With his powerfully deep voice, William Conrad immediately commanded attention. Now imagine being his son. “As a kid, it was something getting yelled at by him — he was particularly effective,” Christopher Conrad tells Closer Weekly of his father. “You wouldn’t guess it, because his voice came off as so gruff and intimidating, but he was a loving, wonderful, sweet man.”
Short and rotund, William didn’t look like a traditional star, yet he found success in films (playing one of the title roles in 1946’s classic The Killers), radio (he was the original Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke) and television (with the crime dramas Cannon and Jake and the Fatman). “He was just a fascinating man with a lot of charisma,” Charles Tranberg, author of William Conrad: A Life & Career, tells Closer. “And he was comfortable in his own shoes.”
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, to parents who owned a movie theater, William discovered his love of performing early. “His first job was singing at a funeral home,” Christopher says. “He had a passion for singing.”
While serving as a fighter pilot during World War II, William was grounded for night blindness, but he put his voice to good use with the Armed Forces Radio Network. That led to a thriving career in radio and his star-making turn on Gunsmoke. But when CBS launched a TV version of the show in 1955, William was passed over for the Matt Dillon role in favor of the more telegenic James Arness. “He always said he wasn’t disappointed,” says Tranberg. “But I think there was a little bit of resentment.”
In 1957, William divorced first wife June Nelson and married model Susan Randall, Christopher’s mom. “He never felt right about leaving June — that was one thing he did regret,” Christopher says. “But he loved the hell out of my mom.”
Small-screen fame finally found him in 1971 when he was cast in the title role of an irascible detective in Cannon. “He was an everyman,” Christopher says of his father’s appeal as the character. “He was not particularly graceful, and America related.”
A few years after Cannon went off the air in 1976, Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It was really hard — she was the most beautiful, proud, vivacious woman,” says Christopher. “My father loved her until the day she died” in 1979.
William struggled with his own health issues over the years. “He was always on a diet — he loved to eat and had little self-control over that,” says Christopher. “But he was always heavyset — it was his nature.” Hence the title of his final hit show, Jake and the Fatman, which ran from 1987 to 1992.
He died at 73 in 1994, but William lives on in the heart of his son. “My father said it was the most important thing to him that he be remembered as a kind man, a nice man,” recalls Christopher. “And he was. He was an amazing man.”
Bruce Fretts, with reporting by Amanda Champagne Meadows
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