"The story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."
The Original "Dragnet"
In 1948, radio disk jockey Jack Webb landed a role in "He Walked by Night," a film noir about a murderer in Los Angeles, told in documentary style, focusing on the police investigation of the crimes.
A year later, Webb created a radio series with its roots in the film. "Dragnet" first aired on NBC on June 3, 1949. Produced with the full cooperation of the Los Angeles Police Department, each episode dramatized a case from the LAPD's files, albeit heavily fictionalized by Webb or another writer. The only recurring characters were Sergeant Joe Friday (played by Webb) and his partner Sergeant Ben Romero (played by Barton Yarborough), serving as the police investigating each case; since the cases the episodes were based on covered a wide variety of crimes, Friday and Romero would be based in a different LAPD division every week, from Robbery to Bunco and even Internal Affairs.
The punchy theme song for "Dragnet" was called "Danger Ahead," written by Walter Schumann and based on a simple 4-note theme; variations of the theme were used to dramatically punctuate scenes throughout each episode. Announcer George Fenneman opened the show with the narration quoted at the top of this writeup, and then Friday cut in with "My name is Friday. I'm a cop." (Some police officers complained about the slang word "cop," so Webb eventually changed this narration to "My name is Friday. I carry a badge.") Friday's narration continued through the rest of each episode, increasing the realism by occasionally giving an exact time and temperature and using jargon as if he were merely reading his own police report. Finally, Fenneman concluded each episode with a description of the punishment administered to the evildoer whose story had been dramatized.
"Dragnet" quickly became one of the most popular shows on radio, and like most popular radio shows of the late 1940s/early 1950s, it was spun off to television. The pilot episode aired on December 16, 1951, as an episode of the variety show "Chesterfield Sound Off Time," with Webb and Yarborough both reprising their roles from the radio series.
Yarborough died of a heart attack shortly after the broadcast, and the television series went into full production (and the radio series continued in production) with a new partner for Friday, Sergeant Ed Jacobs, played by Barney Phillips. "Dragnet" officially premiered on NBC television on January 3, 1952, and quickly became even more popular than the radio show.
At the time, most dramatic TV shows were being performed live in TV studios in New York; "Dragnet," on the other hand, was filmed on location in Los Angeles. Despite the pictures, however, it differed little from the radio series, with plenty of scenes of actors standing around and talking. TV did allow for Friday and his partner to look at each other with a meaningful glance and/or a head nod at the end of each scene while the theme music played. Also, the closing narration of the fate of the criminal was read over a shot of the actor nervously staring at the camera, and, of course, the opening narration changed slightly, to "the story you are about to see is true..."
Another revelation provided by the TV series was Friday's badge number, 714. The opening titles and closing credits appeared over an LAPD sergeant's badge with this number, not only making 714 famous, but also the high-rise building embossed on the badge, Los Angeles City Hall. (Webb is said to have chosen 714 because it was the number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.)
Ed Jacobs only lasted a couple of months as Joe Friday's partner; during 1952, he was replaced by Officer Frank Smith, briefly played by Herb Ellis, and then played by Ben Alexander for the rest of the show's run.
The 1953-54 TV season was the peak of "Dragnet's" popularity. During that year, it was the Number 2 show on television, behind only "I Love Lucy"; its separate radio broadcast remained fairly popular as well; and Stan Freberg's parody of the radio show, "St. George and the Dragonet," went to Number 1 on the charts. A feature film version of the show, directed by Webb and also called "Dragnet," was released in 1954.
The last original episode of the radio show aired on September 20, 1955, a victim of the end of radio as a dramatic medium, although reruns continued until February 1957. Webb chose to end the TV show and move on to other things in September 1959, although reruns continued in syndication (under the title "Badge 714").
"Dragnet 1967" and "Dragnet" in the '80s
Eventually, in the mid-1960s, Webb moved on to a position at Universal Studios working on TV movies. Universal happened to own the rights to "Dragnet," and seeing that the "Badge 714" reruns were still doing fairly well on local stations across the country, managed to interest NBC and Webb in a "Dragnet" revival in TV-movie form. In the new version, Joe Friday got yet another new partner, Officer Frank Gannon, played by Harry Morgan.
