The Official Web page for J. Scott Smart (1902-1960), Radio, TV, Movie and Stage actor.
[Updated on 20 September 2007]
J. Scott Smart, aka Jack Smart (1902-1960), was a radio, film and stage actor during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. Jack Smart was born November 27, 1902 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as John Kenley Tener Smart after his father's best friend and one-time Governor of Pennsylvania, John Kenley Tener. His mother was May Smart. May's mother had been born a Scott, but along with her sister, she became orphaned and was later adopted by a Kansas farm family named Moses. Jack Smart graduated from Lafayette High School in Buffalo, New York, in June, 1922, at the age of 19. One of his fellow classmates was Francis "Fran" Striker, who later created the Green Hornet and wrote for the Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon radio shows.
Jack Smart bounced around quite a bit after graduating high school, but finally joined the McGarry Majestic Players, a Buffalo stock company, between 1923 and 1928. During this period he played numerous character roles. He also played stock for two seasons in Manchester, New Hampshire, with the John B. Mack Players (1928-29) and the Palace Players (1929).
The year 1929 was a major turning point in Jack's life and marked the real beginning of the career in radio drama that would eventually make him a household name during the 1940s and early 1950s. This was the year that he moved to New York City to do radio work. Jack took to the world of radio like the proverbial fish to water. When he first arrived in New York, a friend of his, Kenneth Fickett, an announcer at NBC, introduced him to a director of the program, "Whispering Tables." Jack auditioned for the part of "singing waiter" and got it. This was apparently his first minor network radio role. His first major role was as Joe in "Mr. and Mrs.," a role he played opposite Jane Houston as Vi. "Mr. and Mrs." was first heard over CBS in 1929 and was a comedy based on the comic strip by Clare Briggs.
He also played "Jack," a straight man for Bert Lahr on another program of unknown title, but which aired around 1933. It seems likely that this was where he first met Lahr who was to become a life-long friend, and who would star along side Jack in the first American production of "Waiting for Godot." Jack played comedy and dramatic roles in numerous programs, including the Prince of Pilsen on the "Beauty Box" show, and the fast-talking, conceited, high-pressure salesman, J. Aubrey Bloomer, Jr., on the "Nine To Five" program. He had a rich baritone voice and was often called upon to sing.
Jack was one of the charter members in 1931 of the "March of Time" cast, along with Bill Adams and Frank Readick, all three of whom were honored at a fifth anniversary party of the famous show in 1936. The "March of Time," first broadcast on March 6, 1931, was considered the best documentary drama on radio. It was aired on Friday nights and was sponsored by Time Magazine and produced by Louis de Rochemont. The week's major news events were enacted on the program by a company of extremely versatile character actors. In keeping with the program title, the "March of Time" scripts would often be rewritten up to the very last minute, so the actors had to be on their toes and improvise on the spot. Jack was one of the first actors on radio with both this kind of flexibility and the requisite skills in dialects and impersonations. He often had to do as many as six characterizations in a single "March of Time" broadcast. Jack's first and frequent role on the program was Huey Long. But he was to play an enormous range of historical characters over the years, including Chinese generals and Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia of New York City. As a consequence of this prodigious versatility, Jack came to be called the "Lon Chaney of radio."
It should be noted that during these "golden days" of radio, an actor did not just work one show, but often many in the course of a week. In a 1932 interview, Jack mentions he had played roughly 1100 characters in nearly four continuous years of radio work.
Jack was a regular on the Fred Allen shows in all their incarnations from the very beginning of that great comic's radio career. The debut of Fred Allen's "Linit Bath Club" on CBS was on October 23, 1932. Linit was a beauty lotion produced by the Corn Products Company and Jack played an usher to a non-existent live audience. The show lasted 26 weeks. He eventually became a mainstay of the Mighty Allen Art Players and Allen's Alley. Fred Allen took over "The Best Foods Salad Bowl Review" from August 4 to December 1, 1933. Jack was back, along with Roy Atwell, Allen's wife, Portland, and Minerva Pious. Fred Allen's "Sal Hepatica Review" began on January 3, 1934 on NBC. Atwell was no longer featured, but Jack was, along with other standbys like Eileen Douglas, Minerva Pious and Lionel Stander. The now classic "Allen's Alley" began on December 6, 1942. This was where Jack created his character, Senator Bloat, which he did during the first couple of years of the "Alley," before leaving the show to do the play, "A Bell for Adano" (from December, 1944, for one year into 1945) and a bit part in a movie. Jack's Senator Bloat was followed by the now more famous Senator Claghorn played by Kenny Delmar in 1945.
