Taking its name from the police term “Dragnet,” a system of coordinated procedures for taking down criminals, Dragnet is a radio, television, and film series that first began in 1949. It follows Los Angeles detective Sergeant Joe Friday and his partners as they solve cases, many of which were based on real-life events.
Today, Dragnet is considered to be one of the most influential police procedural dramas in history and is noted for helping to improve the relationship between citizens and police officers. Take a look to see what made Dragnet so impactful, and how it paved the way for future crime shows.
It Was Inspired By A Movie Based On True Events
Dragnet creator and star John Rudolph “Jack” Webb became particularly interested in the behind-the-scenes details of police investigations while working on the 1948 film He Walked by Night. The movie was based on a real-life murder case with Webb cast as the crime lab technician.
The documentary-style of the film helped inspire Webb to create a similar police drama series. He then worked with Chief William H. Parker of the Los Angeles Police Department to develop the premise for Dragnet and his character Sergeant Joe Friday.
There Was Little Time To Go Over Lines
If you watched enough Dragnet, you’d know that the dialogue is presented in a way that makes it feel almost formulaic. This is because, as a producer, Webb made sure to cut costs where he could, with one of these being limited rehearsal times.
Instead of memorizing their lines, he preferred that actors read them off of a teleprompter instead. This process worked out in a number of different cases, especially when Sergeant Friday is questioning a witness, which made it feel all the more realistic.
Webb Had A Clever Way Of Avoiding Special Effects
Constantly thinking about keeping the cost of the show to a minimum, Jack Webb also developed ways to avoid using special effects while successfully depicting a gruesome scenario.
An excellent example of this is in the 1967 episode “The Hit and Run Driver,” where Sergeant Joe Friday describes the horrific details of what happens in the first second of a head-on car collision at 55 miles an hour. During his description, he simultaneously shows a series of black-and-white photos of the accident, which helps to paint a disturbing picture in the viewer’s mind.
Lieutenant Klingin Was A Real Person
In episodes throughout the show’s run, there are frequent references to a police officer known as Lieutenant Klingin, usually in situations that involved a lie detector test. A fun fact about the officer mentioned is that he was a real police officer with the LAPD who would sometimes act as an adviser for police matters on the show.
Furthermore, Gene Roddenberry, who created the Star Trek franchise, also worked in the LAPD’s public relations department and went on to name the Star Trek race “Klingons” after officer Klingin.
Keeping The Same Clothes
In order to ensure that the show never had any real problems with continuity, the characters Joe Friday and Bill Gannon wore the same outfits in every episode. However, according to Harry Morgan, who played Gannon, he and Webb switched coats for one scene to see if any eagle-eyed viewers would notice.
The scene only featured Morgan, so no one even on set noticed the switch until after it had already been shot. This is considered to be the only time there was faulty continuity in regards to clothing on the show’s run.
Webb’s Connection With Cigarettes
Looking back, Dragnet was very in touch with the times that it was filmed in. The cars, clothing, and mannerisms of the characters all align perfectly with the time period, especially when it came to smoking.
Characters would smoke anytime and any place, which was not only realistic but helped put money in Webb’s pocket. Webb promoted cigarettes for L&M and Chesterfield cigarettes both in TV commercials and print advertisements, which bled into his character on the show. Unfortunately, his three-pack-a-day habit most likely caused his fatal heart attack at the age of 62.
The First Color Episode Of The Show Explored Psychedelic Substances
Dragnet actually ended up having two separate runs on television. The first was in black and white, and the second was in color, premiering with its first episode “Blue Boy” in 1967. At the time of its premiere, some psychedelic substances were still legal, as the effects were still mostly a mystery.
The episode explored such substances and their effects, which was viewed as pretty progressive at the time. In 1997, TV Guide ranked the “Blue Boy” episode of Dragnet as No. 85 in its list of “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.”
Changing Friday’s Position
When the original run of Dragnet ended in 1959, Sergeant Joe Friday had been promoted to Lieutenant. However, Webb made the decision when starting the new run of the show to keep Joe Friday as a sergeant rather than continuing on with his promotion.
