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* * * * *br> As 1982 drew to a close, Jack Webb was a man in domestic exile. But you’d never know it from the way he held court at the Cock and Bull, observing the passing scene with laconic stingers delivered in his trademark baritone. Physically smaller than you’d expect but projecting a commanding presence nonetheless, he moved matter-of-factly across topics, skewering television network people, then segueing into a moral commentary on the behavior of so-and-so’s ex-wife whom he saw sitting a few tables away.
Jack had a great memory, which was fortunate, because right now he didn’t have much else. Once the fair-haired boy of Universal Studios producing — in the broadest sense of the word — one hit television series after another for more than two decades, the torch had not so much been passed as ripped from his fingers. His Elba was a dour, non-descript office building “off the lot” — across the street from the prestigious Universal complex where he had reigned for so long. He still spoke of longtime chief Lew Wasserman with almost mystical respect. Note, he told me, that there were no signs at Universal identifying buildings, because Lew didn’t like signs. (He was right — there were no signs.)
There had arisen, of course, a new fair-haired hyphenate at Universal by the name of Steven Spielberg. E.T. had just come out, and Jack offered an unprompted fiscal and artistic analysis. “This will be the first one billion dollar negative,” he said (meaning a film asset that will be worth that much). As we were still taking that in, he quickly added, “A boy and his monkey — I did that twenty years ago.”
It wasn’t so much that Jack Webb was rejecting the present as he was holding up the current players to a kind of historical gold standard. He pointed out to me an actor who he thought might go far — “if you can get past his lisp.” (That man is currently a mega-star, and no one notices the lisp.)
Basically I kept quiet — and everyone seemed to appreciate a kid who knew his place. Then the conversation veered toward issues that threatened to kill any budding friendship right in this red leather cradle. In rapid succession, with unnerving intuition, he homed in on the hot issues.
• A complete meat and potatoes guy, Jack railed about hippies and vegetarians as the waitress delivered me my tuna fish sandwich. Should I tell him that I was avoiding Cock and Bull’s signature roast beef solely because this was approximately day five of my personal commitment to eat exclusively kosher meat? I ate quickly. He didn’t notice the sandwich.
• Next, he took off on a movie star who had recently made some unfortunate left-wing statements. In Jack’s mind, she epitomized the current nightmare where the lunatics were taking over both show business and the government. What happens, I wondered, when he learns that my wife had been this woman’s personal assistant for five years?
• By this time, my mouth was understandably dry, so I motioned to one of the sweet veteran waitresses for some water. As she brought it, she leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Sorry dear. Of course we always put water on the table. But Mr. Webb has a strict rule at his table: he doesn’t want to see any liquid there except scotch and coffee.”
The situation in the world at large made Jack all the more despondent. At this point in the Reagan administration, “Morning in America” was not even on the horizon. Although inflation was already improving, there were 12 million jobless and we were heading toward a record $200 billion deficit. On the world scene, there was intense pressure for a “nuclear freeze,” i.e., to capitulate to the Soviet Union’s strategic superiority. Jack said that he knew personally that “Ronnie” understood what was at stake — but even he was powerless to stop the forces working against him. In short, society was in an uncontrollable tailspin.
The man who as producer, writer, director and actor never suffered from doubt now questioned everything. The aggregate subtext of his wisecracks was clear: Has time really passed me by? To be sure, the heroes he played were all decidedly low tech. The baggy pants and close-cropped hair of his Dragnet character were apparently no competition for Han Solo. And who used a stubby pencil and persistent footwork to solve anything anymore? The scrupulous, disciplined lack of pretension throughout all his work, that simplicity which had made his stories so compelling, now made him an instant antique.
It’s important to remember how “cutting edge” Jack was in the way he portrayed society. He has introduced a phenomenal amount of police terms into the general vocabulary, and was similarly expansive in the way he treated military basic training, running a newspaper, and playing jazz. But the purpose of this jargon was not to establish some kind of hit-and-run verisimilitude. Rather, he was always saying in effect: “I want you to meet some heroes, but to appreciate their heroism you have to first appreciate and understand the environment in which they work.” If the public really understood the nuts and bolts of law enforcement, he reasoned, how could they possibly do anything but support it?
When I made my first pro-Reagan comment, Jack looked at me carefully if not suspiciously — you could tell he had just activated his suck-up detector. But the conversation continued — and my passion served as an adequate substitute for experience. After a while, he actually believed that I shared his values and perspective — and displayed definite junior associate potential for the retrospective collection he was about to pull together.
At about 2:30 p.m., we left the restaurant. Outside, on Sunset Strip, the air was seasonally cold and crisp. And after almost three hours in the grotto, the sun was blinding. Squinting, Jack looked me in the eye and said goodbye by name. We made plans to meet again soon. It was a Claude Rains moment — he smiled, and gave my hand an extra shake — this could be the beginning of a great friendship. Ten days later, the man whose 1970s show Emergency was directly responsible for firehouse-based paramedics across the country was dead of a sudden heart attack.
* * * * *
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