As originally conceived, Johnny Dollar was a smart, tough, wisecracking detective who tossed silver-dollar tips to waiters and bellhops. Dick Powell starred in the audition show, recorded in 1948, but withdrew from the role in favor of other projects. The role went instead to Charles Russell. The show, for which Powell auditioned, was originally titled "Yours Truly, Lloyd London," although the name of the show and its lead character were apparently changed before the audition tape of December 7, 1948, was actually recorded.
With the first three actors to play Johnny Dollar — radio actor Russell and movie tough-guy actors Edmond O'Brien and John Lund — there was little to distinguish Johnny Dollar from other detective series at the time (Richard Diamond, Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade). While always a friend of the police, Johnny wasn't necessarily a stickler for the strictest interpretation of the law. He was willing to let some things slide to satisfy his own sense of justice, as long as the interests of his employer were also protected. The series ended in September 1954.
CBS Radio revived Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar in October 1955 with a new leading man, a new director, and a new format. The program changed from a 30-minute, one-episode-per-week program to a 15-minute, five-nights-a-week serial (Monday through Friday, 8-8:15pm EST) produced and directed by radio veteran Jack Johnstone. The new Johnny Dollar was Bob Bailey, who had just come off another network detective series, Let George Do It. With a new lead and 75 minutes of air time each week, it became possible to develop each storyline with more detail and with more characters. Almost all of the Johnny Dollar serials were presented by CBS Radio on a sustaining basis (unsponsored, with no commercials); only two of the 55 serials take time out for a sponsor's message.
Bob Bailey was exceptionally good in this format, making Johnny more sensitive and thoughtful in addition to his other attributes. Vintage-radio enthusiasts often endorse Bailey as the best of the Johnny Dollars, and consider the 13-month run of five-part stories to be some of the greatest drama in radio history. The serial scripts were usually written by Jack Johnstone, "John Dawson" (a pseudonym for E. Jack Neuman), Les Crutchfield, or Robert Ryf, Blake Edwards also contributed several scripts and the show was always produced and directed by Johnstone. The show featured an excellent stock company of supporting actors, including Virginia Gregg, Harry Bartell, Vic Perrin, Lawrence Dobkin, Parley Baer, Howard McNear, John Dehner, Barney Phillips, Lillian Buyeff, Tony Barrett, Don Diamond, Alan Reed, and Forrest Lewis. Movie character actors appeared occasionally, including Jay Novello, Hans Conried, Frank Nelson, Leon Belasco, William Conrad, Edgar Barrier, Gloria Blondell, and Billy Halop.
In late 1956, CBS Radio retooled the show, which reverted to a weekly half-hour drama, airing on late Sunday afternoons. Bob Bailey continued in the leading role until 1960 (and wrote one episode, "The Carmen Kringle Matter").
Roy Rowan was the announcer. He also was an announcer on CBS's "I Love Lucy".
Each story of the Bailey years started with a phone call from an insurance executive, calling on Johnny to investigate an unusual claim. Each story required Johnny to travel to some distant locale, usually within the United States but sometimes abroad, where he was almost always threatened with personal danger in the course of his investigations. Johnny's file on each case was usually referenced as a "matter," as in "The Silver Blue Matter" or "The Forbes Matter". Later episodes were more fanciful, with titles like "The Wayward Trout Matter" and "The Price of Fame Matter" (the latter featuring a rare guest-star appearance by Vincent Price as himself).
Johnny usually stuck to business, but would sometimes engage in romantic dalliances with women he encountered in his travels; later episodes gave Johnny a steady girlfriend, Betty Lewis. Johnny's precious recreational time was usually spent fishing, and it was not uncommon for Johnny's clients to exploit this favorite pastime in convincing him to take on a job.
