It has to be the most-parodied television show ever. Jack Webb’s deadpan delivery, name (Joe Friday), catchphrase (“Just the facts, ma’am), and four-note musical introduction provided an irresistible vehicle for jokesters. And yet, if the show hadn’t embedded itself so deeply in the national consciousness, such humor would have been impossible.
Webb was not only Dragnet’s star, he was also its creator and producer. He appeared as a crime scene investigator in a 1948 film done in a semidocumentary style, and became intrigued with police procedures. He became convinced a show could be successful using actual law enforcement stories and dialogue, free of melodrama. He frequented police headquarters, went along on night patrols, and even attended Police Academy courses to be sure he got the details right.
The program debuted on radio in 1949, and after a brief shaking-out period, achieved great success. Webb told Time, “We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of coffee.”
Dragnet moved to TV in 1952 with much of the radio cast and production team intact. It was again a huge hit, running until 1959 and ending then only because Webb wanted to move on to other projects. It was later brought back for another run, this time between 1967 and 1970. It was on this revival that Harry Morgan played Sgt. Friday’s partner Bill Gannon.
By the way, Sgt. Friday never uttered the words, “Just the facts, ma’am.” The closest he came was, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”…