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Reviewed by Will Harris
he greatness of William Conrad in the history of radio and television cannot be understated, and that’s not even venturing beyond his voice. In addition to portraying Marshall Matt Dillon for the original radio version of “Gunsmoke,” he was also the narrator of such series as “The Fugitive,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Hoppity Hooper,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” and -- yes! -- “Manimal.” For all his vocal success, however, Conrad was, well, not to put too fine a point on it, but he was a rather heavyset gentleman. Despite enjoying a certain amount of success as a film actor during the 1940s and 1950s, he tended to find himself in supporting roles, playing either the heavy or some stern authority figure. In addition to his narration, television also provided other behind-the-camera opportunities for Conrad, who directed episodes of “Bat Masterson,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “Naked City,” among other shows. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that TV got around to inviting Conrad to star in his own series, as private detective Frank Cannon.
The knowledge that there is a Facebook group called “Cannon: You Got to Love Watching Him Run!” should help set the stage for appreciating what an unlikely action hero William Conrad was, but it’s made clear from the very first episode of “Cannon” that neither Conrad nor the show’s writers were going to ignore his size and its repercussions. While standing outside, a young towheaded lad approaches Cannon and asks what viewers everywhere were wondering: “How’d you get so fat?” With a belly-jiggling laugh, Cannon replies, “Kid, it wasn’t easy!” With that one exchange, it’s suddenly okay to acknowledge that, yes, Cannon is a fat guy. He’s not, however, a pushover (and not just because of his weight, smart-ass). He’s a former police officer who was, uh, discharged from the force for being overweight. But, dammit, he can still kick some ass! Plus, you can’t deny that the guy’s a formidable presence, and not exactly someone whose wrath you’d want to incur.
Season One, Volume One
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After “Cannon” went off the air, Conrad spent a short but enjoyable stint in 1981 playing Nero Wolfe for NBC, but it would be six years before he’d return to a starring role on television, and when he did, he really, really wasn’t afraid of drawing attention to his weight. I mean, he’s allowing himself to be called the Fatman, for God’s sake! “Jake and the Fatman” found Conrad back on CBS, where he’d starred at Cannon for so many years, but this time around there would be precious little running involved. As bloated prosecutor Jason Lochinvar McCabe, we were lucky we were able to see Conrad walking, given how much weight appeared to have been added to his frame. It’s no wonder McCabe was allowed the affectation of keeping a pet bulldog, given that both he and his pet had decidedly similar jowls. Fortunately, McCabe kept an investigator on his payroll: Jake Styles (Joe Penny), who was both suave and streetwise, a combination that allowed him to get both information and female companionship on an extremely regular basis.
When deciding which of the two Conrad series rescued from the CBS vaults is the most worthy of purchase, there’s no question: it’s “Cannon.” Frank Cannon was intimidating and tough, but he was also a classy guy who enjoyed a high-priced lifestyle; the combination led to some very interesting cases. It’s also a pleasure to see a show with a heavyset guy as its lone star without forcing him to be the brunt of fat jokes 100 percent of the time. Yeah, Cannon’s a big fella, but he’s also a force to be reckoned with who can hold his own in a brawl, not so far removed from guys like Robert Mitchum and Broderick Crawford. While “Jake and the Fatman” is better than you might recall (there are some moments in these episodes that are darker than you’d expect from a show that’s remembered more as a punchline than anything else), and the combo of Conrad and Penny make for a satisfying onscreen duo, the Bill Conrad we knew and loved on “Cannon” seems a lifetime away. The gruff-but-loveable persona of The Fatman is unquestionably fun to watch, but you can’t look at the guy without thinking, “This guy could have a coronary any second!” Kinda takes away from the viewing enjoyment, y’know?
Special Features: Note to CBS / Paramount: the original episode promos aren’t nearly as special a feature as you think they are. When they’re the only things you add as bonuses, we know you’re grasping at straws.