Perry Mason killed one of the last great radio Westerns
Fort Laramie's cast included Mayberry favorites and a Wagon Train lead.
The January 30, 1956, issue of Broadcasting magazine featured a short article detailing the production of a new radio program. The creators behind the wildly popular Gunsmoke radio show had a new Western on offer. "Writer John Meston and writer-director Norman Macdonnell, whose work on Gunsmoke has won them critical acclaim, have in Fort Laramie a good locale for an equally successful series."
It's easy to see why there was such great hope for the radio drama, even in the waning days of the format. The behind-the-scene folks were hit-makers, for sure, but the cast was an impressive array of TV legends. In the starring role of cavalry captain Lee Quince was Raymond Burr.
Burr's breakthrough television role as Perry Mason was still months off. He was better known for his film work, as he had recently been seen in the Americanized version of Godzilla and Hitchcock's Rear Window. Before that, Burr was best known for playing tough guys in noir flicks. His radio work, now largely overlooked, demonstrated his full range.
On the radio, Burr had two fantastic roles alongside Jack Webb. On Dragnet, Burr played Sgt. Friday's boss, Ed Backstrand, Chief of Detectives. Yet, his meatiest radio role prior to Fort Laramie might have been Pat Novak, for Hire, a San Francisco set-and-produced detective drama. Burr dazzled as the brusque Police Inspector Hellman of SF Homicide.
Fort Laramie, at least, would give Burr the lead role. Supporting him were two Gunsmoke radio veterans — and beloved Mayberry characters — future Andy Griffith Show regulars Howard McNear (Floyd the Barber) and Parley Baer (Mayor Stoner). Rounding out the cast was John McIntire, Ward Bond's eventual replacement on Wagon Train.
The world of radio was a surprisingly small scene, with a handful of actors working several programs at a time. It was rare to find so many future television icons in one radio program.
Initially slated into Sunday evenings on CBS Radio, Fort Laramie carried a $15,000 production cost (about $150,000 today). Cheap! Well, it was audio only.
Still, despite a warm reception, the show was canceled months later due to Perry Mason. CBS wanted Burr to continue to do both gigs — but Burr simply did not have the time in his schedule. As we have covered before, Burr poured his entire life into playing Perry.
There were not many new radio Westerns put into production after Fort Laramie (which had no relation to the later TV series Laramie). Really, the only significant radio Western debut post-1956 was Have Gun – Will Travel, the incredible rare radio adaptation of a television series, which premiered in 1958. In a way, Perry Mason killed off the last great hope for original radio Westerns. Well, at least he knew a good lawyer.