by BEN ALEXANDER (from TV People, October 1957)
I have just completed a six-week swing around the country.
Personally meeting swarms of fans is a most gratifying experience, of course. But here and there a grating note crept in.
Several long-time followers of “Dragnet” and “Badge 714” asked me, “Is it true that Jack Webb is a moody, unapproachable person in real life?”
And my categorical answer to them is this: Nothing could be further from the truth!
Whether he’s a police sergeant or Marine sergeant, Jack doesn’t change the stripes of his character. And, you can take it from me, that means he’s the same swell guy I met for the first time six years ago.
This sort of stuff has been going on for the past several years, and I don’t understand why.
The truth is that Jack works hard. Very hard. But he does not work so hard in order to escape from unhappiness, as some writers hint. He works hard just because he likes to work!
When I’m not portraying Frank Smith, no one is happier than I am when I’m at my Ford Agency, selling…. I just love to sell! Jack just loves to work on TV and movies. That’s all. It’s an all-absorbing passion with him.
Let me tell you a few things about Jack Webb, as he really is, and not as some papers and magazines have painted him.
First of all, Jack is not a morose guy. I was with him New Year’s Eve when news came through that the sponsor had dropped his other show, “Noah’s Ark.” “Noah’s Ark” meant a lot to him for many reasons.
But he said “Okay,” and that night he and Dorothy showed up, as scheduled, for the party at Leo Durocher and Laraine Day’s house. Dean and Jeanne Martin, Gordon MacRae and Sheila, and Lesley and I were there, too. Jack joined in the fun, and he certainly wasn’t morose. I have seen Jack handle himself through a lot of trouble, and he can manage it with dignity. He doesn’t sulk. He is a man of great interest and intense sensitivity to the world around him … and he always keeps busy. He just couldn’t stand still, ever. He’s too dynamic.
He’s been called moody many times. It’s not that he’s moody. It’s just that he’s strictly business, and concentrates fiercely on the job at hand. He’s not aloof . he’s only preoccupied. He has a big job to do, and wants to do it efficiently, quickly. Jack is incredibly efficient. After all, he has produced, directed, created and starred in 204 half-hour films of “Dragnet,” and is working on 78 more. During that period, he made a couple of movies for Warner Bros. (“Dragnet” and “Pete Kelly’s Blues”). And his latest, of course, “The D.I.” He also produced the “Noah’s Ark” TV series.
His efficiency enables him to make pictures faster than anybody I know. We can turn out “Dragnet” so quickly because we have all the sets, and Jack is the boss, who makes decisions and knows just what he wants.
Most half-hour TV films are turned out in four days out of each week. But we do two-and-a-half and sometimes three full “Dragnets” a week, for three weeks in a row, and then rest one week.
It’s a terrific schedule, but it runs along smoothly. Of course, it keeps Jack completely tied up in work. And perhaps that explains some of the misunderstandings about him in the I press. When a reporter comes on the set of most of the TV shows, the star usually has moments between scenes to talk to the reporter. But when a reporter arrives unannounced on the set of “Dragnet,” Jack may not be able to stop work to talk more than a few minutes.
We might finish one “Dragnet” at 11 A.M.” and by 11:15 we’re working on the next “Dragnet.” Also, when Jack the star finishes a scene, he becomes Jack the director, or Jack the producer, or Jack the film cutter. He’s always busy, and this man can do anything! If a scene calls for the police to draw a composite picture of a criminal suspect, Jack draws the picture. He’s a fine artist, too. Jack will always schedule interviews with the press, but he’s on a spot when writers walk in without warning. They seem to suspect he’s avoiding them. But the fact is Jack never backs away from any question, and he’s not even the kind who gives “yes” or “no” answers. He’ll give precise, detailed explanations.
The fact that he has no time, on the set, for unscheduled interviewers does not mean Jack has no sense of public relations. He has. He keeps two secretaries busy with correspondence and he tries to answer inquiries that require answers. He’s on the phone a lot. He reads his press clips. He knows what’s going on. But the big problem is time. He just doesn’t have enough of it.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about his home life. The papers imply there’s something weird about a guy who’s working day and night. Well, Jack does live a life that isn’t typical of most people. But it’s the kind of personal life that fits his drive and his work. For instance, Jack lives in the same building where he works. He built a $450,000 modern building for his Mark VII Ltd. offices on the Republic Pictures lot, and installed a luxury apartment.
That is where he now lives. It contains a dining alcove, kitchen, living room, bedroom, etc., and is furnished in Early American, much of the furniture having been designed by George Montgomery, Dinah Shore’s husband. Jack says he put so much money into this building because he, and some of his employees, spend more time there than they do in their own homes.
Jack has a Filipino boy, Freddie, who cooks for him. The apartment has TV sets, tape recorders, a hi-fi set, a big collection of records. He likes music, and has it playing all the time. Of course, he’s a great student of TV, and is the kind of guy who switches around to all the stations, looking for unusual moments. He’s the kind who can watch TV and listen to his records, and talk at the same time . . . and know exactly what’s going on.
