The Fat Man

by Charles Laughlin


Charlie Laughlin is the author of J. Scott Smart, a.k.a. The Fat Man.

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There he goes, into that drugstore.
He's stepping on the scales.
Weight: 239 pounds.
Fortune: Danger.
Who is it?
THE FAT MAN
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Imagine if you will a Friday evening way back in 1948. A young boy sits an the floor with barely concealed impatience in front of the family radio, waiting for his favorite serial to begin. The radio is one of those huge mahogany consoles that you associate with old time radio. It dwarfs the boy. At 8 o'clock the voice of Charles Irving is heard announcing that the Norwich Pharmaceutical Company, makers of Pepto Bismol and other fine products, is proud to sponsor Dashiell Hammett's most exciting character, "The Fat Man," live from New York. And who can forget the opening format of that program? Someone steps up to the microphone and says:

The Fat Man There he goes, into that drugstore. He's stepping on the scales. Weight? 237 pounds. Fortune? Danger. Whoooooo is it?

And then J. Scott Smart's deep, sonorous tones are heard -- the voice the boy has been waiting to hear all day -- replying: THE FAT MAAAAN!

Although I never had the chance to meet him, I first got to know Jack Smart by way of his wonderful voice when I was that boy glued to the radio listening to adventure stories. This was during the nineteen-forties which proved to be the end of the "Golden Age" of radio. Before television became the center of my family's entertainment, we would gather around the radio after dinner to listen to such favorites as "The Lone Ranger," "Sam Spade," "Fibber McGee and Molly", "Jack Benny," "Gunsmoke," and of course, my favorite, "The Fat Man." And although I didn't realize it at the time, "The Fat Man" was my favorite mainly because of the man who played the lead role of Brad Runyon, that corpulent, hard-fisted, sensitive private eye with the cynical wit and big heart who would get his friends out of scrapes and unerringly lead Sgt. O'Hara and Lt. MacKenzie to the solution of the mystery.

That actor was none other than J. Scott Smart. When I came to realize as an adult how much of an impact his personality and skill had upon me, I became curious to find out more about him. As it turned out, I discovered far more than I bargained for. Jack Smart was not only a famous radio actor -- certainly as famous in his day as, say, Peter Falk playing Columbo or Andy Griffith playing Matlock are in ours -- but also an accomplished stage actor, jazz historian and musician, amateur gourmet chef, newspaper writer, and artist. The funny thing was that the more I learned about Jack Smart, the more interested I became in the man himself, and less interested in the character he played on the radio -- a character he nevertheless played, or so it seemed to me as a boy, just for me. As it has turned out for me as an adult, Jack was a far more interesting character than Dashiell Hammett ever conceived.

"The Fat Man" premiered on ABC on Monday, January 21, 1946, at 8:30pm, as part of a block of four new programs which also included "I Deal in Crime," "Forever Tops," and "Jimmy Gleason's Diner." "The Fat Man" originated in the studios of WJZ in New York and began as a modestly priced sustainer [no sponsor but the station] vaguely based upon character ideas in Dashiell Hammett's writings and fleshed out by producer, E.J. ("Mannie") Rosenberg. The announcer was Charles Irving. The directors for the program were Clark Andrews, creator of "Big Town," and Charles Powers. The main writer for the series was Richard Ellington, but it was also scripted by Robert Sloane, Lawrence Klee and others. The veteran character actor Ed Begley was featured as Sgt. O'Hara. Regulars on the program included Petty Garde, Paul Stewart, Linda Watkins, Mary Patton as Lila North, and Vicki Vola, also the female lead in "Mr. District Attorney." Amzie Strickland played the ingenue, Cathy Evans, and Nell Harrison played Runyon's mother during the early episodes. The cast also included Dan Ocko, Roily Bester (wife of Alfred Pester, the science fiction writer), and Robert Dryden. An eleven-piece orchestra was on hand to provide live music, and was directed by Bernard Green, who also wrote that memorably stirring theme. The sound effects were by Ed Blaney, who actually did drop a coin in a change slot each week for the sound of the drug store scale."

