Today is the birthday of the late Martin Milner (1931-2015). Milner was second generation show biz: his mom was a dancer and his father a film distributor. Both encouraged him in his acting ambitions, arranging for his training and the acquisition of agent.
Fortunately, Milner possessed an interesting quality that made him castable. He had contradictory aspects: an apple pie, All-American face…with a slightly edgy and sarcastic demeanor. His first major role was at age 16 in the 1947 film Life with Father. Later stuff included the reefer smoking jazz musician in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the two faced shyster in William Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960), the rambling drifter on the tv series Route 66 (1960-1964) and Patty Duke’s cuckolded husband in Valley of the Dolls (1967).
But that’s really so much prologue. Milner had long been a favorite of Jack Webb, appearing in numerous episodes of both the radio and tv versions of his hit show Dragnet, as well as the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues. In 1968, Webb devised a spin-off of Dragnet, another police procedural, this one following a couple of uniformed beat cops around in their squad car. On Adam-12 Milner played LAPD veteran Pete Molloy, mentor to rookie Jim Reed (Kent McCord). The show, which ran until 1975, was unintentionally hilarious at the time, and is downright side-splitting (to me) today.
Designed by Webb to be as “realistic” as possible, Adam-12 takes “low key” to new heights. After all, beat cops have a proverbial connection to coffee and donuts for a reason. They need it to stay awake; exciting moments on the job are few and far between. Every episode of Adam-12 consists of Malloy and Reed driving around gabbing to each other about mundane subjects, punctuated by the occasional highly minor crime (a shoplifting, a breaking and entering, a bowdlerized domestic dispute) usually played by some recognizable character actor. Highly unbelievable hippie drug dealers were a staple of the show. (“Hey, man! Leggo my arm! I got a right to be in this playground!”)
The reason I say the show is more hilarious than ever is that police procedurals have come a long way in the realism department since the 1970s. Webb’s aesthetic was very stripped down and minimalist, rated G, and unabashedly uncritical of the police, who can apparently do no wrong. Malloy and Reed don’t go around solving murders every two seconds, but that doesn’t mean they’re not saintly and infallible. Thus, Adam-12 is neither fish nor fowl, neither real nor romanticized. I imagine it’s not too different from the “hard hitting, realistic” police procedural they’d put out in Soviet Russia.
What makes this whitewashing of the fuzz complete, of course, is the complete absence of what the LAPD was best known for at the time, and long afterward: the all-pervasive paleness of its ranks and its relative antipathy towards those of darker hues. A long history of police brutality against the black community sparked the Watts Riots of 1965; there was the Bloody Christmas incident of 1951, when 7 young men, 5 of them Latino, who’d been improperly arrested to begin with, were badly beaten in their cells; the beating of Rodney King in 1991 gave rise to the L.A. Riots of 1992; and LA Detective Mark Furhman’s documented history of outspoken racism was the deciding factor in the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. The latter two events were years after Adam-12, but symptomatic of a departmental culture of racism that was many decades old. Not until David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008) would a police procedural tackle this institutionalized flaw of law enforcement, though his show was about Baltimore. Which brings up a good point. Not to lay everything at the feet of the LAPD. After all, the familiar real-life imagery of domestic U.S. law enforcement, all across America, in the 60s looked like this:
And on Adam-12, it looked like this:
Think of Adam-12 as the “anti-Wire“. It’s the tv show the police would make about themselves if they could. And for people who’ve spent some time on planet earth, it’s pretty damn hilarious — as long as there are some more truthful alternatives to tune into.