Jack also played roles on “The Shadow” during the 1932-33 season on NBC with Frank Readick as the sinister Shadow. He also was heard in the "Wizard of Oz" series, first as the Cowardly Lion and then as a donkey, "The O'Flynn" musical series (he sang on the last episode), "45 Minutes from Hollywood," Mr. Fuddle on the "Blondie" show, the "Cavalcade of America" (began in 1935), Louie the brother-in-law in the situation comedy, "The Adventures of Mr. Meek" (began in 1940), and "Charlie Chan."
After moving to Hollywood to do movies, Jack continued his radio work and played small comedy roles "to add color" in many of the early episodes of "Big Town," which began on CBS on October 19, 1937. This was a show first featuring Edward G. Robinson as Steve Wilson, a crusading editor of a paper fighting crime and corruption, and Claire Trevor as Lorelei Kilbourne, the society editor and Wilson's sidekick. Jack is listed in the cast of "Sing Out, Sweet Land" which was aired on the "The Theater Guild on the Air," October 21, 1945, on ABC with Burl Ives, Arthur Godfrey, Josh White, et al. He also worked at times for Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor on their comedy review shows.
Another turning point in Jack Smart’s remarkable career as a performer was his selection by Leonard Sillman for his "New Faces of 1936" review. Sillman usually picked relatively unknown talent for his annual reviews and many a reputation was launched from the publicity new stars gained from appearing in the show. In Jack's year, the show opened on May 19, 1936, at the Vanderbilt Theater in New York and lasted for 193 performances. The various skits featured such talent as Van Johnson, Imogene Coca, Billie Haywood and Marion Pierce (later Marion Pierce Parker). The young Van Johnson, who was a "chorus boy" in the show, was quite impressed with Jack's performances. During this author’s conversation with him, Van Johnson said, "He was a brilliant actor and a marvellous comedian. I stood in the wings every night to watch this man. But he wasn't friendly at all, so I never got to know him."
Producers from Universal Pictures caught Jack's act in “New Faces” and liked what they saw. They signed him to a movie contract. He was off to Hollywood in the fall of 1936. His first picture was as Beaton in "Top of the Town" with Doris Nolan, George Murphy, and Peggy Ryan. The film was released in 1937 and was directed by Ralph Murphy. Like many fat men, Jack was light on his feet and was an accomplished dancer. There is a publicity photo for "Top of the Town" with Jack dancing with Peggy Ryan and George Murphy and doing an elevation behind them. He was later to write-in a scene for the movie, "The Fat Man," which had him dancing with Julie London.
He had parts in a number of Universal pictures during that first year in Hollywood. Most of them were comedies or musicals and all were released in 1937. They include:
Universal Pictures released Jack after this spate of films, and he went on to play supporting roles in several other pictures for other companies before returning to Universal for his lead in "The Fat Man" movie later on. These pictures were completed over the course of the next eight years and were interspersed with his radio and theater work. The titles include:
"That Hagen Girl" was notable as including Shirley Temple's first "young lady" role. And "Kiss of Death" was a classic thriller in which Jack played the restaurateur along side Victor Mature, who became a close friend. After Jack married his second wife, Mary-Leigh Call, the couple crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary with the Matures in 1951. The movie introduced Richard Widmark who turned in a chilling performance as a psychopathic killer.
