A Note from Vicki: This is part one of a 4-part story. Unfortunately, I have only been able to find the first three parts. My choice was to post the first three parts or forget it. I chose to post, as I think that there are probably many who will enjoy reading this 55-year-old piece.
September 12, 1954
The Milwaukee Sentinel
The True Story of Jack Webb
The Names Have Not Been Changed
By Maurice Zolotow
My name’s Zolotow. I’m a magazine writer. A while ago I flew to Hollywood. My assignment: to get the story of Jack Webb. Webb plays
Friday, Sergeant Joe Friday, on the Dragnet program on television. He’s an actor, one of the best, not only on television but anywhere you want an actor. He can make life real and vivid.
He’s good. In fact, he’s great. Maybe he’s the most important talent developed in the new medium of television. This is his story. Just the facts. What you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed.
The time: 11:54 Saturday morning. A hot, heavy morning and the layer of smog made my eyes sting. I folded five sheets of white paper into quarters. I put the packet in my breast pocket, with a couple of newly-sharpened number 2 pencils and a fountain pen. I got into my rented coupe and drove maybe two miles up Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills. Then I turned right and wound for another mile along a twisted road until I went through a gate.
I was on the Webb estate—six acres of sloping terrain. I parked at the house, a one-story low-slung modernistic house. It’s some house. It cost $150,000. An architect’s dream. Twelve rooms.
Nobody lived there mostly but Webb and a colored girl who did for him and a lazy basset hound. The hound’s name is Dudley. Webb has an ex-wife and two daughters. They don’t live in the house. The Webbs are divorced. Mrs. Webb and the daughters live in the San Fernando Valley. (Jack doesn’t live there any more, either. He sold the place. Too fancy and too big for a man with no time for anything but work.)
Webb was in the study when I arrived. The study is an enormous room big enough to be a house in itself. One wall is all glass. By the swimming pool. Dick Breen, the writer who wrote the screenplay of the new Warner Brothers movie, Dragnet, was going over the script with Jack’s friend and adviser, Captain Jack Donohoe of the Los Angeles Police Department.
They sat at a long, modern oak table. There was a projection room for showing movies at one end of the study. A bar at the other. Breen and Donohoe were arguing whether two detectives grilling a suspect would give him a sandwich before or after grilling him.
Webb is a short man with big dark eyes, a sallow complexion, and jughandle ears. He has a good smile. He smiled and looked me over. He was wearing a polo shirt, cotton pants and a pair of deerskin slippers. He opened two bottles of German beer. I drank mine from a glass. He drank his right out of the bottle. Webb looked like a man who was too exhausted to rest or to sleep.
I found out that it is hard for Webb to sleep. Late at night he lies down on a leather couch in his den. He stacks a dozen records on the turntable of his high-fidelity phonograph. Turns up the treble control. He listens to the syncopated sadness of Louie Armstrong playing What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue, Bix Beiderbecke’s recording of Crying All Day, and Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy. He tries to figure it out listening to the music, drinking a bottle of beer.
Webb’s day starts at half-past seven in the morning. It ends at eleven, twelve. This time of night the people who work on the program can forget about Dragnet. Not Webb. Dragnet’s his baby. He can’t put a brake on his mind. He’s already worrying about next week’s show and the week after that.
He has given up his life to an imaginary character named Friday. That’s the way it is. He used to walk around the walled-in terrace back of the house. The moon was reflected in the swimming pool. It’s a big pool. The water looked inviting. All the months he lived in this house he didn’t have one swim in the pool. He was too busy. That’s the way it is with him.
He can’t stop. Once, when he was a kid of 12 or 13, he went on a roller-coaster ride at Venice Beach. He lost his nerve when the cars took that first breath-taking dive. But those machines keep going until the end of the ride. Jack Webb is in his job till the end of the ride.
It’s got to be that way. Because Jack Webb feels a loyalty to the 40,000,000 men and women who watch Dragnet. Who believe in him. John Randolph Webb, 34 years old, actor. Does he save his marriage? Does he make a personal life for himself with his two children, with the girl he married? Does he throw Dragnet into a swimming pool and let it drown? Many times he’s had the urge to chuck it all.
