Saturday, February 28, 2004

Farewell, Mr. Bartell

Charlie Summers sent the subscribers of The Old-Time Radio Digest a short message this a.m., one of those e-mails you never, ever like receiving.

Veteran radio character actor Harry Bartell passed away February 26, 2004—he was ninety years old.

I never got to meet Harry in person, one of my favorite radio actors and one of the most distinctive voices of that long-ago Golden Age. But every now and then I would get an opportunity to chat with him on mIRC’s #oldradio on Thursday nights. I will never forget the time that Charlie im’d me and asked me if I knew who “Harverly” (his screen name) was—when I told him I didn’t have a clue, he announced proudly that it was Harry. I nearly fell out of my chair, I was in such awe.

Every time Harry dropped in for a chat session, I found it difficult not to gush—and it seemed like every time he participated, I had just heard him on something either that day or the day before. I once told him that his performance on the classic Escape episode “A Shipment of Mute Fate” (3/28/48) was my absolute favorite of all the times it had been broadcast, and he thanked me profusely, declaring it one of his favorite shows as well.

What I loved and admired best about Harry’s work is that it was so effectively understated—case in point, a Gunsmoke episode called “Doc Holliday” (7/19/52), which I had only recently heard after purchasing a CD set of that show. Harry plays the title character, and delivers the goods with a wry, laid-back take on the famed gunslinger, completely blowing away the likes of Victor Mature, Val Kilmer, and anyone else I may have left out. Everything he did, from Dragnet to Escape to Fort Laramie, was performed in a quietly effective manner—you never once got the impression when listening to him of someone saying “Hey, look at me—I’m acting!”

I’m not a religious man by any means—I approach any concept of organized religion with a cynical squint and a healthy skepticism. But I’d like to think that somewhere out in the great beyond, Harry’s been reunited with the likes of Bill Conrad, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, John Dehner, and all the other departed Gunsmoke radio players and that that group are enjoying themselves in endless “Dirty Saturdays” for eternity. That he’s met up with Jack Webb and Ben Alexander to outline a story that is true, but that the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Maybe even Raymond Burr and the gang from Fort Laramie will hook up with Harry, too.

R.I.P., Mr. Bartell – you will be missed. 

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