ABC plans to use a trace of the familiar "dum-da-dum-dum" music when it airs its revival of "Dragnet" Sunday nights at 10, starting Feb. 2. That's good. Without that theme, "Dragnet" would not be "Dragnet."
The remaining question, though, is whether it can be "Dragnet" without Jack Webb, its creator and original star. History is not encouraging in that regard.
There were several incarnations of "Dragnet" with Webb as detective Joe Friday, starting with the original half-hour radio program that debuted in 1949. A TV series came next (1952-59), followed by a theatrical movie (1954), a TV movie (made in 1966 but not shown until 1969) and a second TV series (1967-70). All were successful commercially -- and sometimes critically, though few today remember that.
But "Dragnet" projects sans Webb, who died in 1982, have not fared well, unless you count three Stan Freberg parody records in the early 1950s. An ill-advised 1987 movie spoof starring Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd was neither man's best effort. A syndicated TV series of 52 episodes in 1989-90 failed to capture the public's imagination.
"Dragnet," in short, is identified with Jack Webb, and vice versa. Webb's vision for the show -- a realistic portrayal of police work -- penetrated American culture so deeply that many people born after the last Webb series left the air have probably been touched by it, at least to the extent of recognizing the origin of that driving, pounding theme, known as "Dragnet March" or "Danger Ahead."
Webb was working as a radio announcer and sometime actor in the late 1940s when the inspiration came to him.
While playing a small part in a 1948 film, "He Walked by Night," he heard the film's technical adviser, a Los Angeles detective sergeant, complain about the far-fetched nature of most crime stories. Webb decided to do something about it.
He got permission to ride with the adviser and his partner on calls. Night after night he sat in the back of the police Chevrolet, watching, listening, asking questions, taking notes.
And on June 3, 1949, came the fruit of his labors: NBC aired the first radio episode of "Dragnet." A "sustaining" (i.e., sponsorless) program, it was intended only as a summer replacement. Two weeks after the series began, though, a highly favorable review by influential New York Herald Tribune radio columnist John Crosby provided an invaluable boost, and in little more than two years it was the most popular show on radio.
The basic elements remained unchanged for the next two decades: the appearance of realism, with cases drawn from the Los Angeles police files; the documentary-style narration by a laconic Webb in Sgt. Friday's trademark monotone; the attention to detail ("It was 3:55. . . . We were working the day watch out of homicide"). Listeners loved it.
Viewers would love it, too. It is not too much to say that television merely added pictures to the radio version's trusty formula. Now the audience could see Webb being laconic (as well as jug-eared).
"Dragnet" began its regular TV run on NBC at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 3, 1952 (although its pilot had debuted a month earlier on "Chesterfield Sound Off Time," a weekly variety show). During most of its first 12 months it alternated with "Gangbusters"; thereafter, it was a weekly. The radio version continued until 1957.
In its early years "Dragnet" vied with "I Love Lucy" as television's most popular program. Some recurring elements, such as catchphrases, that had caught a radio audience's fancy grew into national obsessions -- the music included. A recording of the theme by Ray Anthony's orchestra became a big hit.
Seemingly every citizen -- and certainly every comedian -- went around saying, "Just the facts, ma'am," in imitation of Joe Friday. That imitation was not precisely correct, however. While Friday did frequently use such phrases as "All we want are the facts, ma'am," or "All we know are the facts, ma'am," he never used that truncated form, which may have come about through one of the Freberg parody records, "Little Blue Riding Hood."
It is hard to appreciate, with the passage of a half-century, what a startling shift "Dragnet" brought to crime drama. Just by depicting a hard-working cop, it was such a departure from the usual private-eye fare that CBS rejected the radio version because it "didn't resemble Sam Spade enough."
Lost, too, is an appreciation of the many praiseworthy things it did -- and didn't do. It did not, for example, have much violence. Gunfire and murder were extremely rare. In the first 60 shows, Webb said, there were only 15 shots fired and three brawls.
He strove mightily for a realistic look and tone, which was the point of the seemingly pointless small talk between Friday and his partner, Officer Frank Smith. Disdaining dramatic artifice, he thereby achieved dramatic effect.
Webb, whose respect for the police could sometimes border on reverence, based the stories on real LAPD cases (with names changed to "protect the innocent," as viewers were informed -- and to forestall lawsuits). This extended to copying details of real police offices, right down to the doorknobs.
It extended also to the characters. He refused to let his actors use makeup, except the women, and then only their own. Being not exactly a Greek god himself, he didn't care what his actors looked like, which is probably why he used his radio cast in television whenever possible.
"People look like people," Webb said. "Movies have stereotypes for policemen and bank clerks. What does a policeman look like?"
As Time said in 1954 -- when Webb made the magazine's cover, and 38 million viewers were tuning him in each week -- the "bums, priests, con men, whining housewives, burglars, waitresses, children and bewildered ordinary citizens" seem "sorrowfully genuine," and are viewed "with a compassion totally absent in most fictional tales" of crime.
A lot of the stories were very good. The series broached topics unusually daring for the 1950s -- pornography in schools, drug abuse, child molestation.
For four seasons those stories helped make it the most popular drama on TV, until it was overtaken by "Gunsmoke," labeled by one critic "Dragnet on the range." It won awards, including three successive Emmys for best mystery series. It spawned numerous imitators, the most slavish being "The Lineup," based on actual cases from the San Francisco Police Department.
"Dragnet" ran until September 1959. Then, in January 1967, Webb managed to revive it.
This time, because Ben Alexander -- who played Frank Smith from 1953 to 1959 -- was working in another series, "Felony Squad," Friday's partner became Officer Bill Gannon, played by Harry Morgan (later to star in "M*A*S*H").
It was pretty much the same old "Dragnet," except it was in color, and ran until September 1970.
And now Dick Wolf, creator of "Law and Order," is cranking it up again. Ed O'Neill ("Married . . . With Children") will be Joe Friday and Ethan Embry ("Sweet Home Alabama") will be Frank Smith.
Walon Green, who along with Wolf is executive producer of the new series, says that the new show, unlike the old, is not based directly on actual cases, though it does employ two police consultants, one a retired officer, the other a robbery investigator with the Glendale, Calif., police department.
"We're more interested in the spirit of L.A. than in the facts," Green said. He expressed little concern that viewers would make unfair comparisons with the old "Dragnet," since it originally aired decades ago.
While voice-over is used, it's different from the old documentary-style narration in that the audience now hears the detective's thoughts on the crime. "It's impressionistic," Green said. "You see things through the eyes of Joe Friday."
So, can it be "Dragnet" without Jack Webb?
Green says this really is not like the old "Dragnet."
"We came back with them," the Joe Friday and Frank Smith characters, Green said. "That's really the only connection. But they're not that Joe Friday and Frank Smith. We even debated not using the names. We did use the badge number, Joe Friday's badge number, 714."
Still, there is that dum-da-dum-dum.
"You can hear the old theme in the opening chord," Green said, but it doesn't run through the show as it did in Webb's creation. He said he thought the new show's music was "a bit noirish" and had an L.A. sound.
As for the recurring features of the old show, such as its obsession with stating the time of day -- cliches, he called them -- "we tried not to use those things."
Absent all that, then, why call it "Dragnet"?
"Because it's a good title. It's a real good title. People will know the title. They'll think, 'Yeah, "Dragnet," wasn't that a cop show?' "
Green said he liked the idea of a police procedural for the 21st century, and this "Dragnet," he believes, is more character-driven than most action shows.
And Ed O'Neill, he said, is -- dum-da-dum-dum-DAH! -- "the perfect Joe Friday."