The show's cultural impact is demonstrated by the fact that even after five decades, elements of Dragnet are known to those who've never seen or heard the program:
The original Dragnet starring Jack Webb as Sgt. Friday ran on radio from June 3, 1949 to February 26, 1957 and on television from December 16 1951 to August 23, 1959, and from January 12, 1967 to April 16, 1970. All of these versions ran on NBC. There were three Dragnet feature films, a straight adaptation starring Webb in 1954; a TV-movie produced in 1966; and a comedy spoof in 1987. There were also television revivals, without Webb, in 1989 and 2003. A newspaper comic strip version of Dragnet, written by Jack Webb and Joe Scheiber, ran in newspapers from about 1952 to 1955.
Dragnet had its origins in Webb's small role as a police forensic scientist in the 1948 film, He Walked by Night, inspired by the actual murder of a police officer in Los Angeles. The film was depicted in semidocumentary style, and Marty Wynn (an actual LAPD sergeant from the robbery division) was a technical advisor on the film. Webb and Wynn became friends, and both thought that the day-to-day activities of police officers could be realistically depicted, and could make for compelling drama without the forced sense of melodrama then so common in radio programming.
Webb frequently visited police headquarters, drove on night patrols with Sgt. Wynn and his partner Officer Vance Brasher, and attended police academy courses to learn authentic jargon and other details that could be featured in a radio program. When he proposed Dragnet to NBC officials, they were not especially impressed; radio was aswarm with private investigators and crime dramas, such as Webb's earlier Pat Novak for Hire. That program didn’t last long, but Webb had received high marks for his role as the titular private investigator, and NBC agreed to a limited run for Dragnet.
With writer James E. Moser, Webb prepared an audition recording, then sought the LAPD's endorsement; he wanted to use cases from official files in order to demonstrate the steps taken by police officers during investigations. The official response was initially lukewarm, but in 1950 LAPD Chief William H. Parker offered Webb the endorsement he sought. Police wanted control over the program's sponsor, and insisted that police not be depicted unflatteringly. This would lead to some criticism, as LAPD racial segregation policies were never addressed, nor was there a suggestion of police corruption.
Dragnet debuted inauspiciously. The first several months were bumpy, as Webb and company worked out the program's format and eventually became comfortable with their characters (Friday was originally portrayed as more brash and forceful than his later usually relaxed demeanor). Gradually, Friday's deadpan, fast-talking persona emerged, described by John Dunning as "a cop's cop, tough but not hard, conservative but caring." (Dunning, 210) Friday's first partner was Sgt. Ben Romero, portrayed by Barton Yarborough, a longtime radio actor. When Dragnet hit its stride, it became one of radio's top-rated shows.
Webb insisted on realism in every aspect of the show. The dialogue was clipped, understated and sparse, influenced by the hardboiled school of crime fiction. Scripts were fast moving but didn’t seem rushed. Every aspect of police work was chronicled, step by step: From patrols and paperwork, to crime scene investigation, lab work and questioning witnesses or suspects. The detectives’ personal lives were mentioned, but rarely took center stage. (Friday was a bachelor who lived with his mother; Romero was an ever-fretful husband and father.) "Underplaying is still acting", Webb told Time. "We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.” (Dunning, 209) Los Angeles police chiefs C.B. Horrall and (later) William H. Parker were credited as consultants, and many police officers were fans.
While "Just the facts, ma'am" has come to be known as Dragnet's catchphrase, it was never actually uttered by Joe Friday; the closest he came were, "All we want are the facts, ma'am" and "All we know are the facts, ma'am". "Just the facts, ma'am" comes from the Stan Freberg parody St. George and the Dragonet.
Webb was a stickler for accurate details, and Dragnet used many authentic touches, such as the LAPD's actual radio call sign (KMA-367), and the names of many real department officials, such as Ray Pinker and Lee Jones of the crime lab or Chief of Detectives Thad Brown.
Two announcers were used. Episodes began with announcer George Fenneman intoning the series opening ("The story you are about to hear is true; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.") and Hal Gibney describing the basic premise of the episode. "Big Saint" (April 26, 1951) for example, begins with, "You're a Detective Sergeant, you're assigned to auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever encountered. Your job: break it."
The story then usually began with footsteps and a door closing, followed by Joe Friday intoning something like: "Tuesday, February 12. It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of robbery division. My partner's Ben Romero. The boss is Ed Backstrand, chief of detectives. My name's Friday."
Friday offered voice-over narration throughout the episodes, noting the time, date and place of every scene as he and his partners went through their day investigating the crime. The events related in a given episode might occur in a few hours, or might span a few months. At least one episode unfolded in real time: in "City Hall Bombing" (July 21, 1949), Friday and Romero had less than 30 minutes to stop a man who was threatening to destroy the City Hall with a bomb.
