Jack, Be Nimble!

from Time magazine, March 15, 1954
The stucco and chicken-wire cliffs of Hollywood success are alluring from afar, but the pilgrims who cling to the steeps find them treacherous, lonely and slippery as glass. A fearful few on the higher ledges kick savagely at those who struggle near; the weary majority simply hang on, motionless as skewered lepidoptera. Climbers tumble off daily into a shadowed limbo below, to live out gray lives without Cadillacs, swimming pools or cell space in the brain of Louella 0. Parsons. But television’s Jack Randolph Webb, 33, has never faltered or looked down; he has gone up, up, up, limber as an Indian brave.


Hollywood has seldom seen such a climber. Only eight years ago, Jack Webb was an unknown news announcer in a San Francisco radio station. Only six years ago he was a “starving” motion picture bit-player. But even then, he was seeking compulsively for handholds, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the heights. No ledge was too narrow, no couloir too deep to halt him. The traveling companions who could not keep up he left behind. Some grabbed for his ankles or coattails. He shook them off. He bounded up to fame almost overnight as Sergeant Joe Friday, the quiet, dark-haired, jug-eared hero of Dragnet (NBC, Thurs. 9 p.m. E.S.T.). He still climbs feverishly on.

Last month, Webb moved his old gun collection, his $135 sports jackets, his portable typewriter and Dudley, his bassett hound, into a $100,000 ultramodern two-bar house, high in Beverly Hills’ celebrity-studded Coldwater Canyon. Last week he had the house up for sale. In his intense and single-minded haste to go on conquering Hollywood, he has not even found time to use his swimming pool. “Jack,” says Stanley Meyer, the protocol-conscious business manager of Webb’s Mark VII Productions, “would live in one room with a cot and a movie projector, if you’d let him.”

Passion for Work.
Webb covets money, but except for Cadillacs (he is on his fifth, a cream-colored convertible with blue upholstery) he gets little personal pleasure from it. He is a warm, sympathetic and basically modest man. He fervently admires talent in others. But fellow toilers who do not share his perfectionism and his passion for work fill him with injured bewilderment and anger: he reacts to any threat against complete artistic control of his work with the ferocity of a Boer trekker defending his oxen against the howling blacks.

Unlike his creature, Sergeant Friday, Webb can roar with laughter and talk with vast intensity and enthusiasm. He attracts all sorts of people. But he has few friends, almost no social life and is seldom seen in Hollywood nightspots. Nothing but an ailing script can keep him from sleeping nine hours a night, and he is hard at work every morning at 8 o’clock. In his spare time he stares at motion pictures, often “stopping them and backing them up” to engage in rapt inspection of every last optical effect and lap dissolve. In five years he has read only one book (The Caine Mutiny), but few films, good, bad or indifferent, have escaped his coldly appraising eye.

Who’s Holmes?
In the 116 weeks since the first 26-minute, 25-second Dragnet film (The Human Bomb) was flashed on the nation’s television screens, Jack Webb has made Joe Friday one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time. Sherlock Holmes himself never captured the instantaneous interest of so many millions of people, and in comparison, such latter-day sleuths as Philo Vance and Sam Spade are only shadowy figures in the public mind. Dragnet’s most recent Nielsen rating (6o.6) indicates that 16,332,000 of the more than 27 million U.S. television set owners are tuned to NBC every Thursday night by the time Webb speaks his terse introductory line: “My name’s Friday.”

Of all U.S. television shows, only I Love Lucy can challenge Dragnet’s popularity. Last week, as they have for months, the two programs were in a seesaw battle in which first one, then the other, was temporarily ahead. Old Dragnet shows, which are rerun as Badge 714 on 126 television stations, pull more viewers (their ARB ratings run from a low of 8 in San Diego to a high of 54.6 in Norfolk, Va.) than many a first-run show, and Dragnet is still a radio attraction on Tuesday night.

