Webb, Jack (1920-1982)

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Webb, Jack (1920-1982)

Jack Webb's most famous public persona, Sgt. Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department, seemed to be a man with virtually no personality. Yet, paradoxically, this amazingly versatile actor-director-writer-producer-editor-executive was one of the most influential personalities to work in television during the 1950s and 1960s—the heyday of the Big Three networks and the formative period of the Media Age. He did so by speaking directly to the hitherto unexploited American appetite for unemotional professionalism. He was, as Norman Mailer said of the astronaut Neil Armstrong, "apparently in communion with some string in the universe others did not think to play." His not-so-secret weapon was an intense and exclusive focus on surface reality, a focus summed up in the most famous (and endlessly lampooned) line from his television series, Dragnet : "Just the facts, ma'am."

Born April 2, 1920, in Santa Monica, California, Jack Webb was educated at Belmont High School and served in the Army Air Force during World War II (1942-1945). After his discharge, he joined the broadcast industry as a radio announcer in San Francisco. By the time he made his debut as a film actor—playing, significantly, a police detective in the superb film noir thriller, He Walked by Night (1948)—Webb was well-established lead in the radio dramas Pat Novak for Hire (1946) and Johnny Modero, Pier 23 (1947). In 1949, he created the police series, Dragnet. Although continuing to produce the radio version until 1955, he took the series to television in 1951, where it became the most highly rated police drama in broadcast history. He continued to act in other people's motion pictures though 1951, most memorably in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and in Fred Zinneman's The Men, both in 1950. After 1951, he only acted in movies he directed: Dragnet (1954), Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), The D.I. (1957), -30- (1959), and The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961). As a filmmaker, Webb was a genuine auteur, his directing style an extension of his television techniques.

Although Webb's movies rarely enjoyed much critical or popular success, they were nevertheless individually quite enjoyable—especially Pete Kelly's Blues, with its meticulous reconstruction of 1920s New Orleans and its shining performance by the jazz singer Peggy Lee; The D.I., about an unyielding Drill Instructor at the Marine Corps's Paris Island; and -30-, an exciting melodrama of a big city newspaper. Judging his work by the exaggerated standards of Hollywood, the critic Andrew Sarris said that Webb's "style was too controlled for the little he had to say"—a clever formulation, and accurate enough to be worth repeating, but too dismissive. Nevertheless, Jack Webb's impact on the American cinema was negligible, except that his 1954 film of Dragnet was one of the first motion pictures based on a television series.

His impact on television is another matter. New episodes of Dragnet were produced from December 16, 1951 to September 6, 1959 and again from January 12, 1967 through September 10, 1970. By the time it finally went into syndication, Dragnet had become a significant presence in modern American folklore. Particularly striking were Walter Schumann's title theme; Webb's laconic, understated narration ("This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here. I'm a cop."); the epilogue detailing the punishments imposed upon the evening's criminals ("Arthur Schnitzler was tried on fifteen counts of indecent exposure in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County… "); the sweaty, muscular forearms which chiseled the logo "Mark VII" (Webb's production company) into granite at the end of the program; and, of course, the quick, staccato, emotionless dialogue—an effect Webb sought deliberately, and achieved by having his actors read their lines cold, from cue cards. Webb not only starred as Joe Friday, but also produced all the episodes, wrote and directed most of them, and provided the voice-over narration. Before each script of Dragnet was filmed, it was submitted to the Los Angeles Police Department for approval and possible changes.

Beginning in 1968, Webb created several other series, the most notable being Adam 12 (1968-1970), about two LAPD officers in a patrol car, and Emergency! (1971-1975), which concerned the adventures of a mobile rescue unit. Though he did not appear in any of his other projects, each bore Webb's trademarks: they were about the lives of public service professionals, and the exclusive emphasis was on the characters' professional—not private—lives. Furthermore, the stories were told in Webb's patented low-key, obsessively factual, style—as if he were an engineer and making a television program was a dirty job but somebody had to do it.

Although he would undoubtedly have been horrified at the suggestion, Webb's laconic style was a kind of cool, which is why it worked so well on the "cool" medium of television. He understood instinctively that histrionics and violent spectacle did not go over very well on television and could even be off-putting. What did go over well were close-ups of people talking to each other, and a scrupulous, admiring record of people doing their jobs. His tremendous success was based upon his sure knowledge that, at any given moment in history, the squares outnumber the hipsters by about 500,000 to 1. Joe Friday was an archetypal stiff, and proud of it; his moral code was as simple and clear-cut as his conception of his job as a cop: things were either right or wrong, as an act was either legal or illegal. It should not surprise anyone that Americans found this appealing—that Webb was able to reintroduce Dragnet at the height of the chaotic 1960s and to keep it on the air, highly rated, through four complete seasons. Indeed, the people who welcomed Dragnet back on television in 1967 were the same people who elected Richard Nixon as president in 1968.

—Gerald Carpenter

Further Reading:

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

Meyers, Richard. TV Detectives. San Diego, Barnes, 1981.

Newcomb, Horace, editor. Encyclopedia of Television. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Reed, Robert M. The Encyclopedia of Television, Cable, and Video. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968. New York, E. P. Dutton, 1968.

Terrace, Vincent. Encyclopedia of Television: Series, Pilots, and Specials. New York, New York Zoetrope, 1985-1986.

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

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