Being identified with a specific character can be a two edged sword. On the one hand it can make an actor a star that he can parlay into a long and steady career; like Buster Crabbe who used his identification with Flash Gordon to play an almost endless string of heroes in serials, B westerns, and TV shows; or it can constrain an actor into only being accepted in that one role; such as George Reeves who found he couldn’t get work after playing Superman on TV. Actor Ralph Byrd falls somewhere in the middle, he was so identified with the character of Dick Tracy that he had difficulty getting other starring roles yet continued to work as a supporting player in B movies and bit parts in A productions.
Byrd started out on the stage in the thirties before trying his luck in Hollywood. After a small role in the Astaire/ Rogers musical “Swing Time” (1936) (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), Byrd made his first serial, for Sam Katzman’s Victory Pictures, “Blake of Scotland Yard” (1937) as an inventor of a death ray who helps the title character track it down after it is stolen by The Scorpion (no relation to the masked menace of the same name in “Adventures of Captain Marvel” (1941)). Byrd’s energetic and breezy performance brought him to the attention of Republic Pictures, who was casting for the title role in “Dick Tracy” (1937), not to mention his startling resemblance to the early drawings of the character, strong chin and long thin nose.
His interpretation of affable regular guy mixed with a brisk and business like demeanor when it came to fighting the masked menace of The Lame One and his own surgically altered brother made Byrd a star and he would become beloved of children everywhere, but also always be thought of as Dick Tracy. Byrd was signed to a contract and followed up his Republic debut with “S.O.S. Coastguard” (1937) as a Coast Guard officer battling horror icon Bela Lugosi. Byrd finished out the year filling in for an injured Bob Livingston in the Three Mesquiteers western “The Trigger Trio” (1937).
Though Republic would star Byrd in other feature films like “Down in Arkansas” (1938) and “S.O.S. Tidal Wave” (1939) it became obvious that what his fans really wanted to see him in were serials and specifically Dick Tracy serials. Byrd would make three more serials as Chester Gould’s famous crime buster; “Dick Tracy Returns” (1938) had the detective hunting down gangster Charles Middleton and his villainous brood, while “Dick Tracy’s G-Men” (1939) followed the exploits of master spy Irving Pitchel trying to destroy the country in general and Dick Tracy in particular. The final serial “Dick Tracy vs. Crime Inc.” (1941) was a return to masked menace territory as Tracy hunted an invisible villain called The Ghost, who was terrorizing a group dedicated to stopping criminal activities.
With the final Tracy serial, Byrd left Republic and became for all intents and purposes a bit player in A productions like “The Mark of Zorro” (1940), “The Son of Monte Cristo” (1941), and “Four Jills in a Jeep” (1944). But just when it looked like his career was relegated to minor supporting status, Dick Tracy returned to give his career a much needed boost.
RKO Pictures had acquired the rights to make a series of B mysteries based on Dick Tracy to compete with other detective series like Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, and the studio’s own Falcon. Wanting a fresh face, the studio cast Morgan Conway in the lead but after two films it became obvious that no matter how good Conway was in the role, what the public really wanted was Ralph Byrd. Byrd may not have jumped at the chance to reinforce his identification with the character but prospects were slim and so he accepted the role and completed the short lived series with “Dick Tracy’s Dilemma” (1947) and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome” (1947), which squared him off against another horror icon, Boris Karloff.
Fresh off the series and back in the public’s eye, Byrd again tried to break his stereotyped image, much in the same way Kirk Alyn did after making “Superman” (1948), by making another serial. This time Byrd was “The Vigilante” (1947) for Columbia, playing a singing cowboy movie star (ala Gene Autry or Roy Rogers) who is in reality an undercover government agent busting up criminal gangs as the titled character, a masked cowboy on a motorcycle.
Though it didn’t break his typecasting, it was a moderately successful serial and allowed Byrd to continue working as a supporting player in such low budget films as “Jungle Goddess” (1949) and “Radar Secret Service” (1950). It was around this time that Byrd accepted the inevitable and became a headlining star for the third time, but now on TV as he filmed 39 episodes for a syndicated version of “Dick Tracy”. Sadly this was to be his final gift to his fans when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack at the young age of 43.