They Also Served: William Gargan


If WILLIAM GARGAN (1905-79) brought a certain air of authenticity–if not grit–to his numerous roles as a detective, there was a good reason–he’d actually worked as a one at one point in his life. In fact, much of his pre-acting life may have been a contributing factor to whatever verisimilitude he brought to his craft: his father had worked at different times as a private detective and a bookmaker. So Gargan grew up meeting a lot of interesting characters from across the spectrum of society. Sealing the deal was the fact that one of Gargan’s first jobs was selling bootleg hooch to New York speakeasies during Prohibition.

He also worked as a credit investigator and a collection agent for a clothing firm. Once Gargan was shot at when he attempted to get a deadbeat customer to pay his overdue account.

And yes, he worked for about a year as a private detective with a New York agency for “$10.00 a day and expenses.” Gargan did most of the usual detective jobs: guarding payrolls, tailing possible suspects, conducting stakeouts, and protecting clients with valuables, but he was fired when he lost track of a diamond salesman he was supposed to be protecting.

While visiting his older brother, Ed, on a musical comedy stage, he was offered a stage job. He accepted, and so began a long career as an actor. His first stage role was in Aloma of the South Seas in 1926. He appeared in several other stage productions, mostly light comedies, before making the leap to film in the late twenties, appearing in numerous films in the thirties and forties, usually playing assorted Irish cops, detectives, reporters, priests and loudmouth doofuses.

He appeared in films as diverse as  Rain (1932), Misleading Lady (1932), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Headline Shooter (1933), Alibi for Murder (1936), Blackmailer (1936), Some Blondes are Dangerous (1937), They Knew What They Wanted (1940), I Wake Up Screaming (1941), No Place for a Lady (1943), Follow That Woman (1945), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and. But his biggest success on the silver screen may have been the three films in which he starred as amateur sleuth Ellery Queen: A Close Call for Ellery Queen (1942), A Desperate Chance for Ellery Queen  (1942) and Enemy Agents Meet Ellery Queen (1942).

Those three films (and the various other detectives he’d played over the years) no doubt helped him land the role for which he’s now most fondly remembered, that of private detective Martin Kane in the 1949–52 radio and pioneering television series Private Eye, and The New Adventures of Martin Kane (1957-58).

He was American television’s very first private eye, and as such left his mark on every thing that followed for years to come. And after he left Martin Kane, Gargan landed on his feet, having signed a million-dollar, seven-year contract with MCA for the radio show Barry Craig, Confidential Investigator (1951-55) on NBC. The final spelling used for his character’s first name, Barrie, was the same as that of Gargan’s oldest son.

From his autobiography, Why Me? (1969), Gargan gives us his perspective of Martin Kane, the series, and early TV:

“… very soon in the game, I realized our stories were nothing to rave about. How much well plotted story line and genuine character development can you accomplish in a half-hour? So I made the program a showcase for me. After all, that was what we were selling – Martin Kane. I developed a tongue-in-cheek style, a spoof of the hard-boiled detective, a way of silently saying, ‘Don’t blame me for the lousy stories, I didn’t write them. And anyway, what’s the difference? Relax.

It was nothing staggering, my decision. It only made sense. Bogart’s movie version of Sam Spade applied the same ground rules. We gave the audience a good time, and if all the threads were not tightly tied in a half-hour, we swept them under the bed. Have fun. And the show, for whatever reason, took hold…. The show had charm, and its charm held together the lunacy, the feeble character development, the limited camera work.

It also had a producer I could not abide…. He used the show for a flesh parade. The result was we had pretty, empty-headed girls on the show. blowing lines all over the lot.

The show began to slide downhill. In desperation, I began to mug a little more, to cover up the new holes, and the script writers began to write more blatantly. You get into a terrible rut this way. Everybody works harder to undo the damage, and the result is more screeching, more overacting, overwriting, which starts to drive the viewers away and to get them back you come up with more and more desperate gimmickery….”

Sounds like this aspect of TV hasn’t changed much since the early days…

But the saddest irony of all was to come.

After spending years huffing and puffing and hawking cigarettes and other tobacco products on Martin Kane, Gargan himself eventually got throat cancer and had to have a laryngectomy. After that, he campaigned vigorously (and rather ironically) against smoking for The American Cancer Society for the last twenty years of his life), utilizing an artificial voice box.

Nobody would ever accuse Gargan of being a great actor–he was at best a journeyman, solid but unspectacular in his craft. But his understated tone and strong sense of self rang true in a way that reverberated through television shows about private eyes for years to come.

Respectfully submitted by Stewart Wright, with additional information by Kevin Burton Smith.

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