Man of Substance

updated 02/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WILLIAM CONRAD MADE NO APOLOGIES FOR his grumpy, ground-hugging presence. Joe Penny, his slender costar on CBS's Jake and the Fatman, laughs as he remembers the time he suggested that the 5'9" actor, who usually packed anywhere between 230 and 270 lbs., should go on a diet. Conrad put it to him: "Does a guy like me need a 32-inch waist? No! Look at this face! I feel sorry for a poor bastard like you. You're six fool tall. You got size 44 shoulders. Great-lookin'. You can't afford to have a cookie."

By the time Conrad died of cardiac arrest last week in Hollywood at age 73, he'd lost 70 pounds due to ill health. But his appeal was shrink-proof. "People accepted him as the gruff, rough curmudgeon. Underneath, he was just a nice man," says TV executive Fred Silverman, who cast Conrad in two top-rated CBS series, Cannon (1971-76) and Fatman (1987-92). But heft was only half his presence: His resonant, booming voice proved perfect narrating The Fugitive and Bullwinkle cartoons. "When he did the narration on Bull-winkle, he turned comedic," says June Foray, the voice of Rocky the flying squirrel. "He lost all of his great profound voice, and it became hysterical."

It was, in fact, that voice that launched the Louisville, Ky., native into show business in the '40s; by his own reckoning, his résumé included 7,500 radio jobs, including Marshal Matt Dillon on the original Gun-smoke. Later, when he finally found TV stardom, Conrad still loved mouthing off. "Cannon was crap," he groused after the show's run. "I was delighted to sec it canceled."

His bulldog snarling was far worse than his bite. He lived quietly in Los Angeles with wife Tippy, widow of NBC newsman diet Huntley. (He had a son, Christopher, 37, by first wife Susie, who died in 1979.) "Bill loved music, he loved travel, he loved food. He had many appetites," recalls Dean Hargrove, a Fatman producer. Says Tippy Conrad: "You get a guy like Bill, he simply wasn't concerned about whether he was successful or not. He just had a strong notion about what he wanted, and he went ahead and did it."

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