John Randolph "Jack" Webb (April 2, 1920 – December 22, 1982), also known by the pen names John Randolph and Preston Wood,was an American actor, television producer, director, and screenwriter, who is most famous for his role as Sergeant Joe Friday in the radioand television series Dragnet. He was also the founder of his own production company, Mark VII Limited.
Webb was born in Santa Monica, California, the son of Margaret (née Smith) and Samuel Chester Webb. He grew up in the Bunker Hillsection of Los Angeles. His father left home before Webb was born, and Webb never knew him. He was raised a Roman Catholic by his Irish/Native American mother. One of the tenants in his mother's rooming house was an ex-jazzman who began Webb's lifelong interest in jazz by giving him a recording of Bix Beiderbecke's "At the Jazz Band Ball."
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Webb lived in the parish of Our Lady of Loretto Church and attended Our Lady of Loretto Elementary School in Echo Park, where he served as an altar boy. He then attended Belmont High School, and later, the St. John's University, Minnesota, where he studied art. In high school, Webb was a student body president. He wrote to the student body in the yearbook: ".. you who showed me the magnificent warmth of friendship which I know, and you know, I will carry with me forever."During World War II, Webb enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces, but he "washed out" of flight training. After that happened, he applied for and received a hardship discharge, being the primary financial support for his mother and grandmother.
Following his discharge, he moved to San Francisco, where a wartime shortage of announcers led to a temporary appointment to his own radio show on ABC's KGO Radio. The Jack Webb Showwas a half-hour comedy that had a limited run on ABC radio in 1946. By 1949, he had abandoned comedy for drama, and starred in Pat Novak for Hire, a radio show originating from KFRC about a man who worked as an unlicensed private detective. The program co-starred Raymond Burr. Pat Novak was notable for writing that imitated, almost to parody, the hard-boiled style of such writers as Raymond Chandler, with lines such as: "She drifted into the room like 98 pounds of warm smoke. Her voice was hot and sticky--like a furnace full of marshmallows."
Webb's radio shows included Johnny Modero, Pier 23; Jeff Regan, Investigator; Murder and Mr. Malone; Pete Kelly's Blues and One Out of Seven. Webb provided all of the voices on One Out of Seven, often vigorously attacking racial prejudice.
His most famous motion picture role was as the combat-hardened Marine Corps drill instructor at Parris Island in the 1957 film The D.I., with Don Dubbins as a callow Marine private. Webb's hard-nosed approach to this role, that of Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant James Moore, would be reflected in much of his later acting.
Webb was approached to play the role of Vernon Wormer, the dean of Faber College, in National Lampoon's Animal House, but he turned it down as crazy.
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 by Erwin Walker, a World War II army veteran and former Glendale, California, police department employee. The film was produced in semidocumentary style with technical assistance provided by Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). He Walked By Night's thinly-fictionalized recounting of the 1946 Walker crime spree gave Webb the idea for Dragnet: a recurring series based on real cases from LAPD police files, featuring authentic depictions of the modern police detective, including methods, mannerisms, and technical language.
With much assistance from Sgt. Marty Wynn and legendary LAPD chief William H. Parker, Dragnet premiered on NBC Radio in 1949 and ran till 1956. It was also picked up as a television series by NBC, which aired episodes each season from 1952 to 1959. Webb played Sgt. Joe Friday, and Barton Yarborough co-starred as Sgt. Ben Romero. After Yarborough's death, Ben Alexanderjoined the cast as Officer Frank Smith.
Webb was a stickler for attention to detail. He believed viewers wanted "realism" and tried to give it to them. Webb had tremendous respect for those in law enforcement. He often said, in interviews, that he was angry about the "ridiculous amount" of abuse to which police were subjected by the press and the public. Webb was also impressed by the long hours, low pay, and injury rate among police investigators of the day, particularly in the LAPD, which was notorious for jettisoning officers who had become ill or injured in the line of duty. In announcing his vision of Dragnet, Webb said he intended to perform a service for the police by showing them as low-key working class heroes. Dragnet moved away from earlier portrayals of the police in shows such as Jeff Regan and Pat Novak, which had often shown them as brutal and even corrupt. According to one Dragnet technical advisor, when the advisor pointed out that several circumstances in an 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." Dragnet became a successful television show in 1952. Barton Yarborough died of a heart attack in 1951, after filming only two episodes, and Barney Phillips (Sgt. Ed Jacobs) and Herbert Ellis (Officer Frank Smith) temporarily stepped in as partners. Veteran radio and film actor Ben Alexander soon took over the role of jovial, burly Officer Frank Smith. Alexander was popular and remained a cast member until the show's cancellation in 1959. In 1954, a full-length feature film adaptation of the series was released, starring Webb, Alexander, and Richard Boone.
