By Dick Adler
(From TV Guide, July 22, 1972. Sent in by Bob Woulf, to whom we owe many thanks.)
What can you say about a 52-year-old producer who had four weekly shows on this past season? Jack Webb is himself, the character he began to play in “Dragnet” on the radio in 1949 and always played while he was an actor: a tough, doughty, gravel-voiced American who believes in law and order and has made that belief work for him. Look at last year: ‘Adam-12,’ in its fourth season, was generally rated in the Top 10. ‘Emergency!,’ not a police show but still enough within that general, authoritative, “Voice of God” mold to make it unmistakably a Mark VII Production, scored well enough to ensure its return in the fall.
There were two casualties, ‘O’Hara, United States Treasury’ and ‘The D.A.’ – but to balance that, Dragnet is now being seen in syndicated reruns in 160 cities across the country. And next season another new Webb-produced show debuts – ‘Hec Ramsey,’ starring Richard Boone as a 1901 gunslinger turned frontier detective.
So Jack Webb would seem to be doing something right. To find out what, and to see how the winds of change have ruffled him in the last few years, we sat down with him in his trophy-laden office at Universal and – in one of Webb’s rare recent interviews – explored a few sensitive areas.
Q. Why do you think your police shows, Dragnet and Adam- 12, have been so successful?
A. I’ve thought about it a lot and I’ve never been able to come up with a definite reason. On the one hand, having enough ego to have been a performer, I could say it’s because they love me and Ben Alexander and Harry Morgan and Marty Milner and Kent McCord so much. But the shows were never designed as personality pieces — or else we would have called them Friday and Smith, or Malloy and Reed. When I designed Dragnet with Jim Moser, we decided that wasn’t the way to go for a documentary approach: the people aren’t as important as the overall idea. So I really don’t think it’s that.
Maybe it was the infinite patience with which Moser and I built up the detail in Dragnet that they liked. We tried to show the police officer as he really was – not the fellow who stole an apple from the fruit peddler on the corner. I think we dispelled an awful lot of myth in our day; I think we showed that policemen weren’t lone wolves, that they worked together. We showed that captains and lieutenants didn’t do all the work, that you could be a sergeant or a policeman and still solve a heavyweight crime.
Then, perhaps the lack of histrionics in all areas gave it a different look, a subliminal acceptability.
Q. In the last couple of years there seems to have been a rush of books (like Joseph Wambaugh’s “The New Centurions” and “The Blue Knight”) and films (like “Dirty Harry” and “The French Connection”) which have claimed to humanize policemen by showing their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Will this have any effect on the way you do Adam-12?
A. First of all, the way Joe Wambaugh tells his side of the story is no more the whole truth than the way we tell ours. I think there’s much to be said for both ways, but his books are no more accurate or “human” than what we do on Adam-12. We’ve admitted many times that the police make mistakes, both on Dragnet and Adam-12. People tend to forget that; nobody can possibly see or remember all the shows we’ve made.
Joe Wambaugh is a dedicated man, or else he wouldn’t stay on as a policeman (a detective-sergeant with the LAPD – Ed). But I do get the feeling when I read his books that they’re more of an expose. But I’ve always felt that the policeman has been the underdog of society; part of what he became was due to the indifference of the public. I don’t like it when a policeman gets away with holy hell or bloody murder any more than anyone else does. But they haven’t for so many, many years.
When you do police stories, you’re talking about every policeman in the United States if not the world. I think when a policeman needs all the help he can get in today’s rather distorted sociological scene, you have to help him, you have to tell the truth about him. It’s what Joe Wambaugh doesn’t write; I think there’s much to be said beyond constantly tearing down.
Q. How do you react to the charges that shows like Dragnet, Adam-12 and The FBI may be making some of the more radical young people antipolice by showing a one- sided picture?
A. Things are never as black and white as some people make them out to be. I repeat — neither side has a lock on the truth. If I do a story of a crooked or a disturbed policeman, either he’ll be eliminated from the department or he’ll be straightened out and remain on. But I won’t just leave it raw. I think it’s improper reporting not to tell the other side of the story. Of course, you sacrifice something in the area of sensationalism when you do that. Dragnet and Adam-12 aren’t as exciting as the Wambaugh books or “Dirty Harry” in that respect; we don’t have the heavies inside the department itself. We’re not doing stories about the guys we know will eventually be weeded out. We’re doing stories about everyday working policemen.
I also think that this business of having to know everything about what goes on is bad. The release of the Pentagon Papers did irrevocable harm – there are certain things you can’t know about and still have diplomacy or security.
It’s not the province of entertainment to expose. We’re primarily supposed to entertain. You have a little tougher job doing that when you document. We can’t find ourselves a district attorney who’s a crook or a rat because he’s not allowed to exist. If he were allowed to exist, the whole machine would fall apart like a two-dollar suit.
Q. Your projects, especially recently, all seem to have the same kind of subjects as well as a definite style of writing and acting. Is this deliberate?
A. At my age, I suppose that having had great success – and great luck – dealing with pro-law-enforcement material, I do have a tendency to lean in that direction. It’s no secret that everyone in my small group is pro-law enforcement; it’s the only way you can treat a subject fairly. My own fascination with police work came while I was researching Dragnet; it was pretty much virgin territory then. It became an in-depth belief of mine that here was a group of men trying to upgrade their work against all the odds. I felt, and still do, there was high drama in it.
As for a definite style, all I can say is that the only thing we’ve always insisted on is an economy of dialogue. We like a clean script, not too much verbiage on the part of the officers or doctors or prosecutors. Aside from that, there are no hard and fast rules. If the writers are working to a certain style, it’s not because of any edicts I’ve laid down. Writers do tend to stick to successful formulas, however – that may be part of it.
But this business of a monotonous style of acting has been going around for years. We play old radio and television shows and compare them with more recent programs, and there is a hell of a difference. The so-called monotone disappeared after about the third season, but for some reason it stuck in people’s minds. It piques us because we know we’ve changed over the years.
Q. There were rumors that at least part of the reason why ‘O’Hara’ wasn’t renewed was that CBS sacrificed it to the cause of antiviolence in order to keep a couple of other rather violent shows with higher ratings. Any truth to that? And how do you feel about violence on television?
A. As far as I can figure it, and you never really can in this business, O’Hara failed because it was in the wrong time slot. We were on too early, up against The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, and the early hours belong to the young in this country. Then, too, probably David Janssen – who is one of the finest television actors we have – should have had a side-kick, somebody to work with. Very few shows are successful with just one continuing character.
As to the subject of violence, as far as I know it had nothing to do with the show’s cancellation. There is a lot of violence on television, and I think it’s because there is no central clearing house for subject matter. One producer does a show with a certain amount of violence in it, then another follows and then another, seven nights a week. So almost certainly you wind up with an overwhelming amount of violence on television. I don’t think any one producer intentionally loads his show, but in the aggregate we have a very violent spectrum because we don’t know what other producers are doing.
Q. What about your own acting career? Do you ever have any ambitions to return to it? A. I was never really very deeply involved in acting. I’ve always had a great love for the production side of the business. But I must admit that there is a lot of satisfaction in performing a role if you do it adequately. It’s immensely flattering to stand outside a theater and watch people paying money to see the face that you look at every morning while you’re shaving. And aside from that, you can make a hell of a lot of money – which is nice, too.
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