Knickerbocker Playhouse in the summer of 1939. Chicago was a major radio hub in those years, featuring solid local talent and a number of performers who were working to make the move to Hollywood (including Marvin Miller, Betty Lou Gerson and Herb Butterfield, all of whom would work with Lewis in later years). The show itself was one of many to follow the lead of The First Nighter, a long-running program that purported to take listeners out on the town for an evening of live theatre.
With the dawn of the new decade, Lewis was back in Hollywood, maintaining a schedule that could border on the frantic. At one point, he appeared on three shows in a single day (including Fred Allen’s show, the medical drama Dr. Christian and the newspaper drama Big Town) — and, as it was an era before tape recording, he repeated his performances on each show hours later for listeners on the West Coast for a total of six performances that day. “It never occurred to me that my car wouldn’t start,” he admitted to John Dunning years later. “It never occurred to me that there might be a problem. When you’re young and stupid, you can do almost anything.”
Indeed, it looked like young Elliott Lewis really could do almost anything. By now, he was working with some of the medium’s most respected names, including Orson Welles, Arch Oboler (who had met the young actor when both men were working in Chicago radio) and the brilliant Norman Corwin. The latter used Lewis to introduce We Hold These Truths, an all-star celebration of the Bill of Rights that was even more dramatic because it aired one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
With the nation at war, of course, everyone’s priorities shifted. Lewis worked on radio shows while awaiting his call from Uncle Sam. One particularly noteworthy performance — even if no one knew it yet — came when Lewis appeared opposite Jack Benny’s band leader Phil Harris on Stars Over Hollywood. The story in question involved Lewis playing a man named Phil Harris who louses things up for the band leader. Looking back, it was a sign of things to come…
First, of course, there was a war to win, and it would take effort at many levels. When Lewis joined the Army in 1942, he was originally part of the Quartermaster Corps before fate — in the person of former Young and Rubicam executive Tom Lewis (no relation) — intervened.
The military, realizing the need to maintain the morale of those young men who might find themselves thousands of miles from home, had asked Tom Lewis to head the newly formed Armed Forces Radio Network. This service — located in Los Angeles — was meant to provide radio entertainment to the men and women in the forces, both with original programs (e.g. Command Performance, GI Jive) and with rebroadcasts of shows that Americans were listening to back home.
One way to provide that entertainment was to take network radio shows and repurpose them for military audiences. This brand-new job fell to Elliott Lewis and his fellow radio veterans Howard Duff, Jerry Hausner and Alan Hewitt. “I spent three-and-a-half years learning new ways to record and re-record radio programs,” he recalled later. “We would take them off the air, take out anything that dated them or was commercial or censorable, reassemble them and ship them.”
That might not sound especially challenging, but remember that recording tape was still a few years away; as a result, these network shows had to be recorded onto fragile glass-based discs and driven from the recording studio to AFRS headquarters. The trip was only a few miles, but it could be fraught with more drama than any radio show. “We had one guy cut in front of us on the way to the studio one night,” Elliott told Chuck Schaden, “and we lost two hours of programming, because the discs slid and that was it.”
Despite the risks and occasional mishaps, Lewis and his colleagues still prepared over a hundred shows a week for the AFRS. Later, the actor-turned-technician earned the Legion of Merit for developing new recording and broadcasting techniques — as Lewis noted years later, it was “only because there was no other way to do it.”
By the time the war was over, Lewis’ life was changing in other ways. First, there was his 1943 marriage to veteran radio actress Cathy Lewis, who was as talented and versatile as the man she married. (Their marriage lasted fifteen years and produced the 1953 anthology series On Stage.) Both performers were part of the unofficial repertory company that William Spier had assembled as the director of Suspense, the show known as “Radio’s Outstanding Theater of Thrills.”
That show would play an even bigger role for Lewis in the years ahead; but for now, he was just another ex-serviceman who needed to make a living — and so it was back to acting. He played Archie Goodwin opposite Francis X. Bushman’s Nero Wolfe and replaced Gale Gordon on the short-lived detective series The Casebook of Gregory Hood. He was the first actor to play Capt. Bart Friday in Adventures By Morse, a syndicated series created by the man behind I Love a Mystery. He got to play another captain, Philip Carney, in the sonically ambitious nautical drama The Voyage of The Scarlet Queen, traversing the seas with first mate Gallagher (played by Ed Max) as they encountered warlords, pirates and a strange assortment of characters while making their way through Asia and the Philippines.
Then there was the role that topped them all...
In the fall of 1946, Phil Harris — who had become a sensation on The Jack Benny Program, playing a brash, illiterate drunkard leading an orchestra of incompetent malcontents — and wife Alice Faye were set to star on a situation comedy of their own. The show needed a character who would lead Phil down the wrong path, into absurd situations that Alice would usually have to fix… and given that he had been the butt of countless jokes on the Benny show, who better for the role than Phil’s left-handed guitar player, Frankie Remley?
There was just one problem: Frankie was no actor. What’s more, after the first show, his lack of dramatic ability was apparent to everyone (including Remley himself). In some desperation, Harris asked Lewis if he would come in the next week and read the part of Frank Remley.
“It was just one of those happy, fortuitous accidents,” Lewis remembered later. “I picked up the first script, played it the way I thought it would be funny and the way it would work with Phil, without too much effort. It worked.”
