Stewart Wright Interviews the Men Behind The Adventures of Harry Nile
Decades after the Golden Age of Radio, the radio detective still lived on in The Adventures of Harry Nile, the longest running private detective audio series in the history of American broadcasting, running from 1976 to 2019, an incredible 35-year run. It appeared regularly on the KIRO Mystery Playhouse in Seattle, Washington and on the internationally-syndicated Imagination Theatre. The following article is based on interviews Stewart Wright conducted with Jim French, who created Seattle private eye Harry Nile, and Phil Harper, the actor who played Harry. It first appeared in the November 1998 issue of Return With Us Now…, the official newsletter of The Radio Historical Association of Colorado, and is reprinted with permission. It’s supplemented by information from a tape of a Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound (REPS) 1991 meeting that featured that Jim French.
Jim French Interview
Stewart: What about your interest in old radio? How did you get started in that?
Jim: You say old radio, but to me it is an unfortunate connotation. Because what people of your youthful vintage call “old radio” is really a frequently overlooked, but a very viable way to broadcast. It’s a way of telling a story, of painting pictures in peoples minds. What got me interested in it was that radio drama was part of life when I was growing up. If I was listening to the Lux Radio Theater or Suspense or The Whistler or any one of the these I listened to regularly, I knew it all was make-believe, but I loved the technique. In 1947, in Japan with Armed Forces Radio Service I was given the opportunity to write a weekly, dramatized news program. That was my real basic training in the field. When I got out 1948, I teamed with Richard Carr, and he and I wrote scripts for the William Morris Agency. I think that our sales were mostly to the Dick Powell Theater, Richard Diamond, and Suspense.
Stewart: Could you give our readers a little background on Harry Nile?
Jim: The Adventures of Harry Nile is a spin-off from the Crisis series I did in the 1970’s. I pretty much fell in love with the character and the ambiance of Los Angeles in the 1940’s. I lived in L.A. then. I did 26 of them on KVI in Seattle, WA. Oner of them, “West For My Health,“ was the pilot show for Harry Nile, it was part of the Crisis series. Harry was a Chicago undercover cop who had gotten over his head in gambling debts. In order to pay off the crook who owned the casino, Harry had to agree to go to Los Angeles and rub out a gang enemy of this owner of the casino. He never intended to do it, he had to think of a way to get out of it. He went to L.A., he solved the problem, stayed there, opened up a shop there, and stayed until 1950. Then he came up to Seattle on a case and was wounded. While convalescing, he was approached by a sharp operator of a Seattle cop. That was in the episode called “Mister Fixer.” Harry just missed too many trains back to L.A. and stayed in Seattle. He opened up his own shop in Pioneer Square.
Stewart: I have been listening Phil Harper play Harry for so long, he’s almost like an old friend. Harry’s a very human character. He not always one step ahead of everyone and he doesn’t always win.
Jim: Harry Nile is not Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote so Holmes never lost a case. There were times when Sherlock went off on the wrong track, but he always wound up victorious.
Stewart: The announcer and narrator for Harry Nile, Jay Green, plays a very prominent role in setting the right tone for each episode. How important is Jay to the show?
Jim: I wish Jay was still available, but because he is not available to me, we have not used him for the last two years. If you hear him on the show, it’s an earlier show. He is a very talented voice & does some wonderful characterizations as well as announcing. Since he not available, I do the announcing.
Stewart: The theme music for Harry Nile is quite bluesy and moody. It adds a great deal to setting the tone of the show. It there a name for the main theme and who wrote it?
Jim: It was written by David Shire and it is the theme music from “Farewell My Lovely,” the movie that starred Robert Mitchum, about 25 years ago.
Stewart: Murphy (played by Jim’s wife Pat), Harry’s assistant, is such an integral character in the show. How did Murphy come about?
Jim: In one of the episodes, Harry needed to go the Los Angeles Public Library to do a little research and there he encountered Murphy, a librarian. Murphy turned out to be fascinated by knowing a private detective. She went along on that case and helped him solve it. They’ve been together pretty much ever since.
Jim: Murphy’s a funny character. She brought up Harry’s car from Los Angeles to Seattle. She shows up and Harry says, “I didn’t know that you knew how to drive.”
She says, “Well I don’t know to drive and I don’t have a driver’s license.”
Harry asks, “How did you do it?”
Murphy replies, “I am a librarian and the library is full of books and one of them is on how to drive a car.”
The audience laughed their heads off at that. Anyway, Murphy asserted herself and now she is not his unpaid assistant.
