Interview with Walon Green
Interview conducted by Chris Hall, with some questions contributed by Jim Doherty and Jennifer Pope — members of the Dragnet Discussion Group
Walon Green is Executive Producer of the new version of Dragnet, along with Dick Wolf and Peter Jankowski. He’s worked as a producer and writer on some of the most popular TV shows of the last 20 years: Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, ER, and Law & Order. He also has extensive movie experience, having scripted the classic Western The Wild Bunch and won an Oscar for directing the documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle. (You can find additional biographical information about Mr. Green here.)
This interview was conceived as a ‘team’ interview, with questions submitted by interested members of the Dragnet Discussion Group on Yahoo! Groups.
Many thanks to Walon Green for taking the time to do this, and to Pam Golum and Carrie O’Brien from The Lippin Group for their help in setting things up.
Dragnet premiered on ABC on Feb. 2nd. New episodes can be seen Sundays at 10pm.
Note: This is an unofficial fan site. For the official ABC site, click here.
Chris Hall: A lot of us are very excited about seeing the new show.
Walon Green: Well, I think we haven’t embarrassed ourselves. [laughs]
CH: I read the review in Entertainment Weekly, and they certainly liked it. [Note: The reviewer said he thought Ethan Embry seemed too young to be an LAPD detective, and this comment is alluded to by Mr. Green in his response below.]
WG: Yeah, they were a little tough on Ethan, which I thought was kind of unfair. I mean, there are guys, if you go down to RHD [Robbery Homicide Division] now, there are very young detectives down there, because it isn’t just a blue-collar job anymore. There are guys that have gotten some college and then gone to the academy.
CH: Dick Wolf has said the new show is “Not your father’s Dragnet.” Why remake Dragnet now, and how will it be different from the two old series (as well as different from other contemporary detective shows)?
WG: Why remake Dragnet? Everybody asks this question. [laughs] I suppose there are a lot of different answers. If you ask the network “Why remake Dragnet?”, they’d tell you it’s because it has ‘serial pull,’ or whatever it is that they refer to, in terms of a name having identity and it’s easier to promote it. Personally, I thought it was a good idea not necessarily to remake Dragnet but to do a procedural cop show that really followed the story of an individual crime through the eyes of the principal detectives in the investigation. I think it’s been a good idea for a long time, and Dragnet certainly was the show that initiated that.
CH: With Law & Order we get some of that, and then it switches over to the trial section.
WG: The thing about Law & Order is that the first part of the show is really a platform for the second, so sometimes you even undercut the police investigation. Not that I wouldn’t do that in Dragnet, too, but [Law & Order] is really not about the cops per se. It really services the second half more than the first half. I thought it’d be interesting to do a show where it’s really just the cops’ story. Because I like cops— I mean, there may be a few bad cops but most cops are guys that work pretty hard to do a job that most of us really wouldn’t want to do.
CH: The other nice thing is that now you have an hour-long format. The old half-hour Dragnets often seemed a little rushed.
WG: Yeah, they did. And they took simpler cases, and they were shot in three or four days, so they had to take a pretty straight line through it. Most of the show surfaced in the spoken attitude. Obviously, what we’ve tried to do in remaking this is have the story surface from what you see and experience along the way with them, rather than having them tell you about it as much as they did in the old show.
CH: You’ve worked on the best cop shows of the past 20 years. How will your collective experience from these shows influence your work on Dragnet?
WG: I don’t know how it’s influenced my work, but I certainly couldn’t deny that it has. I mean, you try to look at everything with a completely fresh eye, but we’re all the sum of our experience. I don’t know how real that is to say, “Oh, no, this is something totally different.”
We very deliberately set out to make the show very, very subjective—even though all the cop shows I’ve worked on have been POV [point of view] shows, where you didn’t see something that the cops didn’t see—but I said, “Let’s go a step further and not only see it the way the guys see it, but let’s hear what their thoughts are on these things, since we’re going to use voiceover and inner monologue like Dragnet did.” We tried to make it so that you’re more inside the cops than you’ve ever been on any other show I’ve worked on.
CH: How did you first get involved with Hill Street Blues? Did you have a prior interest in police shows?
WG: I liked the show, I watched the show. And in the early days of television, the shows I liked were The Untouchables, which was a good show, and I liked Dragnet. I wished it were longer—I always felt the half-hour kind of cheated me a little bit. But I liked it and I think I remember it as a radio show, and I think I remember liking it as a radio show, too.