"The Fat Man" did not remain a sustainer for long. The show increased from 8.1% to 23.6% of the radio audience in its first year. This steady climb in popularity caught the attention of Norwich Pharmaceutical Company's advertising brass. They wanted a venue to advertise their Pepto Bismol, a product that had been introduced in 1935. But they had an earlier bad experience with radio advertising in England, and were reluctant to try it again. Despite this reluctance, an advertising package was worked out sometime in the fall of 1946 and Norwich sponsorship of "The Fat Man" began on February 14, 1947.

Promotion kits were given to Norwich salesmen which included scenes from "The Fat Man" adventures and a personally autographed picture of Jack as Brad Runyon. The salesmen would use the autographed picture as evidence that they knew Runyon personally and that he was a great guy. The program was also moved to a more favorable slot on Friday night at 8:00 among a block of higher-rated mystery programs. This move increased the ratings even more. The sponsors pushed Pepto Bismol two out of every three weeks, while on the third week one of the other Norwich products (Unguentine, Swav, etc.) were advertised. Those of you who remember the program will recall that announcer Charles Irving or Gene Kirby would first step to the microphone, accompanied by a harpist, and do his "You'll feel GOOD again!" bit,RA Soundbyte Symbol and he would be back in mid-program with another commercial and say, "Now, let's catch up with the Fat Man,"RA Soundbyte Symbol thereby emphasizing Brad Runyon's speed and agility.

Brad Runyon, the "Fat Man," was a character completely opposite to "The Thin Man," who, as anyone into detective fiction knows, was another popular character actually based upon a Hammett novel. Where Nick Charles, the "Thin Man," was a tall, suave, married, aristocratic, martini-sipping amateur, Brad Runyon was a short, heavy, hard-fisted, charming and sensitive professional. He was closer in some respects to yet another successful Hammett character running on radio at the time, "Sam Spade" -- a character based upon Hammett's detective in the Maltese Falcon.

According to William F. Nolan (1983:196, also Johnson 1983:217), Dashiell Hammett, faced with a writer's block, decided to cash in on the popularity of his "Thin Man" series which ran on radio from 1946 through 1951 on CBS, and created "The Fat Man." Just how much of the "creation" was Hammett's, and how much that of others who were commercially involved in radio seems to be an open question. Diane Johnson (1983:227-228) feels that Hammett was already involved with the producer, E.J. Rosenberg, who had also sold the "Sam Spade" series and who "helped develop another series, 'The Fat Man,' inspired by Gutman of The Maltese Falcon...." However, Nolan' s view is that Brad Runyon was not a copy of Casper Gutman, but was more a mixture of the urbane Nick Charles with the hard- boiled Continental Op., another of Hammett' s better known characters. Besides, Gutman was a heavy, and not anything like the Brad Runyon character. John Dunning (1976), another old-time radio authority, gives the creative credit to Hammett. Hammett made more money when the "Sam Spade" series aired from 1941-1950 starring Howard Duff.

Hammett refused to get immersed in writing or giving critiques of any of the radio shows based on his characters. How much money he received for his radio shows is uncertain. Julian Symons (1985:111) says that "The Fat Man" brought him $1300 a week. Nolan (1983:197) says all the radio shows paid him upwards of $6000 a month. Hammett's attitude toward all these programs was cynical. He is quoted by Johnson (1983:228) as saying, "My sole duty in regard to these programs, is to look in the mail for a check once a week. I don't even listen to them. If I did, I'd complain about how they were being handled, and then I'd fall into the trap of being asked to come down and help. I don't want to have anything to do with the radio. It's a dizzy world, makes the movies seem highly intellectual."

Fat Man Hammett had nothing to do with selecting Jack Smart for the part of Brad Runyon. But it is not hard to understand how Jack landed it. He was a natural as Brad Runyon. Not that he was a detective buff. Quite the contrary. He never read detective stories or went to see detective movies. In fact, because he only read as a soporific, he found dusters more to his liking. No, he was a cinch for the part because, as he would often say, "it takes a fat man to sound like a fat man." And Jack was indeed a fat man. Where Brad Runyon weighed-in at a relatively svelte 237 pounds (or 239 pounds, or 241 pounds, depending on which episode you listened to), Jack himself tipped the scales at around 270 pounds, which, considering it was distributed over a 5- foot, 9-inch frame, meant that he measured up to the part with plenty to spare.

