by Richard Warren Lewis
(from TV Guide, October 19, 1968. Sent in by television historian MICHAEL J. HAYDE, author of “My Name’s Friday: The Unauthorized but True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb”.
His midriff has visibly broadened at age 48, despite a determined daily ritual of 20 push-ups and
20 sit-ups before breakfast. Tired eyes peer from the deep hollows of a jowly face, still incongruously thatched by a youthful haircut. A recently diagnosed astigmatism requires him to utilize prescription glasses for reading scripts and referring to the large-faced Odamar Piguet wrist watch by which his manifold activities are regulated.
“I used to be able to accomplish twice as much in a given day,” admits Jack Webb, lighting a filter tip from his daily ration of three packs. “I no longer have much spiz left. Age slows me down.”
He speaks in the resonant voice at once phlegmatic and decisive, known to two decades of television viewers who often endow the documentary-coated Dragnet series with greater probity than the legitimate police agencies it glorifies. An anachronism in the age of McLuhan, Webb’s slick cops-and-robbers format has remained virtually intact since January 1952, when the initial episode wound up with the arms of a blacksmith slamming a Mark VII Ltd. die marker into a slab of softer metal.
Besides starring as dead-pan Sgt. Joe Friday. Webb produced, directed, cast, rewrote and edited most of the teleplays seen during Dragnet’s original 278- program life span in the Fifties. The three Emmys awarded the show were a tribute to his versatility as well as his reputation as an innovator. He was the first to bring to the small screen the revealing camera close-up techniques pioneered by D.W. Griffith in motion pictures.
Webb was immortalized on the cover of Time magazine and well on his way to becoming a millionaire by the time he was 33. But only six years later, he found himself facing eclipse. A desperate attempt to revitalize faltering ratings by promoting Friday to a lieutenancy failed miserably. Dragnet finally expired in 1959. Badge 714, the mythical shield worn by Friday, was respectfully buried in the cornerstone of a new Police Academy classroom building under construction in Los Angeles.
Three subsequent series produced by Webb – Noah’s Ark; Pete Kelly’s Blues; and G.E. True – did not do well. A $50,000 pilot film he created and produced wound up on the cutting-room floor. He developed a distracting peptic disorder, whose only remedy – then and now – is wholesale quantities of Alka- Seltzer kept within easy reach.
Today, 20 years after its 1949 radio debut, the posthumous edition of Dragnet exemplifies a trend reflected in various other elements of contemporary society. “Gone with the Wind” is back in the theaters. Joe DiMaggio has returned to the ball park. And the resilient Dragnet has settled into what apparently will be another lengthy tenure. Love is lovelier the second time around.
The surprising renaissance of ‘Dragnet, 1969’ – as it is now labeled – illustrates the prescience of several nostalgic executives at Universal Pictures who three years ago recommissioned Dragnet as a quick-dividend, two-hour movie for television. Impressed with the results, Universal temporarily shelved the film in favor of potentially greater profits.
The new skein of half-hour Dragnets hastily added to the NBC schedule as a midseason replacement in January 1967 offered few surprises. Story lines were streamlined to confront such contemporary issues as LSD, marijuana, and racial turbulence, but the staccato dialogue still sounded as though it belonged on the Morton Salt boxes from which Webb learned to read as a child.
Friday was demoted to the rank of sergeant and allied with a new partner, veteran straight man Harry Morgan. “Just give us the facts, ma’am” – the “Would you believe…?” of another generation – was restored to its previous status as a regular catch phrase. To accommodate a switch to color, the show’s pretentious finale was reshot. The arms of the blacksmith now were those of the protean Webb.
Forty episodes later, just before production for the fall season was ready to resume last June, he settled into a swivel chair in his three-room suite at the Universal City Studios in North Hollywood. His usual hangdog visage had lately assumed an uncanny resemblance to the physiognomy of one of his pets, a harlequin Great Dane guilelessly named Friday.
A framed color photograph of the 190-pound animal occupied a preferred position adjacent to its master’s L-shaped desk, only several yards distant from a miniature American flag. Wearing a monogrammed sport shirt and alpaca sweater, Webb leaned back and fondled the catechism of his calling — a blue-and-white ratings brochure delivered semimonthly.
“We’re 14th in the latest Nielsen book,” he exulted last spring, grinding out his cigarette in an ashtray presented to him by the U.S. Marine Corps for past accomplishments. “A couple of weeks ago we were the eighth show in the country. Ratings are like checking accounts. We’re happy to have them high and we don’t believe them when they’re low.”
For Webb, happiness meant a return to the good old days. With obvious relish, he maneuvered around the lot in an electric golf cart emblazoned with an “SGT 714” license plate, fielded phone calls on office extension 714, and offered visitors miniature replicas of Badge 714 — along with helpings of homily and hyperbole befitting his stature.
“The timing was right in putting Dragnet back on the air,” he explained. “It’s almost as if people were looking for this type of program. Judging by our ratings and our mail there must be an enormous segment of the public which believes it’s time that policemen no longer be misunderstood and maligned.”
Tangible proof was the stacks of correspondence piled near a wall decorated with Treasury Department steel engravings of the 35 American Presidents. Fittingly, the mail contained a request for a kinescope from Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military aide. The former President was eager to view a past program dealing with a group of juveniles who decided to establish their own country on an island off the Pacific Coast.
Many of the letters praised Webb for an impassioned, three-minute monologue concerning the problems facing a rookie patrolman made by Friday on one of last year’s shows. Later entitled “What Is a Cop?” the recitation was introduced into the Congressional Record by one senator and four representatives.
Mail reaction of a different nature protested the use of so-called “profanity” in the early segments of the new series. To add more realism, Webb had lapsed into such on-camera expletives as: “That’s a hell of a note!” and “It’s a damn good thing you didn’t!”
