John Hodiak: From Hamtramck to Hollywood

Publicity photo of John Hodiak from the 1952 movie The Sellout
Radio and film actor John Hodiak in The Sellout (1952)

It was the church plays, the high school dramas and John Hodiak's eagerness to spout speeches that got him hipped on the radio acting idea which finally paid off way out in Hollywood. Hodie had worked up such an oratorical rep around Hamtramck that when a campaigning candidate for Michigan's governorship hit Hamtramck, he stumped the place for him and got votes galore.

"When I'm elected, son," promised the grateful statesman, "let me know what I can do for you."

Hodie wasn't backward. He let him know all right. He was just out of high school. His dad was just out of a job. Both were out of money. He wrote the new governor. "Please (1) get my dad a job. (2) Give me a recommendation as a speaker. I want a radio job."

The gov came through, Pop got on the payroll at a Depression-stalled plant, and Hodie got a glowing build-up as the silver-tongued young orator of the century. But the program director of Detroit's biggest station was not impressed. "Let's hear you read," he sighed.

Hodie gave out with what he considered deathless oratory, but the neighborhood dialects of all the Polettis, Wojiehowiczes, Schmaltzes and Garfinkels ganged up on him. His Hamtramck accents smote the mighty radio man definitely in the wrong acoustical places.

"Take some good advice, kid," he told 18-year-old Hodie. "Go home, get a job in a factory, marry a nice girl and forget this radio acting stuff. You sound like the Melting Pot of the West going East!" His attitude was, "Go away, boy, you bother me!"

Well, it still makes John Hodiak red in the face to talk about that episode. But he's fair enough now to admit that those caustic comments were not only gospel, but exactly what stung him on to success.

But to Hodie, that radio man's bop on the ego could never be soothed until he did something about it. So he ironed out his diction by reading aloud and talking to every college-educated man at Chevrolet (where he'd gotten a $45 a week job in the meantime) until he had his vowel tones rolling right in the groove.

When another Detroit station staged a competitive audition, Hodie won it hands down. Toot de suite he wrote a very snooty letter to the program chief who'd insulted his ambitions. He enclosed the newspaper clipping announcing his audition triumph. Then he felt a lot better. He got just as snooty a note back, telling him he was probably still lousy. But it ended, "Come and see me."

That started Hodie's radio career. They sort of adopted him around the station, shoved him into this and that show in bit lines, mob murmurs and extra parts. But always at night after his regular job. Pretty soon they wanted him days, too, and the Great Decision loomed. The offer: "Put you on the studio acting staff -- salary, $35 a week." Hodie's spot: He was already making $45 at Chevrolet. So what did he do? He quit and took the radio job.

Well, even Hodie's folks couldn't understand that. Pop and Mom Hodiak and his brother and sis thought he was stark and raving. Hodie was about 21 then, and already Pop had said, "Now son, it's time you got yourself married to a nice girl You can move into the attic rooms, have scads of kids and live with us." Hodie was already a catch; he had a cushy office job at the plant with a fabulous salary. Here he was tossing away his future for $10 less! Ten dollars has always been plenty of dough in Hamtramck.

But that was the last peep of protest Hodie ever got from his folks or neighbors. Pretty soon he was on The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger shows and a celebrity in the neighborhood. Even afterwards Hodie was always a hero to the hometown folks, and many's the time Mom and Pop sent on a $5 bill they'd borrowed down the block to help over the rough spots.

Well, to tuck up a long tale, Detroit radio soon got too small for Hodie, even though he was dragging down $75 a week. He moved on to Chicago, struck it rich the first week, went broke thereafter, lived high, starved low by turns, but made a name for himself in the gang of soap operas and radio action thrillers the Windy City has always scattered out on the groaning air. Ma Perkins, Girl Alone, Mary Marlin, Wings of Destiny. His biggest break was playing Lil' Abner on the air.

When the Hamtramck homefolks heard Hodie spouting Dogpatch talk on that one, by the way, they wrote him real puzzled, "What's happened to you? You don't sound like yourself." Nobody there ever has thought of him as an actor -- just as Hodie Hodiak, the kid down the street.

Eventually, what had happened to Don Ameche and Tyrone Power and a bunch of other radio actors around Chicago happened to Hodie. It's almost routine when a guy makes good in Chicago radio that he gets a Hollywood test if he wants it -- that is, if he doesn't have bow legs and a squint.

Jack Wade in Modern Screen, February 1945

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