Question: As I remember, Dragnet was based on real police cases. But didn't Don Meredith star in a 1970s Dragnet-type show that was based on real police cases, too? Thank you for your help. Nick F., Driggs, Idaho
Televisionary: It was based on real police stories rather than official cases, Nick, but NBC's Police Story was about as un-Dragnet as a cop show could be at the time.
The pioneering anthology series, which ran from September 1973 to August 1977 (with a handful of late-'80s TV-movies thrown in), was based on the accounts of real police and, as such, was aimed at gritty reality and the true ambiguity of the job rather than the pure good-vs.-bad approach of the classic Dragnet series.
Police Story began life with true LAPD. pedigree, springing from an idea proposed by cop and author Joseph Wambaugh, who pitched an "honest" police drama. "Who else sees people when all the masks are dropped, during moments of acute rage, fear, pain, grief, happiness?" Wambaugh wrote in his pitch. "The flashing red lights and siren chase are not the thing, but rather the overwhelming fear (or perhaps erotic elation) that the officer feels.... The chase says something about the human condition."
Of course, the networks weren't interested in the human condition. They wanted flashing red lights and chases, so all three rejected the idea immediately. Then producer David Gerber, rummaging through the files at Screen Gems, stumbled on Wambaugh's pitch. He contacted Wambaugh, sold the idea to NBC, and promptly began a contentious relationship with his cocreator, the friction from which resulted in groundbreaking TV.
Wambaugh's secret? Let cops tell their own stories.
"Here is where we get our cop-truth," producer Liam O'Brien told TV Guide in 1976, motioning toward a desk stacked with several hundred cassette tapes. "It's our feed-in from real life. We're always digging, asking the cops, 'How did you feel? What were you thinking?' Then we marry the tapes to a writer and he talks to the cops again, usually in my office."
Wambaugh, who finally left the force after his show and his book The Onion Field were hits he'd already scored successes with books like The New Centurions and his former beat partner paid cops $50 for the first interview. If asked back and assigned to an episode nearly every week told the story of a different policeman as a technical advisor, a cop stood to make $900 to $1350 for each story.
Several episodes came from real-life cops Bob Duretto and Ken Smith (played in a few episodes by Tony Lo Bianco and, as you remember, Don Meredith). "We're the resident authorities on bank robberies," Duretto said of his work at the time. "The incident people seem to remember most from our shows is when this guy ran at a bank door at nine in the morning. He didn't know that banks in California open at 10. So he hits the door and knocks himself out. We saw it happen. Who could make that up?"
Who indeed? Even LAPD's press-relations officer Dan Cooke, who wasn't above complaining when he thought the show made cops look bad, had to admit it was the most realistic police drama on the air even though the LAPD officially had nothing to do with it. "Next to Police Story, all the cop shows are fantasies," he said. "Like Columbo with his dirty raincoat and driving his own car and Kojak with his lollipops that stuff is so far removed from reality, we just shrug it off as entertainment. But Police Story is the real thing.
And despite story lines that sometimes showed cops as either power-drunk or operating out of less-than-noble motivations, the LAPD encouraged its officers to share stories with the show since they helped humanize the police for the audience. "Even if some department heads aren't always happy at the constant sniping at authority, their sensitivities aren't as important as giving the public a better perspective on the role of the police today," Cooke said. "We police are, after all, the world's smallest minority. We want to get away from the apple-stealing, fat-cop image of old."
How far did they get away from it? Angie Dickinson far. The actress' Sgt. Suzanne "Pepper" Anderson first came on the scene in a Police Story episode and her spin-off, Police Woman, ran for four years beginning in 1974.