His logic behind this decision was according to Webb, that “few people remember that Friday was promoted toward the end of our run. We think it’s better to have Joe a sergeant again. Few detective-lieutenants get out into the field.”
Frequent Guest Stars
Two of the show’s standard guest stars were Virginia Gregg and Bert Holland, who both appeared in 13 episodes, the most guest appearances for non-police roles. Clark Howat and Art Gilmore were also regulars on the show with Howat appearing in 21 episodes and Gilmore in 14.
The two would make appearances as higher-up police officers, although neither played the same role twice, but rather a mix of a series of captains, lieutenants, inspectors, and more.
Webb Was Honored By The Police
The Los Angeles Police Department was so impressed with what Webb was able to accomplish with Dragnet and his portrayal of the police that they gave him an official detective badge with Friday’s number on it.
They also went on to name two buildings at the police academy after him, which were the Jack Webb Recruiting Building and Mark VII. Following his death, Webb was the first civilian to be buried with full police honors, and his character’s badge number, 714, was retired by the LAPD.
Webb Intended To Do A Third Run Of The Show
Finding two runs of the show to not be enough, Webb had intentions of doing a third revival of the series in 1982. However, because of Harry Morgan’s commitment to working on the shows M*A*S*H and its spin-off AfterMASH, he turned down Webb’s proposal to return.
Webb then figured he would cast Ken McCord as Friday’s new partner either as Jim Reed or a new character altogether. Unfortunately, his plan for a third run would never come to fruition as he died of a heart attack in 1982.
Alternate Weeks In Season Two
During the second season of Dragnet, the show was aired unusually on alternate weeks when most shows were on a weekly basis. This is because Barton Yarborough, who played Friday’s original partner, Ben Romeo, had died during the filming of the first season.
In turn, this ended up putting a lot of stress on the filming schedule. It also resulted in several cast changes until Ben Alexander took over the role of Friday’s new and long-lasting partner, Frank Smith, from 1952 to 1957.
Some Episodes Were Based On Real-Life Cases
After being inspired while acting in the documentary-style film He Walks By Night, Technical Advisor Sergeant Marty Wynn of the LAPD suggested that Webb make a radio show with a similar premise. The radio show went on to premiere in 1949.
Webb continued with this idea of real crime cases in the television version of the show, working closely with LAPD Detective Galindo, who worked on some of Los Angeles’ most notorious cases. Some of Detective Galindo’s experiences on the force were then tweaked and made into episodes.
Joe Friday Never Said “Just The Facts, Ma’am”
Although “Just the facts, ma’am” is the most famous phrase to come out of the Dragnet franchise, it’s never actually in the show. Webb’s character Joe Friday would typically say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am” or “All we know are the facts, ma’am.”
The phrase came from satirist Stan Freberg on his 1953 record St. George and the Dragonet in which he changed the line slightly. It grew to be the timeless quote that we know today.
The Opening Of The Show Was Iconic
The prelude to each episode began with a narrator stating, “The story you are about to see is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” This was first spoken by George Fenneman and later by Hal Gibney.
Following the prelude, Joe Friday started the story saying, “This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.” However, after some complaints from real-life police officers, he changed it to “I carry a badge.”
There Were Film Spin-Offs
Midway through the series’ first run, a theatrical spin-off titled Dragnet was released in 1954. This was the first time in television history that a TV series spawned a movie, and the first time a movie spin-off was released while the original series was still running.
It was the first of three theatrical spin-offs. The other two were the made-for-TV Dragnet 1966 and Dragnet, a parody film starring Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday’s nephew and Tom Hanks following in 1987.
There Were Remakes After Webb’s Death
Although show creator and star Jack Webb passed away in 1982, that didn’t slow down the Dragnet franchise. The show returned in 1989 under the title The New Dragnet starring Jeff Osterhage and Bernard White as detectives Vic Daniels and Carl Molina. The show had 52 episodes over two seasons and came to an end in 1990.
Then, in 2003, L.A. Dragnet was released which was produced by Dick Wolf, the producer of the Law & Order series and its spin-offs, which were heavily influenced by the original Dragnet. Unfortunately, the show was canceled five episodes into its second season.
