Stephenson Tales

Radio & TV Acting

I have the distinction of having been a "regular" on the last live radio drama series broadcast over WWJ before television killed radio drama forever. The show was "The Mark Adams" program about (loosely) the role of labor unions in society.

It is interesting how I got on the show. James Land, who had been a colleague of ours in radio and theatre at U of M, wrote the scripts. He also wrote the script for the movie and played in "The First Hundred" in 1953 to commemorate U of M's School of Engineering's centennial. I applied to join AFRA (American Federation of Radio Artists) and was told that I could not join since I was not a working professional actor. One could not be hired as a radio actor unless one was a member of the union. Catch 22!

Jim wrote a script which called for an actor who could do American speech as well as English, French, and German accents. The director, Mr. Wright, told Jim that he did not have any such performers. Jim said, "I have a friend who can simulate any accent."

So I went back to the union and told them I HAD a job and so I should be able to join the union. I still have my union card.

A sad thing happened to the cast of that show, however. After the last 13-week segment, the actors were all out of work - on that show, anyway, so many of them auditioned for TV. The man who played Mark Adams was an instant casualty. He was physically ugly - grossly overweight, bald, short, with florid flesh bulging out everywhere. He had a gorgeous, flexible voice - expressive of subtle nuances of emotions of all kinds, intelligent, clear readings of lines - a perfect radio actor. When I joined the company, he had a home in Grosse Pointe, a sailboat, a yacht, and a LOT of money. The next year, all that was gone and he was doing a sports program for a small local station.

Many of us successfully made the transition to TV, and I was frequently on the live show, "Traffic Court" in which a real-life judge re-enacted a trial he had had using professional actors in place of the real-life courtroom participants. The police on the show were the ones who had figured in the actual cases.

No real names were ever used, of course. The way the program worked was this: The actors arrived at the TV studio at WWJ an hour before airtime. We were given a transcript of the trial and what the sentence had been if found guilty. The judge talked to each of us to give us tips as to the atmosphere of the trial - whether or not the defendant was repentant, docile, hostile - and the judge would give us clues as to how he felt the re-enactment should go. He told us that, since it was entirely ad lib, he felt no obligation to merely have a repetition of the transcript and to be prepared for questions that had not been asked at the real trial.

Being able to think quickly on my feet, I found this aspect to be a "fun" part of the experience. Once, the judge got really mad at "me" for what he took to be a frivolous attitude and doubled the original penalty in our show!

Another time when I was "sentenced" to a stiff fine, loss of license, and six months in jail for driving drunk and running into a police car, we got a call from a family friend in Canada offering to help us!

The policemen, as I said, were real and, not being actors, they were very nervous and ill at ease. During one trial, right after giving his "testimony" to the judge - and after none of the three cameras was focused on him, he passed out cold on the floor. As he collapsed, he upset two folding chairs and a music stand. It made a terrible racket and of course, not any of the professionals in the studio made the slightest acknowledgement of it. We were told, after the show, that dozens of calls had come in asking what all the off-camera noise was. They had a standard answer: "Somebody knocked over a music stand."

The poor cop lay there out cold. Two "cable pullers" dragged him out of the studio into the hall. He was all right, but I'm sure his television career ended that night.

Lucky's note: I still remember when I was very young watching Dad on our original TV: a tiny, black and white screen in an enormous housing. I've been told, though I don't remember, that the first time I saw him on TV I asked in alarm, "How did Daddy get in that box?!"

Composed 29 October 2008; Transcribed by Lucky

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

Home Page

Cast of Characters

Privacy Policy