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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jack Webb (1920-82)

John Randolph Webb was born April 2, 1920, in Santa Monica, California. His father was Jewish and his mother was a devout Roman Catholic. The father left the home when Jack was still young, so he grew up as a Roman Catholic. Jack's mother supported them by running a boarding house n West Los Angeles. One of the tenants was a former jazz cornetist from the 1920s. He gave Jack a recording of Bix Beiderbecke playing "At the Ball." That led to a livelong love of jazz.

Jack graduated from Belmont High School in 1938. He went to a school to study art afterwards and, before that was over, he was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He served as a crewmember of a B-26 Marauder in the Army Air Force. Discharged from the Army in San Francisco, he stayed in the city where he worked as a radio actor for several shows there.

The first was called One Out of Seven. In this amazing radio program, Jack did all the voices. Jack was a big proponent of racial equality, which was the theme of that show.

The second was The Jack Webb Show. This program proved what I always believed about Jack: He was a comedian at heart. The Jack Webb Show was a comedy much in the same vein as the Jack Benny Program. Today, there are only two episodes left of the show, from April 3 and 10, 1946. The latter episode announced the winner of the "I Hate the Jack Webb Show Contest." It is very possible that this was the last show of the shortlived series. The show aired on West Coast affiliates of ABC and was performed at KGO in San Francisco. (The winner of the contest lived in Reno, Nevada.)

Other shows included Johnny Modero--Pier 23, Jeff Regan--Private Investigator, Pat Novak For Hire (he was one of two actors in this program), and Murder and Mr. Malone.

Having been a child actor, Jack still knew people back in Hollywood. In July 1947, he married lounge singer Julie London, who was also from L.A. They moved there in 1948 and Jack then began appearing in motion pictures, as well as numerous radio programs. He appeared in a movie called, He Walked by Night (1948), in which he played a crime technician for the California Highway Patrol. Jack loved the realism of making it look like he was a real law enforcement person. Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department was the advisor for that motion picture.

Befriending Sgt. Wynn, Jack told him about a project he would like to try on the radio. It would involve two police officers working together. The entire program would feature one or both officers. This way the whole story could be told from point of view of the police, giving them a favorable impression by the public. Marty loved the idea, so Jack had some other friends write up some scripts and, in June 1949, Dragnet became a reality.

The original two officers were Sergeants Joe Friday (played by Jack) and Ben Romero (played by Barton Yarborough). Barton was much older than Jack but Jack was the one in charge on the show. The first episode was extremely violent. The NBC Department of Standards and Practices was very upset about the violence. Jack tried to explain that he was trying to be as real as possible. The next week was better. However the network was still not happy. Dragnet began as a summer replacement program. Being sustained (meaning that it didn't have a sponsor), the network could easily throw the show off the air and be happy it was over. Jack decided to completely overhaul the show. Even the theme music was changed. Humor was added. Every episode of the series, no matter how vile the crime was, would now have an element of comic relief. His shortlived comedy series in San Francisco proved that he was a master of comedy and sarcasm. And the formula worked. Within one month, Dragnet became NBC's most popular summer replacement program.

One of Dragnet's biggest fans was Walt Disney. Jack had been combing the movie studios to look for one that would help him produce the series on television. Walt Disney said he would do it but, since Jack had his own production company (Mark VII Productions), they would be responsible for the actual production. Disney would provide the studio and the distribution. Jack and Walt ended up becoming close friends. Jack had to build a soundstage at the Disney Studios in Burbank, since the place was basically set up for making animated pictures. The one live action feature Disney had done at this time, Song of the South (1946), was filmed at the Sam Goldwyn Studios in West Hollywood. Walt told Jack if he could build an adequate soundstage, Walt could do anything for him. Jack agreed. (The building is now the main soundstage on the site.)