When it came back in its second incarnation in the late 60s and early 70s, I wasn’t really in tune with it at that time because I was politically so opposite from Joe Friday at that point, [laughs] that it was hard for me to watch that show. But I had a friend who wrote on the show, one of the few friends I had at that time who stood on the right, and not the left, side of the camera. And he wrote one of the classics, actually. His name was David Vowell, and he wrote the LSD show for Dragnet. [Editor’s note: “The Prophet,” featuring a Timothy Leary-like character] But at that time, I would probably not have been able to write a Dragnet.
CH: Is the LAPD working as closely with the producers of this version of Dragnet as they did with Webb on the original Dragnet? The LAPD’s official approval aside, is the series using technical advisors with LAPD experience?
WG: Actually, in the show originally, [LAPD Chief William H.] Parker was very involved and either approached Webb or Webb approached him, but they worked together. I think it came about because there was a show called The F.B.I. in Peace and War that Hoover had promoted as a radio show. My guess would be that Parker took a page from Hoover, since he was revamping entirely the LAPD, which was notoriously corrupt and almost a joke police department at that point. And he was creating a unique big-city police department because there weren’t any other big cities with the spread of this place, but he probably thought, “Let’s put them on the map the way Hoover has put the G-men on the map.” So there was a real collaboration, and sometimes the shows reflect that in kind of an absurd wayâ€¦ in fact, often. So we don’t have or even want that kind of relationship with the police.
That having been said, however, we want to have a good relationship with the police. Although our stories wouldn’t be taken from police files, they’re often taken from just talking with L.A. cops. We have Bill Stoner and John Perkins—John Perkins is with Glendale RHD and Bill Stoner was with [L.A. County] Sheriff’s Homicide RHD, and both of them work on the show. We draw stories from the press, obviously, and from files of cases people remember, and we also get them from these guys.
CH: Webb was very specific about getting all the details right. Are they helping with that, too?
WG: Yes, we’re pretty specific about that. I don’t think we’re any less specific about that than Webb was, and maybe even a little more.
CH: Dick Wolf has said that the Dragnet plots will still be based on true stories but there won’t be a specific statement saying they’re true, for legal reasons. From your last answer it sounds like you have multiple sources of cases to use.
WG: They’re true cases. I mean, sometimes we may make a single show out of what were three cases. Like, there are three examples of this type of crime, and they all have kind of cool elements in them, and we may draw from all three. So there are three different cases but they all involve, oh, a robbery technique or something like that. We do that. Frankly, I’d like to take everything from real life, or from something that either actually happened, but certainly be true in spirit to things that didn’t happen but certainly could happen.
CH: Ethan Embry’s character, Joe Friday’s partner, is named Frank Smith, the name of the longest-running partner in the 1950s series. Should old Dragnet fans infer that there will be more of an influence from the 1950s show than the 1960s version?
WG: That isn’t necessarily true. We took the opening mantra from the 50s show. We went back to that, and Frank Smith just seemed like a good name. It sounded right to me.
CH: The Sgt. Friday character was the perfect cop, which was fitting for the times. Police today are sometimes thought of a little differently. Will Friday be infallible, or more realistically human?
WG: He was the perfect guy, yeah. I don’t think anyone’s infallible, so Friday won’t be infallible, but I think he has the dedication and moral outrage that cops often have. And he’s certainly not in any way corrupt or sleazy. He might maneuver criminals into things, and he does things like that. Basically, we wanted a guy that if the public was watching the show, they’d like to think, “Gee whiz, if a crime occurred and someone in my family was involved, I’d want this guy dealing with it.”
CH: Drugs and race relations were frequent topics of the 1960s episodes, a result of their prominence in the news. Will current events influence plots in the new Dragnet? If so, what do you think some of those might be?
WG: Looking at crime in L.A., we decided to steer away from some of the things that RHD is not really that involved in. For example, there’s a gang-crime task force, and that’s not to say that we wouldn’t do a gang-related crime, but you could do a whole [separate] show on guys that just deal with that, and drugs are really woven very much into that. RHD deals with crimes—principally murders, sometimes robberies, kidnappings, also crimes within the police department itself—that require the kind of length of time for investigation and facilities for investigation that detectives in a regular division just don’t have. So cases are handed off to them, and those were the kinds of cases that we decided to focus on. So, a crime could be committed in Van Nuys, the Van Nuys police get there, they look at this and they think, “Gee whiz, this could be a big, involved thing. It might involve travel, or other parts of town depending who this person was, so let’s turn this over to RHD.”