Jack was back and forth between Hollywood and New Yorkduring this period. He opened on March 23, 1940, in the role of Taggert in the Broadway play, "Separate Rooms," starring Glenda Farrell, but was replaced by June 10th. In 1941 he played a country bumpkin on an episode of "The Prudential Family Hour" (CBS) who likes music but finds it all totally confusing and has to have it explained by the program's master of ceremonies, Deems Taylor. He also took roles in 1941 on the radio shows, "Mr. District Attorney" and "Crime Doctor."
In 1941 he was elected to The Players Club, located in New York facing historic Gramercy Park, along with Edward Arnold & Ralph Bellamy. The Players became socially important to him and he stayed there every time he went to New York alone from then on. Jack was also a life member of the Actors Fund of America, and a member of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Actors Equity, and the Screen Actors Guild.
Jack Smart returned to New York to take up the role of Pedro Vargas in the Boston production of S.N. Behrman's play, "The Pirate," with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. The play opened for two weeks on October 26th. Jack changed his name for the program to "J. Scott Smart" instead of his usual "Jack Smart" in response to Lunt's criticism that his real name “had no class.” Jack's early mentor in show business, and the man who actually got him started was the actor, Tim Frawley. Jack would often say that Frawley should have warned him that his name sounded like an acrobat or a comedian, like "Bob Hope."
Jack apparently had real problems working with the Lunts. Alfred was no problem for him, but Lynn kept changing the lines on him. Lynn did not seem to share the problem, however, for she once said to Alfred within Jack's hearing, "I get more from Jack's eyes than I get from anybody's." Despite this adulation, doing "Pirate" nearly gave Jack a nervous breakdown. As with many new performances, the Boston run of "Pirate" was intended to smooth out the script and give it a test run before taking it to New York. The reviews were not all that encouraging. One reviewer suggested there were problems with the pace and dialogue of the original production. He also suggested that Jack did not seem to "realize all the possibilities" of his role. By the time the play opened in New York, it had been substantially revamped and Jack was replaced by Alan Reed as Pedro Vargas.
Again, the fates seem to have been spinning their thread, even with Jack's difficulties with the Lunts, for it was his need for a rest-cure that sent Jack in search of his friend, John Philip Falter, in Ogunquit, Maine. John Falter was a famous Nebraska painter who also did covers for the Saturday Evening Post. Jack was one of Falter's favorite subjects and was featured anonymously on a number of Falter's Post covers. In the cover of March 25, 1944, he painted Jack as three different characters, one reading a newspaper, one leading a horse and one a street cleaner. In the May 19, 1945, cover, Jack is leaning over an iron fence on Park Avenue picking a flower. Then, Falter had him in a soda shop of an actual drug store located at the time on the corner of 4th Avenue and 20th (or 21st) Street, New York, in the cover of October 12, 1946. On the August 2, 1947, cover, Jack is walking in front of the present Old Village Inn in the center of Ogunquit, Maine. And Falter painted Jack ice skating on the cover dated January 11, 1958.
Jack was in the cast of Vinton Freedley's production of "Dancing in the Streets," a musical comedy with music by Vernon Duke and based on the story by Matt Taylor. The play had a brief run at the Shubert Theater in Boston from March 23, 1943, until approximately April 10, 1943. Jack played a minor role as Col. Waverly Smithers, USMC (retired), while the great Mary Martin played the lead role as Mary Hastings. Jack left the cast at the play's closing in Boston in order to return to radio in "Snow Village," also featuring Dorothy Sands.
In 1944 Jack landed a plum role in the cast of "A Bell for Adano," a play adapted by Paul Osborn from the short novel by John Hersey. The production was by Leland Hayward and starred Fredric March as the Major. Jack got rave reviews for his portrayal of one of the cart drivers. It enjoyed a reasonably long run, opening at the Cort Theater in New York for a year or so on December 6, 1944. The production and the company, including scenery and props, were brought to Washington, D.C., in celebration of President Roosevelt's birthday.
