Jack Webb’s Dragnet Tells It Like It Is

by Peggy Hudson

(from “TV 70”, published in 1970 by Scholastic Book Services)
(Many thanks to Ken Lanza for sending this in.)

It must be doing something right.
What other TV show has been put back on the beat?

This is the city: Los Angeles.
Population: 2,479,015—some good, some evil.
One of its natives carries a badge. His name: Joe Friday. We visited him on a Tuesday.
The time: 11:06 A.M.

My partner and I had been assigned the interview detail. The Chief had briefed us. He said Dragnet had started as a radio show in 1949. Switching to television in 1952, it had become one of the medium’s all-time popular shows.

Then, eight years later, it had abruptly dropped from sight. Now, under a number of aliases—from Dragnet 1967 to Dragnet 1970—it had reappeared and resumed full-time operations. Our assignment: To learn at firsthand the program’s “MO.”

At 11:07 A.M.. we drove into the sprawling grounds of Universal City. We knew that this was Friday’s headquarters. Friday, in real life, operates under the name of Jack Webb.

As soon as we’d stepped into Webb’s reception room, we knew we were in the right place. Hanging in a big frame on one wall was a large collection of police stars, shields, and other badges from such cities as East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Troy, New York. Some have Jack Webb’s name inscribed upon them.

In a large museum case were other police memorabilia, including an ancient lock and handcuffs. Beside it, in another frame, was a fan letter simply addressed: “Dum-de-dum-dum”—and decorated with appropriate musical notes. The postman, undoubtedly a Dragnet fan himself, delivered the letter—possibly even humming the program’s theme music as he did so.

Led into Webb’s office, we found ourselves in a different world. This was no precinct station. It looked like a living room. Wall-to-wall carpeting. Easy chairs. Tall lamps. One wall was decorated with etchings of U. S. presidents. On a small table stood an American flag.

A man was in the room. Dressed in shirt sleeves and slacks, he was seated at the big desk, talking on the telephone. He wore big black horn-rimmed glasses.

Even behind the glasses, though, it was evident that this was our man. Realizing that the disguise was useless, he hung up the phone, whipped off the glasses, and stood up to shake hands.

Webb is a slight man with narrow shoulders but a powerful build. His natural expression is serious, but he smiles quickly. He graciously waved us to a seat.

We weren’t about to be put off. “We have a few questions we’d like to ask you,” we said. Webb nodded. The interrogation began.

The story you are about to read is real.
Dragnet has an air of authenticity seldom matched by rival cops-and-criminals TV shows. Other police dramas have been gunned down by the ratings, but Dragnet has survived. “Why?” we wondered aloud.

Webb looked thoughtful. “We’ve tried to tell it like it is for many years,” he said in his dry, Sgt. Friday’s voice. “We work very closely with the Los Angeles Police Department. We have meetings three or four times a year with division commanders and at least one meeting a year with police officials of even higher rank.

“We try to find out what the latest police problems are, what they’d like said. It’s really their program as much as ours. “We aren’t allowed—and don’t want—to read actual case histories. We deal with stories that are accurate, but the dialogue is recreated.

“All of our hardware is authentic. There’s a policeman assigned to each show as technical adviser. Each of our scripts passes through 12 to 15 officers’ hands, from the rank of captain down to sergeant. This is done to catch us in any technical slip-ups. To my knowledge, Dragnet and our other show, Adam-12, are the only police programs done as semidocumentaries.”

Webb created Dragnet 20 years ago. A former radio announcer turned radio serial actor, he got a big break in 1948, shortly after his discharge from I the Army Air Corps. He was cast in a supporting role in the movie, He Walked By Night.

It was a bigger break than even Webb realized. During the filming of the movie, he struck up a friendship with the film’s technical adviser, an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department.

“He sparked my interest in police work, and I found myself spending nights in police prowl cars and researching the crime lab files by day when time permitted,” Webb recalled. “Through this Dragnet was born.”

The show was one of the few programs to survive the transition from radio to television. After its long TV run, Webb voluntarily took Dragnet off the air in 1959.

“I think the public grew a little weary after eight years,” Webb admitted. “We’d done 275 half-hour TV shows and over 500 radio shows.”

But in January, 1967, Dragnet did the unprecedented. It became the first TV program to come from “retirement” and make a successful comeback.

“Had Sgt. Friday gotten restless to get back on the beat?” we asked Webb.

He smiled. “There was no driving urgency on my part,” he said. “It was more or less NBC’s idea, though I thought we could make some kind of statement on law and order.”

In making that statement, Dragnet dramas present all the variety to be found in real-life police work—from homicide to housebreaking. Shows frequently deal with the problems of young people.

When dealing with teenagers on the program, Sgt. Friday and Officer Bill Gannon—played by Harry Morgan—seem tuned in to the younger generation. “Do you think such cops really exist?” we asked Webb.

“Positively, yes, “he replied. “We have only 23 1/2 minutes to tell a story which actual police officers may have spent months on. The officers in real life might have shown even more understanding than Harry and I are able to in such a short time.”

Webb is concerned about the lack of public support for police departments in some areas of the country. “It’s no secret that being called a ‘pig’ affects a man’s morale,” he said. “If we don’t do something quickly, the spirit of accomplishment will be taken away from men on the job. When that happens, low morale can spread through a department. Eventually you risk having no department at all.

“Today, being a policeman is a distasteful, almost tragic, way to make a living. The abuse he takes is ridiculous.

“If the public doesn’t begin to loudly support their policemen, I’m afraid we’re heading for a bleak period in urban history.

“We hope in some way we make the policeman’s job easier for him.”

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