Plus, he played DC’s original Vigilante, too!
By PETER BOSCH
Where could you find Zorro, Batman and Dick Tracy together in one film scene? Well, nowhere, actually, but you could find the three actors who played them together in an early cantina sequence in the 1940 swashbuckler The Mark of Zorro. Tyrone Power as Don Diego de la Vega tells his friends Robert Lowery (Batman in the 1949 serial, Batman and Robin) and Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy in multiple serials, movies, and a TV series) that he is leaving for California.
The last of these actors, Ralph Byrd, was born April 22, 1909, in Dayton, Ohio. By the time he played Tracy for the first time in 1937, he had already been in approximately 20 films (in mostly uncredited roles). However, when he signed on for the Dick Tracy serial, he couldn’t possibly have known how many times he would play the comic strip character again.
Republic brought him back for three followup serials: Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939) and Dick Tracy Vs. Crime, Inc. (1941).
And, then, after six years he returned to the role for a pair of RKO movies, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947) and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). (Morgan Conway had starred in two previous Dick Tracy movies but the public wanted Byrd.)
While Byrd did get acting work in many other films, most were small parts and often he still would not get his name in the credits. Dick Tracy was the one part he could get credit for on a regular basis.
Byrd did star in a few other serials, one of which is probably the least-remembered chapter play that features a DC comic book hero. The Vigilante: Fighting Hero of the West was a 1947 serial in 15 parts from Columbia Pictures, with Byrd as Greg Sanders and as the title character.
In 1950, he returned to playing Tracy in an ABC television series, but the filming of the program was hard work and the long hours were strenuous. He died of a heart attack on August 18, 1952. Ralph Byrd was only 43 years old.
— CLIFFHANGER! Get Ready for the Ultimate Guide to the Classic Superhero Serials. Click here.
— CAPTAIN MARVEL: The World’s Mightiest Superhero Serial. Click here.
13th Dimension contributor-at-large PETER BOSCH’s first book, American TV Comic Books: 1940s-1980s – From the Small Screen to the Printed Page, has just been published by TwoMorrows. He has written articles and conducted celebrity interviews for various magazines and newspapers. Peter lives in Hollywood.