By Ivan G Shreve Jr
In hindsight, the low ebb that marked Frank Sinatra’s show business career in the early 1950s should have been interpreted as a mere blip for the entertainer affectionately known as The Chairman of the Board. From Sinatra’s perspective, however…it wasn’t looking good. The “bobby-soxer” phenomenon that had propelled him to the top of the popular music charts had come and gone, and movie wise, Frank had been reduced to appearing in poorly-received features such as Double Dynamite (1951) and Meet Danny Wilson (1952). Sinatra’s comeback performance as the tragic recruit Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953) was just around the corner (his performance would win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), but in the meantime, a man’s gotta eat. So Rocky Fortune, which premiered over NBC Radio on this date in 1953, ensured that Francis Albert’s cupboard would not be bare.
“Rocky Fortune” was the nickname of Rocco Fortunato, an aspiring private detective who operated out of New York City. While there may have been eight million stories in the Naked City back then, a large percentage of them were already being tended to by the cops…so Rocky frequently found himself looking for work outside of his chosen sleuthing profession. Fortune collected unemployment on those occasions that the Gridley Employment Agency wasn’t able throw some work his way. The agency’s temporary assignments made Rocky Fortune the Kelly girl of radio detectives.Fortune’s latest misadventure would be addressed in the opening of each weekly broadcast, with announcers like Eddie King and Ray Barrett intoning: “NBC presents Frank Sinatra starring as that footloose and fancy-free young gentleman, Rocky Fortune.” This would be Sinatra’s cue: “Did I ever tell you about the time I got mixed up in a plan to murder Santa Claus? Yeah, it all started when I answered a Christmas ad for a department store…” In his one-season career as a temp, Rocky floated from job to job as an oyster shucker (the premiere broadcast), a short-order cook in an all-night diner, and a truck driver…hired to haul nitroglycerin in a scenario clearly inspired by the 1953 film The Wages of Fear.
Radio detectives had a special knack for solving cases that were baffling to the authorities, and while some gumshoes were on good terms with the cops (see Richard Diamond and Walt Levinson) others were not. Rocky was one of the “were-nots”; his nemesis on the force was NYPD Sergeant Hamilton J. Finger, who could not be convinced that Fortune was a right guy. He knew Rocky was guilty of something and was determined to prove that his instincts were solid. Finger was played by OTR veteran Barney Phillips; Fortune also made use of the talents of such performers as Parley Baer, Georgia Ellis, Vivi Janis, Jack Kruschen, Marvin Miller, and Jan Miner, to name but a few.
Rocky Fortune was scripted by a pair of NBC staff writers, Ernest Kinoy and George Lefferts. They had distinguished themselves working on Dimension X and would later repeat their fine efforts on X-Minus One. Sinatra was particularly fond of Lefferts’ lightning-quick dialogue, which nicely captured the singer’s “ring-a-ding-ding” style. The reviews for Rocky Fortune weren’t always flattering, however. OTR historian John Dunning remarked that the show was “an undistinguished, low-budget affair. Even Sinatra sounded bored with it.” It’s a series that deserves a second look (Variety called Sinatra a “skinny Sam Spade,” which seems to me heady praise). That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting a chuckle out of this assessment: “It was sustained, so everybody came out losers except the sponsor who didn’t take it.”
Rocky Fortune was indeed sustained, and on March 30, 1954 NBC made certain that the titular hero would continue pounding the pavement for employment…just not on the network’s dime. As for Francis Albert Sinatra, he collected his Academy Award for From Here to Eternity and after that there was no other direction but up.
Copyright 2020 Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.