Baby Boomers Caught In The Dragnet


The first four notes of the musical opening to Dragnet, perhaps the most recognizable intro notes in television history.

Before CSI dissected cadavers in your living room, before Special Victims Unit hunted down heinous predators, before Hill St. Blues hit the mean streets, even before Starsky and Hutch were baby boomer cool and Mod Squad rocked, there was Joe Friday: simple, no-nonsense and straight as a jail house iron bar.

The television version of Dragnet ran through the 1950s and returned in 1967. The world was in the midst of a social tsunami by then, but Sgt. Friday remained in a Rip Van Winkle time warp. He became a pop culture symbol for the not so “silent majority” who labeled baby boomers and their counterculture as subversive.

His partner, actor Harry Morgan, is known for another “tough-guy with a heart” character – Col. Potter T. Sherman of the M.A.S.H. unit.

A favorite show device was to set up straw characters and burn them down. One was the “hippie.” A stereotypical stoned-out long hair would declare: “Hey, dude, chill, get mellow, drugs don’t hurt nobody.” Friday furled his brow and pursed his lips. His eyes narrowed and chest puffed as he gave the miscreant a long, sharp tongue-lashing that left him chocking on his love beads.

Or a black militant sporting an “afro” that wouldn’t quit and a chip as big as a redwood moans that all the “fuzz” are all racist. Another huff and puff and Joe Friday points to an upstanding “Negro” patrolman and delivers a stern lecture—a cross between a tirade and a homily. The activist skulks off as the Sgt. shakes his head in pity.

Of course, the television show spawned a market in Dragnet toys, which are now collectibles.

Jack Webb created and starred in Dragnet, his personality indelibly stamped on every aspect of the show. Joe Friday set himself up as a baby boomer antithesis: traditional, workaholic, always inside-the-box. He was as romantic as a mop, seldom cracked a smile and never met a semi-colon he liked. “Just the facts, ma’am.” His brisk walk resembled a marching duck. He may look a cave man today but all the modern media cops waddle in his sober footsteps.

Trivia Factoids

One of the best known moments on the Johnny Carson Show featured Jack Webb as Joe Friday interrogating Johnny as a witness in a robbery involving “Claude Cooper, a kleptomaniac from Cleveland who coped the clean cooper clapper.” It worked so well because Webb was able to keep a straight face throughout the fast-paced three minute skit, letting only one small smile slip near the end.

Watch it → Clean Copper Clappers

A hallmark of Dragnet was the “perp pic” at the end. The hapless criminal is shown fidgeting for a mug shot as the voice-over announces his sentence “in and for the county of Los Angeles.” Stern justice was delivered in full each show.

Dragnet became so popular, people would visit the LAPD City Hall asking to speak to Sgt. Friday. The show was endorsed and had scripts reviewed by the police department, which also served as consultant. Upon Webb’s death, the real badge #714 featured at the beginning of each episode was retired, police department flags flew at half mast, and an honor guard attended his funeral as the Police Commissioner delivered a eulogy. An LAPD auditorium is named in his honor.


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