At the end of the episode, announcer Hal Gibney would relate the fate of the suspect. They were usually convicted of a crime and sent to "the State Penitentiary" or a state mental hospital. Murderers were often "executed in the manner prescribed by law." Occasionally, police pursued the wrong suspect, and criminals sometimes avoided justice or escaped, at least on the radio version of Dragnet. In 1950, Time quoted Webb: "We don’t even try to prove that crime doesn’t pay ... sometimes it does" (Dunning, 210)
Specialized terminology was mentioned in every episode, but was rarely explained. Webb trusted the audience to determine the meanings of words or terms by their context, and furthermore, Dragnet tried to avoid the kinds of awkward, lengthy exposition that people wouldn’t actually use in daily speech. Several specialized terms (such as "A.P.B." for "All Points Bulletin" and "M.O." for "Modus Operandi") were rarely used in popular culture before Dragnet introduced them to everyday America.
While most radio shows used one or two sound effects experts, Dragnet needed five; a script clocking in at just under 30 minutes could require up to 300 separate effects. Accuracy was underlined: The exact number of footsteps from one room to another at Los Angeles police headquarters were imitated, and when a telephone rang at Friday's desk, the listener heard the same ring as the telephones in Los Angeles police headquarters. A single minute of ".22 Rifle for Christmas" is a representative example of the evocative sound effects featured on "Dragnet". While Friday and others investigate bloodstains in a suburban backyard, the listener hears a series of overlapping effects: a squeaking gate hinge, footsteps, a technician scraping blood into a paper envelope, the glassy chime of chemical vials, bird calls and a dog barking in the distance.
Scripts tackled a number of topics, ranging from the thrilling (murders, missing persons and armed robbery) to the mundane (check fraud and shoplifting), yet "Dragnet" made them all interesting due to fast-moving plots and behind-the-scenes realism. In "The Garbage Chute" (15 December 1949), they even had a locked room mystery.
Though rather tame by modern standards, Dragnet--especially on the radio--handled controversial subjects such as sex crimes and drug addiction with unprecedented and even startling realism. In one such example, Dragnet broke one of the unspoken (and still rarely broached) taboos of popular entertainment in the episode ".22 Rifle for Christmas" which aired December 21, 1950). The episode followed the search for young Stevie Morheim, only to discover he’d been accidentally killed while playing with a rifle that belonged to a friend; his friend told Friday that Stevie was running while holding the rifle when he tripped and fell, causing the gun to discharge, fatally wounding Morheim.
NBC received thousands of complaint letters, including a formal protest by the National Rifle Association. Webb forwarded many of the letters to police chief Parker who promised "ten more shows illustrating the folly of giving rifles to children." (Dunning, 211) Another episode dealt with young women who, rather than finding Hollywood stardom, fall in with fraudulent talent scouts and end up in pornography and prostitution.
The tone was usually serious, but there were moments of comic relief: Romero was something of a hypochondriac and often seemed henpecked; though Friday dated women, he usually dodged those who tried to set him up with marriage-minded dates.
Due in part to Webb's fondness for radio drama, Dragnet persisted on radio until 1957 as one of the last old time radio shows to give way to television's increasing popularity. In fact, the TV show would prove to be effectively a visual version of the radio show, as the style was virtually the same. The TV show could be listened to without watching it, with no loss of understanding of the storyline.
He also insisted that Friday and his partner use badges in the then-unique shield shape used by LAPD. This led to the loan of actual LAPD badges, brought in every morning from the Office of the Chief of Police in the care of an officer who acted as technical advisor.
Television offered Webb the opportunity to increase the realism to a point unmatched by any other program for years. Many early episodes involved cases which had been handled by the Robbery or Homicide Divisions, which was at that time located in the ground floor of the Los Angeles City Hall. Webb had his set designers duplicate the "feel" of the office, including details such as the remnant of a notice which had been torn from the bulletin board, leaving only one corner.
Webb, uncomfortable with firearms, mentioned this to the technical advisor. When an early script called for Friday to use a shotgun, LAPD detailed Jesse Littlejohn, a member of the Robbery Division's elite "Hat Squad", to teach Webb how to handle the riot gun. In the episode, Friday carries the shotgun using proper technique, but passes it to his partner rather than fire it himself. In thanks for this and assistance by other officers, Webb dropped their names into scripts, beginning a tradition which continued through the end of production of Dragnet and Adam-12—all officers' names are real (except for recurring characters and officers suspected of wrongdoing, in which cases the names were changed to protect the innocent).
