Dragnet’s Jack Webb died thirty years ago, and a lot of America has been dead ever since.
Jack Webb, who died thirty years ago this weekend, arrived at the right time. “After the war, people were much more realistic,” notes Peggy Webber, star of more than 100 Dragnet episodes. “They wanted things to be as honest as possible. And he filled the bill.”
Dragnet, as the just-the-facts catchphrase it inspired indicates, depicted police work without the frills. Whereas other detective stories attracted listeners through the promise of a weekly shootout, Dragnet snagged them by keeping the weapons holstered. The iconic music, gimmicky teasers promising to reveal case results, and insistence that the show dramatized real-life events joined with the deadpan deliveries to provide the program an audience and authenticity.
My favorite radio episode involved a disturbed old man who for thrills made emergency phone calls for fake car accidents and the like. Typical broadcasts included bunco swindles of Korean War widows, juvenile delinquent rumbles, and small-time robberies of mom-and-pop outlets. Occasionally, the radio run tackled heroin, pornography, and other (im?)mature themes. The hustlers argued their innocence. They never, unlike their counterparts in the ’60s-era television version, argued the innocence of hustling. Crime hadn’t changed. Criminals had.
This became startlingly evident on the January 12, 1967 premiere episode of Dragnet 1967, which depicts a blue-faced teenager tripping on acid. Blue Boy memorably makes numerous non sequitur observations: “Brown, blue, yellow, green, green, orange, red. Red! Red! Red! I can hear them! I can hear them all!” Fifties, meet the sixties.
We remember this post-Miranda incarnation of Dragnet, despite it not achieving the success of the fifties television series or the radio program that started in 1949, in part because of its new-morality-meets-old quality. Joe Friday, with his close-cropped square-cut and man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit look in a tie-dyed age, might be best seen as a time traveler from the previous decade scoffing at the hubris of Timothy Leary-types, hateful Black Panthers, George Lincoln Rockwell-wannabes, and other enemies of law and order made-to-order for a Technicolor age.
Jack Webb, who married four beautiful women and fanatically wore down jazz records, wasn’t the spartan bachelor Joe Friday. But the actor resembled the character enough to notice. The World War II veteran narrated the federal government’s Cold War propaganda film, Red Nightmare. When Webb didn’t hawk Chesterfields to his listeners he chain smoked them long after radio’s golden age had passed. Loved ones hectored him to clean up his caveman diet. He countered: “What would the public think of Sergeant Friday if they thought he ate granola and drank milk?”
You can learn a lot about the actor and the character by watching, or listening to, Dragnet. Jack Webb could be preachy. He could be callous in his penchant for cruelly ironic one-liners when a villain fell as a victim. He could be cold. But he couldn’t overact. Jack Webb was the anti-William Shatner.
The man converged most with the character in his loyalty. Unlike, say, Gunsmoke, which ditched the gravel-voiced William Conrad for the granite-chinned James Arness, Dragnet retained its actors when it transitioned from radio to television. Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio observed more than insulted when he dubbed the pixilated Dragnet “animated radio.” Radio’s same character actors appeared in different roles over and over again on television. Nachman points out, “The neorealistic show was such a total radio creature that it gained nothing from TV—you could shut your eyes and absorb it totally through your ears.”
Whereas listeners tuned into Dragnet in 1949 because it fit in with the times, viewers tuned into the show in 1967 because it stood apart from them.
“Don’t think you have a corner on all the virtue, vision in the country,” Joe Friday lectured the would-be creators of a hippie utopia. “Or that everybody else is fat and selfish and you’re the first generation to come along that’s felt dissatisfied. They all have, you know, about different things. Most of them didn’t have the same opportunity and freedoms that you do. Let’s talk poverty. Most places in the world that’s not a problem. That’s a way of life. And rights? They’re liable to give you a blank stare because they may not know what you’re talking about. The fact is more people are living better right here than anywhere else ever before in history. So don’t expect us to roll over and play dead when you say you’re dissatisfied.”
Jack Webb, like another pop culture giant of the sixties, just wasn’t made for these times. But the silent majority watching NBC on Thursday nights was pleased he was there.
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