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Jack Webb and The Badge

August 2, 2009

Jack Webb will forever be remembered as the creator, producer and star of the phenomenally successful television series Dragnet. Dragnet began as a radio show in 1949 and made its television debut two years later. Webb starred as the hero, Sergeant Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department. Webb wanted the show to be as realistic as possible and every episode was shot in a semi-documentary style. It also featured many genuine police terms, such as MO (method of operation), PV (parole violator) and 488PC (petty theft). Webb had tremendous respect for people who worked in law enforcement, and the show was actually designed as propaganda for the LAPD. The LAPD had earned itself a horrendous reputation for corruption after numerous scandals in 30s and 40s. Webb worked closely with LAPD Chief William H. Parker to clean up its image in the public mind.     

When viewing Dragnet today, it does not seem to be a particularly Realist work. Webb gives a suitably rigid performance as the morally rigid Sgt Friday. Perhaps a better example of Realism and the LAPD is The Badge (1958), the book Webb wrote as a companion piece to Dragnet. Censorship laws of the time were more relaxed in publishing than they were for television. Webb used The Badge to portray the LAPD’s investigation into some of the City of Angel’s most infamous crimes, crimes too violent and disturbing for 1950s television. The book contains a famous ten page synopsis into the Elizabeth Short (a.k.a. the Black Dahlia) murder investigation. There are also pieces on the Brenda Allen scandal, the murder of the Two Tonys, the Club Mecca arson case and many more dark moments in LA history. But what is more important now than both Dragnet and The Badge is how the latter inspired the greatest crime fiction writer alive today. In 1959, a young boy named Lee Earle Ellroy was given a copy of The Badge from his father, Armand Ellroy, as a gift for his eleventh birthday. Since his mother’s murder the previous year, Lee had become a voracious reader of kid’s crime books, but it was the gripping and terrifying crime stories in The Badge that would inspire him for life. Lee Earle Ellroy changed his name to James Ellroy upon publication of his first novel Brown’s Requiem in 1981. That novel includes a fictionalised account of the Club Mecca arson case (renamed as Club Utopia). Ellroy’s masterpiece The Black Dahlia was published in 1987, twenty-eight years after he first learned of the case in The Badge. The Brenda Allen and Mickey Cohen scandals that rocked the LAPD appear in The Big Nowhere (1988). The gangland slaying of the Two Tonys, Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino, appears in White Jazz (1992). L.A. Confidential is less inspired by material gleaned from The Badge, than it is in paying tribute to the book itself, as the character Detective Sergeant Jack Vincennes works as a technical consultant on the fictional television programme, Badge of Honour, which is based on Dragnet.

In his introduction to the 2005 republication of The Badge, Ellroy paid tribute to Webb and the impact his book had on his literary career:

Books attract the inner brain and leave their virus there. Books rarely shape a writer’s curiosity whole. Books rarely give him sustained subject matter and a time and place to re-create anew. I’m anomalous that way. I got lucky at the get-go. It was one-stop imaginative shopping. I found all my stuff in one book.

Today Ellroy is as staunch a supporter of the LAPD as Webb ever was. Ellroy has defended the LAPD’s actions during the Rodney King and Rampart scandals. In recognition of this, the LAPD presented Ellroy with a replica police badge inscribed with Sgt Friday’s number 714. Also, Ellroy has been awarded the LAPD’s highest honour, the Jack Webb award.

 Here’s a clip of Webb as Sgt Friday in a famous scene from Dragnet.

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