The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe
"I suggest beginning with autobiographical sketches from each of us, and here is mine. I was born in Montenegro and spent my early boyhood there. At the age of sixteen I decided to move around, and in fourteen years I became acquainted with most of Europe, a little of Africa, and much of Asia, in a variety of roles and activities. Coming to this country in nineteen-thirty, not penniless, I bought this house and entered into practice as a private detective. I am a naturalized American citizen."
Nero Wolfe, addressing the suspects in "Fourth of July Picnic" (1957)
1934 marked the year of publication for a mystery novel entitled "Fer-de-Lance", and the book's significance to both the literary world and old-time radio is that it introduced readers and audiences to the fictional detective known as Nero Wolfe, created by American mystery writer Rex Stout. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Stout chronicled the exploits of one of the most popular and beloved of literary sleuths in 33 novels and 39 short stories; a man whose eccentricities transcended what could have been a one-dimensional character and made him an individual of practically flesh-and-blood proportions.
Wolfe was a licensed private detective, but his sleuthing served more as a diversion from his other pursuits: a collector of rare books, a preoccupation with sartorial splendor, a prize-winning horticulturist with a mania for orchids, and a gourmet/gourmand who was once described by his faithful assistant Archie Goodwin as weighing "a seventh of a ton" - about 286 pounds. He had learned that detection was a necessary evil to shore up his frequently depleted financial coffers, though he was loathe to abandon his elegant brownstone at West 35th Street in New York City, preferring to let Goodwin handle the legwork Still, "a man's gotta eat" -- and Wolfe often left his luxurious, comfortable surroundings (albeit reluctantly) whenever a case he was working on required mobility.
After the success of "Fer-de-Lance", Rex Stout found himself besieged with offers from Hollywood to lease the rights to the Wolfe character as subject matter for feature films. Stout was excited about the prospect, and even thought that actor Charles Laughton would have been ideal in the role of the corpulent sleuth. But the screen rights to the novel were purchased by Columbia for the princely sum of $7,500, and the studio had more in mind using their contract star Edward Arnold as Nero -- the idea being that Arnold could be kept busy making the films in between more serious and prestigious assignments. "Fer-de-Lance" was brought to the screen in 1936 as "Meet Nero Wolfe" (a borderline "A" picture which also featured future screen siren Rita Hayworth in one of her earliest movie appearances), and for the second film -- "The League of Frightened Men" (1937) -- the studio replaced Arnold with character great Walter Connolly. (Lionel Stander appeared in both films as Archie Goodwin.) An unhappy Stout then put the kibosh on any future Wolfe vehicles by declining to authorize any more adaptations.
On radio, things were a bit rosier for the detective. Wolfe's first appearance in the medium was in a short-lived series, "The Adventures of Nero Wolfe", originally heard on a regional northeastern network (The New England Network) from April to June 1943 with J.B. Williams in the role. The series then moved to what was still being referred to as the Blue Network (it later became ABC) in July, and substituted Santos Ortega as "the gargantuan gourmet, the detective genius who rates the knife and fork the greatest tools ever invented by man" in the title role. Ortega found himself replaced by Luis Van Rooten in 1944, and Rooten continued as Wolfe until the final episode ("The Last Laugh Murder Case") was broadcast in July. (John Gibson, later to achieve radio immortality as the sardonic bartender Ethelbert on "Casey, Crime Photographer", was also heard on the program as Archie.) It has been noted by Rex Stout's biographer, John McAleer, that "differences between [ABC producer] Hi Brown and Edwin Fadiman, who represented Stout's radio, screen and television interests as Nero Wolfe Attractions, Inc., prevented its later resumption on ABC" -- something that producer Brown ("Inner Sanctum", "The Adventures of the Thin Man") would later regret.
Two years later, the detective resurfaced on Mutual in "The Amazing Nero Wolfe", a Sunday night series sponsored by Jergens Lotion and starring silent screen idol Francis X. Bushman as Wolfe and radio's "renaissance man" Elliott Lewis as legman Archie; Jim Bannon was the announcer. The series, written by veteran scribe Louis Vittes and produced-directed by Travis Wells, also came to a quick end in December of that same year.