Each story was recounted in flashback, as Johnny listed each line item from his expense account. The episodes generally finished with Johnny tallying up his account and traveling back to Hartford, Connecticut, where he was based. Most of the expense account related to transportation, lodging, and meals, but no incidental expense was too small for Johnny to itemize, as in "Item nine, 10 cents. Aspirin. I needed them." The monetary amounts weren't always literal: the smallest line item Johnny ever recorded was "two cents: what I felt like" after a professional setback; the largest was "one million dollars" (the way he felt after finding a missing woman and her daughter in a snowbound cabin). Each episode would end with Johnny submitting his grand total of miscellaneous expenses. Sometimes Johnny would add a sardonic postscript under "Remarks," detailing the aftermath of the case. (One case that especially disgusted Johnny ended abruptly with "Remarks — nil!")
In later seasons the program sometimes referred to itself, with other characters recognizing Dollar's voice from the radio.
In 1960, CBS Radio shut down production on the west coast and moved its radio drama unit to New York. Bob Bailey, unwilling to relocate, gave up the Johnny Dollar role. Bailey's last performance was in a script significantly titled "The Empty Threat Matter". This may have been writer Johnstone's editorial comment on CBS's intention to close the shop in California.
In New York, CBS staff producer Bruno Zirato, Jr. (who also directed TV game shows for CBS) took over Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, although Jack Johnstone continued to write the scripts. Former child actor Bob Readick took over the leading role in a manner reminiscent of the original Dollar, Charles Russell. After six months he was replaced by Mandel Kramer, who gave the role his own low-key interpretation. Many fans rank Kramer second only to Bailey as the most effective Johnny Dollar. Both Readick and Kramer were members of CBS's stock company in New York, and both appeared in other CBS dramas.
The final episodes of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense, airing on CBS, are often cited as the end of the golden age of radio. The last episode of Johnny Dollar, "The Tip-Off Matter", ended at 6:35 p.m. Eastern Time on September 30, 1962, followed immediately by the final broadcast of Suspense.
Although network radio drama returned to the airwaves — in ABC's Theater Five (1964–65), and CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974–82) — these were more experimental "drama workshop" shows, and did not adhere to a continuing format or leading character, albeit the latter did spark a bit of a revival of drama on US commercial radio networks in the 1970s. The "Golden Age" of radio drama, as pioneered in the 1920s, died with Johnny Dollar in 1962.
Two unsuccessful attempts were made to transfer the success of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to television. Bob Bailey starred in a 1958 pilot entitled The Adventures of Johnny Dollar and William Bryant starred in a 1962 pilot entitled Johnny Dollar. The latter was written, produced, and directed by Blake Edwards.Dick Powell (Audition show in 1948)
Charles Russell (February 1949 - January 1950)
Edmond O'Brien (February 1950 - September 1952)
John Lund (November 1952 - September 1954)
Gerald Mohr (Audition show in 1955)
Bob Bailey (October 1955 - November 1960)
Bob Readick (December 1960 - June 1961)
Mandel Kramer (June 1961 - September 1962)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was so familiar to CBS Radio's listeners that the network's resident comedians, Bob and Ray, occasionally satirized it. Their version, "Ace Willoughby, International Detective," followed the Johnny Dollar format of exotic locales, continental officials, cool villains, and tense confrontations, with Ray Goulding doing a letter-perfect imitation of Bob Bailey's delivery. In the comedy version, however, the detective usually gave up on the case after being beaten up incessantly.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar was a popular weekly radio mystery play in the 1960s and early 1970s on Radio Iran. The role of Johnny Dollar was played by Heidar Saremi, a popular radio performer. Contrary to the original, Johnny Dollar was more of a criminal investigator. At the end of each episode, the narrator asked the radio audience how Johnny found the perpetrators, making the show a mystery quiz as well as a drama; those who guessed correctly were entered into a raffle for a prize.
In the 1970s and 1980s the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre released a number of satirical record albums; several featured spoofs of old-time radio featuring the character Nick Danger, Third Eye, who was loosely based on Sam Spade and Johnny Dollar. The scripts included inside references to radio with lines such as, "It had been snowing in Santa Barbara ever since the top of the page," and riffs on radio sound effects.
In 2003, Moonstone Books adapted the Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio program into a graphic novel illustrated by Éric Thériault and written by David Gallaher.
As of August 2015, a documentary about the program,The Real Johnny Dollar Matter, is in production.