Was rejection new to William Conrad? Not at all.
About a year before CBS tv executives
refused to consider him for Matt Dillon,
he had also been passed over for Leiningen.
If there was one role that belonged to Conrad more
than that of the Kansas lawman, it was the part
of the Brazilian plantation owner, whose immense ego
squishes an invading horde of ants as efficiently
as Matt's revolver squashes lawbreakers in Dodge.
Carl Stephenson's short story Leiningen versus the Ants
crept onto American shores in 1938; ten years later,
the series Escape bred three productions of a radio adaptation
by Robert Ryf; approximately another decade after,
two more versions were heard crawling on Suspense.
In three of the five, William Conrad played Leiningen.
(Because there were West and East Coast transcriptions,
there are actually six extant recordings,
four featuring Conrad as Leiningen,
bringing the ante up to 66 percent.)
Thus, when radio fans replay the story in their heads,
it is with Conrad's voice that Leiningen speaks.
However, when the luridly named movie version,
The Naked Jungle, came out in 1954,
William's name was not at the top of the bill.
Rather, Leiningen was now played by he who would become
Moses, two years later. (There was a Biblical logic
behind it all--Leiningen created ditches where the ants
would drown, Moses parted the Red Sea where
the Egyptians would drown.) Conrad was reduced,
height-wise anyway, to the part of the district commissioner.
To the pragmatic who readily surrender to reality,
and who possess no sense of idealism, fairness, or justice,
there was nothing wrong about the rejections Conrad suffered.
How can one argue with the physical stature
and divine physiognomies of Charlton Heston and James Arness,
and the results the two handsomes achieved?
Would the movie studio or tv network seen profits
from its investment, had it chosen Conrad?
Would audiences have come to watch a fat,
short, balding man play Leiningen or Matt Dillon?
Maybe not. Maybe.
Speaking of ants and rejection,
there were enough connections here to confuse
even Kevin Bacon and Francis Bacon.
In that same fateful year of 1954 that preceded
the premiere year of tv Gunsmoke, while Heston and Conrad
were being threatened by killer ants in Brazil,
James Arness himself was being attacked
by giant ants in New Mexico. Little did Arness know
that not only ant eyes were scrutinizing him,
but that Walt Disney was watching Them!
because he was considering Arness for the part
of Davy Crockett. How was Arness to sense
in those murky ant tunnels, that Disney was passing him over
and picking instead another worker by the name of Fess Parker?
(Not about to be left out, a Heston who rodded & charioted
the 1950s succeeding in Biblical proportions,
opted to star in Orson Welles' antsy Touch of Evil,
which was resoundingly rejected by moviegoers.)
Clearly, rejection stalked not only William Conrad.
Moreover, was Conrad truly a hapless and helpless victim?
Had he no triumphs, no successes, no cigars?
Beyond the loss of Leiningen and tv Dillon,
was he really a loser? Not at all.
It may not have been readily apparent to the eye,
but the resounding fact was that Conrad
was the Cooper and Ladd of radio,
its foremost male actor who was regularly chosen
over its other voices for the best roles.
Next page: Conrad's reaction.
June 16, 2006
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