Dragnet (1967-1970)

Jack Webb rebooted his television series in the late 1960s to a new audience. Dragnet the radio series and later 1950s television series were well-known, particularly Webb’s Joe Friday and his just the facts, world weary persona.

The 1950s version of Joe Friday

My blog on Webb’s Adam-12 (click on the Adam-12 to read) series also digs into Dragnet. Those two series are intricately linked, both produced by Webb and crossovers of actors and a few characters.

Dragnet was Webb’s mothership, it provides Webb’s success and made his other television series possible. Webb and Dragnet are so iconic it is difficult to separate the two.

Since Webb owned the series and paid for the production with licensing fees from the network, it was important to produce them within budget. As producer/director of all 98 episodes, Webb ran a tight ship. Dragnet has very rudimentary production values, down to the reusable sets and wardrobe. Friday and Gannon wore the same outfits in every episode. Webb was the king of efficiency, in that he could easily cut the episodes together by filming out of sequence and reusing location scenes.

One of the things I liked about the show was the opening narration where Webb gave cultural and historical information about Los Angeles. Then he added that sometimes things went bad and that’s why he carried a badge. After the credits, Webb’s narration continued, he setup where Friday and Gannon were working, the commander in charge of the unit, and even what the weather was like that day. Webb brought you into the show.

Each episode generally followed a case they were given, or it focused on some event that could involve a case or a chance for Friday to talk about the life of a cop. For example, one episode involved Friday attending a college class where after making an arrest of a fellow student, he was kicked out of the class. Another episode focused on Friday and Gannon attending a police retreat, where they have to confront some very unsavory attitudes of a fellow detective. In a lighter episode, which there were only a couple, Gannon invites Friday to have dinner at his house and the entire evening is disrupted by Gannon’s neighbors. These episodes were quite interesting because they were not about procedures, rather about Friday and Gannon.

Dragnet was heavy on police procedure and investigative process. Friday and Gannon worked so well together, like hand and glove. Webb got the full cooperation of the LAPD in making the show, from case files to exterior location work. Webb went a step further, he used technical advisers to make sure the methodology was accurate.

Webb’s direction is like his police procedure, by the book.  Occasionally, Webb will make a statement with the camera to emphasize a dramatic effect, but Webb’s direction is boilerplate: master shot, two-shot, close-up, and various versions of these in the final edit.  Fancy camera placements cost money and distract from the story, so Webb rarely used them.  Webb was also big on continuity: each episode has a familiar rhythm, from the opening narration, to the final scene with the disposition of the case.

Dragnet (1967-1970) was produced at a time when crime was rising, there was civil unrest and American youth were dropping out and using drugs. It’s obvious that Webb like episodes about the counterculture and especially drugs. Webb’s generation didn’t seem to understand the restlessness and rebellion of teenagers, so many episodes showed the big generation gap between youth and their parents. Interestingly, Webb had an episode where Friday and Gannon debates a liberal college professor and a hippy (Howard “Dr. Johnny Fever” Hesseman) about drugs and civil liberties. Those shows were usually lectures about respect for the law and the rules of society. Webb balanced that with advice of changing the laws if you disagreed with them. Friday was known for his monologues, where he quotes statistics and hammered a variety of points to frame his position. For example, Friday often spoke of the dangers of marijuana, deriding weed because of the company it keeps, meaning harder drugs.

Joe Friday’s politics might have skewed conservative, but he believed in equality and using the system to work for change, not suppressing it. Even in the late 1960s, there few black faces on television. Webb made sure there were black police officers and detectives. He focused several shows on confronting racist attitudes, wrapping the discussion around cases. He continued this in Adam-12 stories.

I don’t know what Webb would thought of the post-1980s LAPD. The Rodney King beating, the O. J. Simpson investigation and the scandal and criminality of officers in the Rampart Division. Often, Friday acknowledged the duty to weed out bad cops. He knew there were some and admitted that police officers come from the same human gene pool the rest of us do. But, he would also point to the tens of thousands of very good officers who wore the badge during this time-frame.  Dragnet was a weekly recruiting film for law enforcement.

