John Randolph "Jack" Webb (April 2, 1920 – December 23, 1982) was an Emmy Award-nominated American actor, television producer, director and author, who is most famous for his role as Sergeant Joe Friday in the radio and television series Dragnet. He was also the founder of his own production company, Mark VII Limited.
Early life and career
Born in Santa Monica, California, Webb grew up poor in the Bunker Hill slum section of Los Angeles to a Jewish father and a Roman Catholic mother; he was reared Roman Catholic. A sickly child, he studied art as a young man. One of the tenants in the rooming house run by his mother was an ex-jazzman who imbued Webb with a lifelong interest in jazz when he gave him a recording of Bix Beiderbecke's "At the Jazz Band Ball." Webb was a graduate of Belmont High School in Los Angeles.
After serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a crewmember of a B-26 Marauder medium bomber during World War II, he relocated to San Francisco to star in his own radio show, The Jack Webb Show, a half-hour comedy program that had a limited run on ABC radio in 1946. By the spring and summer of 1949 he abandoned comedy for drama to star in Pat Novak for Hire, a radio show about a waterfront character who operated as an unlicensed private detective. It co-starred Raymond Burr. Webb's other radio shows included Johnny Modero; Pier 23; Jeff Regan, Investigator; Murder and Mr. Malone and One Out of Seven. Most notable was 'One Out of Seven' in which Webb did all the voices, usually vigorously attacking race prejudice. 'Pat Novak' was also notable for writing that imitated, almost to parody, the hard-boiled style of such writers as Raymond Chandler. For example: "She drifted into the room like 98 pounds of warm smoke. Her voice was hot and sticky--like a
furnace full of marshmallows."
Probably his most famous motion picture role was as the combat-hardened Marine Corps drill instructor on Parris Island in the 1957 film The D.I., with Don Dubbins as a callow Marine private. Webb's characterization in this role (Sgt. Jim Moore) would color most of his later acting.
Dragnet and stardom
Webb had a featured role as a crime lab technician in the 1948 film He Walked by Night based on the real-life murder of a California Highway Patrolman. The film was made in semidocumentary style with technical advice/assistance provided by Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department. It was this film that gave Webb the idea for Dragnet.
After getting much assistance from Sgt. Wynn and legendary LAPD chief William H. Parker, Dragnet hit radio the airwaves in 1949 (running until 1954) and then television in 1951 on the NBC network. Webb starred as Sgt. Joe Friday, and Barton Yarborough co-starred as Sgt. Ben Romero.
Webb was a stickler for attention to detail. He believed that viewers wanted "realism" and strove to give it to them. Webb had tremendous respect for the people in law enforcement. He often mentioned in interviews that he was angry about the "ridiculous" amount of abuse to which police were often subjected by the press and the public. He said that he wanted to perform a service for the police by showing them as low-key working class heroes. In 'Dragnet' he moved away from earlier portrayals of the police in shows such as 'Jeff Regan' and 'Pat Novak,' which often showed them as brutal and even corrupt.
Despite his reputation for accuracy, he wasn't above bending the rules. According to one Dragnet technical advisor, when he (the advisor) pointed out that several circumstances in one episode were extremely unlikely in real life, Webb responded, "You know that, and now I know that. But that little old lady in Kansas will never know the difference."
In 1950, Webb appeared alongside future Dragnet partner Harry Morgan in the film noir Dark City.
The year 1952 saw Dragnet become a successful television show. Unfortunately, Barton Yarborough died suddenly of a heart attack, and Barney Phillips (Sgt. Ed Jacobs) and Herbert Ellis (Officer Frank Smith) temporarily stepped in as partners. In 1952, veteran radio and film actor Ben Alexander debuted as the second incarnation of jovial, burly Officer Frank Smith. Alexander proved to be a popular addition to the series as Webb's detective partner and remained a cast member until the show's cancellation in 1959.
Dragnet began with the narration "The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent." At the end of each show, the results of the trial of the suspect and severity of sentence were announced by Hal Gibney. Webb frequently re-created entire floors of buildings on soundstages, such as the police headquarters at Los Angeles City Hall for Dragnet and a floor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner Building for the 1954 film.
During the early days of Dragnet, Webb continued to appear in other movies, notably as the best friend of William Holden's character in the 1950 Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard.
Webb's personal life was better defined by his love of jazz than his interest in police work. His life-long interest in the cornet and racially tolerant attitude allowed him to move easily in the jazz culture, where Webb met singer and actress Julie London. They married in 1947 and reared two children. They later divorced; Webb married three more times.
In 1951, Webb introduced a short-lived radio series, Pete Kelly's Blues, in an attempt to bring the music he loved to a broader audience. That radio series became the basis for a 1955 movie of the same name. However, neither the radio series nor the movie resonated with the audiences of the time.
