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Struts and FretsBy Harry Bartell
On Hans Conried
Hans Conried was born a hundred years too late. He should have been touring the country playing Shakespeare with the
likes of Edwin Forrest or Edwin Booth instead of doing most of his work in the confines of a radio studio or TV set. He
even looked the part. He was over six feet tall and slender. He had a long, narrow face that gave the impression of being
gaunt although he really wasn't. There was an air of sadness that hung around him but he was one of the warmest,
brightest people I ever knew.
Hans had a tendency to play all out which fit perfectly with the style of radio comedy in the forties and fifties. In
hindsight, he may have been over the top but the scripts weren't exactly subtle. In addition, Hans was an excellent
dialectician. The ability to do dialects was a very valuable tool for the freelance actor. It was common practice to be called
upon to play two parts in the same show and accented speech helped to separate the two characters. The secret was always
to provide the music and rhythm of the accent and still be understandable. Comedy actors like Mel Blanc usually did
caricatures of a dialect. Hans stayed with a legitimate sound and still managed to be very funny. His Uncle Tonoose on the
Danny Thomas TV show was a good example.
Sometimes dialects, like greatness, were thrust upon you. The first time I was called for Romance of the Ranchos I paid
very little attention to accents floating around because the character I played was a gringo and spoke American. I was on the
show again the following week and this time I was cast as a Californio, speaking with a Spanish accent. I had studied
Spanish in High School but had never really listened to the Texicans in Houston. But I did listen very carefully to the
other actors using Spanish dialects on the show and gradually put pronunciation and rhythms together. Years later, after a
show a man came up to me and asked if I was from Argentina. I told him, no. And he said I sounded exactly like his
cousin in Buenos Aires. I'm not sure that was a compliment. I've been told that Argentines speak the worst Spanish in the
CBS studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood were in a U-shaped building with a landscaped plaza in the center. In one
side of the U was Brittingham's restaurant which was usually filled with radio personnel, actors "being seen" by producers,
actors lying to each other or just taking a coffee break. One evening, several of us including Hans were standing on the
sidewalk outside the CBS entrance in a break between dress rehearsal and air time when a girl swathed in mink came out of
Brit's and walked over to enter the studio. It turned out that she was Linda Darnell although I didn't recognize her. As she
came closer I said, "Boy! That is a beautiful girl!" Hans looked her over very carefully and then replied, "Probably can't do
a single dialect." The ultimate scorn.
Hans did me a favor which I never forgot and which I always tried to pass on. It was on the occasion of one of the first
shows I did at CBS. I was nervous and I sneaked up into the sponsor's booth before the actual time of the call to get a
preview of the playing field and what I might be supposed to do. When I finally went down into the studio, a tall, lanky
guy wearing bright red sox disengaged himself from the table where a bunch of actors were looking at scripts, walked over
to me and said, "I don't think we've met. My name is Hans Conried." I told him my name and he took me over to the
table and introduced me to the rest of the cast. The actors in radio instinctively formed themselves into a kind of club.
Membership requirements were simple. If you managed to get work as an actor on more than one or two shows, you were
in. Club members took a dim view of outsiders, especially motion picture stars who got petrified in front of a microphone.
Hans didn't follow the protocol of letting the newbies simmer until proved.
During World War II, Hans was stationed in Japan as was Jerry Hausner. They were an interesting pair, Hans tall and thin,
Jerry small and roundish. They were both assigned to Armed Forces Radio there and became very close friend and vicious
stamp traders. Jerry, along with Mary Lansing and one or two others had an interesting specialty. He was sometimes called
only to do baby criesjust-born to one year. It was in Japan that Hans got hooked on oriental art. I saw his collections of
small pieces at his home in the hills above Hollywood when I went there to photograph the Conrieds: Hans, Margaret and
their four children. It is a real regret that my pictures didn't say what I wanted them to say.
For a while, Hans directed a Saturday morning show called Stars over Hollywood which usually featured starlets. I
remember working with Debbie Reynolds and Mitzi Gaynor, for example. As was usual, after the dress rehearsal the cast
was seated at a table while Hans gave out cuts and changes and any other specific directions to the actors before broadcast.
He addressed each actor in turn with a comment or two with the exception of Jerry. Finally, Jerry said, "What about me?"
Hans answered with what has become the classic of all radio direction: "Be better!"
Hans sometimes appeared around the studios in the company of his father who was known by all as Papa. Papa Conried
was a small cherubic man with a marked accent that I think was German. There was talk that Papa was a combination
Svengali, Rasputin, and high-powered agent for Hans. I can't speak to that because my contacts with Papa were very
I don't know how or why Hans began doing truck tours with some minor comedy plays in the East. Maybe it was the
steady money; maybe he was sick of television and wanted to work on the stage again. He was in Cleveland when he was
hospitalized with a heart attack and I wired him his famous phrase: Be better!
The last time I saw him, Hans and Margaret and my wife Beverly and I came face to face at the end of adjacent supermarket
aisles. Hans stared and then declaimed, "Good God! Can it be that we are both still alive?!!" We once had a conversation
about the perfect way to shuffle off this mortal coil. I suggested that I would like to go having given a superb performance
in a great role before a packed house. Hans added an additional proviso: "After the curtain call, of course." That was Hans
Conried. I'm awfully glad I knew him.
Harry Bartell maintains that his major accomplishment as a professional actor for forty years was to survive with his mind, morale and marriage intact.
Born in 1913 in New Orleans, he grew up in Houston and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rice University in 1933. After a stint at Harvard Business School and a couple of years forced labor in a department store he moved to Hollywood and stayed there for the next fifty-one years. Three seasons at the Pasadena Playhouse led to work in 185 radio series and 77 TV series plus a dozen or so properly forgettable motion pictures. He passed away on February 26, 2004.
These columns were originally written for the Internet Old-Time Radio Digest.