The TV movie went so well that, instead of airing it, NBC ordered a whole new "Dragnet" series. It aired in color, but to further distinguish it from the "Badge 714" reruns, the year was added to the title. Thus, "Dragnet 1967" premiered on January 12, 1967, with perhaps the quintessential "Dragnet" episode, guest starring Michael Burns as "Blue Boy," a hippie strung out on LSD who Friday and Gannon have several encounters with, allowing for Friday, acting as a mouthpiece for Webb, to do plenty of heavy duty moralizing.
The new version of "Dragnet" lasted through "Dragnet 1970," with the TV movie finally airing in 1969 as a special episode of the show. Reruns aired in syndication afterward (the black and white "Badge 714" reruns had been pulled from circulation earlier so there wouldn't be any competition for the new "Dragnet").
Webb died of a heart attack in 1982, earning the same kind of funeral honors afforded distinguished Los Angeles police officers; as a further tribute, the LAPD officially retired badge number 714.
However, Webb's death couldn't keep "Dragnet" from being revived yet again. In 1987, a feature film with the title was released, starring Dan Aykroyd as Joe Friday, the nephew of the original Joe Friday, and Tom Hanks as his new partner Pep Streebeck. It was played for laughs, with Aykroyd giving an intentionally over the top wooden performance as a parody of Webb's acting style.
"Dragnet" did fairly good business at the box office, and Universal soon made another attempt to revive the property as a TV series. "Dragnet" premiered in limited syndication in the fall of 1989, expanding nationwide in 1990; it generally aired in weekend afternoon time slots on local stations. This version was fairly faithful to the original, although the characters were completely new, with Jeff Osterhage and Bernard White starring as Vic Daniels and Carl Molina, respectively. Ratings were mediocre, though, in an era when "Cops" wasn't just dramatizing police cases, it was showing actual video.
"Dragnet" 2003/”L.A. Dragnet”
Yet another attempt to revive "Dragnet" came in the form of a midseason replacement in January 2003, with Dick Wolf, of "Law and Order" fame, serving as executive producer. This version aired on ABC, which promoted it as a revival of "the most popular police drama of all time." While previous versions had been half-hour shows, this version was an hour; while previous versions used true stories, this version's scripts were merely "based on actual events."
However, the character names were familiar: Ed O'Neill played Detective Joe Friday (the LAPD had changed its rank system in the 1990s, and detectives were no longer sergeants), and Ethan Embry played his youthful partner Frank Smith. The theme music was a remixed version of the original "Danger Ahead," and Friday narrated the episodes in voiceover. Friday and Smith made few meaningful glances at each other, though.
Ratings for the new “Dragnet” were fairly good, and it was renewed for the 2003-2004 television season. However, the show was almost completely retooled. Ethan Embry left the show, and the role of Joe Friday was changed, mainly so that Ed O’Neill wouldn’t have to appear in nearly every single scene of an hour-long drama. Now Joe Friday, promoted to lieutenant, supervised a group of young detectives: Jimmy McCarron, played by Desmond Harrington; Raymond Cooper, played by Evan Parke; and Gloria Duran, played by Eva Longoria. Also added to the cast was deputy district attorney Sandy Chang, played by Christina Chang, necessary because the show more strongly resembled "Law and Order," with Friday and/or one of the other detectives a courtroom scene during the last act.
Finally, in order to emphasize the fact that the show took place in Los Angeles, ABC requested that the title of the show be changed to “L.A. Dragnet.”
Ratings were disappointingly low for “L.A. Dragnet,” and while purists would like to blame the format changes for the lack of viewers, the bigger problem was ABC’s scheduling of the show for Saturday nights at 10:00 Eastern, following the weekly Disney movie. It was canceled five episodes into the season, to await its next revival.
Special bonus trivia note
Although "Just the facts, ma'am" is said to have been Joe Friday's catch phrase (said when he was attempting to interview a hysterical woman), he never actually said it. In the early years of "Dragnet," his catch phrase was "All we want are the facts, ma'am." This got conflated with a line from "Little Blue Riding Hood," Stan Freberg's followup to "St. George and the Dragonet," "I just want to get the facts, ma'am," until it became "just the facts, ma'am." That was a conveniently short phrase to use in headlines for newspaper and magazine articles about "Dragnet," of which there were plenty because of the show's popularity.
"On January 10th, trial was held in Superior Court of the State of California, in and for the County of Los Angeles. In a moment, the results of that trial."
- The usually reliable imdb.com
- Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh's The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present
- Radio episode guide at otrsite.com
- "Just the facts, ma'am" information from snopes.com
- My closed captioning of the 2003 "Dragnet"/”L.A. Dragnet”