Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dryden the Wool: A Centennial Salute to Robert Dryden

100 years ago today, on February 8, 1917, radio actor Robert (Bob) Dryden was born. His surname suited him, as his voice was typically dry, often with a distinctive crackle (even moreso when aged into old men, a specialty). Although he only had a few running roles, Dryden was one of the busiest utility players on the New York airwaves, an in-demand doubler (playing multiple roles per show), from dialects to authority figures to low-key shopkeeps and country sheriffs to NY cabbies. He played Hitler, Satan, Jacob Marley, you name it. His career practically spanned the life of radio: from the golden age of the late 1930s through the waning network era (sticking to CBS for the last run of Suspense) and into the various revival efforts (most notably CBS Radio Mystery Theater, where he was a mainstay for eight years).

Dryden had established himself on the airwaves by at least 1938 (when his name crops up in trade magazines); the same year, he made his Broadway debut in The Hill Between with Mildred Dunnock, which closed after 11 performances. He was heard often on the likes of Columbia Workshop and in the productions of Norman Corwin. His running parts were fairly few, including a stint on Big Town in the 1940s as cabbie Harry the Hack (shown at top) and on Call the Police as the sidekick, Sgt. Maggio. More often, he was the reliable standby heard constantly, especially on Gangbusters (from crooks and cops to many of the "by proxy" real-life police officials or mayors who narrated the tales). Here's a 1967 interview with Richard "Whatever Became Of?" Lamparski, jointly with Don McLaughlin, reminiscing about the series (McLaughlin does more of the talking, but Dryden gets some in).

When I Love a Mystery was revived in New York (1949-1952), Dryden was a staple, particularly well suited to colorful old-timers (notably Jumping Dick in the serial "Bury Your Dead, Arizona"), who often offered comic relief, as well as outright hoods. When series lead Russell Thorson left for the West Coast, Dryden took over as Jack Packard for the remaining months. Take a listen to Jumping Dick in action, trying to interest Doc Long in his daughter:

On Fletcher Markle's Studio One, Dryden was heard almost weekly, from featured supporting roles (Senator Henry in "The Glass Key") to the "also heard" ensemble, filling in all kinds of bits (inevitably including oldtimers in any Western tale). Similarly, on the news drama Big Story (loosely dramatizing scoops by real-life reporters), he played his usual types: sheriffs, judges, cops, and dry storekeepers. He was shady types on Superman, lurked on The Shadow, took the train with The Mysterious Traveler, was part of The Cavalcade of America, and nearly any NY drama you care to name. (Curiously, his X-Minus One appearances were few compared to his fellows, perhaps just because he was kept hopping elsewhere).

When TV entered the picture, Dryden was still active in radio, even when the medium was clearly dying. He participated in several of the NY broadcasts of CBS Radio Workshop (1956-1957, a favorite of mine), including Lucifer in the comedic "Billion Dollar Failure of Figger Fallup" (in which Old Scratch hires a polling agency to estimate how many damned souls he'll need to take in). Late in 1959, CBS moved Suspense to New York (where it had originated in its earliest shows), and would do the same to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar the following year. Both dramas continued until 1962 and kept Dryden hopping. He played miners, sea captains, old farmers (real or hallucinated), working stiffs, and Adolf Hitler (in the inevitable "Let's kill Hitler" episode "Time on My Hands.")

On Johnny Dollar, Dryden sometimes filled in as leftover continuing characters from the Hollywood era, such as worrywort insurance broker Harry Branson (originally Harry Bartell). He played new insurance contacts, and an assortment of policemen or fire chiefs, and less trustworthy types with names like Touchy or Shorty. He also popped up on the comedy The Couple Next Door, showing off his dialects during an arc where the Couple (and Aunt Effie) visit Europe.

Though 1962 is often marked as the end date for old-time radio, Dryden soldiered on. ABC launched the short-lived revival Theatre Five in 1964, and Dryden was there. Eternal Light kept on NBC as a public affairs program? Dryden was there. And when National Lampoon launched The National Lampoon Radio Hour (1973-1974), Mr. Dryden was one of the OTR pros (including Jackson Beck and Leon Janney) who rubbed vocal chords with the younger comedians such as John Belushi and Christopher Guest. (Dryden later played Belushi's doctor in a single 1977 Saturday Night Live bit). He often played establishment types (yet another judge in the very short "Trial of Al Capone" bit) or commercial spokesmen, as typified by the Monolithic Oil bit:

And then we have The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which ran from 1974 until 1982, from Himan "Creaking Door" Brown. I (and others) first knew the name and voice of Robert Dryden from his many appearances on the series (with only three to five actors per show, most doubling, it wasn't hard to narrow down). He was heard the entire run, in over 300 episodes (nearly a quarter of the 1300 plus total). He played leads, co-leads, supporting roles, whatever. Hitler and Satan popped up again, he was a slew of old men (kindly or evil), and put that aged voice to especially good use as Jacob Marley in "A Christmas Carol" (first aired in 1975 but repeated annually). Typical of Dryden's usefulness: the episode "Black Widow" (1978), with Hetty Galen as lead, Dryden gets second billing at the start. He plays Galen's elderly husband, killed by labor racketeers in a hit and run near the start... and then returns to the mike as the no-nonsense police lieutenant assigned to the case. When 1977 brought with it an O. Henry week of tales (seven in all), Dryden narrated as O. Henry. Here's an example, "Jimmy Valentine's Gamble."
"Jimmy Valentine's Gamble."