Following on the heals of the tremendous success of "A Bell for Adano" came yet another major turning point in Jack's already rich career. During the fall of 1945 he auditioned for and was given the lead in a new radio detective serial, "The Fat Man" which premiered on ABC on Monday, January 21, 1946, at 8:30PM, as part of a block of four new programs which also included "I Deal in Crime," "Forever Tops," and "Jimmy Gleason's Diner." "The Fat Man" originated in the studios of WJZ in New York and began as a modestly priced sustainer vaguely based upon character ideas in Dashiell Hammett's writings and fleshed out by producer, E.J. ("Mannie") Rosenberg. The announcer was Charles Irving. The directors for the program were Clark Andrews, creator of "Big Town," and Charles Powers. The main writer for the series was Richard Ellington, but it was also scripted by Robert Sloane, Lawrence Klee and others. The veteran character actor, Ed Begley co-starred as Sgt. O'Hara. Regulars on the program included Betty Garde, Paul Stewart, Linda Watkins, Mary Patton as Lila North, and Vicki Vola, also the female lead in "Mr. District Attorney." Amzie Strickland played the ingenue, Cathy Evans, and Nell Harrison played Runyon's mother during the early episodes. The cast also included Dan Ocko, Rolly Bester (wife of Alfred Bester, the science fiction writer), and Robert Dryden. An eleven piece orchestra was on hand to provide live music, and was directed by Bernard Green, who also wrote that memorably stirring theme. The sound effects were by Ed Blaney.
"The Fat Man" did not remain a sustainer for long. The show increased from 8.1% to 23.6% of the radio audience in its first year. This steady climb in popularity caught the attention of Norwich Pharmaceutical Company's advertising brass. They wanted a venue to advertise their Pepto Bismol, a product that had been introduced in 1935. The program was also moved to a more favorable Friday night slot at 8:30 among a block of higher-rated mystery programs. This move increased the ratings even more.
Brad Runyon, the "Fat Man," was a character completely opposite to "The Thin Man," who, as anyone into detective fiction knows, was another popular character actually based upon a Hammett novel. Where Nick Charles, the "Thin Man," was a tall, suave, married, aristocratic, martini-sipping amateur, Brad Runyon was a short, heavy, hard-fisted, charming and sensitive professional. He was closer in some respects to yet another successful Hammett character running on radio at the time, "Sam Spade" -- a character based upon Hammett's detective in the Maltese Falcon.
Hammett had nothing to do with selecting Jack Smart for the part of Brad Runyon. But it is not hard to understand how Jack landed it. He was a natural as Brad Runyon. He was a cinch for the part because, as he would often say, "it takes a fat man to sound like a fat man." And Jack was indeed a fat man. Where Brad Runyon weighed-in at a relatively svelte 237 lbs. (or 239 lbs., or 241 lbs., depending on which episode you listened to), Jack himself tipped the scales at around 270 lbs., which considering it was distributed over a 5 foot 9 inch frame meant that he measured up to the part with plenty to spare.
Brad Runyon's quick wit was in fact Jack's own and is evident when one listens to the episodes. When jibed by a "baddy" on one program about his weight, the Fat Man snarls back, "the only difference between you and me, Rudolph, is that my fat is from the neck down." Jack was active in assembling the final script, revising the plot, cutting material he didn't like, and even helping select supporting cast. In fact he had it written into his contract that he would receive a copy of a script two weeks before it was to air so that he could blue-line and change lines before it was finalized. This was an important factor in the quality of the series, for there were several writers over the years and those were the days before there were "continuity" people whose job it was to make sure that scripts did not contradict one another. Jack performed this continuity function very well. What a casual listener would not know, of course, was that Jack would often change the names of characters in the script to those of his friends. One of his friends in Ogunquit who was a fisherman at the time, William R. ("Barnicle Billy") Tower, Jr., tuned in to "The Fat Man" one night only to find that he and his boat had been lost at sea. And another of his friends, Mrs. Robert ("Peggy") Dale, became a nightclub owner, Peggy Dale, in the episode, "Murder Plays Hide and Seek."
He was also free to develop both the character of Brad Runyon, and the repetitive features of the program that made them so commanding as hallmarks. Take for example Jack's emphasis upon the word "murder-r-r." He only says it that way as a fluke at the end of the premiere episode of the series entitled "The 19th Pearl." But within weeks, all of Jack's friends had associated his role with saying the word "murder-r-r" in that distinctly sinister way. So within the first few episodes, the beginning of the program has the Fat Man giving a prologue that always ended with "murder-r-r," or "murder-er-r," said in just that way.
