Many of today's crime dramas owe a debt to Dragnet and its creator, Jack Webb. This week, let's take a closer look at the man, the legend.
1. It started with a documentary (sort of)
John Rudolph "Jack" Webb became fascinated by the intricate, behind-the-scenes details of police investigations while working on the 1948 film-noir He Walked by Night. The movie was based on a real-life murder case, and Webb was cast as a crime lab technician. The quasi-documentary style of the film gave him an idea for a police drama series with a similar feel. With the cooperation of Chief William H. Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department, he created Dragnet and its protagonist, Sergeant Joe Friday.
2. There was no time to memorize lines
Have you ever wondered why nearly every Dragnet actor recited their dialog in the same clipped, rat-a-tat fashion? As producer of the series, Webb cut costs where he could, and one of those money-saving measures was limited rehearsal time. He preferred to just have his actors read their lines off teleprompters rather than memorizing them. Of course, in scenes where Sgt. Friday is questioning a witness, this robotic delivery of lines made the show more authentic; wouldn't you have a deer-in-the-headlights expression while being interrogated by Joe?
3. Jack Webb turned down Animal House
Jack Webb was the first choice for the role of Dean Wormer in the 1978 film Animal House, but he turned it down because he thought it poked fun at authority. That's not to say that ol' Jack didn't have a sense of humor about himself and the character that he had created. Check out the skit he did with Johnny Carson below.
Johnny Carson - Copper Clappers
4. There were visual punches (without special effects)
Jack Webb didn't need a myriad of special effects to create a gruesome scenario. His matter-of-fact narration and a series of black-and-white photos succinctly paint a picture of what happens during the first second of a head-on auto collision. It still makes the viewer cringe in pain, even in these days of airbags and shoulder restraints. And if this analysis of one fatal second doesn't prompt you to buckle up while behind the wheel, nothing will.
5. The first color version of the show tackled LSD
Dragnet actually had two different runs on television. The color version that is syndicated today is the second incarnation of the series, and it took full advantage of the medium by premiering in 1967 with the deliciously campy "Blue Boy" episode. Modern viewers should keep in mind that LSD was still legal in the early part of 1967, and its effects weren't completely understood. Of course, history has since shown us that acid can make you pretty high and far out. In 1997, TV Guide ranked the "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet at number 85 on its "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list.
6. The strange prevalence of cigarettes
It's interesting to watch Dragnet from a 21st century viewpoint and note the cultural differences between "then and now." Sure, the clothes, the hairstyles, and even the cars are hopelessly dated, but one aspect that truly stands out is the prevalence of smoking. No one ever bothers to ask "mind if I smoke?" before lighting up, and both airports and hospitals came equipped with pedestal ashtrays in their corridors. Jack Webb promoted cigarettes in both TV commercials and print advertisments, first for L&M, and then Chesterfield. Sadly, his three-pack-a-day habit most likely contributed to his fatal heart attack at age 62.
7. America learned what it meant to be a cop
No one ever summarized the pitfalls of the profession as well as Webb:
It's awkward having a policeman around the house. Friends drop in, a man with a badge answers the door, the temperature drops 20 degrees. You throw a party and that badge gets in the way. All of a sudden there isn't a straight man in the crowd. Everybody's a comedian. "Don't drink too much," somebody says, "or the man with a badge'll run you in." Or "How's it going, Dick Tracy? How many jaywalkers did you pinch today?" All at once you've lost your first name. You're a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law. You're the fuzz, the heat; you're poison, you're trouble, you're bad news. They call you everything, but never a policeman.
A BUNCH OF OTHER FACTS YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY KNOW:
Even though it has become a clichÃ©, Sgt. Friday never actually said "Just the Facts, M'am" on an episode of Dragnet. Before video teleprompters became standard, dialog was offered to TV actors using a decidely ancient technique: it was handwritten on paper scrolls. In 1997, TV Guide ranked the "Blue Boy" episode of Dragnet as number 85 on its "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list. Friday and Gannon wore the same color suits, shirts and ties in every episode of Dragnet for continuity purposes, per Webb's direction. Establishing camera shots could thus be used from one episode to another. Jack Webb was the first civilian buried with full police honors. Upon his death, his badge number (714) was officially retired by the LAPD.
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