Dryden did much the same on the short-lived juvenile audience spin-off Adventure Theater (Baloo in "Jungle Book" adaptations, Ben Gunn in "Treasure Island," the fox in "Pinocchio," etc.) He also kept his pipes busy beyond radio, including children's records for MGM (the late sixties "Official Adventures" series, including the Shadow with Bret Morrison, as well as Princa Valiant and the Phantom) and for Scholastic and Troll.

He announced commercials for Life Saver candies and others, narrated educational shorts and documentaries, and even did some film dubbing. I became aware of the latter when I revisited Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (dubbed in New York by Titan, the outfit which under the name Titra handled most of the Godzilla films). The famous opening scene features an elderly station manager at the start, and his voice is dubbed by Bob Dryden. Finally, the voice is matched to someone who looks as old as Dryden sounds! He had previously done the same dubbing German actor Joseph Eggar's eccentric oldtimers in the first two entries in the "Dollars" trilogy, and can be heard in smaller roles (such as an older padre at the mission) in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (the latter was mentioned in Dryden's obituary, as if implying he was on-camera in it). Here's the Once Upon a Time in the West opening.

Speaking of on-camera, let's look at our man Dryden on the tube. While his radio and voice work dwarfs everything else, Dryden did his fare share of TV gigs. While never as familiar a face as his radio colleagues Jim Boles or Larry Haines, he did the TV versions of Studio One and Big Story, and other anthology showcases (The Alcoa Hour). There was a stint on the soap opera Edge of Night (so esteemed critics were reluctant to call it a soap). He also appeared twice each on The Phil Sivers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko) and Route 66, as shown below/ From the screengrabbing skills of Ivan Shreve Jr., we have him with Phil Silvers as a producer's yes man (name given is Sampson) in "Bilko in Hollywood" (1966).

As lawyer Metcalf in "The Colonel's Inheritance" (1958)

On Route 66 as fisherman Hollis in "Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea" (1963).

And in "Child of a Night" (1964) as yet another lawyer, named Warren.

Dryden even recurred on The Naked City. After appearing twice in bits in 1959, he appeared at least a dozen times between 1960 and 1961, as the nameless police surgeon. It's a functional role (like court clerks on Perry Mason), spiced up by dry humor and what friend Ivan terms a "lip toupee".
) He was also in a fourth season installment of The Defenders (hurry up, Shout Factory!) As the sixties wore on, he was a utility player on Jackie Gleason's color "Honeymooners" skits on The Jackie Gleason Show (1966-1967).

Later, he'd pop up in occasional public television fare, such as the "American Short Story" broadcast "Paul's Case" (1980) as the school principal. Dryer than ever.

In movies, Dryden made his cinematic debut between mic gigs, in the 1957 film Four Boys with a Gun. It's a melodramatic entry with Frank "Pyle!" Sutton and James Franciscus as two of the title "boys." Dryden has several scenes as a mob boss, with the unprepossessing name of Joe Barton (sounds like a "legitimate businessman" after all) who has Sutton roughed up.

Other film credits included The Happy Hooker and Foreplay. (Hey, a gig's a gig). Though he seemed less active after the eighties in general media, he remained busy as a frequent guest to old-time radio conventions and participating regularly in live recreations. He finally signed off in 2003, at the age of 86.

Here's to the rich catalogue of recorded work available, from the dryest of the Dryden.


Toby O'B said...

Thanks, Andrew. I probably never would've heard of him had it not been for this story. (If you borrowed the screen caps from Ivan, then I must've missed when he wrote about him.)

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...


Dryden's character in The Phil Silvers Show episode "Hollywood" is named "Sampson." (As in "...and Delilah.")

Andrew Leal said...

Toby: Thanks! Ivan included the Naked City pic in a 2010 entry on William Shatner's million stories.

The others, he e-mailed to me for this purpose. The "Paul's Case" and 4 Boys with a Fun images came from Amazon Prime screenings. The latter is pretty tedious despite familiar faces, the former is good for what it is (it being a filmed short story done for public television, with brief Henry Fonda intro).

emma d dryden said...

Thanks for this terrific tribute and background about my dad, Bob Dryden.
- Emma D Dryden