‘Dragnet’ set stage for genre

Ben Alexander

Today’s crime show producers say Jack Webb was more than maestro of monotone

By R.D. Heldenfels
Beacon Journal television writer

March 16, 1997


Five actors co-starred with Webb in ‘Dragnet’

Dragnet premiered on the radio on June 3, 1949, with Jack Webb as Joe Friday and Barton Yarborough as his partner Ben Romero.

The series added telecasts with a special presentation in 1951 and weekly telecasts beginning early in 1952. Yarborough continued as Romero but died suddenly of a heart attack — prompting Webb to have Romero’s death written into the show. Barney Phillips played Friday’s new partner, Ed Jacobs, and then Herb Ellis as Frank Smith joined Webb for the rest of 1952. Ellis was succeeded by Ben Alexander as Smith until the show ended its first run in 1959.

Dragnet was heard on radio and seen on TV on different nights until the radio show ended in 1956. There was also a big-screen movie of Dragnet in 1954.

The series returned to television in January 1967 after a Dragnet TV movie made in 1966 was well-received. This time, Friday teamed with Bill Gannon, played by Harry Morgan, because Ben Alexander was tied up with another series, Felony Squad. The new series ran until 1970.

Sources: Filmfax magazine, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, The Smithsonian Collection: Old Time Radio Detectives and Crime Fighters.

TV has more crime shows than you can shake a billy club at. Feds and Prince Street, Law & Order and NYPD Blue, New York Undercover and EZ Streets, Profiler and Millennium and Homicide: Life on the Street.

But in considering such shows, remember the words of producer Dick Wolf: “If you don’t recognize Jack Webb’s contribution, you’ve got to be out of your mind.”

Dragnet, the weekly half-hour drama that Webb oversaw, “is the father of us all,” said Wolf.

People think they know Jack Webb because they know Joe Friday, the somber Los Angeles police detective he played on Dragnet in radio, TV and the movies over four decades.

So deeply ingrained are the image and the voice, Dan Aykroyd revived the Joe Friday style for a Dragnet comedy 17 years after the show left prime time — and it was still familiar. Now, 27 years after Dragnet ended, and 14 years after Webb’s death, you can still see his computerized image in commercials.

But Joe Friday wasn’t Jack Webb. The TV detective, Webb once said, had “no personal side at all.” Webb loved jazz, strong drink and beautiful women, with three divorces to show for it.

He could be like “a grumpy old football coach,” actor and friend Mark Harmon once said. At the same time, he is remembered for acts of great kindness. Harmon and producer Aaron Spelling are among those who credit Webb with starting their careers.

Like Orson Welles — to whom Webb has sometimes been compared — Webb’s reputation may have suffered from his public recognition. Welles came to be known as a commercial pitchman more than as the director of Citizen Kane. Webb was known as Joe Friday, when he was also the ground-breaking producer and director who brought Dragnet to TV week after week.
Webb admired by many
In the TV industry, Law & Order’s Dick Wolf is one of many Webb admirers. Steven Bochco, the writer-producer behind Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, and Stephen J. Cannell, writer-producer for The Rockford Files and other series, have noted their debt to Webb. Cannell also got an early break writing for the Dragnet spinoff Adam-12, which aired from 1968-75 on NBC.

And Adam-12 helped inspire producer-director Steven Spielberg’s High Incident series. “I always loved Adam-12, ” he said. “I thought that was a cool show.”

Cooler still was Dragnet. With its dum-de-dum-dum theme, catch phrases and jargon, its deadpan detectives walking through a world of eccentrics and criminals, Dragnet hit radio in 1949 and TV in 1952, spending 7 seasons on the small screen and returning for 3 more in 1967.

For four seasons it was the most popular drama on TV, finally surrendering the title to Gunsmoke, which one critic had called “Dragnet- on-the-range.” And in its early years Dragnet was acclaimed by critics and won major awards, including three successive Emmys for best mystery series.

“I think people really forget,” said Spelling. “It was not only a popular show, it was good.”

