TV Flashback: Jack Webb and the Dragnet Legacy

Mar 30, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

Jack Webb Memories: “Just the facts, Ma’am,” “Dum de dum dum,” and dusty hands hammering the Mark VII imprint. Those were Jack’s hands and he had them all over radio, TV and film for more than four decades.

Mostly we remember Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as with many great lines was not what he actually said. Who did say it was Stan Freberg in Little Blue Riding Hood?

LBH: Why Grandma, what big ears you have.

Sgt. Wednesday: All the better to get the facts.

I just want to get the facts, ma’am.

Little Blue was the flipside of St. George and the Dragonet (1953), also a Dragnet parody.

What Joe Friday did say was, “All I want/know are the facts, ma’am.” Close, but not the oft-repeated line that was the hot catchphrase in 1953 and in 1954 when Webb appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. It has been spoken by everyone from Woody Woodpecker and Daffy Duck to PBS,’ characters on Mathnet (“The story you’re about to see is a fib—but it’s short”) and Sesame Street.

Webb started out funny, or trying to be. Fresh out of the service in 1946 he landed in San Francisco and hit the radio airwaves with The Jack Webb Show, a half-hour of comedy and music. He even had a character called Fred Facts who kept repeating the line, “And that’s a fact.” It lasted almost five months.

Next was his hardboiled gumshoe and man-for-hire phase. Pat Novak: For Hire hung out at San Francisco’s Pier 19, sparring with a cop played by Raymond Burr. (Many years later Webb would guest on Perry Mason) The Novak scripts, written with friend Richard Breen, featured dialog in an often-hilarious version of Raymond Chandler’s style:

“I began to think about the .32 caliber pistol. It’s a woman’s weapon. So’s a bread knife if she’s in a bad mood.”

“It was enough to tell me that she was as safe as a tap dancer, on a floor full of dynamite caps.”

Other roles like this were Johnny Madero, Pier 23 and Jeff Regan, Investigator. By 1948 Webb was in Hollywood and also acting in movies. In He Walked by Night, he played a crime lab technician and encountered the film’s technical consultant, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the LAPD.

Through this connection came the idea for a series that would use real cases. With input from Wynn and backing from police chief William H. Parker, Dragnet was born. Premiering on NBC Radio in 1949 it ran for six years. In 1952 the television version started and ran until 1959, starring Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday. The show was so realistic that people called the LAPD asking for Friday.

Dragnet was shot on the Disney lot. Ironic, as Webb had always wanted to be a cartoonist and once applied for a job there. The show used real badges brought to the studio each day, and which had to be returned each night. Working as liaison with LAPD was Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek).

Webb still acted in movies, memorably in Sunset Blvd (1950) and directed himself as a Marine drill instructor (The D.I. 1957). He also appeared in the anti-Communist classic Red Nightmare (1962) with Jack Kelly and Lee Van Cleef. By now, his tough guy persona was firmly in place.

But Jack Webb was also a jazz fan. He created and starred in the 1951 radio series, Pete Kelly’s Blues (written by Breen, 1953 Oscar winner for Titanic). They recreated the story for the 1955 movie version with Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Martin Milner and a young Jayne Mansfield. It featured a cameo by Ella Fitzgerald. Pete returned in 1959 on TV, but lasted only one season.

Dragnet came back in 1967 and continued through 1970, and in 1968 Webb created Adam-12. It ran for seven years with Stephen Cannell as writer. In 1971, Mark VII presented O’Hara, U.S. Treasury, starring David Janssen and in 1972 Hec Ramsey (Richard Boone) and Emergency (starring Webb’s ex-wife Julie London).

When Webb died in 1982, the Los Angeles Police Dept. retired badge number 714 and flags at city offices flew at half-staff. Dragnet lived on in the 1987 Dan Akroyd movie and in the 2003 series produced by Dick Wolfe (Law & Order). Its legacy continues in the careers of all who were influenced by Jack Webb. One might wonder if the “doink doink” music stings of L & O are not Wolfe’s version of “Dum de Dum Dum.”

Webb’s deadpan delivery is still echoed by actors playing cops. Tim Kang as Cho on The Mentalist has it down pat. Timothy Omundson as Lassiter brings the style to Psych. For the TV movie, Murder Can Hurt You, Aaron Spelling paid tribute to Webb’s signature logo by stamping “An Aaron Spelling Production” into a metal sheet with his own hands. There’s no question that Jack Webb put his personal stamp on all he did. And that’s a fact.

Check out more TV Flashback articles and more mystery reviews, short stories & more in this issue and past ones in our mystery section.

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.

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1 Comment

  1. Deborah,

    Loved this article. I’m a big Dragnet fan, but I never knew that much about Jack Webb. Very interesting.

    Gail Farrelly
    Last blog post “Electronic Readers and Jury Duty:Do They Go Together?”


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