This brief biography concludes with a flat assessment: “Stardom eluded him.”
Bob Bailey wasn’t the only Johnny Dollar. The series began in 1949, and was one of te last to go off the air in 1962. It began as a rote detective series, indistinguishable from all the other cliched shamuses on the waves - except for a gimmick. Johnny Dollar told the story as he toted up what he spent investigating the case, which is why the show’s announcer made the rather risible assertion that Dollar was “the man with the action-packed expense account.” Dollar was also known for flipping silver dollars as a tip. There’s a hook you can hang an entire character on, right?
Then came Bob Bailey, whose performance turned the show into the finest detective series in the history of the medium. Period. The format helped: instead of stand-alone 25 minute shows, the format became a serial. with 15-minute eps five times a week. All this time meant more character development - Dollar, sure, but also the suspects and bit players that threaded through the story. Bailey was assisted by sharp writing and a great set of stock music that ran through the same cues every show.
But Bailey brought something to the character no one had found before. Tough, resourceful, wary without being jaded, friendly, headstrong, solitary. Of all the detectives on the air, he’s the only one who sounded like a real person.
When the show went back to single-ep formats it lost the snap and depth. It moved to New York, and Bailey declined to move with it. He had a rough patch after that, thanks to the bottle, but an interview with his daughter made a few years after his death in 1983 suggested that he’d beat the demons towards the end, and was aware - with no small amount of gratitude and surprise - that his performances had been rediscovered by classic radio enthusiasts, and his work was held in the highest esteem.
It's hard to pick one for an introduction; to appreciate the character and Bailey's performance, you have to listen to all the five-parters. One always comes to mind, though: the Valentine Matter. The first two episodes are standard stuff. In the third it hits its stride. I remember this batch for a reason: I was driving along between Minneapolis and Fargo on old Highway Ten, and for the first time ever in listening to anything on the radio, I was overcome with chills.
I listened to it again for this page, and even though I knew it was coming, I had the exact same reaction.
"The Valentine Matter" 11/04/1955