It is perhaps because of my more than passing resemblance to actor Michael (The Shield) Chiklis that the Mighty Pine Box folks have asked me to jot down a few notes regarding the history of the police procedural in popular culture. Most likely, though, I’ve been asked to contribute as these good people realize by this point that my Chiklisian pate is simply top-full of completely disposable information regarding the history of American film and television, pre-1980.
But that’s rather fortunate in this instance, as Josh’s play is not only a worthy stage whodunit in the classic vein, but also—to me, in the playing—a fond tip of the hat to thousands of hours spent in the company of Popeye Doyle, Theo Kojack, Frank Bullitt and Steve McGarrett. It’s a Cop Show, in the best sense—written by someone who, like me, enjoys the hell out of a good Cop Show. Well, let’s face it: one day someone calls you on the phone and invites you to play Cops and Robbers five nights a week? If you’re me, you’re taking it.
Now, to begin a formal history of the police procedural, we would need to go back to Poe and the Victorians, I think, but since this is intended more as a personal history—and since our show carries with it very much an American Cop Show sensibility—to highlight a few influential boilerplates, we would be better served by dropping into the Timeline about halfway, say 1949, when the grandpappy of all modern Cop Shows debuts on radio: Jack Webb’s Dragnet.
It’s rather difficult to gauge the influence Dragnet has had on our culture as a whole (and that statement may sound hyperbolic, but if you listen closely, the show’s taglines are still used in everyday conversation). We do know that for most Americans, Dragnet’s initial 10-year run on both radio and television, concurrently—along with it’s successful revamp in the bad ol’ days of the late 1960’s—was the first time, with any degree of overall accuracy, that they learned What Cops Do at their jobs on a day to day basis. In a lot of ways, the weekly adventures of Sergeant Joe Friday and his succession of partners, took the faceplate off a clock, and showed us just how interesting the inner workings could be. And millions responded to that: during the 1950s, the show was rarely out of the Top Five on television, and the overall viewer stats rank it second only to I Love Lucy for the decade. Hell, it only went off the air the first time because Jack Webb wanted to move on to other things.
Webb was an interesting guy with a unique career: a dyed-in-the-wool Californian, he was born in Santa Monica in 1920. The family deserted by the father, Webb was raised Roman Catholic by his mother and grandmother in a boarding house in the then poverty-stricken Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles. When Jack was a boy, another tenant at the house gave him a copy of a Bix Biederbecke record, which began his lifelong love of jazz music. At Belmont High, he was Student Council President, and began performing in plays as a way to overcome shyness. When World War II came, he joined the Army Air Force, but after being washed out of flight training he secured a hardship discharge, as he was his family’s only means of support.
Even given this brief biographical sketch, you armchair psychologists out there can have a big time playing cause and effect regarding Webb’s adult development into what he termed an “ultra-conservative”; personal politics also central to the nature of the one character with whom he would be permanently identified. Although it is worth noting that, despite the stentorian on-screen image, he was known as a cheerful, gregarious fellow off the job—kind to children and animals, that kind of thing—and due to his free movement in jazz circles, his opinions and actions regarding Civil Rights were remarkably progressive for his time. However, just as noteworthy, the Los Angeles Police Department’s decades-long dance with institutionalized racism would never become the subject of a Dragnet episode.
Moral Ambiguity was neither the point, nor the intention, of Jack Webb’s baby.
To be continued …
Steve Pickering plays the role of Officer Paul Landy in A Girl With Sun In Her Eyes, which opens on June 30. Get your tickets today.