The rest of us go home at 6, but Jack can stick around and run off tapes, check the sound, edit scripts, cut film. On Friday nights, he often invites his friends to stay around while he screens two or three new movies. He keeps up to date on films, and knows all the new gadgets, new techniques, new experiments. Jack is enormously interested in sound, and hears sounds-that are imperceptible to me. He knows music, too, although I don’t believe he can play a musical instrument.
It was his avid interest in jazz that led him into the “Pete Kelly’s Blues” radio series and the feature movie.
Jack is like a sponge in that he is always absorbing information. He has a remarkable talent for recalling things and people and talk. During a scene, for instance, he might say, “I once heard an old man on a street car say, the spleen was the oil can of the system. It’s a good line, and I think Frank should use it right here.”
His apartment reflects his varied interests. It’s full of records, paintings, collections of badges (gifts from police departments), collections of miniature models of animals (part of the research that went into “Noah’s Ark”), collections of guns, etc. You can see how close his personal life and his business life are. They’re intertwined, and it explains why he prefers to live on the lot so he can work when he wants to.
He gets a lot of invitations to parties that he cannot accept. He hasn’t the time. He is completely fascinated with his work. And, being young, strong and alert, he enjoys working hard. You’ll never hear Jack talk about retirement!
Hating to be diverted from his work, he doesn’t go out much, but he does go to Ray Heindorf’s house, and they’ll listen to a lot of music. Ray was musical director of Jack’s “Pete Kelly’s Blues” movie, and he and Jack are good friends.
And let’s not forget that Jack is a great producer. He knows how to produce fine stories that make money. His feature movie, “Dragnet,” is the nation’s 17th biggest grosser of all time, and it cost only a half million dollars to make. Obviously, it’s made a load of profit.
Jack has inherent good taste. He never has trouble with censors, and never will. He knows the rules, and he can achieve dramatic effects without offending anyone. Everything he’s ever done has been for a family audience. Our “Dragnet” show usually starts after the crime has been committed, so we have no violence. There might be a bit of physical encounter when the criminal is caught, but that’s all.
Around the set, Jack is quiet. He’s not the practical joker kind, although he enjoys a good story and can tell one, too. But he has no time for time-wasting horsing around. We know we’re there for business, and we have a film to make, so we concentrate. There are no long delays, for the simple reason that Jack is the boss and everything is laid out efficiently for us. He’s patient, when need be, but he makes quick decisions. Only once in over 200 pictures do I remember him sending an actor home and replacing him.
He is a perfectionist, and will take a scene over and over again if he is not getting what he wants.
He is really a genius, for he has turned out a tremendous amount of film on a sound financial basis. You’ve got to be a superb businessman to be able to do that.
Much has been written and said about Jack’s supposedly being coldblooded with his associates. Let me cite a few examples. Start with me, Ben Alexander. Playing Officer Smith on “Dragnet” has been a great thing for me—financially, emotionally, and in many other ways. But I can’t take credit for whatever success I’ve had with the role. The role was created by Jack, and the script gives me the lines, and I say them.
Look at Victor Rodman. He had been disabled in an accident, and one of Jack’s joys about creating “Noah’s Ark” was the chance it gave him to employ Victor in a role that didn’t require walking around. Jack was thrilled with “Noah’s Ark” because it gave Victor a chance to prove what a fine actor he is. And a big reason Jack is eager to revive the show is that Victor will be working again.
Our second assistant director was a San Francisco actor who was not doing too well and had been forced to take a job in May’s department store. Jack put him to work for six months, so he could apply for his card in the Directors’ Guild.
Eddie Coleman, our cameraman, is now a member of the American Society of Cinematographers because Jack liked him, and got him into the union.
Herm Saunders was a pianist at the Bantam Cock Restaurant when Jack walked in one night and told him, “You like people and you’ll make a good casting director.” And Jack gave him the job.
And let me tell you something about Jack and me. About three years ago, I went to Jack and told him that my doctors had advised me to lose 40 pounds, but I was worried what that would do to my characterization of Officer Smith, who had been established in the series as a fat guy.
I explained that losing weight, the doctor had told me, might enable my wife and me to have children. It had something to do with metabolism and the chemistry of my body.
Jack said if it was that important, of course I should go ahead and lose weight. And he said he’d write my dieting right into the script. That’s what he did, and as a result, Lesley and I now have two lovely children: Lesley Beth and Webb.
Yes, that’s Jack Webb. A man of many facets, many talents, much compassion. A man much misunderstood and much maligned.
I don’t say he’s perfect. Nobody is. But he is a man in every fine sense of the word.
He’s got a job to do, and he does it the best way he knows. His brain has created jobs for hundreds of people, entertained millions of folks, and made some people rich … and certainly nobody poorer.
He fought his way up from poverty. And, in enriching himself, he has enriched many others, too—including moviegoers and TV fans.
He may not be an ordinary guy, but he’s certainly a swell guy.
And those are the facts, ma’am.
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