For over fifteen years and three decades, actor Ralph Byrd played the role of Dick Tracy in film serials, movies and television and to the general public, Ralph was Dick Tracy. Portraying the detective with an easy-going demeanor armed with Tracy’s well-known investigative skills and relentless physical energy to battle crime, Byrd’s acting helped push Chester Gould’s comic strip hero to a broader market in its first three decades.
Ralph was born April 22, 1909 in Dayton, Ohio and after finishing school began his show business career as a Broadway singer. His film career began with bit parts in the mid 1930’s, including the Adventures of Rex and Rinty (Mascot, 1935), a serial where an uncredited Byrd portrayed a forest ranger helping the dog Rinty and horse Rex recover a lost child. His first credited performance was in Universal’s crime drama Chinatown Squad (1935; with Lyle Talbot).
For the first two years Ralph generally played professional figures (doctors, pilots, policeman) in these low budge films but he got his first real break in 1937 when Republic Pictures signed him for the title role of Dick Tracy. The serial’s plot pitted G-man (FBI agent) Dick Tracy against a gang of criminals called the Spider Ring. The Ring’s mysterious leader the Lame One orchestrated a wide variety of illegal activities and in the opening chapter captured Tracy’s brother Gordon and turned him into a brain-washed criminal and the Lame One’s chief lieutenant.
Although licensed from Chester Gould (for a pittance), Republic used very little material from Gould’s comic strip and focused on their own serial formula. Serial chapters required Byrd to perform many roles, interviewing victims, piecing together clues in detective fashion and engaging in lengthy fist-fights, chases and major action sequences.
Following his Dick Tracy success, Ralph kept busy with many film roles and starred in his next serial, SOS Coast Guard (Republic, 1937) as an atmospheric thriller featuring Byrd as Coast Guard Lieutenant Terry Kent who tracks down a gang of spies smuggling deadly gas and avenging his brother’s murder at the hands of their leader, Boroff, played by Bela Lugosi. The serial matched Dick Tracy in quality and united Ralph with his future Republic serial’s director, William Witney.
Only a year later (1938), Republic brought Dick Tracy back in Dick Tracy Returns, a new fifteen chapter serial. Except for Byrd himself, all other roles of the serial were recast and the unflappable G-man was pitted against a the murderous Stark gang of criminals headed by the cruel Pa Stark (Charles Middleton) and his five sons. Seeking justice for the murder of a rookie G-man in the opening chapter, Ralph’s Dick Tracy slowly dismantled the Stark’s vast criminal network and killed off the entire family of rogues.
The public loved the Dick Tracy serials and Republic quickly produced another, Dick Tracy’s G-Men in 1939. This time Ralph’s character was pitted against international spy and saboteur Nicholas Zarnoff (Irving Pichel). Following the formula of the past editions, Tracy battled his foe’s criminal endeavours chapter after chapter in a deadly game of cat and mouse before he put an end to the clever spy. Now old hat at Dick Tracy, Byrd still managed to keep his sincerity and energy for this faster paced serial.
After Dick Tracy’s G-Men, Byrd took a brief hiatus from Republic and spent the next year and half playing (1939-1940) playing small roles in big budge films like The Howards of Virginia while starring in smaller films like PRC’s Misbehaving Husbands (1940). Still, in 1941 he found himself back at Republic for the final Tracy serial, Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc. This time battling the technological tricks of the mysterious Ghost out for revenge, Ralph (now 32) used his old bag of acting tricks that made him famous in previous serials. Despite the film using some footage from previous serials, this set of fifteen chapters was perhaps the best of the four with its primary villain directly involved in each chapter.
The U.S. joined World War II in 1941 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Ralph joined the Marines in 1943. During this time, RKO picked up the film rights to the Dick Tracy character and Morgan Conway assumed the role of Dick Tracy in Dick Tracy (1945) and Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946). After Byrd returned from the war, he was in a serious auto accident that sidelined his career even further. At this time RKO was wanting to produce additional Dick Tracy film’s but the public demanded Ralph Byrd be returned to the role. So after his recovery, Ralph returned to play the famous detective on the big screen in Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (with Boris Karloff), both released in 1947. Quite different in tone from the Dick Tracy serials, this version of the crime fighter featured his battle against urban crime through dogged police work.
1947 also saw the release of Byrd’s final serial, Columbia’s The Vigilante. Produced by Sam Katzman (who also worked with Ralph on Blake of Scotland Yard), The Vigilante was one of the best of the late 1940’s serials with a good plot, strong case and skilled action scenes. Byrd played cowboy Greg Saunders who posed as the masked “Vigilante” to fight crime and behaved like an outgoing self-satisfied Hollywood actor to conceal his identity. (Much like Batman and Iron Man of today). The role allowed Byrd to relax his usual seriousness and take part in more comedy and sing a couple of Western songs.
After 1947, Byrd’s career began to tumble. He continued to play lead roles in low budge films and bits in larger movies his fame began to slide as he struggled to succeed outside of the Dick Tracy role he had become typecast to. When ABC launched the new Dick Tracy TV series in 1950, Ralph was an obvious choice to play the lead. ABC at the time was cash-strapped, struggling in last place and episodes were shot on a shoe-string budget as fast and as cheap as possible. ABC cancelled the series in 1951 but it made the shift to syndication for the following season and began producing additional episodes. The series came to an abrupt end when Ralph died of a heart attack on August 18, 1952 at the age of 43.
Ralph Byrd was survived by his wife of 16 years, actress Virginia Carroll (1913-2009) and a daughter, Carol Byrd. While many serial heroes have projected little personality, Ralph always had personality to spare. Determined, yet charming and personable, his characters always held center stage and his role as Dick Tracy will always be the role on which he gave us, the film watching public, his greatest gift.