Brad Runyon's quick wit was in fact Jack's own and is evident when one listens to the episodes. When jibed by a "baddy" on one program about his weight, the Fat Man snarls back, "the only difference between you and me, Rudolph, is that my fat is from the neck down." Jack was active in assembling the final script, revising the plot, cutting material he didn't like, and even helping select supporting cast." In fact he had it written into his contract that he would receive a copy of a script two weeks before it was to air so that he could blue-line and change lines before it was finalized. This was an important factor in the quality of the series, for there were several writers over the years and those were the days before there were "continuity" people whose job it was to make sure that scripts did not contradict one another. Jack performed this continuity function very well. What a casual listener would not know, of course, was that Jack would often change the names of characters in the script to those of his friends. One of his friends in Ogunquit who was a fisherman at the time, William R. ("Barnacle Billy") Tower, Jr., tuned in to "The Fat man" one night only to find that he and his boat had been lost at sea. And another ofhis friends, Mrs. Robert ("Peggy") Dale, became a nightclub owner, Peggy Dale, in the episode, "Murder Plays Hide and Seek."

He was also free to develop both the character of Brad Runyon, and the repetitive features of the program that made them so commanding as hallmarks. Take for example Jack's emphasis upon the word "murder-r-r." He only says it that way as a fluke at the end of the premiere episode of the series entitled "The 19th Pearl." But within weeks, all of Jack's friends had associated his role with saying the word "murder-r-r" in that distinctly sinister way. So within the first few episodes, the beginning of the program has the Fat Man giving a prologue that always ended with "murder-r-r," or "murder-er- r," said in just that way. Take for example the prologue from the episode entitled "Murder Is the Medium" which was broadcast on July 22, 1949:

"To most people a zoo is a collection of four-footed animals. But
there's one menagerie I know of where the inmates walk on two feet. In
the first cage, for instance, you'll find a giant forger whose
specialty is writing other peoples' names. And in another iron cell
you can inspect the genus "pickpocket," known also as the "little
dip," who can sometimes prove that the hand is quicker than the eye.
But the prize exhibit is a hopped-up character with a nervous twitch
in his forefinger. He prowls alone when he looks for prey, and he' s
know for his taste for...murder-r-r."
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The ironic association of a pleasant place or activity -- in this case a zoo -- with an evil place or activity -- here a prison -- became a common element in both the monologues and epilogues of each episode. And so associated with the character of the Fat Man does the word "murder-r-r" become that Jack slipped it in for its tongue-in- cheek effect at the end of the movie version of the series.

By the time the Brad Runyon role came around, Jack was already a veteran stage, movie and radio actor, and he had the stage actor's contempt for radio. At times he could be downright cynical about how things were done in the broadcasting industry. For instance, he once suggested that it would have run true to form for ABC to hire a "scrawny string-bean with a thin, asthmatic voice to convey the impression of weight over the air." And Mary-Leigh reports that he used to call himself a "high-priced whore" for having to do radio work to support himself. Yet he was utterly convincing at the roles he played because he was so accomplished in his craft.

Although he had dropped out of the Fred Allen group, Jack continued to do other stage, movie and radio work for a time after starting "The Fat Man." He was both in summer stock in Long Beach and completed his part in the filming of "Kiss of Death" in New York during 1946. But by 1947 he had dropped out of other commitments, presumably because he had begun to make some real money for a change. It was during 1947 that he moved his residence permanently to Ogunquit, Maine. After moving to Ogunquit, Jack would commute by air from Boston to New York to work on "The Fat Man." Although he could have flown and returned on the same day, he was afraid of what the weather might do and that the plane might get into New York late, so he would fly the day before the broadcast, stay overnight at 'The Players, attend the rehearsal in the afternoon and the show at night, fly back to Boston that night and be back in Ogunquit by lam. At first he would drive to Boston from Ogunquit and leave his car at Logan Airport, but after he and Mary-Leigh were married, she would drop him off and pick him up.