Webb Produced Several Spinoff Shows
At one point, Webb made the decision to discontinue Dragnet after its fourth season to work on other spin-off projects. The first of these was a Dragnet spin-off titled Adam-12, which was a 30-minute police procedural show that focused on patrol officers instead of detectives like its parent show.
Premiering in 1968, the show ran for seven seasons, ending in 1975. In turn, Adam-12 spawned its own spin-off in 1972 titled Emergency!, which followed a Fire Department paramedic team. The show ran for one season and had several made-for-TV movies.
In Remembrance Of Webb’s Uncle
Jack Webb was born in Santa Monica, California on April 2, 1920, to Samuel and Margaret Webb. Sadly, Webb never knew his father, who left his mother before he was born.
The only real adult male figure he had in his life was his uncle Frank Smith, who had a positive impact on Webb’s life. Because of this, Sergeant Joe Friday’s partner in the 1950s run of the show was Officer Frank Smith who was played by Ben Alexander
Dan Aykroyd Really Admired Jack Webb
Dan Aykroyd, who starred in the 1987 film adaptation of the show, was a major fan of Jack Webb, the original Joe Friday.
As a tribute to the actor, in many of his other films, Aykroyd would have his characters say technical phrases the way that Joe Friday would do with laws and police procedures. Some examples of this include films he’s in such as Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and 1941. Few people know that this style of dialogue actually originated from Jack Webb.
A Change Of Characters
Actress Kathleen Freedman played the Nun in The Blues Brothers, one of Dan Aykroyd’s most iconic films. In the movie, she was the woman that beat John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s character’s with a ruler for using bad language.
Interestingly, Freedman’s character in the film adaptation of the show, Enid Borden, uses foul language consistently throughout the film and is even threatened with a ticket by Friday, who was played by Dan Aykroyd. It’s likely that this was done on purpose.
Fans Gave Webb Ideas For The Show
After the episode “The Big Lay-Out” aired on the radio, a North Hollywood teenager sent Jack Webb a confidential letter, in which they described the illegal narcotics activity occurring in their neighborhood.
They even wrote down the real names of the places and people. After receiving the letter, Webb immediately turned the letter over to the LAPD and an investigation followed. After making some adjustments, he made the resulting case into the episode “The Big Note” in 1968.
Webb Turned Down A Role In Animal House
Initially, Jack Webb was the first choice for the role of Dean Wormer in the 1978 film comedy, Animal House. However, Webb ended up turning the role down because he claimed that it was a disrespectful film toward authority. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that Webb didn’t have any sense of humor.
He made a joke of himself about it on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson Show. In 1968, Webb and Carson performed a sketch that became known as the “Copper Clapper Caper” in which Webb played a parody of his character Joe Friday.
A New Character In The Film
In the film, for the partner of Joe Friday, Aykroyd and co-writer Alan Zweibel made the decision to create an entirely new character that wasn’t a part of the original series of Dragnet.
They came up with the role of Pep Streebeck, a police officer that was much more relaxed than the very strict Friday. Unsurprisingly, Aykroyd wanted his good friend and fellow actor John Belushi to play the role, but it didn’t work out. In the end, Tom Hanks took up the role.
An Issue With Contracts
When a revival of the show was in the works, Jack Webb had planned on bringing back his original co-star Ben Alexander back onto the program as Officer Frank Smith. Unfortunately, at the time, Alexander was busy working on the project The Felony Squad.
On top of that, the network that was airing The Felony Squad, ABC, wouldn’t allow him out of his contract in order to appear on the revival of the show. Webb then decided to go with Harry Morgan to reprise his role of Bill Gannon, from the previous series.
Right before the show would take it’s final commercial break, in its documentary style, the announcer would inform the audience of something related to the case, usually opening on the date in which the perpetrator’s trial would take place in Los Angeles.
After the commercial break, the camera would fade into what appeared to be the perpetrator’s mug shot and the results of the trial. Their name’s and the result of their trial were then announced and shown on the screen.
A Taste For Jazz
Although Jack Webb is known in the Los Angeles Police as an honorary officer, his passion wasn’t police work. In fact, it was jazz music. Supposedly, Webb had a collection of more than 6,000 jazz records.
