Gene Barry, who died at age 90 on Wednesday, had a great voice: Deep and growly, but with a nice lilt to it when he wanted to put a playful spin on a tough-guy line. It was a voice he used to charm audiences first in the TV Western that made him a star, Bat Masterson (1958-61), then as Amos Burke, a rich guy who joined the L.A. police force in Burke’s Law (1963-66) and sped to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce. My mom had a crush on him when he starred in as a magazine tycoon in The Name of the Game (1968-71). His biggest movie role by far was in 1953’s George Pal version of War of the Worlds. And Barry carved out a career as a Broadway leading-man, winning particular praise for his turn as Georges in La Cage Aux Folles, and worked up a solid nightclub act in which his voice was used to sing rumbling versions of pop standards.
But it’s for his early TV days that he’ll probably be best-remembered. Bat Masterson was an unusual hero at the height of the Western’s television popularity, because he wasn’t a dusty, drawling hero in the manner of James Arness in Gunsmoke or Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive. Based on a real-life figure, Masterson was usually dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, vest, and derby hat. He didn’t bother, most of the time, with a gun — he had a gold-tipped cane to twirl and wield in a fight. Bat Masterson also featured one of the most memorable TV theme songs, which, in the manner of the era, told you everything you needed to know about the character in its lyrics:
If Barry’s Bat was a tough dandy, the actor’s move to contemporary, urban shows was a logical move. He was born to play a wealthy man with a curiosity about crime in Burke’s Law, an early Aaron Spelling production with all the Spelling trademarks: a handsome leading man, a bevy of attractive women, and a crime that could be solved within an hour with room for a chuckling final-scene fade-out.
No matter what role he took, Barry radiated crisp energy and sharp acuity — you never felt this was a man at a loss for the right word or the proper degree of charm. As a gentleman adventurer, he was hard to beat.
Barry’s cause of death has not yet been revealed.