But you don’t stop the roller-coaster. With him, it’s the way it is with some people—failure is unendurable and success is bitter. Jack Webb doesn’t know how to find peace. Money he’s got. More than he ever dreamed possible. But money doesn’t buy peace. It doesn’t buy sleep.
He can’t sleep and he listens to the old records, Louie’s cracked voice singing “even the mouse ran from my house” and he searches for an answer. Searching. One way or another, that’s what he’s always been doing.
His mother, Maggie Smith Webb, once recalled: “Almost any time I looked out the window, my boy was looking in trash cans. Always searching for something. He didn’t know what.”
Maybe he’ll find what he’s been looking for all his life if he looks long enough, hard enough, and in the right places. He started searching when he was an infant. Searching for the meaning of his unknown father.
He was born in Santa Monica, California, on April 2, 1920. His mother is Roman Catholic, his father Jewish. All he knows about his father is that he was a hero in the first World War. His mother married him when he was still in uniform. It was a wartime romance. The child came along a year later. And when he was a year old, his mother and father split up. Divorced. From that day until this, nobody’s heard from the father.
Maggie didn’t mention him. And his son asked no questions. But a child can’t help being scarred.
Jack knew he was different from other kids. He was always asking himself, “Why did it have to happen to me?” He never had a father to lean on, to go fishing with, to throw a ball to.
Mrs. Webb and the boy went to live with his grandmother in San Francisco. Grandfather had been a surveyor for the Santa Fe Railroad. He left Gram a lot of money and a 700-acre estate. But it all went. Fast. When Jack was three years old, they were up against it. They moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
They lived on the third floor of an apartment house on Third and Flower Streets, southwest of Main, on a steep hill. Apartment 339. Two rooms, one kitchen, no bath. The bathroom, shared by 12 tenants on the floor, was on the back porch. His mother helped run the building. Took an extra job as night cashier in a cafeteria.
The boy’s heart would tighten watching Maggie. She was—and is—a fine, sensitive, educated woman, with deep emotions and an appreciation of art and literature. Life had dealt her a bad hand. Her son wanted to know why.
One Sunday, maybe he was four or five, they took a walk. She stopped in front of a department store. In a window there was a blank-faced manikin with a beautiful long dress on. Blue with pink ribbons, silky. her face filled with tears.
Her son remembers squeezing her hand. “Someday, Maggie,” he said, “I’ll buy you that dress. I swear I will.”
Jack Webb kept that promise.
He was a thin child. All skin and bones. His jughandle ears stuck out worse than now. He had no friends to play games with. Stood on the sidelines, watching. A spectator, storing up impressions of humanity he’s never forgotten. He dreaded going to school. He was always getting beat up.
Once, for his birthday, Maggie gave him a new white shirt and a pencil box. She was clerking in a store. She got the stuff at cost. He was proud of that shirt. He was coming home from school. A few blocks from his path was blocked by Cap, an overgrown slob of a kid, twice Jack’s size and weight. he always wore a cap with the visor torn off and old campaign buttons stuck all over it.
“Where ya think you’re going, shrimp?” he asked.
“Home,” Webb said.
“Let’s see the box,” Cap said. He grabbed for Jack’s shirt. Yanked it. Buttons flew off. Some of Cap’s confederates rounded the corner just as Jack managed to free himself. They surrounded him. He was about seven years old. They grabbed his beautiful shiny fake-leather pencil case.
They scattered the pencils and pens on the sidewalk. Punched his face and body. He thought, I am going to get killed. That’s the way a kid’s mind runs.
Then a strong arm in a blue sleeve reached into the fight. Pushed Cap and the other bullies away. He asked Webb who he was and where he lived. He picked up the pencils, pens, erasers and put them back in the case. He couldn’t do much about the shirt. Jack doesn’t remember his name, but that was the first cop he had any personal knowledge of.
A lot of kids think of a cop as a mortal enemy. To Jack this cop represented decency and justice. Maybe he also represented a symbol for the father he was always unconsciously seeking. Maybe what Webb has done in Dragnet, in paying tribute to the hard-working men of the police force, is his way of saying “thanks” to the cop who befriended a small boy 27 years ago.
Jack wasn’t a healthy kid. Always coming down with one disease or another. Seemed to have a cold the year round. He got caught in a rainstorm once. Nobody was home and he sat around in his wet clothes until grandma came. He had a bad chill.