He also played music himself and was successful at it. For example, numerous of his songs acquired a cult following such as his track “Try a Little Tenderness.” While in the jazz community, he met Julie Landon whom he married in 1947. He would then go to on marry three more times.
Webb Acted In Films While Shooting The Show
In the early days of the show, Webb continued to act in movies, most notably as the best friend of William Holden’s character in the 1950 Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard. Furthermore, he appeared alongside his future Dragnet partner Harry Morgan in the film noir Dark City.
In the film, the two played opposite characters than they did on the show, which showed their acting range. Webb was also involved in a radio series title Pete Kelly’s Blues, which was adapted into a film of the same name, although neither were successful.
Webb Left Behind A Legacy
While it’s not an accomplishment that many celebrities ever end up achieving, Jack Webb impressively has not one, but two, stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has one for radio which is located at 7040 Hollywood Boulevard and the other for television at 6728 Hollywood Boulevard.
He was also posthumously inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1992. He’s one of the few individuals to be awarded with such an honor on the Walk of Fame.
It Was Not The First Adaptation
Although it is arguably the most popular, the 1987 Dragnet film was not the first adaptation of the show. In fact, it’s actually the fifth of seven Dragnet film and television installments after its original appearance on NBC Radio in 1949.
Before the film, there had been two television series, with one in the 1950s, as well as one in the 1960s and ’70s. On top of that, there were also several feature films with one in the 1950s and a television movie in the 1960s. Even after the 1987 film, there were two more television series in the 1980s, 1990s, and another in the 2000s.
Toward the end of the film, when Reverend Whirley is being taken away on the airport runway, Joe Friday sees the woman that he loves standing close by. However, for a brief moment, an old four-piston aircraft can be seen in the background behind the actress.
This plane is the Lockheed Constellation, which is otherwise known as a “Connie,” the first name of the character Connie Swail in the film played by Alexandra Paul. It’s unknown whether this was on purpose or not.
Albert Brooks Was Offered The Role Of Streebeck
Before Tom Hanks agreed to the role of Joe Friday’s partner, actor Albert Brooks was offered the part. Previously, the comedic actor had worked with Dan Aykroyd a few years earlier in the classic opening sequence in The Twilight Zone: The Movie. Yet, Brooks declined the offer in favor of another 1987 comedy, Broadcast News.
Interestingly, this wouldn’t be the first time that Brooks declined a role only to be taken up by Tom Hanks. Brooks also turned down the opportunity to play the lead in Big, which was a major hit and resulted in his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.
The Movie Almost Had A Different Director
Although Dragnet is considered to be a more light-hearted film than other police movies, the original director had different intentions. Ted Kotcheff, best known for directing the classic Sylvester Stallone film, Rambo, was originally set to direct the film.
However, Kotcheff ended up declining the job, as he didn’t like the script that Aykroyd and Zweibel had written. However, this was not because he was against comedy, as he later went on to direct iconic comedy films such as Switching Channels and Weekend At Bernie’s.
It Was The Debut Of Director Of Tom Mankiewicz
Although Dan Aykroyd wrote the first draft of the Dragnet script with Alan Zweibel, the studio insisted that they hire other writers for revisions. In this case, the studio brought on Tom Mankiewicz, a well-known writer that had credits in Superman and a few of the James Bond films.
So, when Ted Kotcheff decided to leave as the director of the film, Mankiewicz took control of the project as the director. This would be his first directorial debut at the age of 45.
Issues With The Opening Track
Many fans of the show Dragnet were also very of the opening track, which was prevalent in the TV series. However, when it came to the 1987 movie, the filmmakers decided to do a more contemporary take on the original track.
Instead of the usual band, the film had British electronic band Art of Noise to do the work that had the digital sampling and computer sequencing. Although this was a more modern take on Dragnet, unfortunately, film critics didn’t feel the same.
Harry Morgan Reprised His Role From The Original Series
As is standard for film or shows that involve police officers, the film Dragnet delivers this character in the form of Captain Bill Gannon, played by Harry Morgan. Something that many people might not have noticed is that he was the only character to appear in the film as well as the TV series.
Officer Bill Gannon was in 98 episodes of Dragnet as his character between 1967 and 1970, as well as the TV movie The Big Dragnet in 1969.