“Just the facts, ma’am.” On this day in 1952, Sergeant Joe Friday’s famous catchphrase enters American homes via a new entertainment device: the television. A popular radio series since 1949, the police drama Dragnet became one of the first TV series filmed in Hollywood, instead of New York. It also began a long, nearly unbroken line of popular crime and police TV dramas, continuing into the present day with the ubiquitous Law & Order and CSI (and their seemingly endless spin-offs).
The driving creative force behind Dragnet was its producer, director and star, Jack Webb, who portrayed a laconic Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) sergeant, Joe Friday. After playing a small role in the 1948 film noirHe Walked By Night, Webb created a radio series for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network that, like the film, was based on actual LAPD cases. As the narrator of the show, Webb provided a matter-of-fact commentary on how the police department worked and how detectives went about solving the specific cases.
When the hit radio series moved to NBC Television’s Thursday night schedule, Webb and the actor who played Friday’s partner, Barton Yarborough, moved with it, though Yarborough died of a heart attack shortly after the pilot aired. He was replaced by a series of actors over the years, including Barney Phillips, Herb Ellis, Ben Alexander and Harry Morgan. The TV show was an instant success, locking down a spot in the Top 10 through 1956 and spawning numerous imitators, not to mention a hit record based on the distinctive four-note opening of its theme song. Its formula was simple and consistent: After a prologue (“The story you are about to hear is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent”) and a fade-in on a shot of Los Angeles, each show unfolded almost like a documentary, following the sometimes mundane workings of the police detectives as the case moved towards its inevitable conclusion–the capture of the guilty perpetrator and a voice-over description of his or her fate.
Based on the show’s success–by the mid-1950s, Dragnet was watched by more than half of American households–Warner Brothers released a film version in 1954. The series reached the end of its initial run in 1959, but was revived in 1967 and ran for three more years. By the late 1960s, Friday had begun to more openly voice the conservative views of the show’s creators, issuing lectures on the importance of God and patriotism that were meant as a warning to the growing hippie counterculture of Vietnam-era America. In the years to come, despite a 1980s revival after Webb’s death, Dragnet would be eclipsed by the popularity of such crime-themed dramas as The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O,Hill Street Blues and the reality series COPS and America’s Most Wanted.
Later incarnations of Sergeant Joe Friday include Dan Aykroyd, co-star (alongside Tom Hanks) of the hit 1987 comedy version of Dragnet, which was more a parody than a remake. In 2003, Law & Order producer Dick Wolf launched a Dragnet series on ABC, starring Ed O’Neill as Friday. It was canceled shortly after the start of its second season.