They had a small tin tub in their kitchen. She boiled water on the stove. Filled the tub so the steam rose. She dunked him in the steaming water but the shivering wouldn’t go away. She took his temperature. 103.
By morning it was 105. They called the doctor. He said Jack had pneumonia. He wanted to send for the ambulance. Maggie and Gram said they would nurse him at home. He was pretty close to death. They pulled him through.
But something remained. A sickness in his chest. They called it chronic bronchitis. Then it changed to asthma. It meant he might choke to death any time he got an attack. It meant he had to avoid any exertion. It was another barrier between him and other kids in his neighborhood.
He suffered from asthma from about the age of eight until he was 17. Often he woke up in the middle of the night frantic because he was unable to suck in a single gulp of life-giving air. He always carried a box with green powder in it. He had to inhale the fumes when he felt himself choking. He didn’t know the name of the chemical. Just the color—green. he lived on a special diet. No milk, cheese, eggs or bread.
Just walking up three flights of stairs to the family’s flat nearly killed him. Sometimes Maggie or Gram had to carry him upstairs in their arms.
It was about this time that Jack discovered books. Those in the public library were free. He bagan to live in an imaginary world. The world of Jim Hawkins and Aqure Trelawney and Long John Silver on Treasure Island. He helped Robinson Crusoe through his lonely years as a castaway. He captured big game in Africa with Carl Akeley, Martin Johnson and Frank Buck. He lived the aerial battles of World War I with Eddie Rickenbacker and his “hat in the ring” squadron. Reading was his substitute for life.
Jack had other substitutes for living, too. One was exploring in the trash cans in the rear of the apartment houses in his neighborhood. Like his mother remembers, he was always searching for something. Carrying home bits and pieces. A conch shell you heard the ocean in if you put your ear to it. A red pennant, “Souvenir of Lake Tahoe.” A broken billiard cue. A tennis racket without strings. Italian Chianti bottles in straw holders.
Once he found the stub of a crayon. He started drawing on brown paper bags. Faces of people. Railroad tracks. Houses. Animals. Anything he could see or imagine.
Maggie bought him a set of crayons and some tracing paper. He traced pictures out of magazines and colored them. Now when he looked out the window he didn’t have to feel sorry for himself. He bagan to draw the teeming life outside.
A lot goes into the making of an actor. One thing is to be able to observe other people with sympathy. Maybe Webb should be grateful to the asthma. It forced him to be a spectator. Sympathy for others in trouble came naturally because of his own troubles.
His last substitute for living was music. Jazz music. He found it through a broken-down horn man who lived in a little furnished room on the second floor front. He had been a solid sender once. Played in the brass sections of good bands. Now he was a drunk. He had a wind-up phonograph and a beat-up cornet. He played cornet for Jack. Let him hold it sometimes. Also played his records. That’s the first time Webb heard Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet poignant, plaintive, speaking of the yearning and lonliness that filled him.
The horn-man was thrown out of his place. He couldn’t pay the rent. He left the boy one record, a record Bix made in 1930—At the Jazz Band Ball. Today, Webb has a complete collection of every record Bix made. And just as he has brought the actuality of a policeman’s work to the
American public, he has a burning desire to do the same for the hot jazz musician. Someday he’ll do it.
When Jack Webb entered high school, he thought he was going to be a musician or an artist someday. But a lot of things happened in high school, a lot of things that changed his life.
In next week’s instalment Mr. Zolotow tells how Jack Webb passed up a chance to inherit a prosperous plumbing business, and a scholarship that might have led to a career as an artist, to hang around radio studios and pick up many of the tricks at which he later became a master.
The following two episodes of Dragnet, the radio show, originally aired 60 and 55 years ago, respectively, on September 17, 1949 and September 20, 1954. Both episodes are made available by Old Radio World. They have 296 more Dragnet episodes that you can listen to, as well as a variety of other show titles. Make sure to check them out!
Following the two Dragnet episodes, I have included a link to the Bix Beiderbecke song referred to in this article, “At the Jazz Band Ball.”
Dragnet Radio Show: September 17, 1949
Dragnet Radio Show: September 20, 1954
“The Big Cut”