Friday, April 2, 2010

Joe Friday Would Have Been 90 Today

Jack Webb was a sickly boy who grew up in poverty. His father left before the boy was born on April 2, 1920. Raised by his mother and grandmother, Webb gained a lifelong appreciation for jazz music from musicians who rented rooms in his mother’s house. Webb also developed an intense acceptance of people from all races.

Jack Webb

After World War II, Webb found his way into radio. In February, 1946, he did a program called “One out of Seven,” a dramatization of a news item from the week. The program railed against racial intolerance. One program, telling of a racist Senator from Mississippi, was reminiscent of Marc Antony’s eulogy of Julius Caesar: “The fact remains, as a member of the Senate of the United States, Theodore Gilmore Bilbo is an honorable man, and we do not intend to prove otherwise.” This refrain repeats a number of times during the fifteen minute program – while presenting the Senator’s self-damning words. Except for the program announcer, and a singer in one program, all voices on the show were Jack Webb’s. One week he even did a quote as Winston Churchill. “One out of Seven” was certainly ahead of its time in 1946 – and a far cry from they way many people imagine Jack Webb today.

In April of the same year, Webb began a comedy show on the ABC West Coast Network from KGO, San Francisco. Two episodes exist today. They have some cute bits, but some of the bits are stretched. That show last six to eight weeks.

Webb’s most known radio role from San Francisco was “Pat Novak, for Hire.” To the uninitiated, Pat Novak sounds like about as lame a detective show (although Novak was not really a detective) as they come. But with quotes such as, “She was young. And from what I could see, she made Cleopatra look like Apple Mary,” you knew it was a parody. The plot was always the same: Someone approaches Novak to hire him for a job that he doesn’t really want to take. But he takes it, someone gets murdered, Inspector Hellman (played by Raymond Burr) tries to pin the killing on Novak, Novak calls his friend Jocko Madigan – a drunk ex-doctor—to find information to clear Novak. Novak gets cleared, and Hellman is made to look like a fool. But you did not listen to Pat Novak for the plot – the dialog was the raison d’ĂȘtre.

Webb moved to Los Angeles and picked up other radio roles. In 1948 he got his first real movie role, playing the police lab technician, Lee, in “He Walks by Night.” This role changed Webb’s life. The film is a pre-Dragnet Dragnet. Many of the elements Webb used in Dragnet were first used here. Not only was the case taken from police files, although somewhat fictionalized (as were the cases on Dragnet), but it also used “This is the city…” and “The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” While making this film, Webb met the technical advisor – Sgt. Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department. Wynn complained that radio detective shows made police out to be idiots. Webb and Wynn became friends, and they discussed the idea of doing a radio show like the film on which they were working – based on cases from police files. Webb began to work on the idea.

In early 1949, Webb was doing a second round of “Pat Novak,” this version produced in Los Angeles although still set in San Francisco. While this was on, he developed Dragnet. He shopped it around to the networks he had been on, CBS and ABC, but neither was interested. He then took the show to NBC, who gave him a sustained, or unsponsored, program.

Dragnet debuted on June 3, 1949. The show was rough for the first year; it took a while for the characters to be ironed out and for plot devices to become standardized. During the first year the show relied on many clichĂ©’s. You knew that if a friend of Joe Friday’s came by to see Joe at the beginning of the show, you knew that friend would be killed in the show. Some of the acting was a bit over the top: in an early program when the “hotshot” phone rings, the Captain sounds like he is about to have a coronary while telling someone to answer it.

Dragnet did not look like it was going to have a long run, until a reviewer wrote a glowing article about the program in the New York Times. After that, the ratings grew – and ratings brought a sponsor. The thing that brought people in, and held them, was the realism. Dragnet also touched on subjects never before heard on radio, or seen in the movies, for that matter: drug use, pornography, child killing, child molestation. It was not a sugar coated world, and Dragnet reflected that.

Jack Webb explored new territory in drama, and his influence is still being felt sixty years later.


  1. Ha! afw and Jack Webb, two peas in a pod I tells ya :0)

  2. Seriously great post though. Very interesting. For those of you who may not have guessed, Matt is a HUGE Dragnet fan. One of the guys he works with tests him every once in a while by naming a character or incident from a Dragnet radio show. Matt can then name the exact episode. Or this guy will miss the end of an episode and Matt will be able to tell him what happened.

    He can remember all that, but ask him where he put the glass platter that he unloaded from the dishwasher last night....

  3. Great post Matt! I didn't know all that about Jack Webb.

    I'm too young to have heard Webb on the radio, but I loved the (1960s) TV series. My little brother lived and breathed "Adam-12", and spent most summer afternoons on "bike patrol".

    Is there a website that has audios of his radio programs? I'd love to hear them...

  4. Matt - this was fascinating! I didn't know any of this!

    He can remember all that, but ask him where he put the glass platter that he unloaded from the dishwasher last night....

    It has to be a guy thing! AFG will rip on a movie for the wrong gun sounds (Yes! The sound! Apparently people can tell them apart by the sound!), but if a kid is melting down and I ask him what the issue is, he'll say, "I have no idea!"

  5. Is there a website that has audios of his radio programs?

    There are some sights, but you have to register an/or pay for many of them. I know of one sight that requires neither, but it does not have many.

    I have some MP3s which are small enough to email to you (one at a time). Fine print:I believe these are public domain, so I would be clear to share them.

  6. I typed that rite. It is the "POST" button that did it!

  7. A thoroughly enjoyable post, Matt. I remember how you loved Dragnet; who would have thought Jack Webb was in a comedy show - and on KGO to boot!?!

    I always admired him, his delivery and take-charge persona on Dragnet. He was one of the good guys.

    Interesting how a review by the NYT could pretty much make or break a show.

  8. I've just read you're Webb post and found it to be informative and interesting.
    You have a particular writing style that made me want to read on.
    I'll be waiting for more detective show blogs

  9. Hey Barry. Glad you liked the piece on Jack Webb. My style is highly distilled, or I would jam the entire internet just getting my pieces to load.

    Take a look around, we have a great bunch of people here.

  10. Hi ecomm Barry, welcome to the Table.