The TV series started going into production in 1951. At this time, Jack was also doing another radio series, Pete Kelly's Blues (this would also become a TV series, as well as a motion picture). After four episodes of the television series were finished, Barton Yarborough (1900-51) died suddenly of a heart attack a few days before Christmas. Ben Romero died along with his portrayer. An episode on both the radio and TV series bears this out. It was called, "The Big Sorrow." Joe Friday had some relief partners in the meantime. These included Sgt. Ed Jacobs (portrayed by Barney Phillips [1913-82]) and Detective Frank Smith (portrayed by Herbert Ellis [1921- ]). Joe would keep Frank Smith as his partner, although the actor portraying him would change. He was Ben Alexander (1911-69).

Nicholas Benton Alexander IV was born in the the little Nevada desert town of Goldfield. He had been a child actor from the age of three. His best known film of his childhood was All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which he did at the age of 18 (which was considered a minor prior to 1972). He continued to act in movies until the early 1940s. He also worked as a radio actor, as well as a scriptwriter (which was usually not credited to him). Jack Webb used both of those talents on Dragnet.

Dragnet was produced as a movie in 1954. Disney was producing the TV series under the pseudonym Sherry Productions. Disney went ahead and allowed the movie to be filmed on his lot, however, Walt said he couldn't help with the distribution, since it would be revealed that Disney was actually producing the motion picture. Not a man to waste time, Jack began going from studio to studio to seek a major distributor for his film. Only he just went to one studio. Warner Brothers, also located in Burbank, said they'd gladly distribute the movie as well as do everything they could to make sure that Walt Disney's name wasn't connected with Dragnet (this was a big deal to Walt.)

When Dragnet began to be seen in reruns, Universal was the distributor. (Universal is located in Universal City, which is adjacent to Burbank--known today as Universal Studios Hollywood, it's actually not in Hollywood, nor is it within the city limits of Los Angeles... it's in Universal City, an unincorporated town named for the movie studio!)

Jack did many other projects after the 1950s version of Dragnet on TV. He brought it back to TV in 1967, with Universal as the distributor. He did many other TV shows as well.

Jack Webb divorced Julie London in 1953. She had both of his children, Stacey (1950-96) and Alisa (1952- ). He would remarry three more times. Julie would marry singer/composer/actor Bobby Troup.

Best known for his character, Joe Friday, Joe's badge number, 714, was retired after Jack died at his apartment on December 23, 1982, in West Hollywood. He was given a police officer's funeral with full honors, including a seventeen gun salute.

There had been a couple of reincarnations of Dragnet, the last one was seen on ABC in 2003, in which Detective Joe Friday worked with Detective Frank Smith. Joe had badge 714. Many diehard Dragnet fans thought this was in very poor taste. Fortunately, the program was a major flop.


LoyalTubist said...

The second picture on this post shows Jack Webb and Jack Benny. I thought it would be interesting, since the first few posts here are all actors whose name happened to be Jack, would be to have two Jacks together.

Michael J. Hayde said...


Where did you get all this information about Disney? Almost none of it is true. The only connection between Disney and Dragnet is that Webb shot episodes #15-140 on the Disney lot. Webb paid a rental fee for the soundstage - he didn't BUILD it! The 1954 feature was filmed on the Warner Brothers lot: WB was one of five studios that bid on the rights to distribute a Dragnet feature film, and that deal was set BEFORE the film was produced. Disney never distributed the Dragnet TV series. After Webb sold it to MCA-TV in December 1953 (for $5 million), MCA created Sherry TV to distribute both Dragnet and the syndicated rerun version, Badge 714, which began running in October 1953. Prior to that, Webb's Mark VII Ltd was distributing both through NBC Films, Inc.

Universal Studios became the owner of all things Dragnet after they were acquired by MCA in 1961 - long after the reruns had been airing.

Whoever provided you with all this information needs to get a copy of my book: My Name's Friday: The Unauthorized but True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb (Cumberland House Publishing, 2001).

Michael J. Hayde

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