Nov 28, 2017
Gregory Hood, San Francisco importer and amateur detective. Frankie Remley, left-handed guitarist and incorrigible sidekick of Phil Harris. Detective Danny Clover, the cop with the soul of a poet. And Thomas Hyland, the droll "connaisseur of crime" who relayed true tales of murder. These are just some of the amazing radio creations of Elliott Lewis. The man dubbed "Mr. Radio" for his innovative work behind the scenes and his talent as an actor was born in New York City on November 28, 1917.
After he considered law and engineering careers, Lewis got into acting in college. During World War II, Lewis oversaw productions for the Armed Forces Radio Service. In 1943, when he was on leave from the Army, he married actress Cathy Lewis. They shared the last name before they tied the knot, and Mr. and Mrs. Lewis would go on to be one of the biggest couples in radio.
An in-demand actor, Lewis starred in The Casebook of Gregory Hood and he portrayed Captain Philip Kearney in the Mutual adventure drama The Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. He played Archie Goodwin to Francis X. Bushman's Nero Wolfe, and he almost landed the radio role of Sam Spade. But his most famous role was as Frankie Remley, the smooth-talking con man and affable partner of crime of Phil Harris on The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show. Lewis' shenanigans with Harris were a highlight of the program, and actress Jeanine Roose said the two men "had such good rapport and a genuine liking for each other." That relationship carried over into their performances, even after the Remley character was dropped and Lewis played the very similar role of "Elliott Lewis." Harris-Faye is one of the best comedies of the era, thanks in no small part to Lewis' zany presence as a comedic tornado.
Lewis turned to directing as he worked on Harris-Faye. One of his biggest gigs was taking the reins of "radio's outstanding theater of thrills." He directed hundreds of Suspense episodes between 1950 and 1954, and his tenure may be the best of the program's long run. Under Lewis, Suspense presented more adaptations of true stories and classic works of literature. The series performed cautionary tales about the dangers of reckless driving and substance abuse, and Lewis continued to work with Hollywood stars performing against type (including his co-stars Phil Harris and Alice Faye in a tense tale of accidental death and a lynch mob in "Death on My Hands").
Along with Suspense, Lewis directed the classic police procedural Broadway is My Beat and the darkly comedic anthology Crime Classics. In both of these productions - and in several episodes of Suspense - Lewis worked with the writing duo of Morton Fine and David Friedkin. Together, the trio delivered some of the best, most innovative radio drama of the later years of the era with lyrical dialogue, vivid sound patterns, and engrossing stories.
He was closely involved with the short-lived radio drama revival of the 1970s, directing Mutual's The Zero Hour and the Sears Radio Theater (later the Mutual Radio Theater). In 1980, Lewis turned mystery writer, penning eight novels about ex-cop turned private eye Fred Bennett. The Los Angeles Times hailed his first book Two Heads are Better as "a striking novelistic debut." Lewis enjoyed the process, saying "the writer is the actor, director, producer, wardrobe person, weatherman, location director, stunt and second unit director, crowd handler, transportation gaffer and everything else I've ever been around, all rolled up into one person."
Elliott Lewis passed away on May 23, 1990, survived by his second wife, radio actress Mary Jane Croft. (Elliott and Cathy divorced in 1958.) It's tough to imagine the radio era without Lewis. He was a key figure in evolving the medium and providing hours of entertainment that are just as riveting to hear today as they were more than a half century ago.