(from Coronet Magazine, September 1953)
(Many thanks to Ken Lanza for sending this in.)
Mature drama and true-to-life details are hallmarks of his unique crime show
The phone jangled in one of the 12 divisional stations of the farflung Los Angeles Police Department. A weary desk officer picked it up. “Police,” he intoned.
A woman’s excited voice cried: “The neighbors upstairs are having a terrible fight! I think you’d better send Sergeant Joe Friday over right away.”
“He’s not attached to this station, lady,” said the officer, “we’ll send a-”
“I want Joe Friday ! What station is he attached to?”
activities. He got a radio job filing transcriptions for nothing a day at KEHE (now
KECA) in Los Angeles. and acted as aide to an early-morning disc jockey. This brought
Webb considerably less than his $160-a-week steel job, and he felt conscience-stricken,
having a mother and a blind grandmother to support.
The draft cleared things up. Webb was in the Army Air Force for three years, first
as a captain piloting B-26’s, then as instructor. He never got overseas and a few
months before VJ Day, in 1945, got out on a dependency discharge. In San Francisco he
corralled a stint as staff announcer on KGO, then fell into the lead on a show called
Pat Novak for Hire, portraying “a simile-spouting private eye,” and lasted for
When the writer, Richard Breen, left the show to go to Hollywood, Webb drifted
south, too. “My inherent laziness,” he says, “worked in my favor until I was about
washed up in pictures.”
Then the Dragnet idea came. Webb says he thought of it after playing his
first hit on the screen, the part of “Lt. Lee Jones” in a 1949 picture called They
Walk by Night . Ultimately he visited NBC and got them to cut a 30-minute record for
$2,000. It was accepted and went on the air. After eighteen weeks, Fatima cigarettes,
made by the makers of Chesterfield, sponsored the show, and Chesterfield took over two
years later when it began national distribution of its king-sized cigarette.
At first, the cooperation of the L.A. police was hard to get. Their closed-case
files had been used as research material for writers’ flights of fantasy where the cops
were either dumb or super-sleuths. Webb won the good will of Sgt. Marty Wynn and two
additional LAPD sponsors: Sgt. Vance Brasher and Capt. Jack Donohoe. With this trio, he
started the series.
Other mystery-and-murder melodramas are baffled by the taboos Webb has successfully
circumvented: sex perversion, child matricide, juvenile delinquency, filthy
picture-peddling, dope addicts, crooked police. One on traffic accidents had 50 prints
requested by the National Safety Council for various showings. A Christmas program,
which told of a nine-year-old boy being killed by careless handling of a .22 rifle, was
snapped up by the National Rifle Association. Others are used regularly to instruct
police trainees and, sometimes, insurance salesmen.
One program telling the story of a baby “found” in a bus station by a girl who later
proved to be its mother, brought a flood of public protest. Her husband had been
overseas with the Army two years and the child was eight weeks old. The script’s tag
line, spoken by the husband: “Take me to the hospital, I want to see my son.”
The walls and halls of the Dragnet headquarters in Hollywood are covered with
scores of unposed pictures of Webb and his partner, along with virtually every TV and
radio award in the business, plus citations from such dissimilar organizations as the
International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Elks. “No other show of the kind
has chalked up such a record,” says Webb proudly.
Shooting TV, Webb sits in a high director’s chair labeled BOOBY TRAP. “I don’t like
doubling,” he says morosely. “I’d rather just act; I’m no Orson Welles with
He is addicted to mordant remarks about others and himself. He calls his voice
“unspeakable.” On the acting of an inadequate thespian: “I’ve seen better performances
through a glass-bottomed boat.” He threatened to fire Bert Lynch, the photographer who
has been with the show from the start.
“A little late after 50 shows!” said the surprised Lynch.
“I never make snap judgments!” snapped Webb .
Only four of his original crew and cast are with him today, but all who have worked
with him boost the quality of his acting and directing. Their state of nerves, however,
can be gauged from the fact that the group drinks as much as 800 cups of coffee a
Webb rarely blows his top with actors, but does with his crew. Excuses either bore
or anger him—but a legitimate error never disturbs him. Once, the camera ceased
to function for two and a half hours before the breakdown was discovered. Webb reshot
the $1,800-hours without a murmur.
Webb ‘s insistence upon realism, which brings him awards as a TV pioneer, also
backfires. He gets dozens of traffic tickets from people who think he can “fix” them.
Shooting one show in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles, a soggy wino watched Webb
take in a suspect. “Oh, the poor man, the poor man!” he moaned, staggered in to
help—and ruined the scene.
The prime reason for Dragnet ‘s continued success—despite a record
number of imitators—lies in Webb himself. He has procured a free, limitless
source of material; and virtually his life is devoted to it. The sole time that Webb
dropped his infatuation was when his wife had her second child. The news came just as
Webb was about to finish the last two scenes of a show.
“He left right away and didn’t come back for two weeks,” says one of the crew.
Webb ‘s home life centers around two daughters—Stacy, 3 and Lisa, born last
November—offspring of a six-year marriage with Julie London, a 24-year-old film
The Webb home in suburban Encino is a 12-room early-American house. There are three
acres of ground—useful for the antics of Ben, a German police dog, and Patsy, a
Webb ‘s chief diversions at home consist of his remarkable 1,500-record jazz
collection and an ancient player piano with 200 rolls of vintage music. He has two
cars, both of them Cadillacs. His wardrobe is “mostly like that of a
cop”—consisting of slacks, three sport coats and two suits.
Webb even follows a typical cop’s diet, mostly of meat and potatoes, and hasn’t
gained or lost a pound of his 165 pounds for the last ten years. He is rarely sick:
“I’ve only been in a hospital once and that was for double pneumonia when I was five
Perhaps most symbolic of his drive are two decorations in his set dressing room.
Among the antique and modern furniture, Webb has an enormous map of the layout of the
LAPD ; and above his dressingtable is an ancient oil painting of Rudolph Valentino. His
best friends arc those associated with him in Dragnet , plus a couple of writers:
“I’ve always envied writers.”
No other figure in radio or TV has such a fanatic energy, such specialized
knowledge, and such a will to participate and supervise. Webb and Dragnet arc
probably TV’s first great love affair. And from the way they are rolling ahead today,
it will be a long time before they need to worry about any serious threat from competitors.
RICHARD G(ibson) HUBLER (1912-1981) wrote many articles for magazines such as Coronet and the Saturday Evening Post. He also wrote or co-wrote several books, including Where’s the Rest of Me: The Autobiography of Ronald Reagan; Flying Leathernecks : A Complete Record of Marine Corps Aviation in Action – 1941-1944; and The Cole Porter Story .
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