Joseph Wambaugh: “Police Story” — and Other Police Stories

January 22 is the birthday of writer and former police officer Joseph Wambaugh (b. 1937). Wambaugh is a critical figure in the evolution of police drama, taking it into a direction of greater realism, with a willingness to tackle the toll the job takes on those who perform it (issues like alcoholism, divorce, and so forth). Before Wambaugh, there’s Jack Webb. After him, David Simon. That’s an oversimplification, but that’s the general gist. Wambaugh presents his protagonists as flawed, but the heroic titles he gave to many of them conveys an overall attitude of admiration. Several of Wambaugh’s novels and true crimes were adapted into films and TV shows, though he only wrote a couple of the screenplays himself.

A second generation police officer, Wambaugh was still on the job with the LAPD when his first novel The New Centurions (1971) became a sensation. It was made into a movie starring George C. Scott the following year. Then came The Blue Knight (1972), about an aging beat cop, which became a TV mini-starring William Holden in 1973, and a full series 1975-76 with George Kennedy (then fresh from playing a similar character in Earthquake).

Wambaugh made his biggest splash with the NBC television series Police Story (1973-78)

Wambaugh created the series, though it was produced by David Gerber. Police Story was unusual for its time in being an anthology. It had no regular characters, though it did have a few recurring ones. Every episode told its own stand-alone story with a completely different set of characters, always in some different branch of the massive LAPD. Many of the scripts were supposedly based on true stories Wambaugh had either heard, or gotten from his conversation with fellow cops. While this format prevented continuity, it allowed for constant novelty, and a huge opportunity for an endless crop of guest stars. Thus scores of well known actors played cops on the show. Everyone was on Police Story! And a handful of new series were spun off, the only successful one of which was Police Woman with Angie Dickinson.

By 1974, Wambaugh was doing so well as a writer that he retired from the LAPD. He continued to crank out books, and they continued to be adapted for the big screen, sometimes by him. In 1977 Robert Aldrich directed a movie version of his book The Choirboys. Wambaugh himself wrote the screenplays for The Onion Field (1979) and The Black Marble (1980), both of which were critically acclaimed. Stuart Margolin directed a version of The Glitter Dome (1984) for HBO, starring James Garner, John Lithgow and Margot Kidder. Then came Echoes in the Darkness (1987) and Fugitive Nights (1993).

While Wambaugh continued to produce tons of new and successful books over the years (the most recent was in 2012), his vogue was over on movie and tv screens by the 1980s, when he began to be eclipsed by things like Hill Street Blues, and the books and adaptations of James Ellroy. To everything there is a season.