"The Fat Man" lasted for six seasons. Harrison B. Summers (1971) gives the following summary of the seasons and their sponsorship:

SeasonYearSponsorDay/Time
1st1945-46sustaining program Monday at 8:30
2nd1946-47sustaining program Friday at 8:00
3rd1947-48Norwich sponsor Friday at 8:00
4th1948-49Norwich sponsor Friday at 8:00
5th1949-50Norwich sponsor Friday at 8:00
6th1950-51sustaining program Wednesday at 8:30

The show never lost its popularity, and by the end of the series J. Scott Smart had become a household name. One can still find many people old enough to have listened to the program that can readily associate Jack's stage name with "The Fat Man." What actually killed the program were politics pure and simple. In 1950 Dashiell Hammett, who was peripherally involved in leftist politics, ran afoul of the House Un- American Activities Committee when he refused to give names of other activists. He was tried and imprisoned for his failure to cooperate with the Committee and was blacklisted along with the many other fine artists and entertainers who fell victim to the anti- communist hysteria of the day. And, as William Nolan (1983:222) mentions, all of his radio shows were cancelled because they had become tainted. Norwich, being ever-mindful of its public image, was quick to withdraw its sponsorship of "The Fat Man," and the program became once again a sustainer for its last season with companies like Clorets partially paying the bills. Universal-International, in its efforts to distance itself from any stigma caused by the association of Hammett with the imagined Communist scourge, removed his name from the titles of The Fat Man movie. It seems likely that they only released the picture at all because it was already in the can by the time the full implications of Hammett's situation dawned on them.

In any event, all of this was immensely frustrating to a fairly apolitical Jack Smart who was hoping both for a longer run of the radio show and a series of "Fat Man" movies to equal the success of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the "Thin Man" films. But this was not to be, and we only have the one film upon which to judge what a full series of them might have been like.



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SOURCES


J. Scott Smart:

Paul Denis, Paul Denis' Celebrity Cook Book, New York: Rockport Press.
(one of Jack's recipes)

"Ogunquit: Resort Town Down East," Saturday Evening Post, June 25,
1949. (Picture of Jack eating steamed clams; mentions he came to visit
Ogunquit "two years ago" (1947) and stayed; mentions he was picking up
Maine dialect)

"Information Booth," Radio-Television Mirror, March, 1952, p. 27.
(also mentions "Top Guy")

Dora Albert, "Radio's Jack of All Trades," Screen and Radio Weekly,
1935 (?), p. 10. (Jack's attitudes toward his work)

Guest editorial by J. Scott Smart for Don Tranter's "Radio Comment,
Highlights" column, Buffalo Courier-Express, July 25, 1947. (Reflec-
tions on being fat in a thin world)

Bill Cunningham, "Ogunquit Good 'For Body, Soul'." The Boston Herald,
August 16, 1955 . (brief reflection by Jack on moving to Ogunquit)

John Dunning, Tune In Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-
Time Radio, 1925-1976, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976. (picture
of Jack as The Fat Man)

Frank Burton and Bill Owen, The Big Broadcast: 1920-1950, New York:
Avon Books.

Leonard Sillman (1959) Here Lies Leonard Sillman. New York: Citadel
Press.

Rod Reed column, "Il Duce, Hitler or Squawking Ostrich: Radio Star'll
'Double' for All or Each," Buffalo Times, August 23, 1936.
(Accompanied by photos of Jack posing as various newsworthy people of
the day.)

Robert Taylor (1989) Fred Allen: His Life and Wit. Boston: Little,
Brown and Company.

Mary Jane Masters, "J. Scott Smart's Exhibit Described as Exciting,
Bold." Illinois State Journal-Register, December 1, 1957.

Lyn Riddle (1989) "Having a Wonderful Time." Down East: The Magazine
of Maine, September, pp. 39ff.

