After his enormous success playing police detective Sergeant Joe Friday in his radio and television series Dragnet, Jack Webb enjoyed a creative phase of his career in which he produced, directed and starred in five feature films. The first and most successful of these ventures was a big-screen version of Dragnet released in 1954. Next came Pete Kelly's Blues(1955), a project dear to Webb's heart that had begun as a 1951 radio series and featured the music that he loved most, Dixieland jazz. Webb played a cornet player (which he was in real life) who tangles with gangsters in the 1920s, and costar Peggy Lee copped an Oscar® nomination for her role as a troubled singer.
In The D.I. (1957), Webb is fiercely convincing as a tough yet fair Marine drill instructor at Parris Island. To heighten the film's realism, he included a number of real Marine recruits in the supporting cast. -30- (1959) is a newspaper drama showing a day in the life of a Los Angeles daily, with Webb as the harried managing editor coping with crises both personal and professional.
Providing a change of pace from Webb's usual solemn fare was The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961), an Army comedy starring Robert Mitchum as Arch Hall, a real-life friend of the film's screenwriter William Bowers (played by Webb). The setting is a WWII stateside camp where the aging Pvt. Hall uses his skills as a con man to exploit the military way of life. This was Webb's most expensive feature, with a budget of about $2 million. Despite the star turns and an ace supporting cast of funnymen including Louis Nye, Don Knotts, Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck, the film failed at the box office and marked an end to Webb's career as a maker of feature films.
John Randolph "Jack" Webb was born on April 2, 1920, in Santa Monica, Calif., and raised in poverty by a single mother. After studying art at St. John's University in Minnesota, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces but was given a hardship discharge as the primary support for his mother and grandmother. He began his show business career in radio in the mid-1940s and achieved his first real success with a show called Pat Novak for Hire, which was broadcast nationwide in 1949 with Webb as the hard-boiled private eye and Raymond Burr as a rival police inspector.
Webb had small roles in movies during this period including, most significantly, the film noir classic He Walked by Night (1948), which inspired his idea for Dragnet. During filming, he befriended a Los Angeles police consultant and, after being fascinated by the tales he heard, was inspired to pitch a radio series using stories drawn from LAPD files. Dragnet premiered on NBC Radio on June 3, 1949, and began its TV run on December 16, 1951. It was one of the most successful and influential shows on early TV, inspiring many parodies with its "dum-de-dum-dum" musical score and Webb's deadpan delivery. The original TV show lasted until September 1959.
After his feature-film period Webb returned to TV, serving for a brief time as Head of Production for Warner Bros. Television. He did a TV movie, Dragnet 1966 (1969), that was so successful it spawned a new series,Dragnet 1967, which lasted three-and-a-half seasons and was a huge hit all over again in syndication. Webb developed two other popular series, the police drama Adam-12, which began in 1968; and Emergency!, which began in 1971 and cast his ex-wife, Julie London, and her current husband Bobby Troup in a story about paramedics.
Known as a heavy smoker who paid little attention to his health, Webb died of a heart attack in December 1982 at age 62. In addition to second wife London, with whom he had two children, he was married to four other women including Opal Wright, his spouse at the time of his death.
by Roger Fristoe