The Killing Jokers: The Funny Men & Women of SUSPENSE
By John C. Alsedek:
Few things in life are absolutes, but one that’s darn close is this: actors looooove the opportunity to play against type. Why? Because of the challenge! Like any other artist, actors relish the opportunity to stretch their artistic wings. Nowhere was this more evident than during the Golden Age of Radio, when Hollywood’s greatest names appeared regularly on anthology shows, playing the sorts of roles they were rarely, if ever, cast in for motion pictures. And no program had more cast-against-type stars than "radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills, Suspense"—in particular, comedians in crime dramas.
Bringing in popular comedians/comediennes of the day and putting them in scenarios where they were in grave peril was perhaps a bit disconcerting for their fans—as in the Suspense episode "Back Seat Driver," where radio staples Fibber McGee and Molly play a couple who are sharing their car with a murderer. But it was also a great audience draw.
So here are the six biggest comedy stars to appear on Suspense (Note: I left out the likes of Cary Grant and Ray Milland not because they weren’t funny—they both had outstanding comedic chops—but because they were better known for their dramatic roles).
1. Bob Hope
Hope only did one episode of Suspense, but boy, he was so good in it that you find yourself wishing he’d done more. He starred in 1949’s "Death Has a Shadow," which had to have been a shocker for listeners used to his breezy style in films like the popular "Road" series he did with Bing Crosby. In "Death Has a Shadow," Hope plays a shady, big-money attorney who finds himself trapped in his office one night, terrified that a man out to murder him is on his way there at that very moment. The episode also features the great William Conrad as the detective who might be Hope’s only chance of salvation—but this is definitely Bob Hope’s episode.
2. Red Skelton
Another comedy great who unfortunately only made it onto Suspense one time, Skelton stuck much closer to his usual schtick than Hope did. In the 1949 episode "Search for Isabel," Skelton plays Richard Brown, a milquetoast bank teller who gets his very first home phone, only to find out that the number he is assigned had previously belonged to a woman named Isabel. As he finds out bits of information from each caller, he begins to fall for the mysterious lady . . . and then finds out that she’s in danger from mobsters. Will Richard be able to rescue her without being killed himself?
3. Milton Berle
If Red Skelton’s lone Suspense role didn’t require a lot of stretching in terms of acting, then Milton Berle’s performance in 1950’s "Rave Notice" more than made up for it. Not only was "Rave Notice" highly suspenseful, but "Uncle Miltie" (already a huge star on radio and about to carry that success over to television) got to play a cold-blooded killer! The episode concerned a stage actor (Berle) whose director threatens to replace him; so the actor makes his own threat, goes through with the murder he threatened, and then tries to convince the police that he’s insane. It speaks highly of Berle’s performance that, even though "Rave Notice" was remade eight years later with horror master Vincent Price, the Berle version is still considered by many radio aficionados to be the superior one.
4. Danny Kaye
The breezy, affable Kaye did not one but two star turns on Suspense and was first-rate in both. In 1949’s "The Too Perfect Alibi," Kaye plays a wealthy charmer who sets out to murder his best friend who also happens to be his rival for the affections of a young woman. He figures out the exact method and then works out what he thinks will be the perfect alibi. Unfortunately, it proves to be anything but . . .
Then, in the 1950 episode "I Never Met the Dead Man," Kaye really gets a chance to stretch himself in a grim noir tale about a man framed for murder who is running out of time to prove his innocence and who has lost the evidence that would have cleared him.
5. Lucille Ball
While most of the comedy stars on this list only did one or two episodes of Suspense, Lucille Ball did seven in total, from 1944’s "Dime a Dance" to 1951’s "Early to Death." Her first two ("Dime a Dance" and "The Ten Grand") might have been her best, but they’re all pretty good, and Ball got to play a wide variety of roles: a chorus dancer who comes into an unexpected and suspicious windfall in "The Ten Grand" (1944), a scheming double-crosser in "A Shroud for Sarah" (1945), a con artist in "Little Pieces of Rope" (1948), and a gun-toting embezzler who ends up in a car with an escaped killer (her then-husband, Desi Arnaz!) in "The Red Headed Woman" (1949).
6. Jack Benny
The master of understated delivery and the pregnant pause starred in six episodes of Suspense. None of the roles is a huge stretch—no playing stone-cold killers for Jack! But all six are fun in their own way. My favorite is "Murder in G Flat" (1951), in which he plays a mild-mannered piano tuner who suddenly finds himself in possession of a bag full of ill-gotten money, which its gangster owners want back. But also noteworthy are "A Good and Faithful Servant" (1952), in which he portrays a department store accountant who swipes several thousand from the store as a "retirement fund," and "Plan X" (1953), in which he assays the role of a Martian who is to be the first of his kind to meet with the world’s new visitors from Earth.
Speaking of Jack Benny . . . next time, we’ll be taking a looky-loo at the decade-long feud between Benny and another radio comedy great, Fred Allen. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Bob Hope in "Death Has a Shadow"
Milton Berle in "Rave Notice"
Lucille Ball in "Dime a Dance"
Jack Benny in "Murder in G Flat"
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.