So that’s how our guys come in. Those are the kinds of cases that we look for, and often those are high-profile, so-called, cases, or headline cases, or unusual cases. For example, the case where a guy dug up his patio to improve his backyard and found a woman’s body that’d been there for 20 years. Who is she, and who killed her, and when? That’s an RHD case.
CH: I should explain that we wrote that question before learning that the detectives in the new show would be from RHD. The old Dragnet shows used to have the detectives working out of different departments at different times.
WG: The robbery-homicide division, as I recall it in the 50s, was not really defined. People came in and out of it. But now it’s very defined. First of all, it’s not like doing Rampart, or Metropolitan, or something like that, where you’re stuck in one part of town. RHD can go anywhere, so it gave us the biggest field of play.
CH: Are there plans to re-use any of the remaining Webb troupe members (e.g., Martin Milner, Kent McCord) in guest roles?
WG: Yeah, I would. I mean, Martin Milner and Kent McCord, yeah. I wouldn’t look to do that, but I certainly would if they were right.
CH: Are any of the ‘classic’ episodes going to be re-done in the hour-long format?
WG: I kind of doubt it. The classic episodes play for what they are, and play well for what they are. I think that’s where you would really get in trouble—where you took something that worked as they did it, and worked well for them, and then tried to tweak it into something of your own.
CH: Actually, some of us tried to think of some good ‘classics’ to re-make and we didn’t come up with very many.
WG: It’s pretty tough. We looked at the list, I think, in the very beginning. As I say, they made their point a certain way, and I think you’d make a mess of it by trying to do it.
CH: Mr. Wolf has mentioned the possibility of “franchising” Dragnet as he has Law & Order. Since, unlike L&O, Dragnet is so closely identified with the character of Joe Friday, how can future Dragnet “franchises” be built around other characters? Do you know whether Mr. Wolf simply plans on reviving other LA-based Webb cop shows (i.e. Adam-12, Chase, The D.A., etc.) under the banner of Dragnet?
WG: You have to ask Mr. Wolf that question. [laughs] I don’t know. I can’t imagine how you’d do it—Dragnet: Detroit or Dragnet: Houston. If it’s done, I very likely won’t be involved.
CH: Yourself, Dick Wolf and Peter Jankowski are all listed as executive producers for the show. How are the responsibilities divided up?
WG: Well, Peter mainly deals with the studio, and trying to find the money that I keep spending. Dick deals with all the political aspects—the network and all of that. And I deal with the stories–what are they, and how to get them written and made, and who’s going to direct them, and be in them, and stuff like that.
CH: Do the writers work pretty independently or are they given a case to convert into a script? How does that work?
WG: Well, on any television show, they don’t really write independently, per se. What happens is that you might get a good idea, so you come to work and you think about the group of writers and say, “OK, who’s going to be finishing something or who’s looking for something to do, or who has time to do something?” (hopefully it’s not me).
Then you talk to a writer and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” and he says either “I think it sucks,” or “I think it’s great,” or “That’s OK, but what if we did this, or that?” You kind of talk it through with them, about how it could be a show. And then, unless it’s just a dynamite idea, which sometimes they are, usually you let it sit for a day or so, and then talk about it again and maybe run it by some cops. That’s usually the first thing. Because usually you’re talking about a real thing, so you say “What about doing the story of O.J. Simpson” or something, just for an example—we’re not doing that. You say “We could do this, but how could it be different, and how would you do it so that people wouldn’t just know the story already? So let’s talk to the cops about that kind of killing, and see what goes on.”
Then they come in and they might say “Well, there was another one even more interesting, where this happened,” and you go, “Oh, really—no kidding?” and you listen to that one, and they go, “Yeah, and there was this other one….” And you hear a couple of those, and then the story usually changes into something that’s probably closer to what it’s going to be as an episode. And then you say to the person with whom you’ve been having all these discussions, “OK, let’s start working on the story,” and we get the story and he’ll take off and write the script. That’s how we do it.
CH: We really appreciate your taking the time to do this interview. Thank you.
WG: I’m glad you people are out there talking about the old Dragnet, and hopefully you’ll be talking about us, too.
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