Question: I know the new Dragnet's been cancelled, but since it revived the Joe Friday character I got to thinking. Wasn't there already a Joe Friday comeback in the late '60s or early '70s? Denise H., Mandan, N.D.
Televisionary: That there was, Denise. And it was with Jack Webb, the original model, in the same role, too, doing the same sort of show he'd done in the series' initial run.
Webb, a Santa Monica, Calif., native and former World War II B-26 pilot, launched Friday and Dragnet as a radio show in 1949, and the show almost didn't make it past its first broadcast. Network execs hated the slow pacing, flat delivery and lack of violence and were screaming for changes until New York Herald-Tribune critic John Crosby weighed in with a column that listed everything the suits hated as the show's strong points.
Dragnet stayed, and in January 1952 it launched on NBC's TV schedule, eventually becoming a solid hit for the network. It spawned a big-screen feature version, won three Emmys and landed Webb's face on the cover of Time, putting him well on his way to becoming a millionaire by the time he was 33.
Six years later, however, ratings had fallen and promoting Friday to lieutenant didn't help at all. The show left the air in June 1959 with 278 episodes in the can, and Friday's Badge 714 was buried in the cornerstone of an L.A. Police Academy building.
The show was gone for only eight years before NBC brought it (and Webb's Friday, who had been knocked down to sergeant again) back and paired Webb with a pre-M*A*S*H Harry Morgan and, once again, the network had itself a popular show. (NBC had to tack a year onto the end of the title, though, calling it Dragnet 1967 when it relaunched so people wouldn't confuse it with the still-popular reruns of its earlier incarnation.)
"The timing was right in putting Dragnet back on the air," Webb told TV Guide in 1968. "It's almost as if people were looking for this type or program. Judging by our ratings and our mail, there must be an enormous segment of the public which believes it's time that policemen no longer must be misunderstood and maligned."
The audience was indeed looking for that type of program. And they let Webb, who fine-tuned his shows based on viewer feedback, know when they didn't like any monkeying with the tried-and-true formula.
Trying to update some of the dialogue, Webb's new Dragnet began sporting such salty lines as, "That's a hell of a note!" and, "It's a damn good thing you didn't!" More than a thousand letters and cards poured in from fans who threatened a boycott if the dirty words weren't dropped, so out they went.
With that kind of reaction to change, you can't really blame Webb for sticking with what worked. When the first run of Dragnet ended, he decried TV's lack of range. "Television should be a medium of infinite variety," he said. "Instead, it is a medium of carbon-copying. It's much worse than it ever was in motion pictures."
By the time his show returned to the air, Webb had learned his lesson: Don't fix what ain't broke. (Webb went from Dragnet, a show about two plainclothes cops, to creating Adam-12, a show about two uniformed cops, and Emergency!, a show about two paramedics.)
All in all, Webb had a very respectable run on TV. Unfortunately, he had a much less successful time with his marriages, the failure of which three of them ate up a good chunk of the money he earned in the medium. "What hurts most is that moment when you're shaving by yourself, looking just at you," he said after paying nearly $1 million out in alimony and settlements. "But it's always nice to place them back in circulation a little better than you found them."
(Of course, a high-handed sentiment like that might be a clue as to why the marriages didn't work out in the first place, no?)