The show’s success was not Webb’s alone. He credited his inspiration for Dragnet to a Los Angeles police detective named Marty Wynn, who told Webb someone should make a show about real police work — and police case files were available to whoever did.

The crime film He Walked by Night, in which Webb had a small role, is seen by some critics as setting the tone for Dragnet. Writers such as James Moser made essential contributions to the series, and the stock company of radio-trained character actors were crucial to making it work.

But the driving, and often driven, force behind Dragnet was Webb, the poor, sickly kid born in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1920, who before Dragnet seemed on track for minor success in radio or as a movie actor.
Webb played villains, too
Even as Dragnet was beginning to make him a public hero, Webb was playing villains in movies such as Dark City and Appointment With Danger, the latter including a scene where he beats to death his ’60s Dragnet co-star, Harry Morgan.

Morgan, later known as Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H, said of Webb the actor, “I thought he was pretty good.

“You couldn’t really tell from Dragnet, and over the years he didn’t do all that much. But like in Sunset Boulevard, or that thing he did with Brando (The Men), and the thing he directed about the Marines — The D.I. — I thought he was terrific.”

But Webb had also been studying how movies and radio were made, preparing for a day when he would have his own show. And when Dragnet was born, Webb took any flair out of Friday to move Dragnet from conventional radio melodrama toward realism.

In the first telecast of Dragnet, the police have 26 real minutes — just about the length of the show — to prevent a bombing. Another episode not only includes an interrogation scene as breathtaking as those in Homicide: Life on the Street, but a sly jab at movie cops, shown to be as absurd as Dragnet’s are meant to be real. The near-monotone of dialogue, on radio and TV, focuses the audience on the details of the story rather than the flash of the storyteller.

At the same time, Dragnet’s oft-stated claim of realism is misleading. It had authenticity, down to the use of real policemen’s cigarette butts. At the same time, Dragnet had its own, artificial style, both visually and verbally, once summed up as “clipped dialogue, large close-ups and a semi-documentary presentation.” Though much parodied, the style suited Webb and he stuck with it.

Unfortunately, Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link have cited Dragnet as an example of “the eventual feeling that enough is enough. … What was originally a fresh and inventive style of storytelling became, through endless repetition, virtual self-parody.” The ’60s Dragnet, when it aired on Nick at Nite into the mid-’90s, was treated as campy humor.
Weekly themes timely
Still, the series worked, often as a downbeat social drama. Even in the ’50s, Dragnet had episodes about pornography in schools, drug abuse and child molestation. Joe Friday was sometimes the only protector people had, and there were times he failed.

In one ’50s Dragnet, Friday arrives at the scene of a just-concluded shootout between a crook, now dead, and a wounded police officer. Through idle chat with Friday, we learn the officer’s been on the job four years and wants to be a detective, that he has a wife, and they’ve moved into a new home. The officer can’t remember his new phone number, so Friday searches for it in the officer’s wallet. Still talking, he finds the card — only to see the policeman we’ve come to know has died during Friday’s search.

In these violence-conscious times, it’s also worth remembering Dragnet was seen as relatively peaceful.

“I’ve been on the job for 12 years,” Friday says in a 1968 episode. “In that time, I’ve drawn my gun eight times and I’ve fired it twice.”
Even more important, whether dealing with violence or drugs or other ills of society, was that Dragnet showed the consequences of its characters’ actions.

Webb could be ruthlessly efficient — some Dragnet episodes were shot, start to finish, in less than two days — but he delivered a good product.

But before his death from a heart attack in 1982, he had become frustrated that his kind of show no longer seemed sellable.

Series like Police Story and Hill Street Blues stressed realism as Dragnet had, but they went deeper into their cops’ personal demons. Webb acknowledged problems but generally supported a positive image for the police.

Still, crime shows since Dragnet have been able to put their cops on their mean streets because Joe Friday had walked there ahead of them.

Episodes of Dragnet from the ’50s air at 9:30 a.m. Friday and 1:30 a.m. on WAOH (Channel 29), and can be found on home video. The ’60s Dragnets are also on home video in a “collector’s edition” series available through the Columbia House mail-order service.


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