The show’s top rating, however, is an inadequate gauge of the spell which Webb has cast over the U.S. people, both young and old. There is hardly a child above the age of four who does not know and constantly voice the brassy notes (dum du dum dum) of Dragnet’s theme music. Phonograph records (St. George & the Dragonet, Little Blue Riding Hood, Christmas Dragnet) which parody Dragnet’s terse, low-keyed dialogue have sold 1,326,000 copies, and Sergeant Friday’s calm “All we want are the facts, ma’am” has become a conversation staple. But millions who laugh at Dragnet jokes are spirited back weekly into a mood of serious intentness by the program itself.

The flood of Dragnet fan mail suggests that the U.S. completely forgets that it is a nation of incipient cop haters when its eyes are glued on Webb’s show; that it has gained a new appreciation of the underpaid, long-suffering ordinary policeman, and in many cases its first rudimentary understanding of real-life law enforcement. As Sergeant Friday – a decent, harassed. hard-working fellow – Jack Webb is such a convincingly realistic detective that many a cop has written in to ask if he is not a genuine member of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Slice of Life.
Dragnet’s realism is simply a byproduct of Webb’s lust to entertain. As director, story editor. casting chief and star of the show, he purposely refrains from dramatic artifice, and thus achieves a different kind of dramatic effect. Seldom has the slice-of-life technique of storytelling been so successfully transmitted to film. Dragnet is not a whodunit at all, and both murder and the sound of gunfire are rare on its shows. Webb sometimes produces truly frightening effects (as in The Big Jump, a film in which he struggles with a madman on a high building ledge), but in the most low-keyed of his stories he still lures the viewer by making the television screen a sort of peephole into a grim new world.

The bums, priests, con men, whining housewives, burglars, waitresses, children and bewildered ordinary citizens who people Dragnet seem as sorrowfully genuine as old pistols in a hockshop window. By using them to dramatize real cases from the Los Angeles police files – and by viewing them with a compassion totally absent in most fictional tales of private eyes – Webb has been able to utilize many difficult themes (dope addiction, sex perversion) with scarcely a murmur of protest from his huge public.

He has not found it easy to cash in on this vast and uncritical acceptance. NBC, which he now hates as the captive Grecian maiden hated the mustachioed Turk, refuses to pay more than a niggling $28,000 a program, although the network extracts a total of $3,000,000 annually from the show’s sponsors (biggest contributor: Chesterfield). A few months ago, however, Webb finally found a way out of this financial dilemma; to the Music Corp. of America last year he sold the rights to 100 completed Dragnets and to 95 more which will be filmed in the future. The price: approximately $5,000,000. Webb gets half.

Poverty & Slime.
Jack Webb’s present fame and financial independence are in triumphant contrast to a boyhood which he likes to say was spent in “poverty and slime.” His mother, Idaho-born Mrs. Maggie Smith Webb, was divorced shortly after he was born. She took the baby and her mother to California – first to San Francisco, and then, as her money dwindled, to a shabby apartment in Los Angeles. They had a bitter struggle. Jack nearly died of pneumonia when he was four. Afterward he suffered with asthma so racking that Maggie or Gram often had to carry him pickaback upstairs.

Homely, weak, forbidden to play with more robust children, often left alone while the two women worked, he developed his own kind of compensation. “Anytime I looked out the window,” his mother recalls, “my boy was looking in the trash cans. He was always searching for something, but he didn’t know what. He used to say, ‘But Maggie, there might be something down there.’ ”
His groping, tireless search did not stop as he grew older and stronger. The Webbs were on relief in the 1930s; Jack tramped forth daily with a brown paper bag to collect the wilted carrots and beets that were handed out through public agencies. But at Los Angeles Belmont High School he edged into amateur dramatics, drew cartoons for the school yearbook, and as a senior beat out the football captain to become president of the student body.

Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill.
World War II intensified his hunger for expression, fame, applause and riches. In 1943, after four years of clerking in a men’s clothing store, he joined the Army Air Force as an aviation cadet. At Minnesota’s St. John’s University, where he took preliminary training, he wrote, produced and acted in two U.S.O. variety shows which convulsed the uncritical birdmen-to-be. He went on to Tulare and Taft, Calif., but was a clumsy pilot. He soloed but was washed out during primary training (although he sometimes claims, in moments of imaginative reminiscence, to have flown B-26 bombers) and found himself a buck private running a typewriter at Del Rio, Texas.

Frustrated, impatient, sick of the Army, he got a dependency discharge. Early in 1945, he headed for San Francisco. sniffing opportunity. The United Nations’ Conference was just beginning, and radio stations, gripped by a wartime shortage of talent, were starved for announcers. Webb landed a temporary job at station KGO, the San Francisco outlet of the American Broadcasting Co. He went through the station like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up information.

Day after day, he hung over the delighted engineers asking endless questions about the mysteries of sound, about mike placement, about the volume indicator. He practiced tirelessly to modulate his voice; he haunted the continuity department and the record library. He studied sound effects. Within a few months, with the help of a lean ABC staff writer named Jim Moser, he started a weekly show of his own called One Out of Seven. Webb (who got $8 extra pay) was the cast: he dramatized the big news story of the week by standing before three microphones and doing his best to imitate Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill.

Free Gardenias.
Webb’s colleagues referred to him as the “man with a hundred voices – all alike.” Unabashed, he talked KGO into letting him do a comedy show, lured-in audiences by getting a florist to donate free gardenias. “Did you call me, doctor?” he would cry. “No, I called you nurse, nurse!” In the midst of these frenetic endeavors, fortune smiled on him: a round-faced, voluble Irishman named Dick Breen joined the staff as a writer-producer.

Webb was impressed; Breen, just out of the Navy, had worked in New York. Breen was impressed, too. “Jack,” he recalls, “behaved as if he had a Hooper rating of 28 and was in direct competition with Jack Benny.” Breen moved into Webb’s $30-a-month room. A little later KGO was asked to fill an empty Sunday night half-hour “for a Pacific feed” (all West Coast ABC stations). Breen, who was fascinated by San Francisco’s Embarcadero, put together a hard-boiled private-eye show about waterfront crime, called it ‘Pat Novak for Hire.’ Webb was Pat Novak.

Breen assaulted his audience with sex, violence, and sounds of foghorns and lapping water. He loaded the script with similes (sample: as difficult as “sandpapering an oyster”). But as the first program began, he stood in a control booth frantically waving at Webb to underplay. The show was an instant success, and for the first time Webb knew the delights of fan mail. Pat Novak ran for 26 stirring weeks. Then Breen simultaneously quarreled with the station management and got a Hollywood offer. He quit. An hour later, Webb quit, loaded his jazz records and clothes into his 1941 Buick convertible, drove back to Los Angeles, moved into his mother’s $28-a-month apartment, and prepared to try again.

After two years in radio he was a man with a reputation. With Pat Novak in his background, he did a brisk business as a radio freelance actor. But the jobs dried up: Webb could not resist telling directors how they could improve their shows. He sought motion picture parts. But to the eternal question, “Got any film?” (any previous parts), he could only shake his head. He finally got a bit in an Eagle Lion production called Hollow Triumph. A year later he got another in a picture called He Walked by Night.

Inky-Dinks & Sink.
On motion picture lots, as he had at station KGO, Webb carried on his restless and insatiable quest for knowledge. If a sound man hastily “rolled a loop” of track as an airplane passed over (so that the intruding racket could later be dubbed into parts of the scene shot after it had disappeared), Webb asked why. He watched stage carpenters make golden oak out of cheap pine sets with yellow paint and combs. He patiently learned about studio lights (brutes, seniors, juniors and inky-dinks, in order of their size), and the tricks of lighting eyes and burning out mike shadows.

