Flashback Friday: 'Superman,' 'The Lone Ranger,' and other classics that began as radio shows
Before television took over in the 1950s, radio was the dominant form of entertainment in American homes. Live musical broadcasts and scripted dramas—Westerns, soaps, and detective thrillers, to name a few—were just as popular as today’s most beloved sitcoms, and in fact, many classic movies and TV shows were inspired by radio characters and storylines.
Here are five radio dramas that inspired hit TV shows and films—do you remember any of these?
The Adventures of Superman (1940-1951)
Superman first appeared in the pages of Action Comics in 1938, and two years later, he made his radio debut in a syndicated show on WOR in New York City. The series generally aired between 5:15 and 5:45 p.m. to target the after-school crowd. Bud Collyer played Superman throughout most of the show’s run (he was replaced by Michael Fitzmaurice in the final year). Because radio stations did not air reruns during that time, Superman writers had to concoct plot devices to allow Collyer to go on vacation—namely Kryptonite, which incapacitated the superhero and allowed other characters to take the reins. Sometimes, Batman (Stacy Harris) and Robin (Ronald Liss) would also cover for the Man of Steel.
Listen to the first-ever radio episode of The Adventures of Superman, “The Baby from Krypton”:
The Lone Ranger (1933-1954)
The character of the Lone Ranger, a masked Texas Ranger who fights injustice in the old West with his sidekick Tonto, first appeared on a radio show on Detroit’s WXYZ station. It was a hit among both children and adults, and in 1942, it got picked up by NBC’s Blue Network, the precursor of ABC. Legendary radio announcer Fred Foy voiced what eventually became the show’s signature opening: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! The Lone Ranger!” The masked hero himself was played by eight actors over the course of the series, but primarily by Earle Graser and Brace Beemer (Beemer took over when Graser died in a car accident in 1941).
Listen to the 1937 episode “Two Bit Cattle Toll,” featuring Earle Graser as the Lone Ranger:
The Green Hornet (1936-1952)
The Green Hornet was a spinoff of The Lone Ranger, telling the story of the Lone Ranger’s grandnephew. The loose connection between the two shows was not a major plot point, however, and the Green Hornet became a beloved family classic in its own right. The series followed the adventures of Britt Reid, a wealthy newspaper publisher by day and a masked crime vigilante by night via his alter ego “Green Hornet” and accompanied by his loyal assistant Kato. The hit radio series inspired a comic book series, several films, and a TV show airing from 1966-67 starring Bruce Lee as Kato.
Listen to the 1939 episode “The Smuggler Signs His Name”:
Dragnet told the story of hardboiled police detective Sergeant Joe Friday and his crime-fighting partners in the LAPD. Actor and producer Jack Webb, who played Sergeant Friday, was a stickler for detail, and he aimed to give listeners a realistic, unsentimental feel for the danger and daily drudgery of police work. To ensure authenticity, the plots were based on real police files, and the show dealt with topics that were controversial for the time, such as sex crimes, drug addiction, and pornography. The television show Dragnet debuted in 1951 and employed the same narrative style as the radio show.
Listen to the episode “Homicide”:
This iconic Western stars William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon, a U.S. Marshal who works to preserve law and order in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870s. Unlike popular children’s radio Westerns like The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, Gunsmoke was primarily aimed at adults. Writer John Meston wanted to challenge the archetypal Western hero, and he wrote Matt Dillon as a lonely, troubled character, “almost as scarred as the homicidal psychopaths who drifted into Dodge from all directions,” according to historian John Dunning. Gunsmoke was adapted into a television show in 1955 and aired until 1975, making it the longest-running primetime series of the 20th century.
Listen to the 1954 episode “The Stage Holdup”: