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William Conrad; Star of ‘Cannon,’ ‘Fatman’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Conrad, who starred as the portly district attorney in television’s “Jake and the Fatman” and played the title role in the earlier detective series “Cannon,” died of a heart attack Friday. He was 73.

Conrad became ill at his home and died at the Medical Center of North Hollywood, hospital spokeswoman Tricia Spellman said.

He was best known for his role as J.L. (Fatman) McCabe, an irascible, hard-nosed district attorney and former police officer. The CBS-TV series “Jake and the Fatman” ran from 1987 to 1992.

In the show “Cannon,” which ran from 1971 to 1976 on CBS, he played a detective who was balding, middle-aged and fat--a departure from the macho, leading man types starring in many police shows during that era.

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Many of Conrad’s acting cronies were surprised to learn that during World War II, the rotund actor had been a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps.

After he left the service, he made his film debut in a 1946 thriller, “The Killers.” His rapidly expanding waistline soon limited his parts principally to villains, and his credits included “Body and Soul,” “Sorry, Wrong Number,” “East Side, West Side,” and “The Naked Jungle.”

Because of his deep and distinctive voice, he also was able to obtain many roles on radio. Conrad was the original Marshal Matt Dillon in the “Gunsmoke” radio network drama, which ran for 11 years on CBS. He later provided background narration for many TV programs, including “The Fugitive,” “The Invaders” and “Rocky and His Friends,” a cult favorite also called “The Bullwinkle Show.”

Because Conrad found limited television and movie roles during the 1950s, he turned to producing and directing. His first major series was “Bat Masterson,” from 1957-59. He later produced “Klondike” and directed the Jack Webb show, “General Electric True.” He also produced or directed shows such as “Naked City,” “77 Sunset Strip,” and “Gunsmoke.”

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Conrad picked up occasional acting roles in the 1960s in Westerns and crime shows, but it was not until 1971 that he obtained his big break in television. He was cast as detective Frank Cannon, and both the show and Conrad were a hit.

Cannon was a cop who never chased the bad guys and rarely fired his gun. He favored cruising about Los Angeles in his Cadillac convertible and he spent a lot of time drinking fine wines and eating gourmet meals. Staying fat was something he seemed to work at.

Conrad also played an unlikely television hero in “Jake and the Fatman.” He soon became disillusioned with the show because of what he called poor scripts, but he opted to keep his contract commitment through 1992.

“I wanna get out,” he said at the time. “When I say what I think, I get in trouble.”

Conrad was known on the set as a man with strong opinions who was never reluctant to speak his mind.

“Most of television is crap,” Conrad said in a 1976 Times interview. “ ‘Cannon’ was crap. I was delighted to see it canceled.”

Dean Hargrove, executive producer of “Jake and the Fatman,” said Conrad “could be irascible and very blunt and direct in his opinions, but underneath it all he was a very decent, thoughtful and considerate gentleman.”

He is survived by his wife, Tippy, and a son, Christopher, who lives in Seattle.

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A private memorial service will be held at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills cemetery.


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