Before he ever dreamed of television triumph, he prepared for it. He tried to project himself into the nerve-racking world of the director, asked endless questions about the art of breaking master shots into closeups (never move the camera straight in, always shoot a little high or a little low, always be sure that the actor who “looks camera left” in the main scene is still doing so when his face is alone on the film). He peered at the “Moviola,” the machine film cutters use in their harried inspections. He quizzed sound men as they muttered of click tracking and sink. He remembered an axiom of motion picture musical directors: “A woman will cry even if the music is bad, but if it’s good you might make her husband cry too.”

“That’s What I Mean.”
On the set of He Walked by Night, Webb met the technical adviser, a rotund, cheerful Los Angeles detective sergeant named Marty Wynn. “It rankles every damn cop in the country when they hear those farfetched stories about crime,” Wynn said to Webb. “Why don’t you do a real story about policemen?” Wynn forgot the conversation in an hour. But three weeks later Webb arrived with Radio Producer Bill Rousseau at the Los Angeles police academy, where Wynn was taking a refresher course in criminal law and rules of evidence. Webb asked to ride on calls with Wynn and his partner, Detective Vance Brasher. They agreed.

Night after night, Webb sat in the back seat of the police Chevrolet, listening to the radio’s unemotional reports of crime and human weakness, watching every move of the two detectives. After hours, he asked for coaching. How did they frisk a suspect? How did they kick in a door? Once he told Wynn: “Talk like a cop.” The detective bristled. “We don’t talk any different than you do.” “Well,” said Webb, “what would you do if you had a suspect?” Said Wynn: “Why, I’d go down to R & I [Records and Identification] and pull the package . . .” Cried Webb: “That’s what I mean!”

Enter: Sergeant Friday.
At 8 p.m. on June 3, 1949, a red-lighted sign in NBC’s Los Angeles studio H flashed “On the Air.” Dragnet, in its first radio form, was born. CBS had turned it down because it “wasn’t enough like Sam Spade.” The show, which Webb says he created “because I was starving and I had to keep the wolf from the door,” was on the air only as a summer replacement. Webb’s weekly take was only $150. But week by week he labored for improvement; week by week his ratings rose. In little more than two years Dragnet was the most popular show on radio.

Even before that, Webb had feverishly begun planning for the big jump to television. NBC, fearful of film, insisted that the show be done live and in New York. Webb refused. Finally, the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co. stepped in, pressured the network into agreement. NBC shelled out $38,000 for a pilot film, The Human Bomb, a real-life thriller about a madman who threatened to blow up the Los Angeles city hall to get his brother out of jail.
Webb had no sets, no camera crew, and could only hope he would be able to cast, direct and edit a motion picture. He briskly talked the police force into letting him shoot his scenes in their offices. Early on the morning of Columbus Day, 1951, while a rented Mitchell camera followed him (low side shot from a high hat) and off-duty cops held back spectators, Webb hurried across Los Angeles’ Spring Street and up the steps of the city hall. Halfway to the top he hesitated, turned toward the camera, flipped away a cigarette, looked at his wristwatch, and then hurried on into the building. Sergeant Friday had taken his first steps on film.

Realism & Quality.
Webb shot his first picture in two long days. When he looked at it he began realizing with growing horror that it would be seen by armies of viewers on ten-inch television screens. He spent two extra days of shooting to achieve an effect which has become one of his trademarks: in every possible situation he told his story with closeups. The Human Bomb was a smash hit – with his sponsors, the critics and the public. In the 2 years since – years of increasing success and acceptance – Webb has achieved near miracles in combining speed and cheap operation, with realism and the look of quality.

As a director, he is forced to work at a pace and in a catch-as-catch-can manner reminiscent of the early days of silent pictures. Where major studios do well to dub sound on one 1,000-ft. reel of film in one day, Dragnet must finish three reels in a half-day. But Webb refuses to surrender his almost fantastic insistence on accuracy of detail in backgrounds, dialogue and mannerisms.

