by Z.J. Czupor
Just the Facts Ma’am: The Story of Badge 714
Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
That famous opening line belongs to Dragnet, one of the most popular and influential police procedural dramas in radio and television history.
Jack Randolph Webb (1920-1982) wrote, produced, directed, and starred as Sergeant Joe Friday in the hit radio and TV series, which ran, at intervals, from 1949 to 2004. The show was touted for its realism about the dangers and heroism of law enforcement. Sgt. Friday wore badge number 714.
Dragnet‘s realism came about because Webb spent long hours on the ground conducting research in squad rooms, squad cars, and drinking coffee with detectives. He said he learned his first police rule, which is “the solution of a crime is the work of many hands and many minds.”
Webb got the idea for Dragnet from the 1948 film He Walked by Night in which he played a small role as a crime-lab technician. His vision was to perform a service by showing policemen as low-key working-class heroes. The title “dragnet” refers to a coordinated system used to capture criminals and suspects.
The Popularity of Dragnet
Dragnet originated on NBC radio from 1949 to 1957. In 1951, the series moved to TV (NBC), where shows ran simultaneously on radio and television using the same script devices with many of the same actors. An estimated 38 million viewers tuned in each week.
Jack Webb starred as Sgt. Joe Friday on TV from 1951-59 and again from 1967-70.
In 1989-90, The New Dragnet starred Jeff Osterhage as Det. Vic Daniels, while the 2003-04 version, L.A Dragnet, featured Ed O’Neill as Lt. Joe Friday. Both series were produced by Webb.
Dragnet appeared around the world with translations in German, French, Spanish, and Japanese. In retrospect, the episodes are still entertaining but feel campy with wooden acting styles. Plus, some of the police procedures appear outdated and trial outcomes would be vastly different from today. However, at the peak of its popularity, fans often visited LAPD headquarters wanting to speak to Sgt. Friday. The official response given at the front desk was, “Sorry, it’s Joe’s day off.”
Dragnet was parodied numerous times in films, TV, and cartoons. Fortunately, Webb wasn’t above the parody himself. In 1968, he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in a sketch called the “Copper Clapper Caper.” As the poker-faced Joe Friday, he interviews the equally deadpan victim of a robbery at a school-bell factory (the victim played by Carson). The details of the crime started with the alliterative “k” consonant sound, such as “Claude Cooper, the kleptomaniac from Cleveland.”
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Supposedly, Sgt. Joe Friday’s hardcore character often spoke the phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am,” but he never said that. It was misattributed after comedian Stan Freberg (1926-2015) recorded a parody album, “St. George and the Dragonet,” in 1953. But Freberg didn’t say that either. Actually, Friday said, “All we want are the facts, ma’am,” whenever he interviewed women during a police investigation. Freberg’s satire, meanwhile, changed the line to “I just want to get the facts, ma’am.”
In 1958, Webb authored The Badge (Prentice-Hall), which included chapters of untold true crime cases from Los Angeles in the 1940s and 50s. The book was reissued (Da Capo Press, 2005) with a foreword by James Ellroy, author of LA Confidential* (1990), who wrote, “The Badge takes readers on a spine chilling tour through the dark, shadowy world of Los Angeles crime.”
Badge Number 714
When Dragnet went into syndication, it was renamed “Badge 714.” There are multiple explanations plus myths for how the number came to be. For one, Webb was a fan of Babe Ruth who hit 714 home runs in his baseball career. For another, the number is said to represent his mother’s birthday (July 14).
However, Army Major Laurie Cooke Harding, daughter to Dragnet advisor and LAPD Sgt. Dan Cooke, wrote how her father and Webb were close, that he originated some script concepts, and acted as technical director for several episodes. Badge 714 belonged to Cooke when he arranged for its use in the series. After Cooke’s death, LAPD retired the badge which his widow then donated to the LAPD Police Academy’s Museum. Cooke retired as a lieutenant after serving thirty-five years on the force. He died in 1999 at the age of 72.
Webb’s Personal Life and Death
Webb’s Jewish father abandon the family before Webb was born leaving him to be raised Roman Catholic by his mother who was Irish and Native American. He suffered from acute asthma from the age of six into adulthood but smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. He began his career as a radio disc jockey, then advanced to film actor, writer, director, and producer. As a jazz fan, he collected over 6,000 albums. He married singer and actress Julie London. They had two daughters. After they divorced, Webb married three more times. In 1982, he died of a heart attack at the age of 62.
When Webb died, LAPD provided an honor guard with a 17-gun salute, a rarity for a non-policeman. LAPD named an auditorium in his honor while city offices lowered flags to half-staff. Jack Webb was buried with a replica LAPD badge bearing the rank of sergeant and the number 714.
*In the movie version of LA Confidential (1997), the Brett Chase character (played by Matt McCoy) is based on Jack Webb. In the movie, Chase is the star of a TV show, “Badge of Honor,” like Dragnet.