As a versatile radio actor in the 1940s, Jackson Beck played roles as varied as the erudite detective Philo Vance and “the Robin Hood of the Old West,” the Cisco Kid.
But Beck, 92, who died Wednesday at his home in New York City of age-related causes, was also one of radio’s top announcer-narrators on shows such as “Mark Trail,” “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” “The Man Behind the Gun” and, most memorably, “The Adventures of Superman.”
The “Superman” introduction was one of radio’s greatest opening signatures, a combination of voices and sound effects dominated by Beck’s rich, deep tones:
Faster than a speeding bullet!
More powerful than a locomotive!
Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!
Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
“Yes,” the narration continued, “it’s Superman, strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with amazing physical powers far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, wages a never-ending battle for truth and justice.... “
Beck, who was the announcer-narrator on “The Adventures of Superman” from 1943 through 1950, did the same for the “Superman” television cartoon show in the late 1960s.
“He had a hugely powerful voice,” radio historian Anthony Tollin told The Times this week. “Along with Fred Foy, who was the classic announcer-narrator on ‘The Lone Ranger,’ Jackson was the greatest adventure narrator.”
Indeed, Beck’s voice remained a familiar one long after the demise of radio’s golden age. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, he worked constantly in front of the microphone.
From the voice of the menacing Bluto for the 1930s Popeye radio shows and later cartoons, to narrating Woody Allen’s 1969 comedy “Take the Money and Run” and the “GI Joe” TV cartoons in the 1980s, Beck was one of the busiest voice performers in the business well into his 80s.
He was heard on hundreds of TV commercials, including those for Brawny paper towels (“The big, tough towel”) and, recently, Frosted Flakes (“Brave adults are coming forward to admit they eat Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes”) -- as well as such products as Little Caesar’s pizza and Combat roach killer. He also did National Football League and boxing promotions for NBC, and he voiced faux commercials on “Saturday Night Live.”
“Jackson had an incredible career and an uncanny ability to change with the times,” said Jeff David, a voice-over narrator and longtime friend. “A lot of his fellow voice stars fell by the wayside, because they couldn’t roll with the times.”
In a 1990 interview with Newsday, Beck said: “I’m an advertising man, and I treat my voice as a business. People who treat it as art don’t make any money.”
When Beck was in his 80s, Tollin said, it was estimated that he was making half a million dollars a year doing voice-overs.
“When you realize how youth-oriented this field is, Jackson was bigger and making more money than ever,” Tollin said. “If you wanted a Jackson Beck-like voice, you had to get Jackson. There was no one else like him.”
The New York City-born son of Broadway and silent film character actor Max Beck, Jackson entered radio in 1931 after a stab at stage acting and working as a runner for the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1937, he was a founding member of the American Federation of Radio Artists, which later became the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Over the years, he held numerous offices in the New York local, including president, as well as serving as first vice president of AFTRA national.
As a force in the union movement, David said, “he was one of the very big guns to be reckoned with.”
During World War II, Beck impersonated Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and other figures on “The March of Time” radio show, in which actors portrayed world luminaries in re-enactments of the week’s news from Time magazine. He also was one of the announcers on the “March of Time” newsreels.
In the 1940s, he co-starred on “Joe and Ethel Turp,” a daytime comedy series based on the stories of Damon Runyon. And, among many other credits, Beck was the original Tank Tinker on “Hop Harrigan” and a regular on the Milton Berle radio show. He also had a recurring role as the manager of a fleabag hotel where Jack Benny “stayed” whenever he took his radio show to New York.
Tollin said the best actors during the golden age of radio often did 20 or 30 shows a week, running from studio to studio. And someone like Beck might play as many as three characters on a single show. “He had tremendous versatility,” Tollin said.
On “Superman,” for example, Beck not only narrated the show, but he might also play a thug or a crook, and he had a recurring role as Beany Martin, the teenage copy boy at the Daily Planet. Whenever “Superman” had segments featuring Batman, Beck often played Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
For the last two decades, Beck was a popular figure at the annual Friends of Old-Time Radio conventions in Newark, N.J., where Tollin directed Beck and other veteran radio actors in re-creations of at least two dozen classic radio shows.
Tollin said he grew up hearing Beck as the voices of King Leonardo and the villain Biggy Rat in the 1960 TV cartoon series “King Leonardo and His Short Subjects,” as well as hearing Beck’s voice for various characters on the “Tennessee Tuxedo” cartoon series.
But watching Beck and his colleagues in action at the radio conventions was a revelation, Tollin said.
“Radio has correctly been called the theater of the mind, or the theater of imagination,” he said. “It was these actors, through their voices and through powerful vocal interpretations, who created the ‘pictures’ on radio.”
Beck, he recalled, “once played [outlaw] Butch Cavendish in a ‘Lone Ranger’ re-creation, and as he ‘got off the horse,’ he had that little groan: You heard him getting off the horse in his voice. He just knew instinctively that that’s part of creating the illusion.”
Beck is survived by his stepson Leslie Winter and two grandchildren.
For a sampling of vintage Jackson Beck, visit the Friends of Old-Time Radio website at www.fotr.net.