Was a third time the charm for our detective hero? NBC made a gallant effort in the fall of 1950 with "The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe", which premiered on October 20, 1950. The endeavor to make Wolfe as popular as the other radio sleuths was certainly a determined one; Vittes returned to pen the episodes, with Fadiman as executive producer and J. Donald Wilson of "The Whistler" fame directing. It was the casting of the title role that really made Wolfe fans sit up and take notice: actor Sydney Greenstreet, who achieved movie immortality as Kasper Gutman ("The Fat Man") in the 1941 film classic "The Maltese Falcon", was hired to play the role of the portly gumshoe. It was truly inspired casting. Author Stout was quite gung-ho on the selection; according to McAleer, Stout "thought Greenstreet was a splendid choice for the role and Greenstreet did, in fact, fill every reasonable expectation." (Many a critic had suggested that Greenstreet would have acquitted himself nicely as a silver screen version of Wolfe as well.)
Choosing an actor to portray the faithful Archie Goodwin didn't turn out to be quite as easy, however. During the series' single-season run, five actors went through a revolving door with the role: Wally Maher, Lawrence Dobkin, Herb Ellis, Gerald Mohr, and Harry Bartell Another body blow administered was that the program had difficulty securing a sponsor. "The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe" debuted at a time when radio's advertising revenues were shrinking - more and more companies were putting their ad dollars into television - and sustaining shows were highly susceptible to getting the boot. Wolfe was briefly underwritten for a time by Plymouth, but Greenstreet's participation certainly didn't come cheap and it wasn't enough to defray the costs of production. "The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe" parted ways with the National Broadcasting Company in April of 1951.
Time has been kind to "The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe": of the twenty-six programs broadcast, only one is missing in action, and the surviving shows reveal the series to be an entertaining one, with the appearance of Greenstreet a notable asset. Yes, Rex Stout had a dissenting opinion about the quality of the program (according to McAleer, the author listened to five minutes of one episode and decided enough was enough: "He liked Greenstreet...the script he found impossible"), but authors, being protective of their work, rarely have truly positive things to say about adaptations of their creations. Had Nero Wolfe appeared on radio a few years earlier, there's no doubt that he would be held in the same ether esteem as Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, or any other radio sleuth.
Radio Archives is pleased to present twenty broadcasts of this oft-neglected but immensely entertaining mystery series in this collection. We've filled this ten-CD set with newly restored renditions (obtained from the original master discs) of these long-ago broadcasts, and are presented to you in full audio fidelity for your listening pleasure. So sit back and enjoy tantalizing tales of mystery with the man who's "the smartest and the stubbornest...the fattest and the laziest...the cleverest and the craziest...the most extravagant detective in the world: Nero Wolfe!"
#1 Stamped for Murder
Friday, October 20, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#5 The Case of the Careless Cleaner
Friday, November 17, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#6 The Case of the Beautiful Archer
Friday, November 24, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#7 The Case of the Brave Rabbit
Friday, December 1, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#8 The Case of the Impolite Corpse
Friday, December 8, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#9 The Girl Who Cried Wolfe
Friday, December 15, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#11 The Case of the Bashful Body
Friday, December 29, 1950 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#12 The Case of the Deadly Sell-Out
Friday, January 5, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#13 The Case of the Killer Cards
Friday, January 12, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#14 The Case of the Calculated Risk
Friday, January 19, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#15 The Case of the Phantom Fingers
Friday, January 26, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#16 The Case of the Vanishing Shells
Friday, February 2, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#17 The Case of the Party for Death
Friday, February 16, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#18 The Case of the Malevolent Medic
Friday, February 23, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#19 The Case of the Hasty Will
Friday, March 2, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#20 The Case of the Disappearing Diamonds
Friday, March 9, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#21 The Case of the Midnight Ride
Friday, March 16, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#22 The Case of the Final Page
Friday, March 23, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#23 The Case of the Tell-Tale Ribbon
Friday, March 30, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
#24 A Slight Case of Perjury
Friday, April 6, 1951 - 30:00 - NBC, sustaining
Review of "The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe"
By Tommy Hancock
"My boss is the smartest and the stubbornest...the fattest and the laziest...the cleverest and the craziest...the most extravagant detective in the world: Nero Wolfe!"
