To the sociologist, she is the typical, unfortunate depression child who matured too suddenly in her teens into the easy money, easy living, easy loving of wartime America. To the criminologist, though, the case is almost too melodramatic in its twists, her tortured, severed body is an eerie blend of Poe and Freud. To millions of plain Americans, fascinated by the combined savagery and cool intellect that went into her murder, she is “The Black Dahlia.”
— from The Badge by Jack Webb (a nonfiction book, 1958)
Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, California — December 13, 1982
The last thing I wanted to do was get Jack Webb angry with me. Yet here I was — a lowly studio script reader — at the legendary Cock and Bull honored with an end seat at his corner table in the room off the bar, listening in as Jack and his cronies conducted their daily tour de horizon of the way things were. Even a first time visitor caught on quickly that this living legend inhabited a binary world with no gray area, composed of good and evil, friend or foe, cop and criminal, saints and whores.
More often than not, people who articulate such a polarized worldview draw a comfort and serenity from its symmetry and simplicity. But not Jack, not now. One of this town’s greatest “hyphenates” (actor, writer, producer, director), Webb was at this moment exercised to the extreme. On all visible fronts — Hollywood, the culture, the nation — it was the dark side — the bad guys, the crooks and the a**holes — that appeared to be winning. I immediately wanted to be this man’s friend, partly because of the exhilaration of being in his presence and partly because I was already terrified of the alternative.
“Jack Webb is the most under-appreciated auteur in this town,” I had told an acquaintance just a few days previously, when he mentioned in a Hollywood-casual kind of way that he was developing a project with the legend. “Most creative giants are considered a success if they develop or become associated with a single genre giant such as Chaplin, Sennett, Hitchcock, Gene Autry, David Lean,” I continued. “Compared to Webb, they’re one-trick ponies. Not only did he create a distinct genre and narrative style for television and radio — police procedural (Dragnet) — Webb created several distinct feature film paradigms that Hollywood has been knocking off for thirty years. Compare his D.I. to An Officer and a Gentleman. Compare his -30- to All the President’s Men. Compare Pete Kelly’s Blues to countless musical/drama/performance flicks. Moreover, his book The Badge re-opened the Black Dahlia case and indirectly spawned the Hollywood Babylon genre which includes important works such as Chinatown and True Confessions.“
To be sure, my rant was spoken like a severely over-analytical script reader. But when I had finished, the businessman and his partner were beaming. The moment passed, but the next day this same acquaintance called me up for the first time.
“Jack wants to meet you.”
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
American culture is like a mobius — people, lifestyles, attitudes go away for a while, only to eventually return again upside down. Watch the passing scene long enough, and you’ll see the lava lamp of social norms reverse itself, then reverse itself again. For the Webb legacy, the shift has been of the 180-degree polar variety, providing the kind of clarity and moral sledgehammer that Jack so favored.
Consider the big picture:
• His friend Ronnie did turn around the economy — they stopped calling it Reaganomics the next year.
• The Soviets lost.
• After an eight-year “slip,” America has begun the new century with a president committed to the kind of values that would make Sgt. Friday proud.
On the professional scene:
• Instead of simply riding the electromagnetic spectrum all the way to viewers in Alpha Centauri, a technology and infrastructure (cable channels, DVD’s, etc.) emerged to preserve and distribute the Jack Webb corpus of work to the next generation. In addition to Dragnet, shows like Adam-12 now have a whole new body of fans.
• In 1987, Universal produced a campy, comedic Dragnet feature film — but explicitly remained respectful of the Webb character and legacy.
• Currently, a brand new Dragnet television series is in production headed by Dick Wolf, the creator of Law and Order — itself a police procedural whose lineage traces directly to the original show.
• Neo-Film Noir came back big time — and those in the know acknowledge that this dark vision of postwar Los Angeles began with Dragnet. James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential and a tone setter in film noir, credits his receiving The Badge from his father as a birthday present at age eleven as one of the creatively seminal events in his life.
* * * * *
Moralists and scolds may point to Jack’s lifestyle as being the cause of an early death at age 64. They could point to the Jack Webb Breakfast: a cup of coffee and a pack of L&M’s (laudably displaying forty years of loyalty to his original radio sponsor, Liggett and Meyers). Or the Jack Webb Lunch: a shrimp cocktail and a Crown Royal.
I really don’t know what stopped his heart from beating — nor is it really anyone’s business. But I will hazard a guess that, even though he displayed not a trace of self-pity, the 1982 zeitgeist generated a level of frustration, despondency, and anger that could be lethal to anyone. In fact, you could say that Jack Webb was the first victim of a cultural disease that did not yet have a name.
When scientists battle a new disease, clear-cut identification of the pathogen often puts them ninety percent closer to the cure. So it was with what we now know as “political correctness.” A few years after Webb died, in the late eighties, two men who knew a great deal about the power of language control brought the concept to the national stage. First with their Second Thoughts movement, and then through books, periodicals, and public events, authors David Horowitz and Peter Collier were largely responsible for taking “politically correct” — a Maoist term popularized by Angela Davis — and turning it into an ironic pejorative.
The public “got it” — and got it quickly. Americans are a fair-minded lot — and once presented with the absurdities and hypocrisies of contemporary culture and its “leaders” — were able to connect the dots which begin with informal speech codes and culminate in a suffocating leftist monopoly on academia, the media and the arts. Outrage quickly morphed to ridicule, as the nudities of countless emperors were exposed. In this new environment, another generation is now learning to appreciate the values and the art of Jack Webb — the once and future avatar of anti-PC.
* * * * *
What becomes an icon most? Ten days after the end of World War II, Chinese communists murdered a great, brave American named John Birch. Later, people who Birch never knew named their anti-communist society after him as the first victim of the new Cold War. Today, should we therefore create the Jack Webb Society as an organization to fight the PC wars? No, I believe that would be obscene.
Jack would be the first to tell you that playing a lot of heroes didn’t necessarily make him one. But, in the American heroic tradition, he was in essence a man who, through both circumstance and choice, had led a life that was anything but innocent — but who wanted to preserve innocence for the rest of us. There was less bite to his bark than he let on. Indeed, he was proud of the fact that in the first 60 episodes of Dragnet there were only 15 gunshots, three fights and a half-dozen punches.
Today, as we gird ourselves to both conquer a lethal international threat and at the same time wage a domestic war to restore our sick culture, it’s good to remember the man who took that first bullet. Remember how all his characters chose sacrifice over self-actualization. Remember how he always emphasized that crime, at its root, was the residue of the society’s moral level. Remember that, sometimes, the difference between good and evil is very clear.
The Cock and Bull is gone. Even Lew Wasserman is gone. But the good guys are running things — and pretty women are drinking martinis again.
Jack — you won.