Although he had dropped out of the Fred Allen group, Jack continued to do other stage, movie and radio work for a time after starting "The Fat Man." He both was in summer stock in Long Beach and completed his part in the filming of "Kiss of Death" in New York during 1946. But by 1947 he had dropped out of other commitments, presumably because he had begun to make some real money for a change. It was during 1947 that he moved his residence permanently to Ogunquit, Maine. After moving there, Jack would commute by air from Boston to New York to work on "The Fat Man."
The show never lost its popularity, and by the end of the series “J. Scott Smart” had become a household name. One can still find many people old enough to have listened to the program that can readily associate Jack's stage name with "The Fat Man." What eventually killed the program was some really nasty politics. In 1950 Dashiell Hammett, who was peripherally involved in leftist politics, ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee when he refused to give up names of other activists. He was tried and imprisoned for his failure to cooperate with the Committee and was blacklisted along with the many other fine artists and entertainers who fell victim to the anti-communist hysteria of the day. And, all of his radio shows were cancelled because they had become tainted. Norwich, being ever-mindful of its public image, was quick to withdraw its sponsorship of "The Fat Man," and the program became once again a sustainer for its last season with companies like Clorets partially paying the bills. Universal Pictures, in its efforts to distance itself from any stigma caused by the association of Hammett with the imagined communist scourge, removed his name from the titles of the one "Fat Man" movie. It seems likely that they only released the picture at all because it was already in the can by the time that the full implications of Hammett's situation dawned on them.
In any event, all of this was immensely frustrating to a fairly apolitical Jack Smart who was hoping both for a longer run of the radio show and a series of "Fat Man" movies to match the success of Dick Powell and Myrna Loy in the "Thin Man" films. But this was not to be, and we only have the one film upon which to judge what a full series of them might have been like.
The 77-minute film, "The Fat Man" was completed by Universal Pictures on August 21, 1950, then previewed at the Ritz Theater, Los Angeles on March 26, 1951, and finally released in May 1951. Rosemary Clooney, an old friend, accompanied Jack to the premiere in his old home town, Buffalo. Cliff Sterrett drew a cartoon version in 1952 of the publicity photo of Jack and Julie London dancing the Charleston in the movie.
The film was remarkable in many respects. Jack was superb, of course, as Brad Runyon. He should have been, considering that by this time he was 48 years old and a veteran actor with something like 25 years of entertainment industry experience under his very long belt. And, of course, there was that incredible voice that sounded like a well seasoned oboe. The movie was also memorable for its sterling supporting cast: Brad Runyan by J. Scott Smart, Pat Boyd by Julie London, Roy Clark by Rock Hudson, Bill Norton by Clinton Sundberg, Jane Adams by Jayne Meadows, Gene Gordon by John Russell, Detective Stark by Jerome Cowan, Ed Deets by Emmett Kelly, Lola Gordon by Lucille Barkley, Shifty by Teddy Hart, Chuck Fletcher by Robert Osterloh, and Happy Stevens by Harry Lewis.
The movie provided the first feature role for Rock Hudson, Jayne Meadows and Julie London. The handsome Rock Hudson went on to play the leading man in numerous comedy and dramatic films, and the gorgeous Julie London became a renowned recording artist. Although he was not featured in the cast, Marvin Kaplan played the part of a truck driver, and turned-in a remarkably funny comic role. So did Teddy Hart as the sticky-fingered Shifty. The darkly handsome John Russell played what he always played best, a ruthless heavy. And of course the incomparable Emmett Kelly played Ed Deets, the clown that had always wanted a circus of his own. The producer was Aubrey Schenck, the director was William Castle, and the screenplay was written by Harry Essex and Leonard Lee, based upon a story by Leonard Lee. The music was, as always, by Bernard Green, and photography was by Irving Glassberg. These were all top-notch professionals.