The rebooted Dragnet actually began with a television film Webb produced in 1966 that was not aired until 1969.  In the film, Gannon is forced to retire and the last case they work is of three young women who disappeared. Friday and Gannon try to find the perpetrator before another young woman disappears. It is a very grim subject, but Webb as the director, turns in a pretty good effort. He makes sure Gannon gets some funny lines about food and dental work, in addition to retirement. Gannon obviously did not stay retired, which was a good thing because the chemistry between Webb and Harry Morgan was great. Morgan’s Gannon could needle and poke fun at Friday, especially about being a naive bachelor, while Friday noted the quirkiness of Gannon’s diet and health kicks, as well as his know it all attitude about things.  All good-hearted.

There is a lot of comment on about the series and characters, but there is one very interesting thing to me.

Webb had a stock company of actors he used over and over again. A few showed up later on in episodes of Adam-12 and even Emergency!  Webb collected actors, writers and technicians, dating back to his radio days. These were folks Webb trusted to hit the mark, deliver lines without fail, and create a memorable performance. If you did, he used you again, and again.  Jack Webb was also a loyal guy.

Three of Webb’s favorite actresses were Virginia Gregg (13 episodes), Peggy Webber (8 episodes) and Merry Anders (Policewoman Dorothy Miller, 7 episodes).

Virginia Gregg and Peggy Webber

Webb rotated several veteran actors as police captains. These were stoic, serious and steely actors.  Len Wayland (9 episodes), Mert Howe (13 episodes), Art Balinger (18 episodes) and Clark Howat (21 episodes).

Clark Howat and Art Balinger

Finally, he had a group of actors who showed up as victims, police officers, criminals or witnesses. Any of these folks might appears in two or three episodes per season. You would recognize them but not know their names. Don Ross (31 episodes), Alfred Shelly (16 episodes), Marco Lopez (13 episodes), Howard Culver (13 episodes), Bert Holland (13 episodes), Ed Deemer (13 episodes) Olan Soule (9 episodes), William Boyette (9 episodes), Stacy Harris (8 episodes), Harry Bartel (7 episodes), Anthony Eisley (6 episodes), Bobby Troup (5 episodes).  Most of these folks are very recognizable faces, they have many acting credits in their careers.  Jack Webb was so loyal that he hired his ex-wife, Julie London, and her current husband, Bobby Troup, to co-star on Emergency!

Bert Holland and Olan Soule

I mention his group of actors because they were an important ingredient to the show. When you watch the show, Webb wants you to see the realism of police work, but as importantly, to engage in the story and see the officers, witnesses and victims as people. Friday was mild-mannered, but strong. Webb created a world of law enforcement that was familiar and made a connection with his viewers. Webb didn’t write the scripts, but he served as story editor. He knew exactly what he wanted to convey and how it would look.

The style of Dragnet was matter of fact, nothing exaggerated. Often the show focused on small details because cases often turned on small clues. In one episode, Friday shot a man trying to break into a cash machine in a laundromat. The man dies but Friday cannot validates that the man shot at him first. Finally, detectives find a bullet under a shelf, hidden by a low angle of entry. The entire show turned on finding that evidence. In another episode, two detectives are accused of stealing money from a dead man. They gave the landlady a receipt for the money but she claims they did not. Friday finally finds their receipt book had fallen into the heating vent in the dashboard of their car. Small, but important things, just like life.

Dragnet was rebooted twice as television series, unsuccessfully, and a Tom Hanks-Dan Ackroyd comedy. Webb was said to have been working on a reboot for himself in the 1980s when he died of a heart attack.

I’ve seen each episode a hundred times, and I own the DVDs, but if it’s on the tube, I cannot help myself. After Friday says, “This is the city…Los Angeles, California.” I’m hooked.

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