By John C. Alsedek:
Back in 1987, Universal produced a motion picture version of the classic TV series Dragnet. Part parody and part homage, it starred Dan Aykroyd as the nephew of Sergeant Joe Friday, main character from the TV version. I remember seeing it in the theater and thinking that Aykroyd did a really nice job of aping Joe Friday . . . but also thinking that, as well as Aykroyd did, there was no way in heck he or anyone else could truly capture what “Just the facts, ma’am” truly meant. Because the actor who portrayed Friday on television was one of a kind.
That actor was Jack Webb.
For those of us above the "Senior Discount" age, Jack Webb was one of the unforgettable faces/voices of our childhood. He had starred in the classic NBC police series Dragnet, which ran from 1951–1959 and then returned from 1967 until 1970. Webb played Joe Friday with the deadpan dialed up to 11, with vocal and facial expressions drier than the Kalahari Desert. So, it might come as a surprise to learn that Jack Webb was kind of a curious cat!
The first and perhaps most unexpected thing to learn about Webb was that he got his entertainment-business start doing . . . comedy? Yep, comedy. Following his discharge from the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1945, he moved to San Francisco to work for ABC Radio affiliate KGO. Well, the station had a shortage of on-mic personnel, so Webb ended up with his own show; The Jack Webb Show was a 30-minute comedy series that even had a brief run nationally on ABC Radio in 1946. It wasn’t Webb’s cup of tea though, and it wasn’t long before he moved into the reality-based police drama realm in which he’d spend the bulk of his career.
Speaking of which, Dragnet ran on NBC Television for a total of twelve seasons. But did you know that it started as a radio series? Dragnet first premiered on NBC Radio back on June 3, 1949. Initially self-produced (meaning there weren’t any show sponsors), Dragnet took some time to find its audience; but once it did, it became one of the most popular programs on radio. Dragnet had its basis in some of Webb’s prior work: an early news dramatization show he did on KGO called One Out of Seven; his role as a police forensic scientist in the 1948 film He Walked by Night; and his 1946–1949 ABC Radio series Pat Novak for Hire (Webb played the title character). Webb insisted on realism, spending countless hours with officers of the Los Angeles Police Department as he learned how to get procedures and language down just right. This diligence would lead to the LAPD officially endorsing Dragnet in 1949, and Webb would have a close working relationship with the department for the rest of his career. This led to calls that Webb was "whitewashing" the LAPD, particularly in the early days of Dragnet when the department still had racial segregation policies. However, it should also be pointed out that Webb had proven himself a strong opponent of racial prejudice on his previous shows, particularly One Out of Seven.
Another little-known fact about Jack Webb is that his greatest love was jazz music. His personal music collection included more than 6,000 jazz recordings, which is a lot of vinyl! His jazz obsession led him to create and star in Pete Kelly’s Blues, which was a radio series (1951), a motion picture (1955), and a TV series (1959); the show featured Pete Kelly, who worked as a private eye to supplement his income as a jazz cornet player. Webb himself played the cornet, and while he wasn’t a master of the instrument, he was good enough to occasionally gig in L.A. jazz clubs during his younger days. It was during this time that he met and married singer/actress Julie London in 1947; though they divorced in 1954, they remained close throughout the rest of Webb’s life, and London would star in Webb’s later TV series Emergency!
Speaking of which, did you know that Webb was directly responsible for two of the biggest TV hits of the seventies? He had established his own production company, Mark VII Limited, back in his early Dragnet days, and it would produce a new police series that focused on the day-to-day experiences of two LAPD officers: Pete Malloy (played by Martin Milner) and Jim Reed (played by Kent McCord). That series was Adam-12, and it ran on NBC from September 21, 1968, until May 20, 1975. A ratings star through most of its seven-year run, Adam-12 spawned a spinoff series, Emergency!, that became an even bigger hit.
Emergency! focused on the Los Angeles Fire Department’s fictional Fire Station 51, specifically paramedics Roy DeSota (Kevin Tighe) and Johnny Gage (Randolph Mantooth). The duo worked in concert with the ER staff of Rampart General Hospital (also fictional), which included Dr. Kelly Brackett (Robert Fuller), Dr. Joe Early (Bobby Troup), and Nurse Dixie McCall (Julie London). Though Emergency! ran for one less season than Adam-12, it arguably had more of a pop-culture impact. I was in elementary school then, and Emergency! was everywhere; it ran directly against maybe the toughest "out" in all of television back then, All in the Family, and frequently won the ratings battle in that time slot! It spawned an animated series called Emergency +4, which I don’t have a memory of (I was too busy watching Dr. Shock’s Mad Theatre and Soul Train!) but which ran for two seasons.
Though Webb’s screen persona was on the dour side, in real life, the guy had a great sense of humor! He was offered the role of Dean Vernon Wormer in National Lampoon’s Animal House, and though he turned it down because (in his own words) “the movie didn’t make any damn sense,” he did other work that showed his lighter side. Don’t believe it? Just look for him in the 1950 Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard or find the famous Tonight Show sketch he did with Johnny Carson, a Dragnet spoof that left both men in stitches before the end ("Copper Clapper Caper"). Webb also did some terrific dramatic work in films such as The Men and Dark City, very much worth checking out.
Oh, and one last factoid: you know that “Just the facts, ma’am” that Webb was credited as making into a catch phrase on Dragnet? Ahhhhhhh . . . turns out that he didn’t actually say that. A quick fact check shows that he generally used some version of “All we know/all we know are the facts, ma’am.” But the “Just the facts, ma’am” shtick originated with satirist Stan Freberg, who used it as part of a 1953 comedy record album devoted to sending up the popular crime series. So, Sgt. Joe Friday’s “Just the facts, ma’am” joins Sherlock Holmes’ “Elementary, my dear Watson” as the best line a fictional character never said!
Anyway, I’ll be taking a short break over the holiday season, but I’ll be back with a column about a series that must have appealed to Jack Webb’s need for realism: the 1950s syndicated anthology series Science Fiction Theater. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.