Dragnet began with this narration by George Fenneman: "The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent." Webb would intone, "This is the city--Los Angeles, California." He would then make a historical or topical point, describe his duties, his partner and superior on the episode. At the end of each show, Fenneman would repeat his opening narration, revised to read: "The story you have just seen is true. The names were changed to protect the innocent." A second announcer, Hal Gibney, would then, usually, give dates when and specify courtrooms where trials were held for the suspects, announcing the trial verdicts after commercial breaks. Many suspects shown to have been found guilty at the end of Dragnet were also shown as having been confined to the California State Prison at San Quentin. Webb frequently re-created entire floors of buildings on sound stages, such as the police headquarters at Los Angeles City Hall and a floor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
In Dragnet's early days, Webb continued to appear in movies, notably as the best friend of William Holden's character in the 1950 Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard. In 1950, Webb appeared alongside future 1960s Dragnet partner Harry Morgan in the film noir Dark City, which also featured the first screen appearance of a new young actor named Charlton Heston. In contrast to the pair's straight-arrow image in Dragnet, here Webb played a vicious card sharp in Dark City and Morgan a punch-drunk ex-fighter who tries to talk Heston back into a straight-and-narrow life.
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 show became the basis for a 1955 movie of the same name. In 1959 a television version was made. Neither was very successful.
In the early 1960s Webb teamed with actor Jeffrey Hunter to form Apollo Productions. They made the TV series Temple Houston.
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. But the outcome was a disaster; Webb would later be accused of being out of touch with the younger generation,[by whom?] a perception that Dragnetsubsequently did nothing to correct. Ratings fell and the series was cancelled in its sixth season.
Beginning in early 1967, Webb produced and starred in a new color version of Dragnet for NBC, this time for Universal Television, which packaged all but one of his subsequent shows. Harry Morgan co-starred 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 TV movie was based on the Harvey Glatman serial killings. The TV series 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 emphasized crime prevention and outreach to the public. Its attempts to address the contemporary youth-drug culture (such as the "The LSD Story" episode, guest-starring Michael Burns as Benjamin John "Blue Boy" Carver, 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 Joe Friday grilling "Blue Boy" by asking him, "You're pretty high and far out, aren't you? What kind of kick are you on, son?" Don Dubbins, who had acted alongside Webb in The D.I. in 1957, was another featured actor in Mark VII Limited programs beginning in the 1960s.
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. Webb also performed the classic "Copper Clappers" sketch during an appearance on The Tonight Show where a pokerfaced Joe Friday echoed Johnny Carson's equally-deadpan robbery report in which all the details started with "Cl" or least the k consonant sound.
In the 1970s Webb began to expand his Mark VII Limited into other shows. The most successful of his 1970s efforts was Emergency!, which portrayed the fledgling paramedic program of the L.A. County Fire Department. The show became a huge success, running from 1972–79, with ratings occasionally even topping its time slot 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 nurse Dixie McCall and Dr. Joseph Early. There was even a cartoon spin-off, Emergency + 4.
Webb's personal life was better defined by his love of jazz than his interest in police work. His lifelong interest in the cornet and racially tolerant attitude allowed him to move easily in the jazz culture, where he met singer and actress Julie London. They married in 1947, had daughters Stacy (1950–1996) and Lisa (born 1952), and divorced in 1954. Subsequently, he married Dorothy Towne in 1955, divorcing in 1957, former Miss USA Jackie Loughery (to whom he was married from 1958 to 1964), and Opal Wright, who married him in 1980 and was widowed by his death in 1982.
Stacy Webb authorized and collaborated on a book, Just the Facts, Ma'am; The Authorized Biography of Jack Webb, Creator of Dragnet, Adam-12, and Emergency!, of which Daniel Moyer and Eugene Alvarez were the primary authors. It was published in 1999. Stacy did not live to see the publication of the book, having been killed in a car accident three years earlier.
Jack Webb began working on scripts for a revival of Dragnet with Kent McCord as his partner, but before production could begin, he died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 62.
He was interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, and was given a funeral with full police honors. On Webb's death, Chief Daryl Gates announced that badge number 714 which was used by Joe Friday in Dragnet would be retired.[clarification needed] Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles ordered all flags lowered to half-staff in Webb's honor for a day, and Webb was buried with a replica LAPD badge bearing the rank of Sergeant, and the number 714.
Webb has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for radio at 7040 Hollywood Boulevard, and for television at 6728 Hollywood Boulevard.