By Ivan G Shreve Jr
Thomas Charles Sanders was born in 1904 to English parents in St. Petersburg, Russia. Old-time radio fans, of course, know him as Tom Conway, and know that he played two famous detectives on the airwaves. He was Arthur Conan Doyle’s titular sleuth in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from 1946 to 1947, and later replaced Vincent Price as Leslie Charteris’ Simon Templar on The Adventures in the Saint in 1951. Conway just seemed to gravitate toward detective roles; he was also The Falcon on the big screen and Inspector Mark Saber on the small (but, we’ll get to his work in film and on television in a bit).
Tom’s family moved back to England at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and he received an education at Bedales School and Brighton College. A series of odd jobs followed, including time as a ranch hand; Conway didn’t seem to know what he wanted to do in life until his younger brother George had tasted success as an actor. Tom decided to try his luck in the acting profession and started performing with a Manchester repertory company. He moved to the United States in 1940, and upon arriving in Hollywood received much support from his sibling, who was under contract to RKO (appearing in a film series in which he played Simon Templar). In fact, George was already getting rave notices for performances in two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers released that year: Foreign Correspondent and Best Picture Oscar-winner Rebecca.
Tom found much work at the MGM studio, appearing in such features as The People vs. Dr. Kildare and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure. At RKO, brother George had just started starring in another detective film series—this one based on Michael Arlen’s The Falcon. After George had completed three of these films, he began to tire of playing B-picture leads, so he suggested that his brother Tom take over the role. The studio arranged for him to do just that in a clever outing entitled The Falcon’s Brother (1942): Sanders’ character of Gay Lawrence finds himself incapacitated in the course of the plot to break up an Axis spy ring, and brother Tom Lawrence (Conway) is brought in to help out. From that point on, Tom Conway was The Falcon in nine additional entries, ending with The Falcon’s Adventure in 1946.
Classic movie fans fondly remember Tom Conway for his Falcon vehicles, but he might have established more vintage film cred for appearing in three of the B-horror films produced by Val Lewton at RKO: Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. In People and Victim, Tom is Dr. Louis Judd—a curious thing indeed, considering Dr. Judd draws his rations in the first picture (the speculation has always been that the events in Victim took place before People). Conway’s career rarely ventured beyond B-pictures, however: his non-Falcon films at that time included A Night of Adventure, Two O’Clock Courage, Lost Honeymoon, Repeat Performance and One Touch of Venus.
Tom Conway’s wonderfully resonant voice and precise diction made him a natural for radio: he had previously guested on such series as The Gulf Screen Guild Theatre and The Old Gold Comedy Theatre, but in the fall of 1946 he took over the role of master detective Sherlock Holmes from Basil Rathbone on ABC’s The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone had tired of playing Holmes both on radio and in the movies (the last of the Universal Holmes films was released in 1946), and expressed an interest in returning to the stage. So, Conway got the nod to play Holmes to Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson. Audiences, however, weren’t particularly receptive to Tom in the role, and in the following season he was replaced by John Shirley.
When Vincent Price left The Adventures of the Saint in May of 1951, Conway was brought in to replace him until the show’s cancellation in October of that same year. Working on these two shows put Tom in very good stead as a vocal actor—he went on to narrate Walt Disney’s feature film Peter Pan in 1953, and later voiced the part of a heroic collie in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians in 1961. But in 1951, Conway was ready to tackle television—and he did in a big way, as the star of ABC-TV’s Inspector Mark Saber: Homicide Squad (a.k.a. Mystery Theater) from October 1951 to June 1954. The actor was also guest star on such hit shows as Cheyenne, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the classic “The Glass Eye”), Have Gun – Will Travel and Perry Mason.
Tom Conway’s final feature film appearance was an uncredited part in 1964’s What a Way to Go! The title seems quite prophetic, because, in the last years of his life, he spent much time in various hospitals; he had a serious problem with alcohol (which caused a rift between him and his brother) and made headlines in 1965 when a reporter found him eking out an existence in a Venice, California flophouse. His hospitalizations continued, and he finally succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver in April 1967 at the age of 62. (Sadly, brother George—a major motion picture star and winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1950’s All About Eve—would commit suicide five years later.)
Copyright 2013 Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.