Those remarks seemed excessively graphic to more than a thousand writers of cards and letters who threatened to boycott the show if such language persisted. Four-letter words more controversial than “love” or “flag” were excised following the fifth show.
Virtually every piece of fan mail received in the offices of Mark VII Ltd., Webb’s production company, is Xeroxed and tabulated by scientific methods. The duplication does not end there. Beginning in September, NBC unveiled Adam-12 – an ostensibly new police show produced by Webb – which easily could have been dubbed Son of Dragnet.
“Television should be a medium of infinite variety,” Webb once stated during the depressing days after the original Dragnet was canceled. “Instead, it is a medium of carbon-copying. It’s much worse than it ever was in motion pictures.”
No longer the innovator, he now stands guilty of the very repetition he previously castigated. Adam-12 directs itself to the duties of two uniformed patrolmen, while Dragnet focuses on the activities of two plain-clothes detectives. That is the only discernible difference between the two.
Freckle-faced Marty Milner, formerly known for his peripatetic adventures on Route 66, plays a sardonic, eight-year veteran of the force. He shares a black-and-white squad car designated “A-12” with Kent McCord, a callow rookie patrolman blessed with a Dentyne smile and a cleft chin. Their dialogue is replete with the “Yes, ma’am”s treasured by followers of Dragnet, plus the identical underplayed repartee and revelations of off-duty lives that long have been a staple element of its progenitor.
If the public chooses not to bite the same old apples served up by Adam-12, viewers can expect to see television cross-pollination in its most calculated form. Plans are already being formulated for Milner and McCord to uncover a crime, turn it over to Webb and Morgan at the conclusion of an Adam-12 segment and force the audience to await the cliff-hanger solution, and thereby enhance the ratings on a subsequent Dragnet show.
In typical whirlwind fashion, Webb directed the Adam-12 pilot and also wrote it, using the pseudonym of John Randolph — his actual first and middle names. He claims that modesty prevented him from having “Jack Webb” flash across the screen one more time. To complete an orderly transition from the old guard to the new, Harry Morgan was dragooned to direct several of the succeeding episodes.
Since the sale of the pilot, Webb has edged into the background, content to merely make suggestions for future story developments. Instinctively, he focuses most of his attention on Dragnet — scribbling black felt-pen notations on scripts needing revision and conceiving unusual story angles.
As Webb finds it easier to delegate authority, he spends substantial hours pursuing altruistic endeavors closely related to his Dragnet image. Largely because of personal radio and television endorsements, California voters recently affirmed an otherwise obscure $25,000,000 bond issue which will provide funds for building new police stations and refurbishing existing facilities.
His unmistakable voice can be heard as often as used-car pitchmen, narrating television recruiting propaganda in behalf of the Los Angeles Police Department. During all of 1967, the L.A.P.D. was able to hire only 11 new patrolmen. In the first six months of 1968, since the blitzing of Webb’s public service messages, more than 350 rookies have joined the force.
“The voice of Jack Webb and the contributions of Dragnet have been one of the greatest assets to the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department,” said Chief Thomas Reddin at ceremonies held on the Dragnet sound stage last July. On that occasion, Reddin formally presented Webb with his original badge 714, exhumed from the cornerstone of the Police Academy classroom building.
Privately, Webb offers a practical explanation for his extracurricular endeavors. “If you can keep that publicity going and your name in the front part of the paper,” he says, “it sure helps you at the box office.”
Never known for his reticence, Webb is likely to articulate his most provocative opinions at the end of a workday. He characteristically turns down the dimmer switch in his office, closes the louvered shutters, unlocks a liquor cabinet and pours himself a glass of 80-proof rye and water. At the drop of an ice cube, he pontificates to those assembled on a multitude of subjects. Some items:
Patriotism: “Flag has become the dirtiest four-letter word in our language. Our world image has shrunk to virtually Lilliputian size because we don’t seem to voice pride in flag and country. We seem to have lost all the Cohanisms. We feel our flag is corny, and that’s why we’re in trouble.”
Violence on television: “When you look at the aggregate of one night’s television fare, it’s pretty strong, particularly as far as the young viewer is concerned. But let’s not put all the blame on the television industry. We would have a little more normalcy in our programming if many of the more violent old movies were eliminated.”
Gun-control legislation: “All weapons should be banned from sale on an interstate basis. All new gun purchases should be registered. Whatever must be done to stem the flow of weapons, we damn well ought to try it. This nation is bleeding openly and profusely from a valve it never knew it had. If nothing else, regulation will be a significant psychological aid.”
Contemporary society: “There’s a hell of a parallel between this generation and the decay of Roman civilization, the absolute crumbling of Pompeii just before they went under. The very foundations of our culture come from the very people that went under. What makes us think that we are better equipped than they were?”
That rhetorical question remains unanswered as Webb leaves his office, wistfully glancing at silver-framed photographs of the two teen-age daughters borne him by sultry singer Julie London, one of his three ex-wives. Webb has been divorced for four years, the longest matrimonial respite since his 20’s.
“What hurts most is that moment when you’re shaving by yourself, looking just at you,” he sighs, reflecting on the three incompatible marriages that cost him nearly a million dollars in alimony and financial settlements. “But it’s always nice to place them back in circulation a little better than you found them.”
Barbecued spareribs cooked by a white-jacketed Filipino manservant who once worked for the late aviatrix Amelia Earhart await Webb’s arrival at his Early American ranch-style home. He eases into a 1968 Cadillac convertible equipped with a magnetic St. Christopher’s medal blessed by the Pope.
“I’m nearing 50, I’m unmarried and my eyesight is failing,” he laments, gunning the engine. “Yet I’m not even being referred to as one of television’s elder statesmen. I fully expect that to happen within two years.”
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