Question: I tried to think of the most diplomatic way to put this, but gave up. So here it is: Who was the fat detective with the mustache in the early to mid-'70s? He was played by William somebody. Thanks. — Keith A., Montpelier, Vt.
Televisionary: That was late radio, movie and TV star William Conrad, who died in 1994, Keith. And while I appreciate your trying not to offend, in this case I'd say the word "fat" is perfectly acceptable because Conrad sure thought so. And, of course, after starring on CBS's Cannon for five years beginning in September 1971, he went on to co-star on that network's Jake and the Fatman for five years beginning in September 1987. So it's not like he had a problem with it.
"There's nothing wrong with the word 'fat,'" Conrad told TV Guide in 1971, when the 5-foot-9 actor tipped the scales at 230. "If you're fat, you're fat. I'm as healthy as I can be; I haven't felt so good in 20 years. We had a stuntman do the long shots in the pilot film, but then I had to go in and do the same things in close-up. So I said to myself, if this show is going to run, I'll have to get into condition. I started going to a gym — and I despise working out — and even lost a little weight. Now I feel terrific."
When the show launched, Conrad had only recently returned to acting after a 17-year break. A former fighter pilot, he'd made a name for himself as the voice of Marshal Matt Dillon on the radio version of Gunsmoke and in such movies as The Killers, Body and Soul, Sorry, Wrong Number and Jack Webb's — 30 — before going behind the camera to direct and produce. He was talked back into some series guest appearances, which prompted CBS to ask producer Quinn Martin to come up with a show built around him. "I thought it was kind of nifty that a network program head had the spunk to want to go ahead and try something with an atypical leading man," Martin said. "There was a pro-and-con discussion at the network before the pilot was made, but afterward all the cons swung over completely."
Audiences liked Cannon so much that it didn't seem to matter when Conrad let himself go and gained even more weight as the series went on. By the time he sat down for another interview in 1973, he was up to 260 or 270. "Like Topsy, I jes' growed," Conrad said then, tossing an Uncle Tom's Cabin reference into the mix. "I know that after the pilot film I said that I thought I'd have to get in shape if I was going to do all those stunts myself — or at least the parts I have to do to match up with the stuntman's shots. But what I've come to realize is that I'm in shape now! Oh, I could stand to lose 20 pounds or so, but it's no big deal. Nobody else seems to mind my size, so why should I? I heard that Weight Watchers had banned its members from watching the show, but it turned out to be a gag. The publicist for Weight Watchers did call and suggest that I have lunch with their president. I said sure — if I could pick the restaurant."
None of that is to suggest that Conrad was in any way lazy or inactive, mind you. The man worked, and worked hard. He helped launch Buddy Ebsen's Barnaby Jones, made numerous appearances on such shows as Dean Martin, Laugh-In, Sonny & Cher and American Sportsman, and did all sorts of magazine work. All of which the actor was happy to do, shooting down any notion that CBS publicity made him work so hard.
"Make me?" Conrad growled when asked. "Hell, no! The Cannon people would be happy if I didn't do anything else — they're worried I might collapse. I do all these things because I like to do them. It's relaxation for me, a kick in the butt.... Quinn Martin, who produces both shows, asked me if I would do Buddy's first program, and I said I'd be delighted. If I hadn't wanted to do it, I wouldn't have. Besides, since I'm doing a commercial television show, it means that I'm already a product that's being sold. It's part of the reality of this business — so why not take advantage of it?"
Why not indeed? And not only was Conrad a get-along guy when it came to extracurricular activities, he wasn't too bothered by the critics who carped about the quality of the scripts, either. "I've been on the production side long enough to know that most people who watch the show are interested in seeing fat old Cannon get in there and kick the hell out of somebody and be nice to a kid for a moment and drive his big car around," he said. "When we're through, they'll remember some idiotic little thing we've invented on the set that day — like the proper way to hang Peking duck — long after they've forgotten the plot."
Too true. And Cannon fans loved Conrad for his kicking and his idiotic details, which gave him the last laugh years after not even being considered for the TV version of his famous Gunsmoke radio role. "Radio was 'The Theater of the Mind,'" he explained. "When I was playing Gunsmoke, people thought I was a tall, handsome fellow. They would have been disappointed when they saw me on TV."
As a cowboy, perhaps. But they sure loved "fat old Cannon."