"The Fat Man" was no sooner history than he had landed another leading role, this time as the "Top Guy." The premiere episode, which aired on ABC on Wednesday, October 17, 1951, was entitled "The Case of the One Way Street" and featured Jack as a "crime-busting" police commissioner of a large metropolitan city. Ross Martin played a regular supporting role. The "Top Guy" was not, however, a rerun of Brad Runyon in disguise. According to Jack, the "Top Guy" was actually based upon the career of Theodore Roosevelt who had been New York City's police commissioner at one time. Jack dropped out of "Top Guy" at the end of the first season and passed the role to his friend, Jay Jostyn, who carried it for its second and last season during 1952-53.
After nearly a half century of dabbling in fine art, Jack Smart finally took the plunge and became a full-time serious artist. In 1947 Jack traded in his New York flat for an old fisherman's shack at Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, which at the time was a very exciting place for a serious artist to live (today it is also a favorite tourist destination). There was the kind of ambience at the Cove that every artist dreams of. Fixated on developing his painting and sculpting, Jack nevertheless did not entirely gave-up on acting and theater work and he continued to be a presence at The Players all during the 1950s. He had a starring role in a "Chrysler Medallion Theater" program, and appeared in a drama on the television program, "Robert Montgomery Presents," sometime during 1954 or 1955. And he was a headliner as Falstaff in the company of Shirley Jones as Juliet and Lon Clark as Romeo at the annual costume ball entitled "Shakespeare on Parade" thrown by the Art Students League of New York, April 27, 1956, in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel.
He also was given the last, and perhaps the most important role of his stage career. The call came sometime in November, 1955, and was for the part of Pozzo in the first American production of Samuel Beckett's now famous play, "Waiting for Godot." Jack spent all of December rehearsing for the role and the play ran from January 3, 1956 for two weeks at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coral Gables, Florida. This was the premiere production in the new Playhouse, and it co-starred Bert Lahr, Tom Ewell and Charles Weidman. It is perhaps ironic from Jack's point of view that though his portrayal of Pozzo was given favorable comments, the play as a whole was panned by reviewers in Florida. The production was ill-fated from the beginning. Theater audiences were not prepared for the dense existentialist outlook that the play represented, and reviewers at that point in the history of theater did not know what to make of Beckett, or of his handiwork. The later New York production did far better, retaining Bert Lahr, but replacing Tom Ewell with E.G. Marshall and Jack with Kurt Kaszner. Schneider was replaced by the fine director, Herbert Berghof.
Jack retired completely from acting after this debacle and devoted himself to his art work, producing many fine paintings, collages and sculptures that were exhibited in various shows in Maine, New York City (a solo) and elsewhere. Jack died of pancreatic cancer on January 15, 1960. V.Y. Dallman, the editor of the Illinois State Register and an old family friend, wrote the official obituary, excerpts of which were published in newspapers all over the United States, as well as in Time Magazine's "Milestones." A memorial retrospective exhibition of 29 of his paintings and sculptures was mounted in the summer of 1960 in celebration of the Barn Gallery's new wing. The exhibit also travelled to the Joe and Emily Lowe Art Gallery at the University of Miami, near the Coconut Grove Playhouse where Jack had played in "Waiting for Godot." It ran from February 14 through April 9, 1961.
Frank Buxton and Bill Owen, The Big Broadcast: 1920-1950, New York: Avon Books.
Dallman, V.Y. (1960) Obituary in the Illinois State Register, January 15, 1960.
John Dunning, Tune In Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925-1976, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976. [picture of Jack as The Fat Man]
Laughlin, Charles D. (1994) J. Scott Smart, a.k.a. The Fat Man. York, ME: Three Faces East Press (the official and most complete biography of Jack Smart -- contact the author if you wish to buy a copy).
J. Fred MacDonald (1979) Don't Touch That Dial: Radio Programming in American Life, 1920-1960. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, p. 173.
William C. Plante (1960) "J. Scott Smart." The Players Bulletin, spring issue.
Robert Taylor (1989) Fred Allen: His Life and Wit. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Official J. Scott Smart Web Page (copyright retained by Charles D. Laughlin)