Stewart: In at least one episode (“Funeral At Midnight”) the listeners get the impression that Murphy is romantically inclined towards Harry. It sounds like Harry is a aware of it, but isn’t romantically inclined.
Jim: That’s exactly the situation.
Stewart: Will any more come of it?
Jim: I really don’t know what’s going to happen from month-to-month. It depends on Harry. Murphy is smitten with him, but she’s a very bright lady, and knows better than to pressure him. So I don’t know how that will work out.
Stewart: Your Harry Nile episodes seem to be slower-paced than many of the detective series of the 1940’s and 50’s. Is pacing important to your shows?
Jim: The rapid pace of those shows destroyed the realism, but added to the excitement. I’m trying strike a balance. I don’t really refer that much in my thinking as I write these things to shows that were done 50 years ago. I think that Harry has attained a stature, an identity of his own in my mind. And so pace is something which generally accelerates towards the end of each episode, but it can start rather introspectively. One of the things that I try to do that was seldom done in the half-hour radio dramas in the 40’s and earlier, is to build characters who have a lot of detail to them. To emphasize the characters who are going to be in the show and not just use voices.
Stewart: I never cease to be amazed how you are able to develop a story & characters in less than a half hour of air time. What are the keys to do it?
Jim: That refers to what I just said. I don’t know if there are any keys to it. I’ve done this a long time and I realize that you have to deal with an economy of words. You throw in a few little, occasional key element into a line of dialog which help to round out the character I’m trying to present.
Stewart: I have a feeling that Harry’s going to be going on for quite a while.
Jim: I hope so. The answer to that is how long I can keep writing. Even if KIRO decided to drop the Mystery Playhouse I would do them even if they would not be aired locally. I don’t think that they would do it; the shows aren’t costing KIRO that much money and they doing really good business as far as the audience is concerned. I’ll keep doing them as long as I can. Harry won’t get killed.
Right now, there are 107 episodes of The Adventures of Harry Nile. Episode 108 is in works. More may be released as boxed sets of tapes later. I don’t care if I get paid to do it or not. It’s fun to do it. What you listen to on these show is you’re sharing in my electric train, that’s my hobby.
There is nothing to compare to hearing your own lines being read by a fine actor. They’re much better than you thought they were or worst depending on how well they were written.
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Phil Harper Interview
Stewart: I believe you are the only actor to play Harry Nile?
Phil: Yes, that right. I’ve done about 107 or 108 episodes.
Stewart: Could you tell us a little bit about your radio drama background?
Phil: I feel extremely lucky to be involved in radio drama. I was born in 1940, so that’s the radio I grew up with. When radio drama turned out to be actually happening where I was, I really tried to get on board.
I came to Seattle in the Spring of 1974 as a rock & roll disc jockey and heard that somebody in town was doing radio drama, which excited the heck out of me. I called up Jim and asked if I could read for him.
When I started working for him I did about 20 non-Harry Nile roles over the next year and a half on Crisis. I played astronauts, the Devil, people consigned to Heaven, and all kinds of roles. Since then I have done many other parts. Jim French has an eclectic typewriter; he does all kinds of stories.
Jim called me and said he had written this hour-long show with a down-and-out detective. This had to be in the fall of 1976. Jim said he wanted me to do it because, although the guy was in Los Angeles, he was a former Chicago cop who had become a private detective. I was from Chicago, and there was something about my accent that convinced Jim that I was the perfect Harry Nile.
We did the hour-long show called “West For My Health.” Harry was a Chicago undercover cop and got some information on a bunch of crooked cops. He resigned. He stepped on a lot of feet, had gotten into some trouble, and had to leave town. For some reason, that show got a lot of comment, people called the station about it. About a year later, Jim wrote another one. I don’t know what the title of the second one was, but it was only a half-hour one. He got more comment than he did on the first one. We did about 4 or 5 or 6 of them as part of the regular Crisis series.
Then Jim decided to make Harry Nile a regular show. We did pretty close to 30 shows before he left KVI. It was the end of radio drama for a while.
In the early 1990’s, I was very surprised and pleased when I heard those old shows were going to start running again on KIRO. Almost on the heels of that, KIRO needed more material. So we started taping new shows before an audience at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, WA. Since Jim started doing them at the Museum over five years ago, we have done about 70 more Harry Nile shows.
Stewart: One of Harry’s qualities is his humanity. He’s not hard-boiled; he’s very human.
Phil: That’s the nice thing about Harry. Harry is always taking on sort of pro bono cases. He tries to stay cool and aloof, but always gets involved. I am always aware that Jim’s word are saying that Harry really cares and he wants the outcome to be good for his clients.