by Erik Arneson
January 1952-September 1959 (first television run)
January 1967-September 1970 (second television run)
- Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday
- Barton Yarborough as Sgt. Ben Romero (1951)
- Barney Phillips as Sgt. Ed Jacobs (1952)
- Herb Ellis as Office Frank Smith (1952)
- Ben Alexander as Officer Frank Smith (1953-1959)
- Harry Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon (1967-1970)
The precursor to today’s abundance of quality crime dramas, “Dragnet” has secured a solid place in television (and radio) history.
One of “Dragnet”‘s most enduring imprints is the theme song, with its signature “dum de dum dum.” Walter Schumann wrote the now-famous theme, which is also known as “Dragnet March” and “Danger Ahead.”
Similar to today’s “Law & Order,” details of the characters’ personal lives were revealed sparsely, although Friday never hesitated to let anyone know exactly what he thought. (During the 1950s series, viewers did learn that Friday lived at home with his mother.) A peculiar running subplot dealing with Gannon’s knowledge of wallpaper and Friday’s lack thereof surfaced occasionally in the second series run.
Jack Webb, who starred as Joe Friday, also wrote many of the scripts, commonly basing them on actual L.A. Police Department cases with enough details changed to make them barely recognizable. In addition to his work on “Dragnet,” Webb produced a number of other television series. Among them were “Adam 12” (1968-75), “O’Hara,” “U.S. Treasury” (1971-72), “Emergency” (1972-77), and “Project UFO” (1978-79).
“Dragnet” is remembered by many as a quaint, nostalgic glimpse at the way life used to be. One such episode is “Narcotics,” in which the “Smarteen Club” is launched with the motto “SOS: Stamp Out Stupidity.” The organization’s goal is to work as hard reaching vulnerable youths as drug dealers do. In another episode, Friday and Gannon break up a dog-stealing ring where the criminals turn the dogs back in to the owners for reward money.
“Dragnet” actually covered some very tough issues during its two television runs as well. When TV Guide and Nick at Nite chose the “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time,” it was no surprise to see “Dragnet”‘s 1967 “Blue Boy” episode (aka “The LSD Story”) on the list. This show, dealing with LSD use among Los Angeles teens, marked the return of “Dragnet” after an eight-year absence, and also marked a move toward more hard-boiled episodes.
“The Big Explosion” saw Friday and Gannon on the trail of a neo-Nazi protesting a local grammar school’s integration by planting dynamite to blow it up. In “The Big Kids,” the duo has to figure out why shoplifters are stealing items like diapers and hair dryers. Nick at Nite’s page on America Online describes this episode as a “great behind-the-scenes peek at one of the 1960s’ more extravagant alternative lifestyles.”
Friday shot and killed a robber in “The Shooting Board,” prompting an internal investigation. There was some question about the veracity of Friday’s version of events because an initial search did not turn up evidence that the perpetrator shot at Friday. Eventually, a bullet is found lodged behind a shelf in the wall and Friday is cleared.
It was rare to see a court scene during an episode of “Dragnet.” “The Pyramid Swindle” was one exception, as the officers worked to convict a woman charged with running a pyramid scheme with religious overtones. A defense expert testifies that all her claims are possible theoretically, but the prosecution nails the case by proving that every U.S. citizen would have to join the organization before that could happen.
In its heyday, “Dragnet” was a true multimedia power. In addition to the two television series on NBC, “Dragnet” was a radio drama for about ten years, and several “Dragnet”-related books were published in the 1950s and ’60s. A feature film was made in 1954, and an ill-advised 1987 movie starred Dan Aykroyd as Sgt. Joe Friday (a descendant of the original). The 1987 version, which also starred Harry Morgan as Captain Bill Gannon, Tom Hanks, Dabney Coleman, and “Baywatch”‘s Alexandra Paul, was completely forgettable on its own, but serves as a testament to “Dragnet”‘s influence on popular culture. If you need further proof, Morgan was asked (and agreed) to lend his voice to a 1995 episode of “The Simpsons” as Officer Bill Gannon.
“Dragnet”‘s many guest stars included Barry Williams (of “Brady Bunch” fame) in “The Christmas Story,” and O.J. Simpson in a cameo as a potential police recruit during an episode dealing with how to increase the number of minority police officers. Raymond Burr, who would go on to become famous as attorney extraordinaire Perry Mason, played Friday’s boss in the 1951 “Dragnet” pilot episode.
“Dragnet” had perhaps the most interesting run of any crime drama in history. It certainly ranks among the best-known, and its influence can be seen in any number of today’s shows. Without “Dragnet,” there is no telling what today’s crime drama landscape would look like. It certainly wouldn’t be as rich in history.