Dragnet first aired on television in December 1951 on a special presentation of the NBC program Sound-Off Time. The regular series debuted in January 1952. Friday's original partner in the TV episodes (as on the radio) was Sgt. Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarborough, who died after only three episodes were filmed. The Romero character was replaced by first by Detective Sergeant Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips), and then by Officer Frank Smith. Smith was first played by Webb crony Herb Ellis. After four episodes, Ben Alexander took over the role on both television and radio.
Jack Webb thought Ben Alexander made an ideal partner. The dramatic scripts of the 1950s usually feature at least one comic interlude with Alexander to lighten the tone. Thus Frank offhandedly chats with Joe about his latest enthusiasm (favorite foods, fad diets, hobbies, home life, etc.). Alexander stayed with Dragnet through its original run, which ended in 1959. While Dragnet was still on the air, reruns began to air in syndication as Badge 714.
When Webb remounted Dragnet in 1966, he tried to get Ben Alexander to rejoin him as Frank. Alexander was then committed to an ABC police series, Felony Squad, and its producers would not release him. Webb reluctantly recast the role of Joe Friday's partner: Bill Gannon, played by movie and TV veteran Harry Morgan. Bill Gannon, like Frank Smith, was businesslike on duty but chatty in informal situations. Ben Alexander's light-comedy dialogues now fell to Harry Morgan, who played some of it more broadly; in "The Big Neighbor" his ad libs cause Jack Webb to openly burst out laughing, and in "The Weekend," Gannon's step-by-step preparation of a "garlic-nut-butter sandwich" is greeted with incredulous reactions from his friends.
Two other hallmarks of the TV show came at the end of each episode:
In 1958, Webb authored a book titled "The Badge." The book was a series of true stories told from the view of a patrolman, sergeant, lieutenant and others. It had a number of photographs and recently was reissued with a foreword by the author of "LA Confidential."
In 1966, a TV movie, also called Dragnet, was produced, although it did not air until 1969. Starring Jack Webb and Harry Morgan as his partner Officer Bill Gannon, it spawned a new series, Dragnet 1967, which aired until 1970, the title year changing with each season.
Jack Webb had begun the process of bringing Dragnet back to television yet again in 1982, writing and producing five scripts and even picking Kent McCord to play his new partner in "Dragnet '83" before suddenly passing away.
After Webb's death, the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department announced that badge number 714—Webb's number on the television show—had been retired, and Los Angeles city offices lowered their flags to half-staff. At Webb's funeral, the LAPD provided an honor guard and the Chief of Police commented on Webb's connection with the LAPD. An LAPD Auditorium was named in his honor.
In 2003 another Dragnet series was produced by Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, a series that was strongly influenced by Dragnet. It aired on ABC, and starred Ed O'Neill as Joe Friday and Ethan Embry as Frank Smith. After a 12-episode season that rather closely followed the traditional formula, the format of the series was changed to an ensemble crime drama.
Now titled L.A. Dragnet, Friday was promoted to Lieutenant but received less screen time (Frank Smith was written out entirely) in favor of a group of younger and ethnically-diverse detectives (played by Eva Longoria, Christina Chang, Desmond Harrington and Evan Dexter Parke). With most of the trappings that made Dragnet unique no longer in place, it became just another cops and robbers series and it was canceled only five episodes into its second season. Another three episodes aired on USA Network in early 2004, with the final two of the series' 22 episodes remaining unaired in the U.S. until the launch of the Sleuth channel in 2006. In some places (such as the Netherlands) this show is renamed Murder Investigation instead of Dragnet.
In February of 2008 an Eight DVD Collection was released!
Platinum Video released 7 episodes from the original series in 2002.
The episodes are:
Big Crime, Big Pair, Big Producer, Big Break, Big September Man, Big Betty, Big Trunk.
In the episode Big Crime, Jack Kruschen appears as a child molester.
In the episode Big Producer, Martin Milner (Adam 12 ) appears as a high school student. He was credited as Marty Milner.
Also included on the 2 disc set are one episode of Burke's Law, 2 of Peter Gunn, and 2 of Richard Diamond, along with an episode of Mr. Wong, Detective and Bulldog Drummond.
|DVD Name||Ep #||Release Date||Additional Information|
|Season 1||17||June 7 2005|
The New Dragnet (1989)
No DVD releases to date of this remake that lasted 2 seasons
L.A. Dragnet (2003)
Universal Studios Home Entertainment was going to release the first season of this short-lived remake on DVD on November 11, 2003, but this release was subsequently cancelled. It is not known if the set will be released at some point.