Dragnet: The Big Rip (NBC, 1953)
Barton Yarborough’s unexpected death threatened the very existence of this classically understated, little-nonsense, self-consciously realistic crime drama.
Not only was Yarborough indispensable as Sgt. Ben Romero, as the radio show evolved from an awkward beginning into a kind of ongoing radio crime lab, but Jack Webb—who played Sgt. Joe Friday, directed the show, and had brought it to fruition in the first place based on an idea he’d received from Martin Wynn (a Los Angeles police officer who’d consulted on a film in which Webb played a crime lab officer)–had gone out on a limb to bring Yarborough to Dragnet‘s original television incarnation.
Webb had brought only one Dragnet to television, in pilot form to be aired on NBC’s Chesterfield Sound-Off Time in December 1951 (Chesterfield cigarettes just so happened to be Dragnet’s radio sponsor), when Yarborough (who was better known for his long-running role as Clifford Barbour on the soap legend One Man’s Family) died of a heart attack three days after the telecast. Webb and Yarborough had grown close in hand with Dragnet on radio, but who to bring in to succeed him (some staunch Dragnet fans might come to believe Yarborough could be succeeded but never replaced) proved anything but simple.
The first candidate was familiar enough to Dragnet listeners—Barney Phillips, who usually played less than savoury guest roles on the show, became Sgt. Ed Jacobs. Phillips would carry the role to television as well, but the partnership lasted only to finish out the 1951-52 season. But Webb finally found his solution in a performer whose resume might have seemed anything but suggestive of terse, realistic-to-a-fare-thee-well crime drama.
Ben Alexander’s radio life to this point had been in comic and quizmaster roles as well as announcing for the manic Martin and Lewis when they hit radio a short time before Dragnet came into his life. Alexander had Cliff Arquette (a.k.a. Charley Weaver) to thank for getting his shot—Arquette had done a Dragnet television guest shot and suggested to Webb that Alexander just might be right for the new radio partner Webb had in mind.
This new partner, Officer Frank Smith (exactly why the new partner came in below Friday’s rank would never be made all that clear, and the subordinate official rank would remain when Webb returned Dragnet to television in the mid-1960s), wasn’t exactly less easygoing than Yarborough’s Romero had been, but Smith added an element of humour that wasn’t even a topic when the show was born. Smith was nobody’s fool as a police officer, but as a man he was a born worrier who fretted almost constantly about troubles with his wife and his medication, when he wasn’t dreaming up exotic culinary recipes.
And Smith will stay aboard—with Friday always bemused by his daily fret, until it’s time to get back to work—for the rest of Dragnet‘s radio life. He’ll become so significant, in fact, that when a two-part story includes him suffering a life-threatening wound, Dragnet fans will beseige the show with thousands of well-wishing letters. Smith’s true value, perhaps, will prove to be that he further humanises the atmosphere Webb has striven so deeply to foster, the sometimes chilly realism of the show leading in turn to occasional speculation as to whether the show portrays automatons or humans, an image Webb labours always to dispel and Alexander does more than his share to dissipate.
Tonight: There’s a rash of safe break-ins around Los Angeles lately, and Friday (Jack Webb, who also directs) and Smith (Ben Alexander)—already under heavy pressure to solve the break-ins—have little more than a common crowbar’s marks turning up at several of the crimes’ scenes, until a former robbery suspect (Olan Soule)—who was cleared and became a valued informant—hands them an unexpected tip. If you’re interested in this sort of thing (and few real Dragnet fans aren’t), Smith’s fret of the day involves a testy card game at home the night before.
Additional cast: Vic Perrin, Jack Kruschen. Announcers: George Fenneman, Hal Gibney. Music: Walter Schumann. Writer: John Robinson.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
The Goldbergs: Rosalie is Back Home (CBS, 1942)—Everyone seems anxious to know what happened when Rosalie (Roslyn Siber) visited Walter (Edward Trevor), but nobody seems in a big hurry to do much other than let her rest from the long trip home—almost, given Jake (John R. Waters) is even more anxious than Molly (Gertrude Berg) usually would be, considering Rosalie came home almost as fast as she took off in the first place. Sammy: Alfred Ryder. Seymour: Arnold Stang. Announcer: Clayton (Bud) Collyer. Writer/director: Gertrude Berg.
Lux Radio Theater: A Night to Remember (CBS, 1943)—Not to be confused, even in the slightest, with the book and film of the same name about the Titanic disaster, never mind that death is still a stench in the room: A wife (Ann Sothern) renting a cozy little Greenwich Village apartment for her mystery writing husband (Robert Young) hopes it provides a more appropriate atmosphere for him to work in—which they get only too quickly, when a corpse turns up among the decor. Based on the screenplay by Richard Fluornoy and Jack Henley, from a story by Kelley Roos.