Hit and Run: Allan Stevenson (1918-2007)

You have probably never heard of Allan Stevenson, the dead man whose voice is now in my ear. I am quite used to hearing the dead speak. Listening to recordings of old radio melodramas is not unlike attending a séance in which the voices of the departed are being made audible by means of a powerful medium. Mr. Stevenson, though, has not long been what is generally thought of as permanently silent. He walked among the living only a few hours ago, an old man, propped up by a cane and blind in one eye. I may have passed him by on one of my many walks downtown to nearby Hunter College or on my way to see a friend who lived in Stevenson’s neighborhood on East 72nd Street. Absorbed in thoughts, I am often dead to those around me, which is why I feel compelled to lend an ear, however belatedly.

According to an indifferently penned article in the New York Daily News, the retired actor who had performed on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s long-running Anne of the Thousand Days starring Rex Harrison (1948-49) and the Phil Silvers success Do Re Mi (1960-62), was killed at 2:36 AM by a hit-and-run driver while trying to cross First Avenue in an attempt to get a cup of coffee, a last friendly gesture to a doorman on his block.

Playing in the theater of the mind some six decades earlier, Stevenson was faced with many perilous situations on both sides of the law; and some of his lives were spent before the conclusion of a thirty-minute broadcast. He had supporting roles on programs like Crime Fighters, a dramatic series promising listeners “master manhunters to match master criminals,” and John Steele, Adventurer. In an episode of the latter, Stevenson played a crooked jockey who has his hopes for a life on Easy Street dashed after riding “The Long Shot” (18 April 1950). It is the story of a man “trapped in the bitterness of the past and [put] face to face with the future,” a man who “learned too late that no one can live alone.”

On NBC’s Radio City Playhouse, best known for staging what would later turn into the Academy Awards behemoth All About Eve (as discussed here), Stevenson was cast in the Runyonesque “Betrayal” (30 August 1948) and, more prominently, in the murder mystery “The Wine of Oropalo” (18 December 1949), in which he played the victim of a deadly manipulation.

In Top Secret, a series of World War II espionage thrillers written and directed by Radio City Playhouse producer Harry W. Junkin, Stevenson was twice cast opposite “gorgeous Ilona Massey” (previously mentioned here). In “The Unknown Mission” (30 July 1950), he played a French baron of considerable wealth and charm whom Massey’s glamorous spy is called upon to eliminate.

“I wish we had proof that he is an enemy agent,” she sighs, “It is hard for a woman, without knowing why, to murder.” The hit-noblewoman seems ideally equipped to carry out the assignment. After all, the young Frenchman has “only one weakness,” she is told. “Women.” His grace, however, is well prepared for the attack. He, too, has murder on his mind; until, that is, he permits himself to wonder whether she might care for him. The two assassins find it impossible to follow their respective orders . . . but the duke’s days are numbered all the same.

A week later, Stevenson was again heard on the program in an episode titled “Disaster in London” (6 August 1950), this time portraying a British intelligence agent who is to assist the baroness to thwart enemy plans to poison and kill the entire population of the metropolis. As is made plain to the listener in one of those Shakespearean asides so effective in audio drama, the Englishman is a traitor, himself involved in the chemical warfare plot.

After learning that recordings of his private conversations bespeak his double-agency, this son of a false hero breaks down to disclose his less-than-ideological motives. “There is no dignity left for you but silence,” the traitor’s mother remarks, only to demand an explanation for her son’s actions.

Programs like Top Secret seem an unworthy memorial to an actor who may have hoped for a rather more distinguished career in the theater. And yet, it is the indignity of his death that calls for an outcry, a voice to expose the infamy of his silent killing . . .

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