WEBB, JACK

U.S. Actor/Producer

Although he will be remembered most for his physically rigid portrayal of the morally rigid cop Joe Friday on Dragnet, Jack Webb had one of the most varied and far-reaching careers in television history. In his four decades in broadcasting, Webb performed nearly every role imaginable in the industry: actor, director, producer, writer (under the pseudonym John Randolph), editor, owner of an independent production company, and major studio executive. Webb's importance stems not only from his endurance and versatility, but also from his innovation and success.

Webb entered broadcasting as a radio announcer in 1945. After leading roles in radio dramas such as Pat Novak For Hire, Webb conceived of his own police program based on discussions with Los Angeles police officers about the unrealistic nature of most "cop" shows. Dragnet began on NBC radio in 1949, based on "actual cases" from the files of the L.A.P.D. and featuring Webb as director, producer, co-writer, and star in the role of the stoic Sergeant Joe Friday. Webb broke the traditional molds of both "true story" crime dramas and "radio noir" by de-emphasizing violence, suspense, and the personal life of the protagonists; he instead strove for maximum verisimilitude by using police jargon, showing "business-only" cops following dead-end leads and methodical procedures, and sacrificing spectacle for authenticity. Webb's personal ties to the L.A.P.D. (which approved scripts and production for every Dragnet episode) and his own admitted "ultra-conservative" political beliefs tinted his version of "reality" in all of his productions, where good always triumphed over evil and the law always represented the best interests of all members of the society at large.

Dragnet was a huge success, moving to television in 1951 where it became the highest-rated crime drama in broadcast history. The television version featured more Webb innovations, including passionless dialogue and acting (obtained by forcing actors to read dialogue "cold" from cue-cards) and using camera and editing techniques taken from a film model. The show's success fueled Webb's career as an independent producer and director of both television and feature films. Webb's Mark VII Limited production company produced Dragnet throughout its run on television, including its four-year return in the late 1960s. He also produced numerous other shows with varied degrees of success, including Adam-12, Emergency, and General Electric True, but all Mark VII productions featured Webb's special blend of heightened realism, rapid-fire emotionless dialogue, and conservative politics. In 1954, Dragnet spawned one of the first in a long line of successful television-inspired films. Webb directed and produced more feature films throughout the 1950s, most notably an acclaimed version of Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955.

Webb's least successful venture was his brief tenure as a studio executive. Webb, whose association with Warner Brothers ran back to his mid-1950s film projects, was named head of production at Warner Brothers Television in early 1963. Although his previous successes created high expectations, Webb was only able to sell one show to a network (NBC's short-lived Western Temple Houston) and his singular style was incompatible with Warner's only other series on-air, 77 Sunset Strip. This "ultra-hip" crime show was created in direct opposition the grim procedural quality of Dragnet, but Webb pushed the already waning show in a new direction--toward the stark realism of his previous work. 77 Sunset Strip was canceled at the end of the season, but Webb didn't last as long--he was fired in December 1963, ending a failed ten-month tenure.

Upon Webb's death in 1982, most reports and coverage focused on Joe Friday. His performance style has been parodied since his emergence in the 1950s, but Webb's impact on television has never been properly assessed. Always anomalous and bucking the tide of televisual convention, Webb's style lives on in syndicated episodes of Dragnet, but his innovations and creations are consistently being copied or forsaken on every crime show today.

-Jason Mittell


Jack Webb

JACK WEBB. Born in Santa Monica, California, U.S.A., 2 April 1920. Educated at Belmont High School. Married: 1) Julie Peck (London), 1947 (divorced, 1954), children: Stacy and Lisa; 2) Dorothy Thompson, 1955 (divorced, 1957); 3) Jackie Loughery, 1958 (divorced, 1964). Served with the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, 1942-45. Radio star and producer, 1945-61; television producer, director, and actor, from 1955; star and director of motion pictures from 1948; founder, production company Mark VII, Ltd., and music publishing firms of Mark VII Music and Pete Kelly Music; executive in charge of television production, Warner Brothers Studios, 1963. Member: Screen Actors Guild; Screen Directors Guild; American Society of Cinematographers; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; United Cerebral Palsy Association (honorary chair). Recipient: Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Best Mystery Show, 1952-54; over 100 commendations of merit awarded by radio and television critics. Died in Los Angeles, California, U.S., 23 December 1982.

TELEVISION (executive producer)

1955-70 Dragnet (actor, producer, director)
1968-74 Adam 12 (creator and producer)
1970-71 The D.A.
1970-71 O'Hara, U.S. Treasury
1971-75 Emergency!
1973 Escape (narrator only)
1973 Chase
1974-75 The Rangers
1975 Mobile Two
1977 Sam
1978 Project U.F.O.
1978 Little Mo

FILMS (selection; actor)

He Walked By Night, 1948; Sunset Blvd., 1950; The Men, 1950; Halls of Montezuma, 1950; You're in the Navy Now, 1951; Dragnet (also directed), 1954; Pete Kelly's Blues (also directed), 1955; The D.I. (also directed), 1957; The Last Time I Saw Archie (also directed), 1961.

RADIO

Pat Novak For Hire, 1945; Johnny Modero Pier 23, 1947; Dragnet (creator, director, producer, star), 1949-55; Pete Kelly's Blues (creator), 1950; True Series (creator), 1961.

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood TV. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Collins, Max Allan, and John Javna. The Best of Crime and Detective TV. New York: Harmony, 1988.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Don't Touch That Dial. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979.

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego: A.S. Barnes, 1981.

Varni, Charles A. Images of Police Work and Mass-Media Propaganda: The Case of "Dragnet" (Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1974).

 

See also Detective Programs; Dragnet; Police Programs