Dragnet’s sets exactly simulate the offices at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. The very calendars are the same. The telephones bear the same extension numbers. Even the old-fashioned doorknobs are perfect duplicates – although it was necessary to make castings of the knobs at City Hall and have the copies struck off from them. Webb has striven for the same feel of realism in casting. He forbids makeup, shuns rehearsal, and from the beginning has relied largely on radio actors, “because they’ve all learned to act with their voices.” The most notable exception is pink-faced, chunky Ben Alexander, 42, who plays Webb’s partner, Detective Frank Smith. Alexander, a former child movie actor (All Quiet on the Western Front) who wisely invested his money and now owns a motel and several service stations, plays on Dragnet mostly as a diversion, has come to be one of Webb’s few intimate friends.

The Breakage.
Since Dragnet began, Webb has produced the equivalent of 35 full-length motion pictures – more than the output of many a major studio. For months, recently driving for extra time he turned out two films and two taped radio shows a week. But he has not accomplished these prodigies of production without breakage. His marriage to former actress Julie London – whom he courted during his San Francisco radio days – went on the rocks last year. Once Dragnet began, Webb had seen less and less of her and their two daughters, Stacey, 4, and Liza, 16 months. “All of a sudden Jack and I couldn’t even sit down at the kitchen table and eat a sandwich together,” Julie says. “We were lost.”

There has been attrition too, in the ranks of colleagues who have not matched Webb’s blazing pace, or satisfied his demand for creative contribution. Radio Director Rousseau was one of the first of the bodies to fall along the trail. He gave part of his time to other shows. Once Dragnet forged ahead, he was discarded.

Webb’s agent, George Rosenberg, originally held title to Dragnet. Webb grew to regard him as a veritable kidnaper, but Webb did more than fume. An ex-furrier named Mike Meshekoff handled the Dragnet account for Rosenberg. Meshekoff talked his boss into putting the NBC contracts in Webb’s name, and in return Webb gave Meshekoff a quarter interest in the show. “I got a letter from Webb,” says Rosenberg, “and what the hell do you think it said? Webb was discharging me!” Last January, in turn, Webb and his new business manager, Stanley Meyer (a man who appears among the sports coats of Hollywood in black suits, black ties, black socks, black shoes and, at times, with a furled black umbrella), ousted Meshekoff . Recently they put such restrictions on Jim Moser, longtime Dragnet writer and old pal, “who was just getting played out,” that he left the program, too.

Places to Go.
Webb talks of his marriage with puzzled regret. But he has no apologies for shaking off those he felt were not sufficiently fleet of foot (Rosenberg, who sued him for $300,000, gets $625 a week from Dragnet; Meshekoff ended up with more than a million dollars from the M.C.A. sale). “Hollywood,” Webb says bitterly, “is full of guys who are expert at riding on your back and putting their hands in your pocket. What the hell have they done since they left me? You just show me their track records. All these suits we’ve settled out of court. But you wait. The next one, I’m going to fight it till I die. Some of these money men tell me they create, too. They don’t create as much as the worst bit actor in the show. But we’ve got people who do . . . people with pride . . . We’re ready to go.”

Webb is full of furious ideas on places to go. Last week writer Dick Breen was back in the fold, collaborating with him on a full-length Dragnet motion picture to be released by Warner Bros. Simultaneously, Webb was planning a new television program called Pete Kelley’s Blues – a show in which he plans to play a Prohibition-era cornet player, and combine tales of crime, the nostalgia of the ’20s and the surging sound of hot jazz in one half-hour package. He wants to produce and direct a motion picture on the life of Jazz Immortal Bix Beiderbecke. And when television goes to color? Who knows what shifts of power between the networks and Hollywood’s picture factories might occur, what new and dazzling heights might be revealed to a man who lives to climb? Who knows (does not every climber ask it in the quiet of the night) how far a man might fall?

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