Actually, the show did more than work; it sprang into high gear. The combination of Harris and Lewis inspired writers Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat to inspired heights of insanity. Each week, Phil set out in pursuit of a relatively modest goal and each week, Lewis’ Remley — sarcastic, self-centered and more than a little stupid — would add his two cents’ worth and send the whole enterprise off the rails. (Remley invariably got a laugh when he confidently told Phil, “I know a guy…” in response to Phil’s plans.) One week, Phil envisioned serving as the city’s Fire Chief; Remley insisted that he should practice for the part by putting out a fire in the Harris living room. Another week, Phil was looking to economize on the high cost of meat; Remley took his money and came home with a live cow. When Phil started the 1948 season by announcing that Rexall was their new sponsor, Remley deadpanned “What’s a Rexall?”
No less than Jack Benny — who knew a thing of two about creating characters — told Lewis, “The two of you say and do what everybody in the audience would like to say and do in a similar situation if they had the nerve. But nobody has the kind of nerve that you two guys have.”
When Lewis joined Phil and Alice for what turned out to be an eight-year run, he was already starting to channel his energies into other directions. “I always found acting boring, because there’s not enough to do,” he told John Dunning. “You do it, then you’re finished, now what are you gonna do? So I would go in the booth [at Silver Theatre] and listen when I wasn’t in the scenes, then they’d let me go back to the office and sit in with them while they did their rewrites.”
By the late 1940s, Lewis was pursuing such behind-the-scenes roles in earnest. He had begun writing stories for Suspense and even stepped in to direct on those weeks when William Spier was unavailable. His efforts clearly impressed CBS, who asked him to resurrect an undistinguished detective show called Broadway Is My Beat in 1949. It’s possible CBS anticipated nothing more than a typical hardboiled post-War police drama; what Lewis produced — with major contributions from writers Morton Fine and David Friedkin and musical composer Alexander Courage — led detective Danny Clover (Larry Thor) into a strange, fragmented world, one where characters often spoke in poetic prose and simple criminal investigations would lead to psychodrama unlike anything else on the air.
In the fall of 1950, Lewis took over Suspense for a four-year run that was one of the most ambitious in the show’s 20-year history. Under his guidance, Suspense drew upon never-before adapted works by Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare while also drawing from folklore (casting Anne Baxter in “Barbara Allen” and Dinah Shore in the story of “Frankie and Johnny”) and placing a new emphasis on “true crime” and historical dramas. The show even stepped into the realm of science-fiction with Jack Benny — of all people — playing a Martian.
Directing two shows and co-starring on another would be a punishing workload for most people; for Lewis, it was just a warm-up. In 1953, he and wife Cathy launched On Stage, an anthology that saw the Lewises playing in every available style, from the light comedy of “Dig the Thief” (about a con man posing as an archeologist) to the bittersweet “A Corner of Autumn,” about the sad romance between a drunken piano player and a singer with delusions of grandeur. The stories didn’t always feature likeable people and the endings weren’t always tidy, but there was no denying that the work itself was never less than fascinating.
Later that year, Lewis launched Crime Classics, an anthology hosted with a mordant wit by Thomas Hyland (played by Lou Merrill). Drawing upon Lewis’ twin fascinations with history and true crime stories, Crime Classics drew upon court records and period newspaper accounts for stories of strange and often horrific murders from throughout history, ranging from ancient Greece to late-1800s America, from the stabbing of Julius Caesar to the shooting of Jesse James.
Even with the advent of tape recording, it meant that at the beginning of 1954, Lewis was involved with five weekly network radio shows (“My desk at CBS looked like a joke,” he told Chuck Schaden years later.) By the end of 1954, all of them (save Suspense, which Lewis left shortly after the sponsor did) were gone, and Lewis found himself in the upstart medium of television as a producer for Climax!
Whether or not Lewis ever found television as satisfying as radio, there was no denying that the skill set he’d developed in the latter medium came in handy for the former. By the late 1950s, he’d produced a Western drama (Mackenzie’s Raiders) and an urban police drama (This Man Dawson); with the dawn of the 1960s, he returned to comedy as producer of The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball’s post-I Love Lucy series that co-starred Lewis’ second wife, actress Mary Jane Croft. Subsequent credits included producing and directing the Eve Arden-Kaye Ballard sitcom The Mothers-in-Law and directing the last season of Petticoat Junction.
As he approached an age when most people would think about retiring, Lewis found himself going in more directions than ever. In 1973, he was among those trying to revive radio drama with The Hollywood Radio Theater (aka Zero Hour). Debuting in the fall of 1973, it was remarkably ambitious, a 30-minute nightly anthology that would spin a five-part mystery each week. Mutual signed on to air the show, Rod Serling signed on as host and Ferrante and Teicher wrote the opening theme. Guest stars included John Astin, Patty Duke and Edgar Bergen.
For all the talent involved, there was one obstacle the show never quite cleared. “[The network] forgot they had to sell it,” Lewis recalled a decade later. “Everybody sat in the office and waited for someone to call them up and buy the show.” Without sufficient sponsorship, The Hollywood Radio Theatre was finished after ten months.
Lewis had better luck with 1979’s Sears Radio Theatre, a nightly anthology that featured a different host and genre for each night of the week (e.g. westerns with Lorne Greene, comedy with Andy Griffith, mystery with Vincent Price, human drama with Cicely Tyson and adventure with Richard Widmark). He also became a novelist (writing a series of novels starring fictional detective Fred Bennett) and returned to television as a script editor, bringing some old-time flair to the tongue-in-cheek series Remington Steele.
The man nicknamed “Mr. Radio” died on May 23, 1990. Whether or not Elliott Lewis was the best actor radio ever produced, one would be hard-pressed to think of anyone who contributed to the medium in so many different ways — as a performer, writer, producer, director and even as a technician.
“I still can’t believe we did it,” he admitted in a 1982 interview. “I suppose if I had the opportunity, I’d do the same thing again.”
Tune in to Those Were the Days on November 4 for a centennial celebration of Elliott Lewis' radio career.
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