On October 20, 1950, The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe opened with this description of Rex Stout's classic brownstone detective by Wolfe's right hand man, Archie Goodwin. By the sixth episode, 'The Case of the Beautiful Archer', the opening became the one most identified with the show. A phone would ring and the announcer would say, "Ladies and gentlemen the ringing of that phone bell brings you mystery and adventure!" Each opening suited the series that ran on NBC until April 27, 1951 because they definitely described both the main character and the show's content.
The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe was the third attempt to bring Stout's seminal creation to the airwaves and by far the most memorable. Stout combined two types of detective tales with the Wolfe stories, that of the 'armchair detective' and the hard boiled gumshoe. In both the stories and the New Adventures radio program, Wolfe was portrayed as an eccentric genius who lived by a strict schedule, which included ample time for raising orchids, and whose entire world was usually within his brownstone on West 35th Street. Murders aplenty were solved with Wolfe simply sitting in his specially crafted chair, closing his eyes, and pushing his puckered lips in and out while in deep thought. Wolfe's leg work was done chiefly and primarily by Archie Goodwin, a modern day Romeo and definitely Stout's tip of the hat to the Hammet/Chandler type of detective. Archie, an excellent investigator in his own right, handled the aspects of cases that Wolfe would not trifle with, such as the breathing of fresh air among many others.
The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe, although not exactly faithful to Stout's work, is an extremely enjoyable and high quality detective program from the later years of Old Time Radio. The mysteries range from light hearted riddles for Wolfe to muse over to life and death threats that find Archie and at least once even Wolfe staring down the barrel of a killer's gun. Are there plot holes at some points that Archie could drive Wolfe's car through? Sure, but the banter back and forth between Wolfe and Goodwin more than makes up for it. And the conceit of Wolfe hardly ever leaving his domicile is abused, the rotund detective venturing out multiple times throughout these collected 20 episodes. Add that in with the fact that at least five different actors played Archie through the show's run and there's a bump or two for the true Wolfe fan.
The brightest aspect of The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe, though, and the thing that makes it an OTR classic was the absolutely perfect casting of actor Sidney Greenstreet as Wolfe. And don't be mistaken, this isn't Greenstreet putting on his 'Fat Man' role from The Maltese Falcon and making nice. This is an accomplished actor giving everything he's got to an extremely well rounded, meaty role (all puns intended). Greenstreet breathes life into Wolfe's idiosyncrasies, his frustrations, his revelations, and most notably his interactions with others. The reason that there being five different Goodwins isn't a major issue with this show is the fact that Greenstreet as Wolfe has such charisma and chemistry with each actor portraying Archie (which notably includes Old Time Radio favorites like Gerald Mohr and Harry Bartell). The New Adventures Of Nero Wolfe is literally a show that Sidney Greenstreet wrapped about himself like a comfortable robe and played this most fascinating oddity in the detective genre full on.
Tommy Hancock is first and foremost a Pulp fan. What form it comes in Books, Movies, Radio, or Comics, doesn't matter. He went to the next level very early in life as he became a writer and, soon following that development, an actor. He has performed on stage since high school, formed a community theater, and is Drama Ministry Director at his church. He has a background in audio drama. Tommy was a newspaper reporter at 14 and has lived a variety of experiences in his time. Currently, he is Stage and Audio Director for Pro Se Productions and Editor in Chief of Pro Se Press. He is a published writer and is currently working on projects for Airship 27, Moonstone, Decoder Ring Theatre, and his own Pro Se Press.