“Just the Facts” on Jack Webb, “Dragnet” Mastermind and More

I have already written about a couple of his shows, but have not yet paid proper tribute to the great Jack Webb (John Randolph Webb, 1920-1982).

By all accounts, Webb was everything he seemed — the essence of Los Angeles (born and raised in Santa Monica), and a straight arrow: Catholic altar boy, President of his high school class, supporter of law enforcement and charities.

Sunset Boulevard. That’s Webb on the right. Don’t let the smile scare you.

Best remembered today for his television empire and his indelible screen persona, it must be pointed out that the foundation of EVERYTHING in his career was radio. An enormous jazz buff (I think it influenced both his writing and his acting) Webb started out as a disc jockey on a local radio station (KGO San Francisco), an opportunity he mightn’t have otherwise had if not for the manpower shortage during World War II. But he probably would have made good anyway with that VOICE. Asthmatic since childhood with a slight wheeze and honk, it was further hardened by a steady diet of unfiltered cigarettes. (The late Miguel Ferrer, another actor I absolutely loved had that exact same kind of voice). From the music show Webb moved to a program called One Out of Seven where he dramatized news events and this led to a national sitcom The Jack Webb Show in 1946. “A sitcom?!” you ask, perplexed and chagrined. Yes. The young Jack Webb was fun, free-wheeling and jazzy. For a glimpse of that version of him, watch or re-watch Sunset Boulevard (1950). He plays the guy who’s throwing the New Years Eve party William Holden stops off at when he tries to leave Gloria Swanson. A Good Time Charlie! Webb’s immersion in the jazz culture resulted in his meeting and marrying singer Julie London, and starring in the radio show Pete Kelly’s Blues, which later became a movie (see below).

But Webb quickly found his true metier. In 1946 he played the lead in private eye radio drama Pat Novak for Hire. From here through the early 50s he juggled film roles and radio work. In 1948, he played a lab technician in the gritty, realistic crime thriller He Walked By Night. This planted the seed for the radio show Dragnet (1949-57) which provided the foundation of his empire, creating a phenomenon that would effect not only crime fiction but even comedy. Dragnet was a super matter-of-fact “realistic” police procedural, drawn from real LAPD case files, which depicted cops as regular working class Joes, pounding a beat, doing the thankless job of cleaning up the city, and never whining about it. Webb played Sgt. Joe Friday, who worked with a succession of partners throughout the years. Both the show’s writing and delivery were characterized by a rhythmic, staccato, deadpan style that was instantly recognizable and much imitated. It seemed adapted from the existing hard-boiled detective conventions, but then boiled harder, removing everything extraneous, until it was just a laconic, rapid, monotone, like the typing of a typewriter coming out of a guy’s mouth. When Dragnet later came to television (1951-59, then again 1967-1970), there was added a powerful visual component, the two partners in suits, ties and hats and that too became iconic. I think of all screen cop partners as springing from this well, and I think it influenced everybody from Bob and Ray to Men in Black, to characters in later Webb shows, like the Dragnet spin-off Adam-12 (1968-1975), Emergency! (1972-1976), and Project UFO (1978-79).

Webb was a busy guy, writing, acting, producing, often narrating voice-overs, and even supplying the hands that pounded out his Mark VII logo at the end of every show. Along the way, he did a ton ELSE. In 1954 there was a Dragnet movie. In 1955 he produced, directed and starred in Pete Kelly’s Blues, an adaptation of his eponymous radio show in which he played a jazz band leader. In 1957 he directed The D.I. and played the titular drill instructor, a real s.o.b. And then there were the shows that didn’t do quite as well: O’Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971-72) starring David Janssen, which lasted one season; and Hec Ramsey (1972-74), a western/ cop show hybrid starring Richard Boone that was one the NBC Mystery Movie shows along with Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife.

Webb was an interesting bird — very much in tune with his times in the ’40 and ’50s…then quite a bit out of touch in the ’60s. His revival of Dragnet was particularly hilarious as his two emotionless cops (his partner now Harry Morgan) navigate a sea of long-haired acid eating hippies, junkies, and the like. Then in the 70s, he found his mojo again. While still truly square, Adam-12 at least spoke to the Nixon-loving demographic. Emergency was a cutting edge show for its day — no one had ever done a show about paramedics before. As he had done with police-work in earlier decades he was doing a valuable job in educating the public. As a kid at the time, I assure you we thought Emergency was every bit as cool as Baretta or Starsky and Hutch. And Project UFO was very much in tune with the tabloid culture of its day. The savvy Webb birthed it right after the monster success of Stephen Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This was a guy who knew how to stay on top of the industry.

“Happy Birthday, Joe.” “Thanks, Frank. I’m touched you remembered. This is the happiest day of my life.”

Still, he was fodder for humor for the younger generation. He was approached to play Dean Wormer in Animal House (1978), a role he rejected because he didn’t relish its mockery of institutions. The comedy world finally scored on him nearly a decade later when the spoof reboot of Dragnet came out, with Dan Aykroyd, who does a great Jack Webb impression, in the Joe Friday role. Aykroyd cowrote the film with former SNL writer Alan Zweibel and the film’s director Tom Mankiewicz, son of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, nephew of Herman Mankiewicz, and cousin of Ben Mankiewicz. Harry Morgan (who’d since spent many years on M*A*S*H and AfterM*A*S*H), returned as his old character, now bumped up to Captain, and a young Tom Hanks, played Friday’s partner. The film suffers, I feel, from a lack of conviction in its own concept. Something more like the tv show Police Squad, but not the Naked Gun movies, would have been much more to my liking.

Webb was only 62 when felled by a heart attack in 1982. He was a coffee and cigarettes kind of guy. Those extra decades had probably never been in the cards for him.