William C. Plante (1960) "J. Scott Smart." The Players Bulletin,
spring issue.

Nicholas Zook (1957) "From Stage to Palette." Feature Parade Section,
Worchester Sunday Telegram, July 14, Worcester, MA.

Carol Cohan (1987) Broadway By the Bay: Thirty Years at the Coconut
Grove Playhouse. Miami, FL: The Pickering Press.

"Jack Smart - Biography" released by Universal Studios in September
1936.

"J. Scott Smart - Biography" released by Universal Studios on July 21,
1950.

Carrie Boyd, Kathryn Ryan, Betty Wills & William Wills (1976) The
Cove: Perkins Cove at Ogunquit, Maine. Privately printed by PenMor
Printers, Inc., Lewiston, Maine. (A rare limited edition booklet with
history and photos of Perkins Cove where Jack had his studio; photo by
Mary-Leigh Smart of Jack in his famous chair and part of his hat
collection in his studio at Perkins Cove, p.76)

Louise Tragard, Patricia E. Hart & W.L. Copithorne (1987) A Century of
Color: Ogunquit, Maine's Art Colony, 1886-1986. Ogunquit, Maine: Barn
Gallery Associates, Inc. (photos of Jack and Mary-Leigh on the eueen
Mary, with Beverly Hallam in his three-wheeled Isetta automobile, in
his "hangover" costume, and John Falter's Saturday Evening Post cover.

Alan Schneider (1986) Entrances: An American Director's Journey. New
York: Viking.



Obituaries:

Rent McKinley in The News, Sarasota, FL, February 7, 1960.
V.Y. Dallman in the Illinois State Register, January 15, 1960. The Fat
Man: "Shot in the Arm: Norwich Pharmacal Accomplishes It with Radio
and 'The Fat Man'," Sponsor, November, 1948.

"Look Behind the Scenes Shows Fat Man and Supporting Cast Producing
Murder-r-r." The Norwich Pharmacal News 7(5):2, May, 1948. (Indudes
a number of photos of the cast in action.)

Summers, Harrison B. (197 1) A Thirty-Year History of programs Car-
r'ed on National Radio Networks in the United States 1926-1956 New
York: Arno Press and the New York Times.

Arthur Gelb, "Rotundity Pays Off." New York Times June 22, 1947.

J. Fred MacDonald (1979) Don't Touch That Dial: Radio Programming in
American Life, 1920-1960. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, p. 173.

Top Guy:

"Whodunnit?" True Detective, January 1953, p.58. (A short puzzler by
Jack while he was playing the "crime-busting police commissioner on
ABC's mystery drama series,'The Top Guy,' every Friday, 8 to 8:30 P.M.
EST.")

Dashiell Hammett: Wiliam F. Nolan (1983) Hammett: A Life at the Edge.
New York: Congdon & Weed.

Diane Johnson (1983) Dashiell Hammett: A Life. New York: Random House.

Julian Symons (1985) Dashiell Hammett. New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich.

Collections:

Library and Museum of the Performing Arts of the New York Public
Library, New York: (Photo of Jack as Henry the Eighth; Jack's personal
scrapbook of his roles in early stock, begins with John B. Mack
Players program of 1928-29, and on to the Palace Spotlight Players of
Manchester, NH in 1929; newspaper photo (no date) of Jack pointing a
finger and the caption reads "The artistic sense of Jack Smart,
popular Palace Player, is not limited to acting. He is shown here with
a canvas he has just completed." A number of photos of Jack from The
Fat Man movie.)

The Hampden-Booth Theater Library, New York: A number of sketches of
Jack by John Falter in the latter's sketchbook.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas
at Austin: (Numerous private and professional papers donated to them by
Jack's widow. Includes a large number of paintings, collages and
sculptures donated by his widow. Also his collection of the many hats
he either wore in his roles on the stage, or were given to him by
friends, the built-up shoes made by Murray Space Shoes for his Pozzo
role in Waiting for Godot, and numerous mementos.)



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