The death late in 2011 of the marvelous actor Harry Morgan, got me thinking about the two wonderful roles that defined his career, Colonel Sherman Potter in M*A*S*H, and Officer Bill Gannon in the later television version of Dragnet and that of course made me think about his partner Jack Webb; there are few characters as iconic as Sergeant Joe Friday, the matter-of-fact Los Angeles police officer whose terse speech patterns became fodder for hundreds of spoofs. But the truth is that Dragnet, both on television and, more importantly for the purposes of OTRCAT.com was an innovative series that was, in so many ways, far ahead of its time.
Jack Webb was born in 1920, just as radio was beginning its ascent. Even as a youth he was intrigued by the new medium and worked part-time as an announcer on several West Coast stations. His rich voice, imbued as it was with a distinctive slight tightness that made him sound overly serious, landed him a gig with Armed Forces Radio where he directed, hosted, and performed in several programs. His first full-time job was on the legendary California station KGO where his show was named The Coffee Club. A jazz aficionado who liked to introduce new acts,Webb became a popular on-air personality. In 1946 he hosted a bizarre comedy series cleverly titled The Jack Webb Show, but an undying belief in and understanding of radio’s dramatic potential led him to star in Pat Novak, For Hire, a detective drama produced by KGO for the ABC West Coast Network. For one year beginning in 1946 Webb starred as Pat Novak "the acid-tongued waterfront troubleshooter." The hard-boiled detective had to have been the inspiration for the character of Joe Friday, who, though more chatty but still brusque, was far less nasty than Novak.
For the next years after playing Novak, Webb appeared on shows such as Escape, The Whistler, and This is Your FBI, and in 1948 appeared in the film He Walked by Night in which he played a crime lab cop. It was during filming of the movie that Webb and the film’s technical advisor Sergeant Marty Wynn of the LAPD came to believe that investigative procedure all by itself was dramatic, and thus was born the basic structural idea behind Dragnet.
Ironically it took Webb some time to get the series off the ground. In order to make it as real as possible, Webb spent countless hours in and around the LAPD, even attending classes at the Police Academy. His goal was to become conversant in police procedure so that the show would sound authentic. IN the end, the demo he produced sounded like a cop show without the overt melodrama radio audiences had come to expect, but it was accepted by the network and all that remained was to get the permission of the LAPD to produce the show and use their actual case files. The LAPD agreed with only one condition: they had veto power over the sponsors. Ironically in its entire radio life,Dragnet had only two sponsors, Fatima Cigarettes and Chesterfield!
Though it went on the air on June 3rd, 1949, the series didn’t really hit stride until 1950 when the now famous four-note theme was added. But the series is a tribute to great radio; each episode is a an exploration of human frailty couched in the most clinical police work, all interspersed with exchanges about everyday life.In an odd way, while Friday seems so stiff and cold, the personal components thrown into each show humanize the cops. Another truly amazing part of each show is the way sound is used. Webb wanted absolute precision, so the sound effects are a tour-de-force of realism with as many as 300 effects used in each episode! Webb wanted it to be right, and if there were forty-five steps from one office to another, listeners heard forty-five steps.
So, long before there was Cops or reality TV, Jack Webb was exploring the concept of reality radio and later re-enacted TV. And while Webb will be remembered as the stiff, not very amusing Sergeant Friday, the actor was also a fine comedian. If you want proof, watch the clip of Webb and Johnny Carson discussing the case of the missing clappers from Cleveland.
Finally, it wouldn’t be proper to end this tribute without telling you: The story you have just heard is true, the names (were not) changed to protect the innocent.
Here’s to you Jack Webb!
Anthony Rudel has written for many magazines and is a frequent lecturer on music and broadcasting. His newest book, Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio, tells the story of the boisterous years when radio took its place in the nation's living room and forever changed American politics, journalism, and entertainment.