In 1963, Webb took over from William T. Orr as executive producer of the ABC detective series 77 Sunset Strip. He brought about wholesale changes in the program and retained only Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., in the role of Stuart Bailey. The outcome was a disaster. The ratings sank, and the series was canceled just past midway in its sixth season.
In early 1967, Webb produced and starred in a new color version of Dragnet for NBC. This version co-starred Harry Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon. (Ben Alexander was unavailable, as he was co-starring in Felony Squad on ABC.) The show's pilot, originally produced as a made-for-TV movie in 1966, did not air until 1969. The series itself ran through 1970. To distinguish it from the original series, the year of production was added to the title (Dragnet 1967, Dragnet 1968, etc.). The revival also emphasized crime prevention and outreach to the public. Its attempts to address the contemporary youth-drug culture (such as the Blue Boy episode voted 85th-best TV episode of all time by TV Guide and TV Land) have led certain episodes on the topic to achieve cult status due to their strained attempts to be "with-it", such as Friday grilling Blue Boy by asking him "You're pretty high and far out. What kind of kick are you on, son?".
Beginning in 1968, in concert with Robert A. Cinader, Webb produced NBC's popular Adam-12, which focused on uniformed LAPD officers Pete Malloy (Martin Milner) and Jim Reed (Kent McCord), which ran until 1975.
In 1968 Webb performed, in Joe Friday character, the classic "Copper Clappers" sketch during an appearance on The Tonight Show where a pokerfaced Webb echoed Johnny Carson's equally-deadpan robbery report where all the details started with "Cl" or least the letter C.
In the early 1970s, Webb produced The DA with Robert Conrad and O'Hara: US Treasury with David Janssen. These were short-lived, but another show, Emergency!, which portrayed the fledgling paramedic program of the L.A. County Fire Department, proved to be a huge success, running from 1972-79, with ratings occasionally even topping its timeslot competitor, All in the Family. Webb cast his ex-wife, Julie London, as well as her second husband and Dragnet ensemble player Bobby Troup, as, respectively, nurse Dixie McCall and Dr. Joe Early. Emergency! was so successful, there was a cartoon spin-off, Emergency+4, as well as two other series, Sierra (about the National Park Service in Yosemite National Park), and one pilot show about L.A. County animal control officers, which aired as the Emergency! episode "905-Wild."
Project UFO was another Webb production and depicted Project Blue Book, a U.S. Air Force investigation into unidentified flying objects. This was the last major product of his Mark VII production company. The end credits for the Mark VII productions famously showed a man's hands using a sledge hammer to stamp "VII" into a metal plate. It was later revealed that the hands belonged to Webb himself.
Webb was working on scripts for another revival of Dragnet in 1983 with Kent McCord as his partner, when he died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 62.
Jack Webb was interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. Webb was given a funeral with full police honors (including Police Chief Darryl Gates announcing that the badge number 714 that Webb used in Dragnet would be retired) although he had never actually served on the force.
Not only did the LAPD use Dragnet episodes as training films for a time, they also named a police academy auditorium after Webb.
Universal has released several of Webb's series on DVD, including Dragnet 1967, Emergency! and Adam-12. In addition a number of episodes of the 1950s Dragnet series are now in the public domain and as such are widely available on non-Universal DVD releases.
His daughter Stacy Webb authorized the book Just the Facts, Ma'am; The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb, Creator of Dragnet, Adam-12, and Emergency, by Daniel Moyer and Eugene Alvarez, published in 1999. Unfortunately, Stacy did not live to see the publication of the book as she was killed in a car accident.
- Three on a Match (1932)
- Hollow Triumph (1948)
- He Walked by Night (1948)
- Sword in the Desert (1949)
- The Men (1950)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- Dark City (1950)
- Halls of Montezuma (1950)
- You're in the Navy Now (1951)
- Appointment with Danger (1951)
- Dragnet (1954)
- Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)
- The D.I. (1957)
- The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961)
- MCRD, San Diego (1973) (documentary) (narrator)
- Army Information Film No. 7: Code of Conduct - To Resist (1950)
- The Challenge of Ideas (1961) (narrator)
- A Force in Readiness (1961)
- The Commies are Coming, the Commies are Coming (1962)
- Patrol Dogs of the United States Air Force (1968) (narrator)
- Star Spangled Salesman (1968)
- "Is it worth it " 1970's US Postal Service training film (narrator)
- Dragnet (1951-1959)
- Dragnet 1967 (1967-1970)
- O'Hara, U.S. Treasury (1971) (narrator) (pilot for series)
- Escape (1973) (canceled after 4 episodes)
- Project UFO (1978-1979) (narrator)