Over a groundbreaking 68-year career in radio, Dick Orkin was the comic genius behind “Chickenman,” the phenomenally popular serial spoof hatched at Chicago’s WCFL in the 1960s, and later some of the funniest and most memorable commercials ever heard.
Orkin died Sunday in California after suffering a stroke. He was 84.
“He had been struggling with health issues for a while and lately was on the mend, but Saturday night he had a stroke and Sunday evening he passed away,” his daughter, Lisa Orkin, wrote on Facebook. “The whole family was there at his bedside; sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters and his wife, Diane. He was an incredible father and we all feel blessed that we had him in our lives as long as we did.”
Orkin was production director at WCFL in 1967 when he created “The Adventures of Chickenman,” portraying the crime-fighting fowl (“He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!”) and his alter ego, mild-mannered shoe salesman Benton Harbor. At its height the series was syndicated to more than 1,500 stations worldwide. Orkin also produced more than 300 episodes of “The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy.”
Earlier this year Orkin marked the 50th anniversary of “Chickenman” by uploading the entire 260-episode original series on Stitcher Premium subscription podcast service. Select episodes also appear on iTunes.
Born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Orkin began his radio career at age 16 as a fill-in announcer at WKOK in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Franklin & Marshall College and attended the Yale School of Drama before returning to Pennsylvania as news director at WLAN in Lancaster. From the staff of KYW in Cleveland he was recruited by a former boss, Ken Draper, then program director of WCFL, to come to Chicago.
“I recognized very quickly that Draper had assembled a great group,” Orkin told Rick Kaempfer in 2012. “It was a great station for talent; Jim Runyon, Barney Pip, Jim Stagg, Ron Britain.”
Recalled Orkin: “The origin of Chickenman was the direct result of the popularity of the television show ‘Batman.’ It was huge. It was camp. It was fun. Draper decided that each of the DJs should choose a campy superhero mascot, and for the Jim Runyon show, we came up with Chickenman. I sort of based the character on the Broderick Crawford sheriff character–that sort of straight, know it all delivery of his. It seemed like a fun thing to parody. It began with that. I wasn’t thinking about a chicken.”
Orkin went on to form his own radio production company in Hollywood, Dick Orkin’s Radio Ranch, producing hundreds of award-winning ads in his trademark deadpan style. “Stan Freberg and Bob & Ray pointed me in the direction that advertising could be even more creative and entertaining than radio programming,” he told me in 1982. “I don’t have any fault with the notion of commercialism; I find fault with the lack of creativity in selling.”
He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014. He also was enshrined in the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the Illinois Broadcasters Hall of Fame, the Pennsylvania Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Radio Advertising Bureau Hall of Fame.
Services for Orkin will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills Memorial Park in Los Angeles.